The purpose of this essay is to address questions relation to the relative merits of using the King James Version of the Bible compared with other English translations, particularly modern translations.
My intention is not to knock the KJV as a translation. For several hundred years it was the finest English translation in existence, and has affected the English language more than any other book. I also firmly believe that anyone who seeks honestly and openly will be just as saved using the KJV as a person who uses a modern translation. My main intention is to address one idea which has taken hold recently: that the KJV is somehow more accurate, more faithful to the original texts or somehow objectively better than other English translations. Some Christian groups have gone to the extreme of denying fellowship to people who do not use one particular translation of the Bible. I believe this attitude to be unhelpful and ultimately destructive.
I can't go into any of the issues involved in any great depth because of the limitations of this medium. Anyone who's interested in going into more depth should read James White's excellent book, "The King James Only Controversy". A few of the examples which I have used here are shamelessly inspired by examples in that book.
What's in a translation?
There is no one closest English translation to the original text. For a start, we do not have an "original text". A complete "original text" for the Bible as we know it today most probably never existed in one volume. We have to reconstruct it from the many manuscripts, copies and ancient translations which have been preserved. Secondly, even if we did have an original text, it is impossible to get a completely accurate translation which encompasses all possible shades of meaning of a text and still keep it readable. (You could, I suppose, put an encyclopaedia entry at every word.)
There are, roughly speaking, three classes of Bible translations:
1. "Formally equivalent translation."
I hesitate to use the term "word for word" because it is VERY misleading. It is impossible to produce an exact word-for-word English translation of the Bible, where you translate one English word for one Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic word without inventing new English words as you go along (in which case the benefit is lost) or losing a lot of meaning. However there do exist translations which work, in the words of Dr Bruce Metzger (textual scholar and chair NRSV translation committee) "as literal as possible, as free as necessary". Such translations attempt to translate "word for word" where it is possible and practical to do so.
The NRSV and NASB would come under this category.
2. "Dynamically equivalent translation."
Here is an example of dynamic translation in action. In Luke 9:44, Jesus is delivering an important message about his betrayal and death. This is how he introduces it:
[Luke 9:44 KJV] Let these saying sink down into your ears...
[Luke 9:44 NRSV] Let these words sink into your ears...
[Luke 9:44 NIV] Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you...
[Luke 9:44 NJ] For your part, you must have these words constantly in mind...
The KJV and NRSV have taken the formally equivalent rendering. The NIV and NJ have, rather than using an obscure colloquialism from first century Palestine, used words which have the equivalent MEANING. This does not make the translation wrong, and it should not be interpreted as an attempt to make the Bible "simpler". It is merely an attempt to clear up Greekisms or Hebrewisms which may mean nothing to the modern reader.
The NJ and NIV are two examples of dynamic translations.
3. "Concept for concept."
Here the purpose is not so much to translate as to paraphrase. They usually interpret the text quite a lot (often more that people would like). Under this heading would come such Bible versions as the Today's English Version (Good News Bible), The Living Bible and so on.
You may think that there is no need for Bible paraphrases, but they do have their uses. If the reader has a small vocabulary (for example, a young child or recent migrant), paraphrases can be extremely useful in teaching Biblical concepts.
Oh, if you're wondering where the KJV and NKJV come into this very crude attempt at a hierachy, they're somewhere between formal and dynamic translations. Even extremely formal translations such as the NRSV do translate dynamically sometimes. Let me rephrase that, since it's such an important point: EVERY TRANSLATION OF THE BIBLE "INTERPRETS" THE TEXT TO SOME EXTENT. In particular, every translation has a "bias" (for lack of a better term). The KJV is no exception.
The "English" of the KJV is not the same language that we speak today. In fact, to get the most from the KJV effectively requires learning a whole other dialect. To illustrate changes in English, see if you can guess what the following words (all from the KJV) mean:
- chambering (Rom 13:13) - churl (Isa 32:7) - cockatrice (Isa 11:8) - cotes (2 Chr 32:28) - wot (Rom 11:2) - wist (Acts 12:9) - sackbut (Dan 3:5) - brigadine (Jer 46:4) - amerce (Deut 22:19) - crookbackt (Lev 21:20) - habergeon (Job 41:26) - the scall (Lev 13:30) - superfluity of naughtiness (James 1:21)
(Examples from Dr Edward Palmer.)
You get the idea.
Here's a more serious example, where the KJV wording means something the precise OPPOSITE of what was intended if read by a modern reader:
[2 Thess 2:7 KJV] ...he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.
[2 Thess 2:7 NIV] ...the one who now holds it back will continue to do so until he is taken out of the way.
Some more examples (from Jack Lewis). What do these verses seem to say to a modern reader?
[Psalm 5:6 KJV] Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing.
[1 Kings 11:1 KJV] Solomon loved many strange women.
[Ezekiel 27:25 KJV] The ships of Tarshish did sing of thee in thy market.
Now this is not an attempt to knock the KJV as a translation. All of the examples above are due to changes in the English language. To a reader of 1611 (or, more correctly, 1769 --- the KJV in use by most people today is Blayney's revision) these would all have made perfect sense. To our modern eyes, they make no sense.
Since the time of the KJV, many thousands of Biblical manuscripts and fragments which are older than those used to form the KJV text have been discovered. Early witnesses to many New Testament books, the Dead Sea texts (including complete texts of Isaiah and Habakkuk) and others have been analysed which means that we now have a much better idea of the content of the original texts. In addition, advances in Biblical studies (especially the Hebrew language) have meant that even more accurate translations are now possible.
In the case of the New Testament (where most of the attacks on modern translations are levelled), the text used for the KJV was the so-called "Textus Receptus", or "received text", compiled by the great scholar Desiderius Erasmus. More modern translations are usually based on one of the United Bible Societies Greek texts (latest edition is the 4th) or the Nestle-Aland text (latest edition is the 27th). They are essentially identical anyway.
The two most celebrated examples of textual differences between the TR and the modern texts are the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7) and the last verses of Revelation (Rev 22:16--21). In the case of 1 John, there is only one Greek manuscript which supports the TR/KJV reading (and it is generally considered to be unreliable), and in the case of Revelation, there are NO Greek manuscripts which support the TR/KJV reading. Erasmus could not find any manuscripts with the verses on them and so he translated back to Greek from his copy of the Latin Vulgate.
Which translation to use?
Let me reiterate: I am not suggesting that those who use the KJV are not saved or "less Christian" or some other such ridiculous claim. There are many factors which go into the choice of which Bible you buy including what your church uses, layout, font size, availability of other materials (concordances etc) and so on. If you choose the KJV for whatever reason then that is your choice and I support that. What translation your own church uses is a big factor, since it is often a good idea to get a copy of whatever translation they use in order to make group study easier. However if your reason for using the KJV is that you believe that it's the closest English version to the original text as possible, I suggest reading James White's book (cited above) and reconsidering.
So which is the best translation? I consider this a meaningless question. But my main advice (which you can take or leave) is: If you intend to do serious Bible study, don't rely on one translation. Get two at least and compare. In addition, I personally would get one "formal" translation (eg NRSV) and one "dynamic" translation (eg NIV). Learn the limitations of whatever translations that you do use. For example, if you use the NIV, read Kenneth Baker's book, "The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation" which goes into the issues that came up and decisions that were made in making the NIV.
My personal choice, for those who care: I use three translations regularly, the NIV, NRSV and New Jerusalem. I find the NIV an easy translation to just sit down and read and therefore the most suitable for pew or group study use (it also happens to be the version that most people in by Bible study group use, which is an extra benefit). Also, most of the good Bible dictionaries and commentaries which appear nowadays seem to be keyed to the NIV, which makes it useful to consult. I use the NJ partly because I happen to find the Jerusalem Bible layout easier to use, and partly because I find the study notes in the NJ study edition particularly useful. The NRSV I find extremely accurate (meaning: formally accurate) in its renderings and, well, I happen to appreciate the scholarship of Bruce Metzger. Other fine modern translations which I have consulted from time to time include the NASB (a wonderful formal translation, but be warned that it's based on the UBS 3rd edition, which won't prove a problem in practice if you use it in conjuction with another translation; besides, the differences are extremely small) and NKJV (which features probably the best set of textual footnotes that you'll find in any translation).
Okay, I admit it, I've been known to consult the KJV too. :-)
There are many people all over the English speaking world who use the King James Version of the Bible. If this is your favourite translation, I do not wish to dissuade you from the choice which you have made. My main goal is to defend modern translations and the people who choose to use them.
If you are a person who sees no merit in modern translations, I hope at the very least that I have given you cause to investigate the matter further. My greatest desire is peace and an end to division in the church. Let us not end up like the church at Corinth, each saying "I follow X", "I follow Y". Rather may we seek unity so that we may be "united in the same mind and the same purpose" (1 Cor 1:10 NRSV).
"The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times." -- Psalm 12:6 (KJV)