Revising the King James Version and Pleasing Absolutely No One

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G. N. Barkman's picture

Is asking for an updated translation of the KJV a trap, or a challenge?  If KJV "only-ers" are truly committed to the inspiration of the original manuscripts, and not to the translation of the KJV, I would think they would welcome such a project.  The assertion that such a project would please no one is, in my mind, evidence that the real issue is not the manuscripts, but the KJV itself.  That conclusion has seemed obvious to me for a long time.  This article simply re-inforces that deduction.

G. N. Barkman

T Howard's picture

As I pointed out in another post on the same topic, TR/KJV folks would never accept a new translation to replace the KJV, even one based on the TR.

Kent added yet another reason besides the ones I previously listed:

13. It's not the KJV.

14. God is changeless. His Word is changeless. The KJV is [as of 1769] changeless. Change is ungodly.

15. It's not the KJV.

TylerR's picture


I think a person who is genuinely committed to the TR would welcome a newer translation from the TR. Not necessarily to replace the KJV, but to supplement it. The issue of the Modern English Version (to my knowledge, the only newer translation whose NT is based explicitly on the TR) is not mean to be a trap - at least, not by me. I think TR folks should be happy it exists. Goodness, I was happy it exists!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

mlward's picture

Kent is replying to me, specifically this post and correspondence we had before and (briefly) after it.

I agree with Pastor Barkman—Kent reveals over and over that the real issue is not the manuscripts but the KJV. But it is true that he is responding in kind to that accusation. He is saying that I don't care about preservation but about promoting the confusing array (to him) of modern versions.

And I say to that that the array is not confusing; it is helpful. I want to understand the Bible, and checking multiple translations helps me understand.

I also say that "the least of these"—the bus kids and their parents—will never understand the KJV, and it's wrong to insist that they try when translations have been made from the TR into our current language. Kent insists that they can all understand it just fine, but I know that's not the case, because I have spoken to them on countless occasions—and I myself have trouble understanding the KJV even after many years reading it.

Mark L. Ward, Jr., Ph.D.
Academic Editor • Lexham Press
(Publishing arm of Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software)

Ron Bean's picture

Hasn't any KJV preacher who had to define a word like this tacitly admitted the possibility that the translation could be improved? (I still remember the resistance to the New Scofield.)

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

wdlowry's picture

(Edit: change subject to make it clear I was responding to Mark)

It seems to me, he's not arguing effectively against the main points of the argument:

  1. We should read Scripture in our own language.
  2. The KJV is not in our language.
  3. Therefore we should update the KJV (in some way) to be in our language.

Since the major premise doesn't seem to be under discussion, the way to attack this is not to say that nobody would accept a resulting version, but rather to attack the minor premise. You can't just assume that the KJV (Early Modern English) is readily understood by Modern English speakers as Kent does in the comments.

I don't dislike the KJV, rather I think it's very beautiful. I just have come to the conclusion that it's not in my language nor the people who live around me; however close it may be.

BTW one other minor issue: The Constitution is written in Modern English, which is probably why nobody is calling for it to be translated.

mlward's picture

I see, Dave. Good call.

Yes, I commented on his post to urge him to do some work on that minor premise rather than continuing merely to make bald assertions that the KJV is understandable.

And why do I bother when, as Kent sees, I don't think he'll actually change? Because I care for the kids in his church. I care for the bus kids attending all KJVO churches. I care for vernacular translation.

Mark L. Ward, Jr., Ph.D.
Academic Editor • Lexham Press
(Publishing arm of Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software)

Larry Nelson's picture


mlward wrote:

I agree with Pastor Barkman—Kent reveals over and over that the real issue is not the manuscripts but the KJV.


Anyone who has had any exposure to the KJVO position has likely heard or seen an appeal to Ecclesiastes 8 tossed out at one time or another, specifically to this verse: 

"Where the word of a king is, there is power;"  (Ecclesiastes 8:4a KJV)

KJVO adherents have often treated this verse as evidence for the KJVO position.  The thinking is that the imprimatur of King James I is a sign of the KJV's unchallengeable primacy.  After all, what other translation has been "authorized" by a king?

I've more than once confronted that assertion with a scenario similar to this:

"The year is 20XX, and King William has just been crowned the King of England following the passing of his father, King Charles, some weeks prior.  As one of his first official acts, William announces that he will shortly commence a project that has been a nearly lifelong wish: he will lend his patronage to an entirely new translation of the Bible into the English language, basing this translation upon the same manuscripts/texts as the beloved King James Version of 1611.  The resulting translation will be known as the "King William Version." 

My question to some KJVO proponents who have appealed to Ecclesiastes 8:4a has been this: "Would you accept this new translation?"

Their subsequent refusals have always underscored (at least to me) that it's always  about the KJV, rather than the manuscripts.....

Bert Perry's picture

If we think we've got problems, check out Wikipedia's article on the Vetus Latina (Old Latin Translation).  Apparently there was division over the best Bible translation into the non-vernacular (except for priests & scholars) all the way up to the Council of Trent--we are talking an entire millenium plus, more or less, of VLVO (Vetus Latina Version Only) activism.  Yikes.

I personally find myself about in the middle on the KJV. Love it, almost as much as the Geneva 1599 (we'll see if I join Tyler in the TVO/Tyndale camp soon, ha!), but I know that for the first decade or so of my walk with Christ, I simply didn't understand it well.  Not enough Shakespeare in the diet, I suppose.  Regarding the manuscripts, I acknowledge the existing Alexandrian manuscripts are older, but the presence of disputed passages in the Vulgate suggests Jerome might have had manuscripts almost as old like the TR before him.  

What distresses me--and this is mostly a criticism of other parts of KJVO-land, not Brandenburg--is really a central issue with most KJVO advocates.  It's that they almost all allege that somebody deliberately changed the Alexandrian manuscripts, but they have no evidence for that that wouldn't get laughed out of court.

Now that's bad enough, but what's worse is that the habit of using genetic fallacies to make a point doesn't stop simply with the issue of what Bible to use.  Rather, you can expect a KJVO pastor in these circles to use genetic fallacies in all areas of his "ministry".  

Chew on that for a moment.  In my view, if I'm correct, it explains why so many KJVO churches, and their interactions, can only kindly be described as "war zones". And they'll know we are our knock down, drag out fights?  


Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

mlward's picture

Kent told me yesterday that I was not the target of his blog post. Sorry about that, all. I believe Kent.

And he understandably resents being told that textual critical issues are a mere smokescreen covering up his true allegiance, his love for the KJV. So I want to clarify that I am not calling Kent or any other proponent of KJV-Onlyism a liar. Not only am I not calling them liars; I sincerely don't think they are liars. I believe that the textual criticism smokescreen is so effective that they themselves cannot see through it.

I know I'm on shaky ground whenever I suggest that my brothers in Christ have motivations they can't/won't see. I genuinely could be wrong, both about individuals and about the KJV-Only movement as a whole. But here's my reasoning: as my friend Dave above says, "1) We should read Scripture in our own language, 2) the KJV is not in our language, and 3) therefore we should update the KJV (in some way) to be in our language"—and this seems to me to be an airtight syllogism. The fact that I can't get any proponents of KJV-Onlyism to discuss either premise in detail suggests to me that we're talking through that smokescreen. If their real concern is the TR, then it shouldn't bother or offend them to discuss the value of vernacular translation and the ways in which the vernacular has changed in the last 400+ years (400+ because much of the KJV reaches back into the 16th century; as David Norton ably shows in a fantastic CUP book I'm reading).

When I do insist on discussing readability, and try to do so nicely, KJV-Only folks characteristically say, "Sure English has changed, but it has changed for the worse"—which is an implicit denial of the major premise and a massively contestable idea. It's saying, "We should read the Scripture in our own language, unless that language is bad compared to previous iterations of the language." It's contestable because I think to myself, "Do they actually read any of the best writers out there today?" Read David Foster Wallace's essay on tennis, or Ross Douthat's columns in the New York Times, or Joan Didion or Marilynne Robinson or Francis Spufford or even conservative Christians like Alan Jacobs or Doug Wilson or John Piper. Sure, the general trend is toward informality in language—and I think there's an interesting discussion to be had there. Kent cites John McWhorter (one of my favorite writers and a great linguist) to prove that formal language is dying out in English. We can have that discussion. But the fact that KJV-Only folks don't view their value judgment about contemporary English as remotely contestable, the fact that they repeat their assertion over and over without any discussion—these strike me as the kinds of things you say when you've got a smokescreen in front of your face.

When I do insist on discussing readability, and try to do so nicely, KJV-Only folks also characteristically say, "I know plenty of uneducated people who have no trouble understanding the KJV"—which is an implicit denial of the minor premise. What can I say about this except that I know they are wrong? I know from two kinds of personal experience: 1) talking to uneducated people of all ages while/after teaching them Bible verses and asking them questions to elicit from them what they understood, and 2) reading the KJV for myself for 30 years. It took me many years of education in Greek, Hebrew, and English to realize how much I was misunderstanding in the KJV—through no fault whatsoever of the KJV translators, but merely because English has changed in so many subtle ways. The KJV is certainly not unintelligible. The great majority of the words in it are used the same way we use them. Syntax, too, is typically the standard Subject-Verb-Object of our English.

But I chose a random passage (closed my eyes and put my finger down) and marked it up with a "heat map" to show where the KJV differs from the way we talk and write today. The things marked in yellow are words/phrases that I do think uneducated people can learn to get past pretty quickly. "Thees" and "thous" are easy enough to get used to—but I mark them because they aren't the way we talk. The things marked in orange are words/phrases that I think will cause most readers of any skill level to stumble a little, though they'll probably get it. The things marked in red are either opaque to modern readers ("dropsy") or positively misleading because of changes in English. (Note: the lack of quotation marks and natural paragraph breaks also causes a little reading difficulty, but that's hard to mark. So I marked every instance of the word "say" to show places where quotation marks are missing.)

If KJVOs' real concern is the TR, why can't we ever seem to have a rational discussion about readability? Maybe they'll turn a few of my reds to oranges, maybe they'll turn a few of my oranges to yellows, but the page will not be white. Nobody in the world, including those who insist that English has degraded, talks or writes in that style of English. Why can't I have a Bible in my own language?

Mark L. Ward, Jr., Ph.D.
Academic Editor • Lexham Press
(Publishing arm of Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software)

Pastor Joe Roof's picture

Forget the whole idea that the Bible should be in the common language of the people.  Assign sinister motives to anyone who wants to update the KJV.  After all it was good enough for Moses and Paul, it should be good enough for us.

G. N. Barkman's picture

The reason I called an updated English version based upon the TR a "challenge" (instead of a trap), is because it should challenge the KJVO crowd to be honest with their position.  Most of them claim that the issue is the TR, not the KJV translation.  But when someone calls upon them to approve a new translation based upon the TR, they reject it, calling it a "trap" or something similar.  No, this a challenge.  It challenges the KJVO advocates to honestly face their true position.  Either they defend the TR, not the KJV, or they don't.  If they contend that they are only defending the TR, then prove it by welcoming an updated version based upon the TR.  If they won't accept such a version, than let them honestly recognize their true position.  If they won't accept any English version except the KJV, no matter how skillfully it translates the TR into modern English, they should be honest with their actual position, which appears to be something other than what they say it is.  That's the challenge. 

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

One thing that comes to mind is that I've seen KJVs without the translators' notes--it was actually something that clued me in to the fact that a former "pastor" was not just a lover of the KJV, but was rather KJVO.  He wanted, I'd guess, Bibles that didn't even contain the original translators' notes about certain ambiguities in the text.

Now it strikes me that inasmuch as the NKJV follows the Ben-chayyim and the TR, with notes about textual variations seen in the 1967/77 Stuttgartensia, the MT, and NTG, you get a modern language Ben-chayyim/TR theoretically acceptable to the KJVO crowd simply by removing the translators' notes.  So while I know that HarperCollins and others would object to this, one almost wants to give it a try. "OK, the notes are gone--now what do you think?"

I'm guessing it would still boil down to the main reason T. Howard notes; it's not the KJV.  On my less charitable days, I wonder if part of the reason to retain the KJV is that its very obscurity means that the pastor enjoys a huge amount of power as "the expert" in its Jacobean language.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

mlward's picture

Right, Pastor Barkman, and if they ever acknowledge that a new translation may be necessary at some distant future date, the conditions under which that new translation may be justified are so stringent that one wonders how they could ever be met. Here's Thomas Ross, who works with Brandenburg (and, I hear, tell, is a gifted guy):

In the unlikely event that the Lord were not to return for some hundreds of years into the future, and the English language changed in such a manner that the early modern or Elizabethan English of the Authorized Version were to have the comprehensibility of the Old English of Beowulf, it would certainly be right to update Biblical language.  However, I believe that the Holy Spirit would lead Biblical Baptist churches to have general agreement that such a revision of the English Bible is needed.  Without such clear Divine leadership, any revision would be inferior to the Authorized Version (as such versions as the NKJV most certainly are), and detrimental to the cause of Christ.

The NKJV is dispatched in a line, and a (frankly) airy call for "Divine leadership” of “Biblical Baptist churches” is made when that call has already come in the very word of God they seek to defend. Vernacular translation is arguably modeled by Ezra (Neh 8:8) and is most certainly modeled in the NT’s use of translations of countless OT passages. Even the little efforts throughout Scripture to “translate” not-so-very-old, or merely foreign, words and customs for the intended reading audience—these provide authoritative examples for us. (I have in mind the passage in which “today’s ‘prophet' was formerly called a seer,” and others in which anything from “Talitha kum” to “Imannuel" to “Rabbi” to “Tabitha” to “Barnabas” is translated for the reader.)

Mark L. Ward, Jr., Ph.D.
Academic Editor • Lexham Press
(Publishing arm of Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software)

mlward's picture

Bert, you are right. There has been more than enough time for the self-professed TR-only folks to get on board with the NKJV.

A few of them are doing it. More power to them.

Mark L. Ward, Jr., Ph.D.
Academic Editor • Lexham Press
(Publishing arm of Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software)