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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

King James only?

I owe a great deal to the people who made it possible for me to read and study the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. I came to believe on Christ as savior because of preaching and teaching mostly based on that version. I was encouraged to memorize passages from that version, and I'm glad I did. Many of those verses have stuck with me for five or six decades. (One reason is the strangeness of the language. That makes it easier to understand.) The KJV has had a strong influence on English and American literature.

However, the KJV is not perfect. Why do I say that?

1) The main problem is that it was published in 1611, nearly 400 years ago. That was before the Pilgrims came to North America. So what? Language has changed. Let me give you four examples:
A) The most familiar verse in the Bible is probably John 3:16, which, in the KJV, is: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
What's the problem with that? The most glaring problem is that many verb forms have changed since 1611. Have you ever heard "believeth" on TV or the radio (except some Christian broadcasting) or read it in the newspaper? I didn't think so. How is an untrained person, unfamiliar with the KJV language, going to know that we would now say "believes?" Many KJV verbs end in "th," when almost no current ones do. There are at least two other words in that passage that a 21st century reader may have difficulty with, namely "begotten" and "whosoever." Why put an unnecessary barrier to understanding in the way of someone who desperately needs God's love?

B) One of the most familiar chapters of the Bible, and one of the most important, is 1 Corinthians 13. This is verse 1 in the KJV:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become [as] sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
The problem is not the brackets -- why are they there? -- but "charity." Charity, to us, has associations with dropping some change in the Salvation Army buckets around Christmastime, which is a good thing, but is by no means all that Paul is talking about. He's challenging us to aspire to, and strive for, unselfish, God-like love, not to give our spare change. The KJV uses a word, charity, that has had its meaning changed. (There are at least three different words for love in the Greek, which makes it difficult to capture the meaning of that concept in any translation, since we have only one.)

C) There's 2 Thessalonians 2:7: For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth [will let], until he be taken out of the way.
(The brackets indicate an insertion. That is, the translators put those two words in so that the passage would make better sense, but, since the KJV attempted to be a word-for-word translation, they indicated this. Some KJV Bibles use italics for such insertions.)
Besides the uncertainty of the subject, that is, what will happen, and when, and in what sequence, in the end times, there's a word that keeps us from understanding this verse correctly, namely "letteth." Can we do the same thing with that that we did with "believeth," above? That is, change it to "lets?" You might think so. In other words, it would seem to mean "he who allows will allow . . ." Not so. The Blueletter Bible gives us access to 11 different English versions of that verse. They, including the New King James, are unanimous in translating that word as the opposite of "allow." Most of them use "restrain." The very meaning of English words has changed in nearly 400 years. The KJV can occasionally mislead, because of that fact. (In fairness, this is an extreme example.)

D) OK, what about the Thees and Thous? Are they necessary, or useful? Many people seem to think that they should be used, as expressing worship, awe, or honor, although some of the same people don't always know whether to use a thee or a thou in a particular case. These words can express worship, awe, or honor, of course. But so can "you!" The KJV has an interesting verse, Mark 8:33 (and similar verses in other gospels): But when he had turned about and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men. [Emphasis added.]
Either Satan, Peter, or both are addressed with a "thee," in the KJV. It can hardly be a term of worship, awe, or honor, in this case! Thees and thous were just the second person pronouns that people had in the time of the KJV. They aren't special terms for God. Again, language has changed.

So the KJV may cause people to have difficulty comprehending. For full comprehension, the Bible should be in the same language that people think in. The English of 1611 (actually 1769 -- see below) is not that language.

2) There is now knowledge which was not available when the KJV was translated, such as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

"To us, it looks like the KJV is old and modern translations are new.  But in reality, the KJV was based on a small number of late medieval manuscripts, most of which dated after the year 1000. Modern translations are based on manuscripts that go back to the 100s and 200s." - Ken Schenck, "2.2 Manuscripts, Manuscripts."

* * * * * * *

What about the argument that the King James is especially God-breathed? Some even say that other versions aren't really the Bible. (A recent convert in our church, who was having trouble with understanding the KJV, was recently told exactly that, about a modern version. The person who told him that is not a member of our church.)

3) To state the obvious, people who speak Spanish, Japanese, Gujerati, Chinese, Farsi, or Tagalog don't use the KJV. They can't, because it isn't in their language at all. And, having had a little bit of instruction in Spanish, I can personally testify that the most common Spanish Bible is not the KJV translated word-for-word into Spanish. Spanish has a different word order, conjugates verbs differently, and, I'm sure, has other important differences from English that would make a word-for-word translation impossible. No doubt there are as many differences, or more, between English and the other languages given, as between English and Spanish. Does that mean that these people aren't really using a Bible? Of course not. Wycliffe, one of the most important Bible-translation organizations, gives, here, a brief statement on why translation is necessary, and information on over 2,000 languages that need to have the Bible in the "language of their heart."

Note that the Bible was not originally written in King James English. It was written in Hebrew, Greek, and some other languages, and has had to be translated, even into English.

4) The KJV, as the name suggests, was originally a state-sponsored translation. It is possible that King James was specially called of God to give impetus to this translation, but he also had some non-religious, even political motives. (See here for more on that point.)

5) The KJV was not accepted immediately by the church of that time. See here. (Same link as in previous paragraph.)

6) Were people who read the Bible, in English and other languages, before 1611, not really reading the Bible, because the KJV hadn't been produced yet? This, of course, would have included the people who were the translators for the KJV! (See link in previous paragraph for information on other English translations, some in existence, and used, before the KJV's time.)

7) Why must God be confined and restrained to one version of the Bible, and that in English, and outmoded English at that? To claim that He is so confined, that that's the only way He can speak, is to put a man-made work, however wonderful, above the work of God.

I am linking to two on-line articles on this matter. There are many more, some, of course, advocating a King James Only approach. Much as I admire and appreciate my Christian brothers and sisters who believe this, I am persuaded that they are wrong, and have not linked to any such statements. This is an article which calls the King James Only movement a heresy, and explains why it is. This is an article which argues that the advocates of using only the King James are not basing their argument on the Bible, or, as it is put, sola scriptura. I find their arguments persuasive, although I don't expect that many, or any, King James Only advocates would be won by reading them.

* * * * * * *

For more on methods of translating, see this Wikipedia article. The American Bible Society has discussions of how the Bible is translated, the history of the different versions, and how to choose a version for your own use, all starting here.

Thanks for reading. Read the Bible, whatever version (or versions) that best allow God to speak to your heart.

* * * * *

Updated, May 9, 2009

I have been reading the 2000 edition of Halley's Bible Handbook, and discovered that the version of the King James which is currently used was actually a revision produced in 1769. The Wikipedia paragraph on that gives an example of the changes made between 1611 and 1769. The claim is often made, for example here, that the KJV used is the 1611 version. That is not so.

I have discovered, thanks to the same source, that there are two other differences between the King James and most other versions. One of them is that the KJV used formal equivalence, more or less word-for-word, translation, and that most (not all) modern versions of the Bible use dynamic equivalence, or thought-for-thought translation. See here for discussion. The second difference is that, in the words of Halley's Bible Handbook, The KJV is based on what Halley's Bible Handbook calls the Majority Text (Greek source), while most other Bibles are based on what Halley's calls the Critical Text. Halley's says that the former was derived by comparing many Greek texts, and choosing the variant item that occurred in the majority of these, where there were differences between them. The latter was derived by attempting to reconstruct the relationships between texts, and, thus, to derive a most-likely original text. I am not an expert in this area, but I believe that this article describes the critical text, and this one the majority text, although different names are used.

The New King James version is said to have used the same methodology as the KJV, but to use modern English.

So what about these differences? These differences between the KJV, and, say, the NIV, are real, indeed. They may be part or all of the original reason why some groups took the KJV as the accepted version of the Bible. It seems clear, however, that the principal reason for this acceptance, now, is something else, namely a refusal to accept change. If that were not so, it would seem that the NKJV would have won acceptance by the groups that were accepting the KJV. It has won only limited acceptance by such groups, if any.

I don't believe that there are any major or important doctrinal differences between the KJV and the NIV and similar translations. I do believe that it is important that a reader be able to understand what she is reading, as fully as possible, and that, for almost all readers, the KJV is not the best version.

* * * *  I made some minor editorial changes on April 4, 2011, and again on June 20, 2012, and, on that date, added the quotation from Ken Schenck. * * * *

Thanks for reading.


Keetha Broyles said...

You are right about this - - - - as you are usually right about things.

I too prefer to memorize in King James - - - that's what we grew up with and the poetry of its language is easier for me to memorize.

HOWEVER - - - I think other translations are easier to understand AND many of them are truer to the Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic.

I was on a bus trip once - - - the bus driver, NOT JOKING, said, "If King James was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it is good enough for me."

I kid you not - - - he really said that.

I hope you, or someone else with a loving kind spirit will help the new Christian in your congregation feel assurance that God is not concerned about which translation he reads and is just longing for him to read.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. Yes, there are people who think Paul wrote KJV.

Anonymous said...

I actually had someone when I was a freshman in college say about the King James Version that if it was good enough for Peter and Paul, it's good enough for me.
You presented an excellent case.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, superrustfly. Of course Peter and Paul would find the KJV, or any other English version, incomprehensible.

I'm afraid some (I hope) well-meaning souls actually believe that the cover has to be black, too.

Joy said...

Thanks for the wonderful post with links! I still have the book The King James Only Controversy from college, and your post covers the main points I remember discussing in class.

I laughed out loud at your comment about the color of the Bible. Does that mean that the blue Bible I was given when I joined the youth group and the NIV study Bible required for classes at SWU aren't really the inspired word of God?

Grasshopper said...

Wow! Great information! I too enjoy memorizing from the KJV, but also enjoy the NCV.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Joy and Grasshopper. I appreciate your comments.

Joy, I'm afraid that some people would say exactly that.

Grasshopper, God can speak to us through any version, at least through any version in our own language, be it the KJV, the CEV, the NIV, the NLT, or the NCV, to name a few.

Pilgrim said...

The KJV has beautiful language, and I'm glad I was brought up on it. I'm reading the NRSV right now, and like its clarity. It's clean--easy to understand.

FancyHorse said...

I agree completely! Martin Luther said (and he did not have a KJV, by the way), "We do not have to inquire of the literal Latin, how we are to speak German ...Rather we must inquire about this of the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. (This is quoted in the forward to my Contemporary English Version Bible. I prefer the NIV for my own study, though.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, ladies. You both made good points.

For anyone who reads this, and doesn't know, Luther was the founder of protestantism, and translated the Bible into the German of his day.

I have an NIV study bible myself, and use the ESV on-line, because of the uses it allows, with proper attribution, and because it is a modern language version. My wife prefers the New Living Translation. I occasionally look something up in the KJV or other translations. My pastor sometimes uses the New King James, and sometimes the NIV or the NLT.

I haven't seen the NRSV. I used to use the RSV as my main Bible, myself.

Newspaceman said...

I stumbled across this post given the recent Queen's speech which focused on the 400th anniversary of KJ 1st and 6th's Bible "interpretation".

Today we read how the Archbishop of Canterbury is encouranging people to read, specifically, the King James Version to help them cope.

I am not a Bible scholar but noted during the Queen's message that Luke was dwelt upon, both orally and visually. A major change (KJV)seemed to be that Joseph, instead of going to a census enrolling, was going to pay taxes.

It is perhaps notable that Scotland is at the heart of this, given King James, freemasonry, our "Western" "democratic society" and the Declaration of Independence (on which America's was based), banking systems, slavery, colony-founding and suchlike. I have book, Royal Edinburgh, which notes that taxes were first imposed en masse on the Scots by James 1st (of Scotland) in 1424. Also, the KJV was initially discussed before the 1604 Hampton Court/Puritan meeting in Scotland, at Burntisland.

Without sounding cheeky, have you thought of what Jesus would make of today's society and indeed monarchy ?

cheers, brian

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, brian.

Yes, there's a difference between paying taxes and a census, at least to us, but perhaps they were closely related in Joseph's time, or perhaps the KJV got it wrong. I'm not sure.

I'm not sure what Jesus would think of today's society, or the monarchy. I'm more concerned about what Jesus thinks of me, or I hope I am so concerned.

Martin LaBar said...

Wal-Mart (and probably others) is currently selling what appears to be a facsimile edition of the real 1611 King James Bible, for about $5, commemorating the 400 anniversary of the publication. The facsimile is complete with what, to us, is difficult to read gothic-style lettering, "ye" for "the," "Sonne" for "Son," and, I'm sure, other changes in spelling and/or wording. In other words, the so-called 1611 version that many individuals and churches use is actually the 1769 version. The facsimile is of the 1611 version.

I bought one.