I have had the privilege of growing up in a family where both parents had experienced the new birth in Christ. One particular evidence of this reality was that we faithfully attended and supported our local church. That church, like so many other good churches, used the King James translation of the Bible. In fact it still uses that translation. It is a good translation. Up until the time of its publication in 1611 no other person or group had employed such resources in the completion of a translation. The men who were tasked with the responsibility of this new translation were the best biblical scholars of their day. They were also men with a reverent love for God. Even so, they utilized a series of checks and balances wherein their work would be reviewed by others. In many ways the King James translation is the finest example of how translation work should be done.
But this does not mean that the King James translation is the finest translation.
It especially doesn’t mean that the King James is the “only” translation that contains the word of God. The King James translators themselves viewed other translations as God’s Word. They write that even the “meanest” translation “containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with like grace. . . . But we weary the unlearned, who need no know so much; and trouble the learned, who know it already.” So the King James translators themselves did not view their translation as the only right and good translation. Indeed, they recognized the need for improvements in all translations since “nothing is begun and perfected at the same time.” This truth is born out in history since between its publication in 1611 and 1800 the number of editions of the KJV as a whole or in part “reached nearly a thousand and produced tens of thousands of minor variations from the original edition” (David Beale, A Pictorial History of Our English Bible p. 43). And yet for all its revisions and editions many mistranslations still exist today within the text (though they are generally minor). The problem is that while the translators themselves were the best of their time they were working with defective tools. Their knowledge of the ancient languages that they sought to translate was insufficient regarding verb tenses and idioms. They also had no access to materials that would help them understand the dialect of the Greek of the New Testament. The three most ancient and greatest Greek manuscripts were as of yet unavailable to the King James translators.
So why do so many persist in using it? For some it is comfort and ease. They have been using it all their lives and can’t imagine switching to another translation. They struggle with the idea of a new translation (as so many struggled to accept the King James translation when it was published). For others it is the misinformation that the KJV remains the best possible translation. That is a farce but not a destructive one as long as it is not held as a means to judge others. Even so it is a farce that should be done away with.
Another reason one might persist in using the KJV is the (almost laughable) belief that every modern translation is of the devil or irreparably flawed. I will ignore the charge that new translations are the work of the devil because it is as preposterous as it is ignorant. Let me simply address one example of the concern that modern translations are irreparably flawed. Not long ago I heard a good man question the trustworthiness of the English Standard Version because it was based on the RSV (a translation not held in high esteem). That the ESV utilized the RSV at all was seen as a fatal flaw and a reason to continue using the KJV. And yet the KJV itself was based on the Bishops’ Bible, a translation initiated and overseen by the Romanist Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. The truth that I am pointing out is that we do not judge a translation solely on what lies behind it, but upon its faithfulness to the original text of scripture. In that regard both the ESV in our time (as well as many other fine translations) and the KJV in its time are faithful and dependent. Therefore I am thankful for the KJV as I thankfully move past the KJV.
In writing all this I have failed to address a primary concern: What should motivate us in choosing a translation?
Here are a couple short but excellent resources on the subject:
- The King James Version Debate: A Plea For Realism by D.A. Carson
- A Pictorial History of Our English Bible by David Beale
- The Preface to the King James Version and the King James Only Position by William M. Combs in DTBS