In honor of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, I committed to put aside my preferred translation, the New American Standard Bible, and solely preach from the KJV for the month of May. That commitment is now over. So, I thought that I would share with you some of my reflections.
I want to say up front that the King James translation is a very accurate translation. As I said at the beginning of May in my article honoring the KJV’s birthday, “As for translating philosophy, on the Word-for-Word and Thought-for-Thought continuum, it is very much a Word-for-Word translation. Therefore, when you read the KJV, you’re getting a precise translation of the original text.” I appreciate that trait of the KJV so much. We must be wary of translations that fall on the Thought-for-Thought end of the continuum like the New Living Translation (NLT) and paraphrases like The Message. Zondervan has an excellent resource here to help you understand translation philosophy and where each Bible translation falls on the translation continuum. When I read the KJV, I knew that I was getting an accurate translation of the actual words God inspired the authors of the Bible to write. For that reason, I love the KJV.
However, the overwhelming reflection that I have is that the King James translation is translated into antiquated English. Of course, that’s obvious, but it raises some considerations for contemporary readers. Although produced in 1611 and updated a few times over the last four centuries, you still basically have 17th-century English with spelling updates. Indeed, you have an accurate translation of Scripture, but it’s an accurate translation into antiquated English. On one hand, the antiquated English gives a certain poetic air about the Scripture, making it feel very Shakespearean. That’s because William Shakespeare was a contemporary of the men who translated the KJV. Shakespeare wrote and spoke like the KJV translators. However, on the other hand, I find the antiquated English burdensome and even a barrier to comprehension. I hate to say that because I appreciate the KJV so much, but I can’t get past this conclusion.
As for being burdensome, some of my perception of this reality very well might be due to the fact that I’m not used to reading the KJV. However, over the years I’ve noticed that even those who exclusively use the KJV stumble regularly when reading it aloud, even those who are good readers. The reason is that the syntax (the way words are put together to form sentences) and the vocabulary of today are just different from 1611-English (not better or worse, just different). We don’t think within the language parameters employed by the KJV, and it adds difficulty to the text, making it burdensome.
As for being a barrier to comprehension, here is what I mean. In order to read and understand the KJV, one must add an extra step to the process that isn’t necessary in contemporary translations. You see, in order to read and understand the KJV, one must first figure out what the text is actually saying before one can figure out what the text means. In other words, one must take the older English and translate it into contemporary English first. Granted, one doesn’t have to translate into a whole new language, but it is basically another dialect. This necessity just adds a step that many potential Bible readers are unwilling to endure, causing I suspect many great frustration to the point of simply putting the Bible to the side. Hence, it can become a barrier. In fact, at times when I would read aloud from the KJV while preaching, I found myself having to concentrate so hard on just reading the Scripture that when I was finished, I had no comprehension of what I had just read. Therefore, although I appreciate the legacy of the KJV, I would never recommend it to anybody if I was asked what translation to use.
Even more, and I don’t mean to overreach here, I would even encourage those who exclusively use the KJV out of habit or tradition to consider moving to a contemporary English translation. If you are committed to the KJV, that’s fine. Don’t switch. However, if you simply use it because that’s the translation you’re used to, I recommend trying a modern translation and see if it doesn’t help you understand the Bible better. Friend, I believe that God desires for you to have a copy of the Word of God in your exact tongue. I pray that you’ll consider trying a contemporary English translation.
Overall, I’m so glad that I challenged myself to preach from the KJV. I pray that it honored the men that God used to produce it and brought attention to the great legacy of this translation. God has used it mightily over the last 400 years and continues to do so even today. Furthermore, I hope that in some way, I connected to my spiritual forefathers who used the KJV—men like Charles Spurgeon, George Whitfield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Billy Sunday, D. L. Moody, and many others. May you honor God for the gift of the King James Version of the Bible and hold tightly to the Scripture no matter which solid translation you choose!
I’m really curious to hear some of your reflections on the KJV. With a nod to Shakespeare: to use or not to use, that is the question. What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of using it in 2011?