The KJV: Is it THE Bible? Part 3: Lost in Translation
As mentioned in the last post, the King James translators were very meticulous and took great care in preparing their translation. These men were among some of the most studied men in their days, well-learned in the English, German, Latin, and other translations of the scriptures.
However, their knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew was not as apt, and they also did not have access to (or pay much attention to) the ancient manuscripts (1). Modern scholars know much more about the Greek language, and in recent years more and more Greek manuscripts have been found. The Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of all time, occurred over 300 years after the KJV came out. Translations more recent than 1611 offer better insights into many passages because of the wealth of early fragment discoveries and Greek and Hebrew scholarship.
Granted, at the time of its printing the KJV was the most accurate English rendering of the Old Testament, but that is no longer the case. The KJV also relies more on the Vulgate for the New Testament than it does for the Old Testament.
Remember, the KJV had to be translated into English, not written in English from scratch in some new moment of divine inspiration to a scribe in a tower of divine light.
Many advocates of the King James translation argue that it is the one version that truly retains the word-for-word translation of the scriptures. There is no warrant for such a claim, and there never will be. “No translation,” says Lewis, “can correspond word-for-word to the language from which it has been translated.” He assures us that “there is a lengthy list of cases where it is agreed that [King James]’s revisers missed the meaning of the text” (2). The KJV translators themselves admitted that they attempted to “express the ‘sense’ or meaning of the original, even at the cost of some measure of imperfection in the translation”(3). This is very similar to the philosophy King James supporters accuse translators of versions such as the NIV of doing. Besides, there are times when understanding the meaning of a passage requires a more useful rendering than a word-for-word translation, especially if the word or phrase has been outdated for over 200 years.
The act of translating a work requires much more than merely looking up a word and then writing down the word it means in another language. There is not an exact word with the same meanings for each language as there is in every other. If we make that mistake we can merely find excuses for sin by redefining words rather than making a commitment to the meaning (“Who is my neighbor?” the scribe asks Jesus. He wants to deliberate the meaning of “neighbor” so he doesn’t have to love the guy who doesn’t live next door).
What about “Bible Words”?
What about modern translations messing around with “Bible words”? Some argue that the words of the KJV have become so “Christian” that we should never change them, that all “theological language” should always remain the same as the KJV for all time in order to preserve Christian doctrine. Words like propitiation, sanctification, baptism, bishop, etc.
Only fairly educated regular church-goers have a chance at understanding these some of these terms easily. You might say, “everyone knows these terms,” but is that true? You might, because you were raised in a church, maybe even in a KJV-saturated church. But this is not about you; it’s about everyone who needs access to the Gospel. And do you understand these words? Can you define propitiation? How many of your flock can also do the same?
These words were also used in a time when nearly every educated person knew a lot of Latin. Who studies Latin any more? Much fewer people. As much as is being asked of believers to be saved, why would we also require they learn a whole new set of vocabulary words that are outdated in our own language? Is this about salvation? Or tradition?
The original KJV translators actually included variations and other notes in the margins. Current printings of the KJV don’t have these, which makes modern readers assume the translators were more certain than they were about word meanings. In fact, the translators included a warning in the KJV itself:
“Doth not a margin do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that preemptively?” They also said that a “variety of translation is profitable for the finding of the sense of scripture” (4).
The KJV creators not only believed paraphrasing to be necessary, but also believed in referring to multiple versions of the Bible to help with the meaning. Behold, the irony that many KJV-only advocates do not heed their pet translation’s own words!
For those who are interested, here is an interesting debate about the translation issue.
What about Unity?
Some folks say that the church should only have one translation to work with to avoid error and factions. Yet, even with one translation there will be error and there will be factions. In fact, relying only on one translation keeps many factions in isolation because folks remain ignorant of what the scriptures are really saying, and separate themselves from wiser, more reasonable folk. Factions come from the heart (James 4:1). The theory that newer translations are the source of more denominations simply doesn’t hold. Most of today’s denominations began when most people were still reading the KJV. Some denominations have their favorite version, but their teaching did not come from the version. Rather, they sometimes choose a version whose renderings provide the most room for their personal doctrine to be proof-texted. Sometimes, this means choosing the KJV.
The world’s worst problems come not from reading the wrong Bible translation, but from not truly reading it at all. If we want unity, arbitrarily choosing a single translation and demanding other Christians use it exclusively is not the way. We should be unified by a commitment to have communion with the word, to devour it together like bread.
In the next post of the series we examine Jacobean English, the English the KJV was written in, and how our language truly has changed in 400 years.
1 Daniell, David (2003). The Bible in English: its history and influence. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. p.5
2 Lewis, Jack P (1992). The English Bible from KJV to NIV: A History and Evaluation. 2nd Ed. Baker Book House. p.45
3 Beacham, Roy E (2001). Bauder, Kevin T. One Bible Only? Kregel Publications. p.179
4 Goodspeed, E.J. (1611). The Translators to the Reader: Preface to the King James Version. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1935.