In Consideration of the King James Bible

The King James Authorized Version published in 1611 was the third "official" translation into English commissioned by the Church of England; the first was the Great Bible in 1539 and the second the Bishop's Bible of 1568. The King James translation has been the most widely distributed and read English language Bible in the world. For 400 years it has been revered as the word of God by successive generations and held up as a sublime monument of English prose and an enduring link (both literary and religious) among the English-speaking people of the world. Though believers recognize divine providence in its preparation, distribution and endurance over this lengthy period of time, today an ever increasing number of versions and translations of the Bible successfully compete with the King James translation for the hearts and minds of professing Christians.

Our desire here is to inform brethren of elements of the debate and to encourage them to make informed and considered choices regarding the Bibles they select...

Christadelphians too find themselves divided as to which version to use as their primary Bible. Occasionally these differences come to the front when one opinion or the other manifests itself in a manner disparaging to the other. For those who love the King James, the modern versions are but impostors, the King James Authorized Version alone speaking with the voice of authority as the most accurate English version of the Bible available today (these are generally those who have grown up with the King James and are familiar and comfortable with its style and language). On the other hand, those who prefer other versions of the Bible generally view the King James as archaic and difficult to both read and understand due to its style and grammar. Some view it as an obsolete text out of place in the 21st century.

Strong opinions unfortunately result in suspicion and contention between brethren. Perhaps the questions to be considered are: is the King James Bible truly the most accurate translation of the word of God available today; and, is its style and language really a significant impediment to understanding the Word? Though there are individuals on both sides of the debate holding strong opinions, do our choices regarding which Bible we use reflect a knowledgeable and considered evaluation of the matter, or do we for the most part merely follow the tradition we have grown up with? Let us here take the opportunity to explore some of the benefits frequently cited in favor of and some of the charges frequently leveled against the King James Version.

"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."

Even those new to the debate regarding the use of (or the exclusive use of) the King James Version (KJV) are familiar with the charge of its "archaic style and language." Critics point out that the translation was produced in Shakespeare's time (William Shakespeare was a subject of King James), referencing the difficulty that many have with reading and understanding Shakespeare's works. The point is made that even though there are those who through experience understand and are comfortable with the King James style and language ... most people today are not! Further, they correctly point out that it uses obsolete English words; words no longer used or words whose meanings have changed since the 17th century.

The King James Bible's Archaic Language: Is this objection justified as a significant impediment to the use of the King James Bible? Defenders point out the fact that every department of human learning uses language peculiar to that discipline: language which novices might readily refer to as "archaic." Biology, botany, geology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, music, medicine and law all use uncommon words peculiar to their discipline as well as phrases and expressions which the novice finds challenging. God's Word, particularly as reflected in the KJV, is similar in this respect, and the earnest study of it likewise requires that the student become familiar with the discipline's words and expressions. Words like atonement, sanctification and justification challenge the novice, but they must be mastered if the student is to progress spiritually. They are explicit Biblical terms which express vital concepts and processes! To dismiss them as archaic and too difficult would impede the purpose of the student seeking to understand God's revelations. Could we imagine a science, medical or law student objecting to the strange sounding words or technical terms in his text books?

In the book The King James Version Defended: A Christian View of the New Testament Manuscripts, apologist Edward F. Hills says concerning the language of the KJV:

Not only modernists but also many conservatives are now saying that the King James Version ought to be abandoned because it is not contemporary. The Apostles, they insist, used contemporary language in their preaching and writing, and we too must have a Bible in the language of today. But more and more it is being recognized that the language of the New Testament was biblical rather than contemporary. It was the Greek of the Septuagint, which in its turn was modeled after the Old Testament Hebrew. Any biblical translator, therefore, who is truly trying to follow in the footsteps of the Apostles and to produce a version which God will bless, must take care to use language which is above the level of daily speech; language which is not only intelligible but also biblical and venerable. Hence in language as well as text the King James Version is still by far superior to any other English translation of the Bible.
(Part VIII, #4a, The King James Version)

In accord with the position stated above, advocates argue that the charge of "archaic" language within the KJV is not a compelling argument for abandonment. They point out that it really isn't difficult or even unusual to have to look up an unfamiliar or difficult word in a dictionary, and they view the position that the KJV is hard to understand due to difficult words to be a weak excuse that would not be tolerated within other disciplines. The Bible is not a novel nor was it given for the purpose of recreational reading, but by design was given to be searched out and studied throughout one's lifetime. The reading habits and abilities of the general public have steadily changed over the centuries and in the past few decades reading the printed word is fast falling out of fashion. Yet such men as Abraham Lincoln are set forward as examples of self-taught avid readers, Mr. Lincoln having applied himself to reading the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. Perhaps present day charges against the King James Bible are in part explained within the spirit of G. K. Chesterton's notable quotation, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."

In response to the pervasiveness of the charge of "archaic" language, let us be reminded that there are in fact instances where the use of the "archaic" language in the KJV is more descriptive and accurate than that which our modern English allows. Consider for example the use of "archaic" pronouns:

"Thee and Thou:" Should all the 'thee' and 'thou' in the KJV be replaced by the word ' you' – a word used contemporarily to refer to one or many depending on the context? Actually, the word 'you' is used hundreds of times in the KJV, but not exclusively. There is a vital difference between 'you' (plural) and 'thee' (singular) and there are times when it is necessary to make that distinction which the KJV does. For example we note Christ's words in Luke 22:31-32; And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. In this passage Christ used the word 'you' in reference to all the disciples who were striving over which of them should be the greatest. But when he used the words 'thee' and 'thou' he meant Simon Peter alone. Should the 'thee' and 'thou' in this passage be replaced with the universal 'you,' Christ's explicit warning to Peter is considerably weakened and the application to the other disciples (that Satan desired to sift them), would be completely lost. Similar specification is made by the use of 'ye,' 'thy' and 'thine;' and the suffixes '-est' and '-eth' likewise have to do with number and case of persons. Christ speaks definitively of every jot (smallest Hebrew letter) and tittle (small Hebrew mark) in the law; surely the Spirit was deliberate regarding the manner in which the apostles originally recorded these accounts for us.

In the early 1600's this form of the English language was not spoken in England ... the translators chose to use it for this Bible translation for two reasons: it is far more precise and it is far more reverent.

Use of archaic words that have changed meaning: Some words as used in the KJV are archaic in that they have a different meaning today than they once did, such as the word "suffer" as it appears in Matthew 19:14: But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not saying that children should suffer, but that they should not be hindered. Though such words may present confusion upon initial encounter, their meaning is not difficult to discern or remember when considered within their context. (We also note the use of italics in the King James Bible. The translators italicized words they put into the text that do not appear in the original language, letting us know what was added and what was original, an indication of their integrity that is not found in modern day versions.)

It is not the purpose of this review to provide a comprehensive evaluation or defense of the "archaic" language found in the King James translation. The defenses cited above and the admission that the style and language of the King James Bible does in places constitute a challenge, particularly to the novice or infrequent reader, should be sufficient to assist brethren in deciding whether they wish to personally explore the matter further. Our desire here is to inform brethren of elements of the debate and to encourage them to make informed and considered choices regarding the Bibles they select for daily reading and study as well as for those selected for reference work (many brethren owning and using several translations).

Important Considerations

The benefit of High English! The King James Bible succeeded where other translations had not, perhaps due to the fact that the text is neither the work of the single man nor a small group, but of a large number of scholars working cooperatively and with ample time to accomplish their task. The translators were Protestant members of the Church of England which had pulled away from Rome some seventy years earlier. In common with the other English translations of the period, the New Testament was translated directly from the Greek and the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew. As opposed to what some may have been led to believe, the King James Version was not written in the everyday language of people on the streets of London in 1611. The prose is one of the finest examples of literary style, reflecting both a gift for language and an appreciation for the solemnity of their subject. It was written in what has been identified by some as "High English, " a very precise form of the English language; and the KJV remains today in High English. In the early 1600's this form of the English language was not spoken in England nor did the translators themselves use it as shown by their "Epistle Dedicatory" to King James. But the translators chose to use it for this Bible translation for two reasons: it is far more precise and it is far more reverent.

Would you like your Bible easier or truer to the original? Despite the accolades and confidence the King James Bible has inspired over the centuries, it is not a perfect text (although it is recognized to be as close to a word for word translation as is available to us today). The original translation was completed in 1611 and was modified and "corrected" a few times with the most significant changes made in 1769 - the version in use today. Even for those who have grown up with the King James Bible in hand there are verses that reflect orthodoxy as well as words and verses difficult to understand, causing one to reach for the Dictionary, Septuagint, Diaglott or other translations to seek clarity (in those situations it is helpful to have more than one version to consult so that interpretations and comparisons can be made).

The King James Version tells us what it says and leaves to us, to the extent we are capable, the business of interpreting what it means.

Without question some of the modern translations are easier to read in such places, however the question should be asked, which translation represents most accurately the original text? May we not assume there are difficult verses in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts which find reflection in the King James translation? Shall we depend upon modern day orthodox translators to interpret the Bible for us?

The King James translation is what scholars call "formal equivalence" to the original text, while other translations reflect, to different degrees, "dynamic equivalence." The "formal equivalence" approach seeks to render the text word-for-word, expressing in English the meaning of the words in the original Hebrew or Greek. The "dynamic equivalence" approach seeks to convey in the modern idiom the thought expressed! If we are to live by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God, will we not want a "formal equivalence" translation of those words? The Living Bible, for instance, advertises that their version translates "entire thoughts (rather than just words) into natural, everyday English." That version provides what their committee thinks the passage means, rather than what it actually says. The King James Version tells us what it says and leaves to us, to the extent we are capable, the business of interpreting what it means.

Language: The King James translation has been the Bible most used by Americans until recent times. Its flowing language and prose rhythm has had a profound impact upon Western language and literature. Even in the present day with the popularity of the " modern" versions, the KJV continues to be the version memorized, quoted, and publicly read most often. High English has left a profound mark, permeating all aspects of life. Its influence is reflected in the incorporation of style and passages from the King James translation into the nation's language and literature as well as through Biblical motifs and religious inscriptions on buildings and currency. Many brothers and sisters pray in the language of the King James Bible, not that they believe it is reflective of Biblical times or thought to be a language God prefers, but because they associate it with the solemnity due when one seeks to approach God in prayer. As a brother recently expressed; "I just cannot address the Heavenly Father as You! It doesn't, to my mind, convey the reverence to our Heavenly Father that Thee or Thou does." There is also an advantage in group reading when all read from the same translation, in that different words and structure sometimes causes confusion. There is a symmetry the mind assumes when in group reading from the same text which provides balance and continuity; indeed, who expects to hear anything other than High English when the Lord's Prayer or the 23rd Psalm is being recited?

Our dear brothers and sisters, as the title declares, this article is offered to encourage "consideration of the King James Bible."