“That languages change over time is one of the strongest arguments either for the revision of older Bible translations or for completely new translations.” — Dr. James White, The King James Only Controversy
I am sure that some who love the King James Version (KJV) will immediately be defensive. (Especially if they are KJV Onlyist, but I’m not even going to delve into that whole mess.) So, let me begin by assuring my readers that I am *not* saying that the KJV should never be read. Far from it. Many Christians (and others) read it and like it and are spiritually fed from it, and that’s fine. Some prefer the lyrical structure of much of the KJV for memorization. That’s great. I would hope that they read it along with a decent modern translation or two, too, though. (And there are several options available.) But, if they prefer the KJV while acknowledging its deficiencies (see below), more power to ’em.
“[The KJV] has justifiably been called ‘the noblest monument of English prose’… because of its gracious style, majestic language, and poetic rhythms. No other book has had such a tremendous influence on English literature, and no other translation has touched the lives of so many English-speaking people for centuries and centuries.” — Dr. Philip W. Comfort, Essential Guide to Bible Versions
The KJV has served Christians quite well to communicate the Gospel and the history of God’s redemptive plan for over 400 years. Indeed, it has been “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16b (KJV)), just as many other translations in English and other languages have been wholly adequate for God’s purposes both before and after the KJV came on the scene.
With all of that said, if someone were to ask me which translation they should get to read and study, I would probably not recommend the KJV. This is especially true if it is to be the first or only Bible for a new believer or curious non-believer. The first reason is the archaic language.
The KJV is, of course, a product of its time. The Elizabethan/Shakespearean language used in England in the early 17th century can be quite lyrical, beautiful, and even fun to read/speak when learning plays and literature of that period. On the other hand, it can sometimes be awkward even for those fluent in modern English — children, in particular, and others with a limited education. It is even more difficult for non-native speakers. So, it can be a stumbling block both in witnessing and in spiritual growth.
Of course, some people — particularly those who have “always” read and heard Scripture from the KJV — are so used to it that they think that is what Scripture is supposed to sound like. Indeed, many grew up with the KJV and learned their first (or all) memory verses in that translation. Also, the combination of formality and lyrical quality sounds more “spiritual” to some. Unfortunately, quoting from the KJV — especially with all of the “thees” and “thous”, etc. — often sounds silly to skeptics, thereby reinforcing the idea that it’s just a bunch of ancient tales with no contemporary relevance. I suggest, then, that neither a sense of nostalgia nor of being “more spiritual” are sufficient reasons for sticking with the KJV at the expense of considering other, more modern translations.
There are several words & phrases used in the KJV that either are no longer used or they mean something very different now than they did 400 years ago. Here is a list compiled by Dr. Edwin Palmer:
“Just to drive the point home even more clearly, what is the meaning of ‘chambering’ (Rom. 13:13), ‘champaign’ (Deut. 11:30), ‘charger’ (Matt. 14:8 — it is not a horse), ‘churl’ (Isa. 32:7), ‘cieled’ (Hag. 1:4), ‘circumspect’ (Exod. 23:13), ‘clouted upon their feet’ (Josh. 9:5), ‘cockatrice’ (Isa. 11:8), ‘collops’ (Job 15:27), ‘confection’ (Exod. 30:35 — it has nothing to do with sugar), ‘cotes’ (2 Chron. 32:28), ‘covert’ (2 Kings 16:18), ‘hoised’ (Acts 27:40), ‘wimples’ (Isa. 3:22), ‘stomacher’ (Isa. 3:24), ‘wot’ (Rom. 11:2), ‘wist’ (Acts 12:9), ‘withs’ (Judg. 16:7), ‘wont’ (Dan. 3:19), ‘suretiship’ (Prov. 11:15), ‘sackbut’ (Dan. 3:5), ‘the scall’ (Lev. 13:30), ‘scrabbled’ (1 Sam. 21:13), ‘roller’ (Ezek. 30:21 — i.e., a splint), ‘muffler’ (Isa. 3:19), ‘froward’ (1 Peter 2:18), ‘brigadine’ (Jer. 46:4), ‘amerce’ (Deut. 22:19), ‘blains’ (Exod. 9:9), ‘crookbackt’ (Lev. 21:20), ‘descry’ (Judg. 1:23), ‘fanners’ (Jer. 51:2), ‘felloes’ (1 Kings 7:33), ‘glede’ (Deut. 14:13), ‘glistering’ (Luke 9:29), ‘habergeon’ (Job 41:26), ‘implead’ (Acts 19:38), ‘neesing’ (Job 41:18), ‘nitre’ (Prov. 25:20), ‘tabret’ (Gen. 31:27), ‘wen’ (Lev. 22:22)?”
(I would throw “unicorn” in there, too.)
These can be confusing or offputting to the modern reader. Attributing a modern definition or connotation to a word that sounds familiar can lead to a misreading and, thus, a misunderstanding of the Biblical text. Not good. For a few more examples, the words “target” (I Sam. 17:6), “turtle” (Song of Sol. 2:12), “carriages” (Isa. 10:28; Acts 21:15), “tire” (Ezek. 24:17), and “feebleminded” (I Thess. 5:14) do not mean what we normally think of.
Also, here are a few samples of wording from the KJV that can be awkward and/or bewildering to the modern ear and mind:
o And Mt. Sinai was altogether on a smoke (Exod. 19:18)
o To fetch about this form of speech hath thy servant Joab done this thing (II Sam. 14:20)
o The noise thereof sheweth concerning it (Job 36:33)
o Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing (Psalm 5:6)
o The ships of Tarshish did sing of thee in thy market (Ezek. 27:25)
o We do you to wit of the grace of God (II Cor. 8:1)
That, of course, is a very limited sampling. However, if outdated language was my only concern, I might recommend the New King James Version (NKJV), 21st Century King James Version (KJ21), or Modern English Version (MEV) instead, all of which have updated the language of the KJV and generally read more smoothly. Or, maybe one of the editions of the KJV that has glossary-notes to clear up the outdated verbiage would be sufficient. But, there is another concern I have about the KJV, which also affects these.
While there is no doubt that the KJV translators were very scholarly men who did admirable work, it is generally recognized today that they were working with inferior source texts and had much more limited linguistic knowledge than scholars have today. Dr. Comfort sums it up nicely…
“First, knowledge of Hebrew was inadequate in the early seventeenth century. The Hebrew text they used (i.e., the Masoretic Text) was adequate, but their understanding of the Hebrew vocabulary was insufficient. It would take many more years of linguistic studies to enrich and sharpen understanding of the Hebrew vocabulary. Second, the Greek text underlying the New Testament of the King James Version is an inferior text. The King James translators basically used a Greek text known as the ‘received text’ (the Textus Receptus — commonly abbreviated as TR), which came from the work of Erasmus, who compiled the first Greek text to be produced on a printing press. When Erasmus compiled this text, he used five or six very late manuscripts dating from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. These manuscripts were far inferior to earlier manuscripts.”
Some of these earlier manuscripts, discovered (or, at least, made available) in the years since the first edition of the KJV was published in 1611, date back as far as the second through fifth centuries. Just as the Dead Sea Scrolls (dated 150 BC to AD 100) and other ancient texts have increased scholars’ understanding of ancient Hebrew and provided a corrective on the Masoretic Text, intense study and comparison of these earlier Greek manuscripts — e.g., Codex Vaticanus (ca. AD 325), Codex Sinaiticus (ca. AD 350-375), Codex Alexandrinus (ca. AD 400), and various papyri — have allowed Greek scholars to put together a more accurate, “modern critical edition” of the New Testament. This critical text is put out by two groups — Nestle-Aland and the United Bible Society — with variations in punctuation, capitalization, and critical apparatus.
Most modern translations now use the NA/UBS critical text as the basis for their New Testament and the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia edition of the Masoretic Text for the Old Testament, while sometimes opting to use variants from other sources (e.g., Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls). There are a minority of scholars and publishing houses who still prefer the TR or the Majority / Byzantine Text type. (This should be obvious, given the continuing popularity of the KJV.) While there are no huge theological differences with the critical text, there are cases in which theology is affected. I will again allow Dr. Comfort to summarize the “eclectic” perspective:
“The Nestle-Aland edition is a far superior representation of the original text than is the TR or the Majority Text. This does not mean, however, that those who read the TR and/or KJV are receiving a ‘different gospel’ or a different theology than what is found in the Nestle-Aland text. What it does mean is that they are reading a text that — for the most part — was not read in the first three centuries of the church. They are reading a text that is heavily edited with interpolations and harmonizations, and they are reading a text that is somewhat misrepresentative in Christology…. This text presents the same basic truth about the Trinity as do modern versions, which are based on better Greek texts. What is problematic about the TR and KJV is that they obscure some significant titles of Christ.”
Regarding these Christological issues, compare verses like Matthew 24:36; John 1:18; John 6:69; I Tim. 3:16; Jude 4. I could go on and give examples of whole & partial verses that are found in the KJV but not in most modern versions (or, they are present but bracketed and given a footnote), but I think I’ll wait and do a separate post on those. The KJV is also known for inconsistent translation of certain words, as well as simply poor translation choices — not surprising given the issues already mentioned. But, I don’t have time to get into those, too.
In conclusion, and in my opinion, there are good reasons — both practical and theological — that one should not rely on the KJV. Therefore, I do not recommend that it be used exclusively, nor as a first Bible for a child, non-native English speaker, new believer, or curious non-believer. What Bible translation(s) do I recommend? That’s a topic for another post, as well. But, in general, I suggest avoiding paraphrases like The Message and The Living Bible. They may be easy to read, but they just play too fast-n-loose with the text, sometimes dangerously so.