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.
The original readers of Scripture could hardly have expected such simplicity. Even the apostle Peter gave voice to the difficulty he experienced in understanding Paul’s writings. And no wonder. Thoughtful writings—whether inspired or not—are often characterized by a measure of dense translucence that can be penetrated only by wrestling with the text.
The simple truth is that thoughtful reading requires thoughtful readers. When writers have to explain difficult concepts, they often employ technical vocabulary and intricate grammar. We find biblical writers doing both. The apostle Paul is famous for extended sentences filled with dependent clauses and parenthetical insertions—and Peter is sometimes not far behind. The terminology of Luke the physician is richer than that of John the fisherman, and the architecture of his syntax is correspondingly more complex. Reading Paul is not terribly unlike reading Aristotle. The writer to the Hebrews employs some of the most difficult Greek anywhere.
In the attempt to heighten their language, the writers of Scripture often deploy devices that were not part of ordinary street-talk. Poetical sections in particular are filled with archaisms. Listing the various tropes used in the text of Scripture would fill a cyclopedia of figurative language.
The early perpetuation of Scripture also affects the issue of clarity. By the time the New Testament was written, the language of both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Septuagint was at least mildly archaic. Nevertheless, Jesus and the apostles continued to employ these documents and to expect others to do so.
The clarity of a translation is important—especially for Holy Scripture. Clarity, however, must not be reduced to mere “readability.” If the tradeoff for clarity is a significant loss of precision, then the price may well be too high. We should not feel obligated to make the Scriptures more clear than God Himself did.
The translator helps nothing when he attempts to resolve vagueness or ambiguity by making interpretive decisions for the reader. To assert that “God says” is miles away from humbly suggesting that, “I think this means….” Translators necessarily do the former, which means that they must resist the temptation to insert the latter.
The King James Version strikes a very good balance between accuracy and clarity. In spite of occasional failures (largely enforced by King James’s own dictates), the translation is remarkable both for its precision and for its intelligibility. Anyone who can understand Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book can understand the text of the King James Version.
The translators of the King James Version went beyond balance, however. What they produced is not merely a good translation. Their work is critically regarded as one of the great literary masterpieces of the English language. By translating at a high literary level, they have followed biblical writers such as Asaph and Isaiah, who were themselves masters of literary excellence. The glories of the Psalms and Prophets must not be lost to abecedarian translational technique. In the King James Version, they are not lost. Indeed, the cadences and locutions of the King James Version have seeped deeply into the heart of the English-speaking world.
Translations should reflect the literary level of the original text, and even the Greek of the New Testament was not really ordinary speech. It was not the Greek that one would hear in the shambles or even that one can read in the papyri. It was more formal, and at times it was crafted carefully according to literary considerations (the writer to the Hebrews is a master of literary technique).
Some are bothered by archaisms in the text of the King James Version. They need not be. Most of those archaisms are fairly easy to decipher. By performing that task, contemporary readers are imitating the original readers of many biblical documents. What is more, the archaisms serve a valuable purpose. They teach us that Scripture did not just come into being yesterday. They underline the truth that Scripture provides enduring answers to permanent questions. The Bible is not a book to be perused for momentary amusement, but one to be studied for life.
In the case of truly obsolete language, the King James Version can and should be updated. It has been before. It can be again. The work should be undertaken with reverence, not merely for the content of what is revealed, but for the locutions of the King James Version itself. No more should be changed than is really necessary. The people who would perform this task would place all readers of English in their debt.
It will never happen. The New King James Version fails by making changes that are unnecessary and sometimes banal. It is the worst of all possible worlds. No other translation, however, is likely to do better. The problem is that a version incorporating only necessary changes could never obtain an exclusive copyright. No publisher could hold exclusive rights to it. With no large sums to be made from a gentle revision, the printing houses will distribute and the pious will receive only a continuing stream of translations du jour.
Therein lies the real problem with the proliferation of modern translations. Few of them are objectionable in their own right. Most of them contribute something, and most are worthy of being consulted by readers who cannot understand the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. In the multiplication of translations, however, today’s Christians have lost significant intelligibility in sharing the Scriptures with one another.
On the average Sunday, even among fundamentalists, one can find churches using (at minimum) the King James, the New King James, the New American Standard, the New International, and the English Standard versions. One never knows what Bible to carry when visiting a new church. One hardly knows which version to memorize—what is learned from one version this year may become obsolete when the church changes its Bible next year.
How many Christians appreciate the irony that most new versions include the word Standard in their title? The fact is that the English language has only ever had one standard version, and that is the King James. Beginning with the publication of the New American Standard Bible, the English-speaking evangelical world has lost any semblance of, and probably any hope for, biblical standardization. How could anyone not see this as an evil?
Worse, the comparison of versions has made the Word of God into a consumer commodity. In order to attract the purchasing public, every new translation, paraphrase, and amplification has to have its own signature features. Its publisher must convince readers of the in-sufficiency of all previous versions. The purchase of a Bible becomes akin to the selection of a designer tie or perfume. One chooses a version like one chooses a flavor of soda. How can the transitory nature of modern versions not cast aspersion upon the enduring nature of God’s Word, and, consequently, of His character?
In sum, a good version of the Bible will be accurate, but it will not oversimplify. It will choose elevated language because it aims to shape feeling as well as thinking. It should be widely used and readily shared. It must leave the reader with the impression that the book wasn’t just written yesterday. It ought to be just a bit archaic.
In my opinion, the King James Version is the only translation of Holy Scripture into English that meets these criteria. It is not just a good version, it is a great one. It is both a great translation and a great work of literature. For me, the use of the King James Version is not simply a matter of nostalgia or sentimentality. It is unsurpassed for use in the corporate church setting, and it is as good as any for private devotional reading.
If others think differently, then they may use any faithful version without offending me. If I am preaching in their church, I will honor the church’s choice of Bible. At one level, it is a joy to have many good versions at our beck and call. All the same, I wonder how many of those versions will be celebrated four hundred years from now.
My Spirit Longeth for Thee
John Byrom (1692-1763)
My spirit longeth for thee
Within my troubled breast,
Although I be unworthy
Of so divine a guest.
Of so divine a guest
Unworthy though I be,
Yet has my heart no rest
Unless it come from thee.
Unless it come from thee,
In vain I look around;
In all that I can see,
No rest is to be found.
No rest is to be found
But in thy blessed Love;
O! let my wish be crowned,
And send it from above.