Welcome to 2011, the four-hundredth birthday of the King James Version of the Holy Bible. Many in the English-speaking world will be joining the celebration. And no wonder—the King James Version has been read by more English speakers and has done more to shape the language than any other document.
These days, Christians express mixed attitudes toward the King James Version. On the one hand are some who treat it as if it were written in a foreign language. They prize readability above all else, and they seem to think that an ordinary person of the 21st century cannot reasonably be expected to decipher such an arcane text. They value the King James Version only as an historical oddity, to be relegated to the museum of religious antiquities.
On the other hand are a few who affirm that the King James Version alone is the Word of God in English. Their professed reasons are diverse, having to do with manuscript preservation and translation theory, but when pressed they generally affirm with tautological certainty that they believe their position “by faith.”
Of course, what the advocates of this second position usually value is not so much the King James of 1611, but the revision of the King James that occurred in 1769. Different publishers, however, have issued different editions of the 1769 revision, and these contain differences in wording. Matthew Verschuur of Australia has gone so far as to insist that only the “Pure Cambridge Edition” of the King James Version is to be accepted as the true Word of God.
Divergent as these two attitudes are, they have one thing in common. Neither takes adequate account of the phenomena of Scripture itself. For example, King James Only advocates have difficulty explaining the divergent ways in which the text of the Old Testament manages to find its way into the New. They have further difficulty explaining how the sayings of Jesus could be rendered differently in the various gospel accounts (e.g., Matthew’s choice of “kingdom of heaven” where Mark and Luke prefer “kingdom of God”). Most of all, they have difficulty finding an actual promise of textual preservation anywhere in the Bible. All of these considerations should give anyone pause before subscribing to the theory that we only have the true Word of God if we have the exact words of God.
Similar problems beset those who wish to retire the King James in favor of “readability.” Of course, Scripture is written to be understood—that is its perspicuity. Affirming that Scripture can be understood, however, is not the same as insisting that its meaning ought to be transparent to a shallow reader upon a fleeting and facile scan of the text.