by Pastor Robert Truelove
Christ Reformed Church
In this short article I make the case for why Christians should read the Authorized (King James) Version. This is not to say that I believe that Christians should ONLY read the KJV. It is unfortunate that King James Onlyism has so polarized this translation as to make it an all or nothing proposition. I simply believe there are many good reasons to make our historic English Bible a part of your regular Bible reading if not your primary Bible. This is not the same thing as to say that there is not a place for other translations in your Bible study.
Accuracy of the Authorized (King James) Version
It’s often said that many modern translations of the Bible surpass the Authorized (King James) Version for accuracy due to improvements in scholarship since the 17th century. While there have been improvements in scholarship (such as the Granville Sharp Rule), they are not so much as to place our venerable, historic translation at an unfair disadvantage. It may be argued that contemporary English and cultural trends may even place modern versions at a disadvantage.
A good deal of what goes under the label of “improvements in scholarship” falls into the school of translation popularized by Eugene Nida. Nida’s dynamic-equivalent influence emphasizes a more “thought for thought” approach to translation than “word for word”. To some degree nearly every popular, modern Bible translation has been influenced by this approach but it is perhaps most clearly seen in the New International Version. The problem with the dynamic-equivalent approach to Bible translation is its tendency to place more interpretation of the text into the hands of the translator versus the reader.
It’s for this reason that many conservative Bible scholars prefer formal-equivalency in translation. This approach to translation is more literal, emphasizing a “word for word” approach over “thought for thought”. This is a more accurate approach to conveying to the reader what the original Hebrew and Greek text actually says.
This is not to say that a translation is all literal, or all dynamic equivalency. Rather, we should think of it as a spectrum. A fully literal translation would be exceedingly clunky (as well as impossible!), and a fully dynamic-equivalent translation would not be a translation at all but a paraphrase.
It is in this regards that the Authorized (King James) Version is most excellent. Of all the popular formal-equivalent translations in English, it is perhaps the most literal while maintaining a good balance of dynamic equivalency as to be readable in masterful prose.
The Use of Italics in the Authorized (King James) Version
The English Reformers saw “word for word” translation as so important, that in the Geneva Bible of 1560 they began to italicize words that were not in the original Hebrew and Greek but required to make the translation comprehensible in English. This practice was retained in the Authorized (King James) Version.
Here are two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament:
For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.
Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
As you can see, these verses would be difficult to understand without the additional words but the italics show us exactly where words have been added for clarification and readability.
Readability and Beauty of the Authorized (King James) Version
In addition to being a very literal translation, it is also a readable translation. It is indeed one of the glories of this historic translation that a word for word approach to translation has been so successfully married to readability.
Not only is it readable, but it is considered the masterpiece of English prose.
The plays of Shakespeare and the English Bible [the Authorized (King James) Version] are, and will ever be, the twin monuments not merely of their own period, but of the perfection of English, the complete expressions of the literary capacities of the language.
—George Saintsbury, English Literary Historian
The impact of the Authorized (King James) Version upon the English language has been monumental.
Without the King James Bible, there would have been no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim’s Progress, no Handel’s Messiah, no Negro spirituals, and no Gettysburg Address … Without this Bible, the culture of the English-speaking world would be immeasurably impoverished.
—Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology, Oxford University
Indeed, being ignorant of the Authorized (King James) Version has been likened to being a literary barbarian by men who are even hostile to the Christian faith…
A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian.
—Richard Dawkins, Atheist (source: theguardian.com)
What about the archaic language in the Authorized (King James) Version?
There are many problems inherent with updating our historic English Bible to modern English. The chief of which is any update into modern English is essentially going to be a different translation. The Authorized (King James) Version is now an established historical work. A modern rendition could not be called the Authorized (King James) Version any more than the works of William Shakespeare updated into modern English could rightly be called Shakespeare.
This is actually a great advantage for English speaking people. The fact that we have an established, historical translation that is beyond the pen of revisionists is a great bulwark against those who seek to change the Bible (and therefore Christianity itself!) into something more palatable to the modern man. Indeed, this is a key reason for why we need to retain this venerable translation.
Furthermore, some of the “archaisms” of the Authorized (King James) Version are reasons for its strength and beauty. If it were possible to remove these “archaisms”, it would cease to be the “Masterpiece of English prose”.
But we don’t use “thees” and “thous” anymore!
The “thees” and the “thous” are not just an old way of saying “you”. These actually translate 2nd person singular and plural from the Hebrew and Greek into English, something contemporary English cannot do. For instance, when you read a “thee”, “thine”, or “thy” in the Authorized (King James) Version, it is referring to a single person. When you read a “ye” or “you”, it is referring to more than one person (it’s like a “ya’ll” if you’re from the Southern USA, which is probably where “ya’ll” came from in the first place).
Here is an example of where this is tremendously important to the meaning of the text:
And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat
— Luke 22:31
That is, Jesus is saying Satan desires to have “ya’ll” (or “you all”), meaning all of the apostles.
But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.
Jesus then says that he is prayed for “thee”, Simon Peter specifically, that his faith fail not—that he, specifically, would strengthen his brethren.
We have lost something in Bible translation for the inability of contemporary English to render 2nd person singular and plural. As you can see, this can dramatically effect the meaning of the text. There is nothing in our “you” to show this detail that is in both the original Hebrew and Greek. This was so important that the Authorized (King James) Version translators retained these words even though they were “archaic” by the time this translation was first published in 1611.
What about the Greek and Hebrew the Authorized (King James) Version is based upon?
As a translation can’t exceed its source, this is a relevant question. While the Hebrew text of the Old Testament behind all of our translations is virtually identical, the Greek Text of the New Testament is not. There are two primary editions of the Greek New Testament that virtually all translations are based upon, the Critical Text and the Traditional Text.
The Traditional Text refers to the text that has been used throughout the history of the church in the Greek speaking church (or “The Byzantine family”). Scholars who prefer this text claim its successive copying and use throughout history as a decisive argument in its favor as being that text which has been “kept pure in all ages”. The Authorized (King James) Version is based upon the Textus Receptus which is a printed edition of the Traditional Text.
The Critical Text is a modern edition of the Greek New Testament that is primarily based upon older extant manuscripts (called the “Alexandrian family”). The form of textual criticism that is used to determine the readings of the Critical Text is called “reasoned eclecticism”. It is eclectic in that it get’s its readings from various sources. However, it relies most heavily upon the older Alexandrian family of manuscripts.
For many, the fact that the Alexandrian manuscripts are the oldest extant means they are the best. On the other hand, there are scholars who contend that the oldest are not necessarily the best. The particular readings of the Alexandrian family were rejected by the church of the 4th-5th century and onwards. Could it be that early copyists had much older manuscripts on hand that reflected the Byzantine readings and this is why this form of the text became the predominate one? This is the conclusion of a growing number of scholars, pastors and students.
Furthermore, the historic understanding of Reformed Scholasticism recognized the authority in the Traditional Greek and Hebrew texts as an outworking of divine providence and rejected a rationalistic approach to the text of the Scriptures. To learn more on this point see Reformed Confessions of Faith and the Traditional Text.
A Time Out for Some Perspective!
It is at this point that we need to call a time out for a little perspective. While the matter of the best Greek text is important, it is not something upon which orthodoxy hangs (at present). While we do want our translations to be based upon the most accurate Greek source available, advocates on both sides of this issue have sometimes been guilty of blowing the matter out of proportion.
When we make more out of the issue of variant readings in the manuscripts then is actually called for, we play right into the hands of unbelievers who use this very subject to challenge the reliability of the Bible.
Again, this is not to say that it is the Authorized (King James) Version or bust. Other translations have their place. We simply wish to point out that there are things which make our historic English Bible unique and it is worth retaining. What’s more, the continued use and distribution of the Authorized (King James) Version is a rock for the waves of modernity’s influence to crash against.
The Authorized (King James) Version is an accurate, historic, masterpiece in the English language. It is the desire of this writer that this translation be, at the very least, a part of your Bible study.