Friday, September 20, 2019

Should We Use the King James Version of the Bible?

A friend recently sent me an article on the debate over different translations of the Bible. It’s an interesting read, which I will share here, but it comes with an opinion already built into it. That’s its purpose, I am not being critical, just pointing out that it begins the discussion with the position it assumes to be correct. I was asked to step back just a bit and describe the actual debate and the reasons for it. I’ll still describe my position on the matter and see if I can make a persuasive case, but will save that for the end.

Publication History

So first off, what is the debate? In general, it is the question of whether English-speaking Christians should use the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, or if it is all right to use another, more modern translation. It is worth taking a brief look at the history of both sides.

The KJV was published in 1611 and marked the culmination of a process that began in earnest about 100 years beforehand. Following the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 and the beginning of the English Reformation in 1532, reformers began to take an interest in replacing the Latin version of the Bible (the Vulgate) with a version that could be more widely read. Aside from minor updates and revisions, the KJV remained the primary English version of the Scriptures for almost 400 years.

Beginning roughly in the 1890s and ramping up considerably in the 1950s through to today, a number of new translations have been developed to challenge the ubiquity of the KJV. Some of the most influential of these are the New International Version (NIV, 1978), the New American Standard Bible (NASB, 1971), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989), the New Living Translation (NLT, 1996), the English Standard Version (ESV, 2001), and the Christian Standard Bible (CSB, 2017). That is a short list, and does not note the histories of these various versions. It simply serves as an example of the variety of styles available.

Special mention also needs to be made of the New King James Version (NKJV, 1982) and the Modern English Version (MEV, 2014). These translations, though modern, are generally considered to be on the KJV side of this debate. Or, at least, they represent something of a compromise that we will get to later.

Texts and Translations

So what is the nature of the disagreement between those who adhere to the KJV and the proponents of the newer translations? Well, unfortunately, it’s complicated. I’m going to conflate some things for simplicity’s sake, but that is still going to leave us with some confusing threads to follow.

Though not the only issue, the main concern here is with transmission history. The Bible, of course, was originally recorded over the course of centuries by dozens of different authors, and was primarily recorded in Hebrew and Greek. Until the creation of the printing press, every copy of the Bible had to be written by hand. This occasionally resulted in minor variations, and these variations then tended to be copied by scribes depending on their geographical location. By the time the translators of the KJV got to work, the text of the Greek New Testament (NT) thought to be the most reliable was compiled from manuscripts largely originating from the regions of Byzantium (modern Greece) and Syria.

Well, I guess that then raises the issue of how texts were compiled. You cannot think of it as one person copying out the whole Bible, then handing that copy out to another person to copy it, and then that person handing his copy on, and so on. In the early centuries of church history, full copies were rare. Instead, you might have a book, a few pages, or even just a handful of verses. Of course, not all copies are identical, even if they survive. The Greek NT that the KJV translators used was made up of the copies that agreed with each other the most, and which were known to only go back to about the 9th century (800 years after the originals had been written).

Then, beginning in the middle of the 19th century, important discoveries began to be made in Egypt. Archaeologists found copies of the NT that were from as early as the 3rd Century (only 200 years after the originals). In comparing the various fragments and copies, they found that they also largely agreed with one another. However, these Egyptian texts did have a few key differences from the Byzantine texts that were the source for the KJV.

As scholars in the 19th–21st Centuries looked at these differences, they decided that the Egyptian texts should be given more weight when translating into English. This is not to say that they ignore the Byzantine texts, far from it. But if there is a discrepancy, they generally assume the Egyptian versions are more likely to be accurate because they are older. The logic is fairly clear. The closer a copy is to the original, the less chance it has to have been changed by various scribes over time. Modern scholars do not make this assumption lightly, but it serves as an important guide to their work.

That being said, supporters of the KJV point to a different line of logic. There is no denying that the Egyptian copies are older. However, there is also no denying that the Byzantine copies are far more numerous. They make up the vast majority of the manuscript record. The argument made from this is that the age of the copies does not matter. More important are the versions that spread further and longer. After all, the Egyptian copies were put away and forgotten for the better part of the last 2000 years. And if the Byzantine copies are not as ancient, that can be explained by the fact that they were not stored in the Egyptian desert. The older copies of them deteriorated through time and use, but they were accurately transcribed and passed down to be the dominant form of the NT in Greek. And they were passed down in this way because they were superior.

This, then, becomes the issue. How do we decide which Greek text is better? Because that should seemingly determine which English translation we choose. It is basically (and I will stress basically) the difference between preferring older variations or more numerous ones.

Of course, there is also the matter of the English being used. One of the primary criticisms of the KJV is that, even if it were based on the best Greek, it is too foreign to modern readers to be of any use. Words like “ambassage,” “ouches,” and “neesings” mean little to us now, to say nothing of the difficulty presented by all the “thees” and “thous.” The whole purpose of the KJV in the first place was to provide a way for regular people to read the message God had provided for all humanity. Requiring us to read it now is hardly different from expecting people to read the Latin Vulgate in 1611.

Which brings us back to the NKJV and the MEV. These translations are based primarily on the same Greek texts as the KJV, rather than following the Egyptian basis that other modern translations do. The difference, of course, is in the English that they use. The NKJV and the MEV are written to be understood today, rather than in the terminology of the 17th Century. But they assume the same logic as the supporters of the KJV do.

So does that solve things? Well, it depends on whom you ask. Some proponents of the KJV are actually more accurately described as proponents of the Byzantine texts, and they are perfectly happy to transition to translations that are easier to read. However, that is not good enough for many KJV-only advocates. They do not merely believe the Greek on which it is based is better than that of the modern versions. They contend that the English of the KJV is superior.

To put it another way, they believe that the KJV was inspired in its translation in a way very little different from the inspiration of the original versions of the books of the Bible written by the apostles and prophets. According to them, God specially directed the committee that served under King James I and gave them something that was to stand for all time. As proof of this, they cite the success of the KJV in spreading the gospel around the world. They also believe that modern translations, including the NKJV and the MEV, introduce novel doctrines that detract from the truth of Scripture in order to deceive those who are too trusting in their reading. This, it should be noted, is why they insist on the KJV for the Old Testament (OT), as well. The KJV and all modern Protestant translations all share the same Hebrew base text, but the English used is once again thought to be superior.

For their part, partisans of the modern translations can be similarly insistent. They are often dismissive of KJV-only people. At best, they see them as backward for not recognizing the “obvious” fact that the older readings of the Egyptian copies are more accurate. At worst, they treat them as enemies of the gospel for not allowing it to be spread easily.

We have to inject an important point here, one which people on both sides seem to forget frequently. It is a question of meaning. Do the KJV and the modern translations actually teach different things? Despite the noise on both sides, the answer is a resounding “No.” As I already mentioned, the differences in the OT come down to the English used. In the NT, where more differences appear, they amount to about a word or two on every page. That means, out of the more than 180,000 words in the NT, roughly 1,000 are disputed. That’s only 0.5% of the text causing all this trouble. The vast majority of those, meanwhile, are no more than a question of word order or repetition. Differences of a paragraph or more can be counted on one hand. And never, not once, does a disputed reading result in a doctrinal change that affects the our understanding of the rest of Scripture.

Personal Preference

With that said, I can attempt to present my personal opinion on this issue. If you have been reading my articles and closely checking my verse references, you may think you already know the answer. I have recently made it a habit to take them out of the CSB, one of the modern translations. However, if you have been reading my articles for a few years, then you may remember that I once tended to use the NKJV. What does it all mean? That I don’t really care.

It’s taken me a long time and a lot of words and acronyms to get to “I don’t care,” hasn’t it? But it is the truth. Frankly, I do still prefer the NKJV. Partly that is because I am more convinced of the logic behind using the Byzantine text. Partly, however, it is because my favorite Bible, the actual, physical book itself that I once sent to a repair shop because I could not get used to another one, happens to be a NKJV. I have been using the CSB on Quest Forums recently because I think it has a good balance of readability and accuracy and it gives a different perspective than what I am used to, but I may not stick with it in the future. Either way, I cannot generate much heat on the subject.

It obviously comes down to the nature of the differences for me. Whether you are reading the KJV or the NLT, you are going to find them saying the same things when it comes to the issues that matter. The salvation that comes through Christ can be learned as much from the one as the other. To attack someone for their preference is, to my mind, frivolous. Rather, it is commendable to refer to as many versions as possible. The change of pace can allow for fresh insights. And the humility to admit that neither is self-evidently superior would be healthy for the whole body of those called after the name of Christ.

I have no illusions that my middle-ground position is going to resolve the debate. But I do hope, for at least someone, it allows you to take a step back and notice the single forest rather than a couple of trees with slightly different colors of bark. The differences do not amount to enough to become frustrated over. As long as you pick what you are comfortable reading, then you will be on the right track.

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  1. Watch: New World Order Bible Versions (105 minute film)

    Excerpts - These modern versions also have a very specific agenda to prepare people for the New World order. Part of that preparation is to convince Christians to obey the government no matter what. The key passage that they tampered with is Romans 13.

    Here's the New Living Translation in Romans 13:1. "Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for all authority comes from God." Watch this. "Those in positions of authority have been placed there by God." The New Living Translation is saying that everyone in any position of authority has been placed there by God. That is not true because, one day, the anti-Christ is going to be placed in authority by Satan. "... the dragon gave him his power", it says in KJV Revelation 13:2. Not only that, but in Hosea, it says, "They've set up kings, but not by me."

    You say, "Well, the Bible says to honor the king. Therefore, we need to obey Obama." Hold a second. Is Obama the king? Is our government run as a monarchy? I thought that we have elected officials that answer to the people and that they are not above the law and that the supreme law of the land is the US Constitution. If we're going to obey the government that has been set up over us, if we're to obey the law of the land, that means we're supposed to obey the Constitution.

    Romans 13 explains that the purpose of the government is to punish evildoers... Also, a key thing that is taught in KJV Romans 13 is that we're to obey the higher powers. For example, in the United States, we have various levels of government, don't we? Now, what is the supreme law of our land? First of all, it's God's law. First, we obey God. After that is the Constitution of the United States because the Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land.

    1. Thanks for the comment! My take would be that it's important to remember both the NLT and the KJV only represent the original Greek of the text, so neither one is authoritative over the other. What matters is what Paul originally wrote under the Spirit's inspiration, and whether the English accurately represents it. And it is, of course, possible for two different translations to accurately give the meaning of something without being identical to one another.

      The question, then, is whether the NLT accurately reflects the Greek. And the answer is that yes, it does. The first thing we need to know is that the Egyptian and Byzantine texts (to use my shorthand) differ by only a single word in Rom. 13:1. In fact, they only differ by one letter. The basis for the KJV has "apo," while the text of the NLT has "upo." The former results in a meaning of "given from God," while the latter means "given by God." Clearly, the semantic distinction is unimportant.

      So, if there is no issue with the Greek in use, the bigger question becomes whether "governing authorities" is a worse translation than "higher powers," or if "those in positions of authority" is worse than "powers that be." The answer, this time, is no. The operative word in Greek is "exousia," which can variably be translated as "power" and "authority." In fact, the KJV does the latter 29 times in the New Testament. "Exousia" simply means "ability to act" or "right to act," and is used both ways freely. So choosing one translation over the other is a distinction without a difference.

      This is not the place for me to discuss the actual content of the material you quoted, though I may put together a response of some type in a later article. All I really want to say here is that the NLT does not change the meaning. What you can take from it is the same (here, at least) as what you can take from the KJV. So, knowing what to do with the information becomes a matter of philosophy and theology, not straight translation. As for the legitimacy of the NLT as a whole, its translations of spots like John 14:6, Acts 4:12, Rom. 3:23-24, and 1 Cor. 12:3 do enough to show that it preserves the orthodox faith. In my opinion, that is the key point.