Last week I discussed an instance where the ESV used two different words to translate the same Hebrew verb in two consecutive verses, unintentionally obscuring a significant point of interpretation. There are cases where the reverse happens. One such is John 1:1 and 6.
Everyone knows verse 1, which doesn't warrant much creativity from a translator: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." That word "was" crops right up again in the ESV of verses 2, 3, and verse 6.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John."Was," "was," "was." Of course, verse 3 doesn't count since "was" there is just an auxiliary verb ("was made"). But the English-only reader is left to assume that every other occurrence of "was" must either translate the same verb, or that there is no exegetically-significant variation. Both would be incorrect assumptions.
In verses 1 and 4, the verb is ἦν (ēn), which is the imperfect active indicative of eimi, the common copula (I am). At this point, novices have sometimes waxed a bit imaginative, noting that the imperfect means continual action, so John is saying that the Logos continually was at creation.
Theologically, this is of course accurate. Etymologically, not so much. It might be, if a simple past (aorist) finite form of eimi were available to John. None was. Just the present (estin, is) and the imperfect (ēn, was). John could not have used that verb to say that Jesus "was," in the aorist tense, if he'd wanted to. (To oversimplify, aorist serves for punctiliar past events, with no emphasis on process: he ate, she sat, he built.)
But what of verse 6? According to the ESV, it's the same: in the beginning was the Word (v. 1), there was a man sent from God named John. The Word was, John was. No point is being made.
However, John (not the ESV) used two different words. Verse 6 employs the aorist tense of the verb ginomai, meaning simply "I become." It indicates beginning to be... something. Becoming something. Springing up on the pages of history.
In practice, one can't translate ginomai with forms of "become" every time, and I'm not arguing that we should. However, here it's pretty clear that John is making a point by using two verbs — ēn, ēn, ēn, ēn, ēn, ēn ...then egeneto. He introduces two characters in his opening verses: the Logos, and John. One had a beginning, one was at the beginning. The contrast between the two is, very literally, infinite.
So why not at least note the fact in translation? Sometimes, it is simply impossible to reflect nuances of Hebrew and Greek in English. Here? Not at all. Many translations make some try, such as "came" (NASB, NET, ASV, NJB), and "arose" (Rotherham). You could say "A man came to be; his name: John." But the ESV is not alone in apparently not even trying: "was" is found in ESV, NIV, CSB, KJV, and NKJV.
I can't even speculate about what moves translators to do or not do many things. It just seems like it's most respectful of the text to try to note both similarities and differences in the original text when one can. John could have used a sixth ēn, but chose to use egeneto instead. If we can reflect his word-choice, I think we should.
And here, we can.