Dethroning King James

Have you ever been in church on a Sunday morning and whoever is preaching asks for a certain verse to be projected? He or she starts reading it, stops midway then says, “Can you give me the King James. Aha! Yes, that sounds better.”The Authorised Version, more popularly known as the King James Version, is one of the most influential documents in all of English literature. Its importance to the English speaking Church cannot be understated and many Christians just love the way it sounds. The “thees” and “thous” just makes everything sound more regal and epic. When you watch old Jesus movies, God tends to speak with Shakespearean English and the voice of Sir Ian McKellen. Somehow in our imagination God has to sound as epic as Gandalf or have the mellifluous tones of Morgan Freeman. Even though the KJV has a historic place in our hearts and imaginations, it is not without its drawbacks and short comings.

The first problem modern people encounter with using the King James is that it is four centuries old. Most people struggle to read the KJV’s archaic language. Now if you thought the KJV is difficult to read I have news for you. What we are familiar with is the 1769 revision. The original 1611 version is even harder to reader. The English language, like any contemporary language, is constantly changing. The work of any Bible translation has an expiry date on its contemporary relevance as the language changes and evolves. If not for anything, a more modern translation is easier to read and comprehend. It also better reflects the current dynamics of language. A more readable translation generally speaking is a better translation but that is not all that you have to consider in a translation. What is more important is it best conveying the author’s original intent. The age of the King James is not only a problem as far as how language changes over time. There are technical reasons why it is better to use modern translations.

Let me first issue a disclaimer. I am by no means a bible scholar, textual critic, or a translation expert. However I am a bit of a Bible nerd. Yes, I am one of those people who read the preface to Bibles no one reads. It actually contains important information about the translation team’s philosophy and process, what manuscripts they used, and overall instructions on how best use and appreciate their work. A manuscript is basically an extant copy of a text. There are thousands of ancient manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the Bible which translators work from. Today’s translators of the Bible have the privilege of better resources than what the translators in KJV era ever had. With discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran we have access to older manuscripts which are closer to the original autographs, that is, the actually writings of the biblical authors. Also biblical scholarship in general has also progressed in 400 years and scholars know a lot more than what they did back then. All these advances mean that contemporary translations, standing on the shoulders of previous work, have a lot more to offer.

I am not saying all contemporary translations are equal. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. That is why it is advisable to have more than one Bible translation, at least two which are very different from one other, so that you compare and get the best of both worlds and better appreciate what the biblical author was trying to get across. With the internet and various apps it has never been easier to have access to different Bibles and have deeper understanding of the texts. I must make it clear that I am not saying the King James is an old relic that needs to be thrown away. Its position and importance will endure and rightly so. I am very familiar with the KJV myself. I prefer and regularly use contemporary translations that are in the tradition of the Authorised Version. I just want us to rid ourselves of the crippling notion that it is inherently better because it simply isn’t.

A while ago, I watched a debate on YouTube between two Christians where I first learnt of the King James Only movement. They are group of Christians who think the KJV is actually inspired by God and every other translation is an abomination, every other version is a perversion. The person who debated the KJV only advocate was well known Christian apologist James White. Needless to say he won the debate exposing how ridiculous the idea was. It was there I first began to grapple with textual traditions and I soon recognized the KJV is not the best offer on the table. If we take the word of God and the study of Holy Scripture seriously, we need to make sure that we use the best available resources to us and not sentimentality.


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