Wednesday, June 10, 2009

She Said: The King James Version

I'm a waffler when it comes to the official use by the Church of the King James Version of the Bible. I think there are two main considerations one must take into account when discussing which translation of the Bible to use: One is its language and style, and the other is doctrinal accuracy.

Language and Style:

I personally love the King James Version, I love its elegance, and I am comfortable speaking and reading the pre-Jacobean form of English it employs. But I realize that I may be different than the general Bible reader since I was weaned on the KJV. For almost half a century I have been listening to its cadences and idiosyncrasies. I am familiar with the use of "thee"s and "thou"s and Shakespearean-era conventions. Unfortunately, the language of the King James Version keeps many modern readers from understanding what it is saying, which is unfortunate. I particularly recall teaching the 23rd Psalm to a group of 9-year-olds in Primary. I didn't even realize that the phrase "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want" would sound to them as if the author did not want the Lord as his shepherd. Some modern versions translate the phrase as follows:
  • The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack, (Amplified Bible)

  • You, LORD, are my shepherd. I will never be in need. (Contemporary English Version)

  • The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need. (Good News Translation)

  • Jehovah [is] my shepherd, I do not lack, (Young's Literal Translation)

  • The Lord is my shepherd. He gives me everything I need. (New International Reader's Version)

  • The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. (New International Version--UK)

  • God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing. (The Message)

None of these sounds as beautiful to my ear as the King James Version, and I find this to be true in numerous passages, especially the poetic ones. But to my 9-year-old students, and indeed, many others, any of these would be more understandable. Should more of an emphasis be placed on trying to educate its readers into an appreciation of scriptural-sounding language, or in providing the Word of God to readers wherever they are? I'm not sure.

I also think it is interesting to consider that different parts of the Bible likely were written in different types of language originally. Isaiah was written in a high, intellectual, poetic form, while much of the New Testament was in the common vernacular.

Doctrinal Accuracy:

Every translator of the scriptures brings his own unique bias to the translation, no matter how hard he or she tries to be impartial. (And many are not trying to be impartial.) One must keep this in mind when deciding upon a version of the scriptures to use. Bible scholar Fred P. Miller explains why he thinks the KJV is superior in this regard:
...there are good reasons for retaining the King James Version as a base instead of the translations from texts that more modern translators have used. The more modern translators are gifted linguists and their forte is in nuances of language. The earlier KJV translators and those on whom they based their revision (Tyndale and Coverdale) were careful students of the Word of God. This is of particular importance since understanding much of Hebrew syntax is dependent on contextual ideas that are a part of a continuing flow of thought.

King James scholars are recognized by conservative leaning churches to have had a better understanding of the total Biblical context than the more modern translators. Thus churches such as the LDS trust the doctrinal positions available in the KJV more than the others.

For the most part I, too, trust the doctrinal understanding of the King James translators. I do think it is useful for Bible study to compare some of the other versions, especially when you hit a passage where the language is particularly unclear. For example, here's a verse in Isaiah that I puzzled over for quite some time:
But yet in it [shall be] a tenth, and [it] shall return, and shall be eaten: as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance [is] in them, when they cast [their leaves: so] the holy seed [shall be] the substance thereof. (Isaiah 6:13, KJV)

For those who do not have the language skills to go back to the original Hebrew, it is helpful to take a look at how some of the other versions have translated the same verse. Here is one that makes the wording a little more clear:
Even if only a tenth--a remnant--survive, it will be invaded again and burned. Israel will remain a stump, like a tree that is cut down, but the stump will be a holy seed that will grow again. (New Living Translation)

I would compare this with a version that attempts to translate each Hebrew word very literally, such as the following, to see if I could agree with the translators' doctrinal implications:
And yet in it a tenth, and it hath turned, And hath been for a burning, As a teil-tree, and as an oak, that in falling, Have substance in them, The holy seed [is] its substance! (Young's Literal Translation)

Thus the different translations can be extremely helpful for deeper doctrinal study as well as for those students who do not have the background to understand the English of the King James Bible. I would not recommend a change in the LDS practice of using the KJV in their classes, sermons, and regular study. I think it stretches the student to learn and ponder the archaic language in a way that is conducive to Biblical study. But I would urge a more relaxed position with regard to the use of other translations. With the easy availability of many places online to compare the different versions (see below), there is no reason not to make use of them.

Bible Gateway
Blue Letter Bible


  1. Part of the problem with the KJV is indeed the archaic language, which prevents comprehension by a lot of readers. Another part are the rampant translation errors; the KJV translators simply were not nearly as good at Hebrew and Greek as contemporary scholars. But almost equally problematic, in my view, are exactly the theological interjections. Why, particularly, should extensive theological shading toward Calvinism be something we want to embrace?

  2. I read Shakespeare despite the archaic language because I love the beauty of it! Same with the Bible. I really like that it is different than other language, it gives it a weight that the modern versions don't have. You are right, though, RT, that contemporary scholars have mastered the Hebrew and Greek so much better. As for the "Calvinistic" theology, I have to stick with Miller--I haven't found the other translations to be much of an improvement along doctrinal lines.

  3. BiV, I think a lot of the weight is more tradition than the text itself; the KJV has some beautiful moments but a lot of simply bad prose. And some modern editions (notably the NRSV) have their own beauty.

    On theological issues, we're in deeper water, obviously. I'd worry about your description of Miller as a Bible scholar. Miller is the kind of Bible scholar who writes self-published conspiracy-theoretic interpretations of scripture, like this one:

    In general, it's worth thinking about what you want your Bible translation to do theologically. The KJV slants the text in many ways to support 16th and 17th century Protestant theological positions. The originals often offer different theological slants. Do we want the Bible to put us in touch with 3rd-century and earlier theological ideas, or with 16th-17th century theological ideas? I think either approach can be worthwhile, but restorationists like Mormons have to make an argument for why later theology is to be preferred.

  4. I can't say much about the accuracy of the translations, but I do love the sound of the KJV (but then I, like BiV, was raised on it). In my personal study I use the NSRV and a Louis Segond (French) in addition to my KJV.

    I think the Church is wise to stay standardized on the KJV since the BOM language mimics it--it makes a good match. As far as doctrinal issues go, I think our claim to modern revelation diminishes the argument.

    Also, as evidenced by this blog entry, it is easy to get caught up debating the relative strengths and weaknesses of a particular translation--I can't even imagine how much more difficult it would be to teach GD if Brother Older-than-the-hills-and-always-makes-entirely-inappropriate-comments had a different translation of the Bible than I. The way it is now, I can choose to illuminate certain passages from an alternate translation, but keep most of the readings standardized...