Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

The KJV is the Best

Posted by BrianJ on May 8, 2011

The KJV is the best…of the bible translations published in 1611.

I guess that means, Happy 400th Birthday KJV!! (But now maybe do you think you could take a seat and let someone else have a turn enlightening the English-speaking Christian world?)

Happy 400th Birthday, KJV!!

It’s not that I don’t love ya’. It’s just that, well, I’ve sorta been reading someone else. And it’s not that I don’t respect you; I really do—but I also respect Newton’s Laws of Motion, and I still recognize that they have their limitations. (Come to think of it, you two are about the same age, right?)

I guess I owe you a bit of an explanation. I don’t want this to sound mean, but here’s the thing:

1) I speak English, but You are not written in English. Well, okay, that’s a little harsh. I mean, you’re written in a sort of English, but not one I’m familiar with (and let’s be honest, not even one people in your day spoke). Sure, you’re not that “olde” but:

“He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3, KJV)

…is only slightly more legible, to a 21st Century guy like me, than:

“and we desiriden hym, dispisid, and the laste of men, a man of sorewis, and knowynge sikenesse. And his cheer was as hid and dispisid; wherfor and we arettiden not hym” (Wycliffe, 1395)

You could try updating your lingo, but there’d still be the problem that:

2) You don’t appear to be based on original manuscripts. Calling yourself a “translation” is pushing it when you’re really more of a revision of the Bishop’s Bible and Geneva Bible. To be fair, this probably only affects a small portion of your words. But it still worries me when I read verses that probably were never really there, especially when they include whole stories like the Pericope Adulterae. You probably didn’t mean any harm by it—maybe weren’t even aware of it—but stuff like that makes me, like Joseph Smith, worry that you fell victim to “ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests.”

Which reminds me:

3) You play favorites toward Anglicanism.  You influence readers toward episcopal polity when the original authors perhaps intended the opposite. No harm, no foul, right? But if your bias is innocuous, then why was Tyndale forced to defend his preference for “congregation” over “church”? I guess it’s true what they say: Translations have consequences.

And if that weren’t enough:

4) I never really was impressed by your supposedly “beautiful language.” First, I don’t see how you can consider yourself a faithful translation and then in the next breath boast how hard you worked to ensure that every sentence flowed like poetry. It’s fine with me if you want to take something meant to be poetic—like the Psalms, or God’s words in Genesis—and render them as poetry, but did you ever think that maybe Matthew (for example) wanted his words to sound dry, blunt, or austere? (If I feel a deep need for beautiful Elizabethan prose, I can always read Shakespeare.)

Second, you wanna know what I find truly beautiful? The Gospel, that’s what—the news that I will be loved despite my faults, that I can find happiness in forgiving others, that my loved ones don’t cease to exist when they die, etc. If you think you need to add flowers or rhinestones or tinkling cymbals to that message to make it interesting, then you’re missing the point of the message. On the other hand, if you just want to express your deep respect and admiration for the message by adorning it with your choicest art, it might be better to honor it with an oratorio or something but leave the original intent alone. You could say that I long for a Bible as “it came from the pen of the original writers.

25 Responses to “The KJV is the Best”

  1. BrianJ said

    I should probably note that this post isn’t all that original; countless others—certainly many more educated on the subject than I—have written similar critiques. So why did I write it? 1) Because this kind of critique is necessary as long as the KJV is the Bible of choice for English-speaking LDS congregations, and 2) It’s the first time I’ve written anything about it.

  2. joespencer said

    Thanks for this nicely written post, Brian. Let me add one quibble, though:

    Uniquely Mormon scripture is similarly “not written in English,” and any simple abandonment from the KJV would leave us missing most of the ties, allusions, and connections between Mormon scripture and the Bible. It seems to me we couldn’t abandon the KJV fully until Mormon scripture was similarly “retranslated,” and that in careful accord with the “retranslations” of the bible. Of course, there are enormous difficulties—likely impossibilities—about this. Is the upshot that we should work with other translations and leave the KJV to people who want to do the supposedly “scholarly” work of finding connections between Mormon scripture and the bible? I worry about what we’ll lose….

    • BrianJ said

      Joe: you’re absolutely right. I don’t advocate that people run out and burn their KJVs, but you illustrate two (extreme) options:

      1) Ditch the KJV and miss out on the ties and allusions to other scripture
      2) Stick with the KJV and have a whole bunch of people who find the Bible unreadable

      It seems to me that #2 is by far the more serious problem. At least with #1 people can read and understand Isaiah, Romans, Revelations, etc. Yes, they would miss out to some degree on the connections to the BoM (et al), but not entirely: I mean, some of those connections are still obvious (as when Nephi says he’s quoting Isaiah) and others are topical (e.g., when two different authors both discuss Jesus’ crucifixion). And on top of that, footnotes could be used to draw those parallels.

      Moreover, I think readers often miss out on the connections between verses within in the Bible because they don’t understand what either of them are saying. A common place for this is in the OT where the Hebrew writers used word repetition to string a series of thoughts together, but then the KJV translators obscured all that by following the English language practice of using synonyms to avoid word repetition and therefore make the prose “prettier.”

      The bottom line, I suppose, is that if the Bible is so difficult to read that it doesn’t get read, well then no one is going to notice the connections, right? I know for certain that many parts of the Bible are ignored precisely for this reason. So the best case scenario is to find a middle ground between #1 and #2, but if I had to choose only one option (and for some people, one option is really the most practical/likely), then I’d choose #1.

      • joespencer said

        I’m not sure that #2 is the more serious problem. If I could convince myself that people would read scripture more just because the language was more accessible, I’d be game. But I have a hard time convincing myself that anything—apart from powerful readings of scripture—will get the general membership of the Church more comfortable with scripture. Modern translations of the Song of Songs would only have more people stapling those pages shut in their Old Testament. Modern translations of Isaiah and Revelation would only spur either boredom or a wave of wild, unjustified speculation.

        I suppose, though, what I really want to suggest is that we’re already in the middle ground. The KJV with all its historical importance (Mormon historical importance, that is—I couldn’t, in this context, care less about general historical importance), is not dispensed with; but we are quite free to use other translations. I think the other version of the middle ground (giving pride of place to an alternate translation) would quickly become the first extreme.


      • BrianJ said

        I see what you’re saying. I think we’re at a disagreement, but admittedly it’s a “disagreement of hunches” since both of us are just trying to predict what might happen. It hangs on the question you point out: Would more people read more often if they had a readable Bible? I think yes, you think no.

        And in a sense I can see that we’re in the middle ground, but I notice that there is still a strong sense of taboo about using non-KJV. It’s not universal, but it’s there. Thus, while we are “quite free” to use non-KJV, we’re not exactly welcome to do so—and certainly not encouraged.

        So I might suggest a compromise between our two hunches—which involves a more middle ground approach toward that middle ground. Rather than a big push for a church-wide switch to a modern translation, perhaps an individual-by-individual push. In fact, some people you wouldn’t “push” at all; they’d keep using the KJV and loving it. Something like that—a thawing in our disapproval of non-KJV, a small paragraph in the student manuals about the value of using multiple translations, and so on. In fact, that’s something like what you’re doing with your kids: you read the KJV to them, and yet I assume that you also ensure that they have—or will have—some “KJV time.”

      • joespencer said

        “I think yes, you think no.”

        Sort of. I hope that yes, but worry that no, or can’t convince myself that yes….

        I think the compromise you suggest is a good one, but I think it would have a hard time getting off the ground for all the reasons you point out in your second paragraph here. But I think there’s a way it could be pitched (or at least, this is what I’ve done in seminary classes, etc.): encourage use of other translations in order, in the end, to come back to and make sense of the KJV. That kind of a move will sell to Mormons, I think.

      • It hangs on the question you point out: Would more people read more often if they had a readable Bible? I think yes, you think no

        I think the way this aspect of the discussion is worded is telling. The implication is that frequency (or perhaps simply the amount of time put in) of scripture reading is of paramount importance. Why isn’t understanding just as if not more important? Does the act of reading frequently without understanding edify us? My experience is that many Mormons think that it does.

      • BrianJ said

        arJ: I think you read too much into my specific wording (my fault, not yours—I can’t blame you for reading my comments carefully!) I am certainly more interested in reading for understanding than merely to check off a box on a calendar.

  3. Jettboy said

    Your saying what you quoted “is only slightly more legible, to a 21st Century guy” than an Old English translation is what bothers me. Has this generation become so uneducated that the simple quote used really doesn’t make any more sense than the one with spellings unconventional for modern writing? I prefer we start using various Bible translations than abandon one that you don’t believe is poetic and completely accurate. You’ll just change one biased translated Bible for another. Have you ever read English translations of psuedopographa and The Dead Sea Scrolls? Joseph Smith isn’t the only one to consider the KJV the archetype of English language Scripture. I believe it will be around another 400 years, long after others have come and gone no matter how long more “accurate” other translations. That is until a book comes out that recognizes that how the words read is as equally important as how it is supposed to read.

    • BrianJ said

      “Your saying what you quoted “is only slightly more legible, to a 21st Century guy” than an Old English translation is what bothers me.”

      Hyperbole, Jettboy. I chose the Wycliffe Bible because much of it is actually legible to modern English readers—one just has to strain a bit more than usual to get what it’s saying. And since that’s the argument used by defenders of the KJV, I found it a fitting comparison. There’s no reason to suppose that Paul (for example) intended for his letters to be difficult to read, so why do we insist on making them so now?

      It has nothing to do with “this generation [becoming] so uneducated.” The point of the comparison was not between the KJV and the Wycliffe, but rather the KJV and any of the modern translations (the test of which I did not include because its omission was part of my rhetorical argument). The KJV uses archaic words, spellings, conjugations, etc. There’s as good an argument for making English readers use it as there is for making Portuguese readers stick with the Book of Mormon in Spanish.

      btw, the Wycliffe Bible was written in Middle English, not Old English.

      “I prefer we start using various Bible translations than abandon…”

      Ah good, then we agree (in part). I don’t advocate for abandoning the KJV—anymore than I advocate that we abandon Newton’s Laws. I’m advocating that the KJV “take a seat” and let another Bible version lead. The KJV’s limitations have more than caught up with it, making other imperfect Bibles far better choices for English readers today.

      “…one that you don’t believe is poetic.”

      No, that’s just the problem: I believe that the KJV is poetic. Too poetic. What I don’t believe is that the original authors always meant for it to be poetic; thus, the KJV deliberately skews the “feeling” of their words.

      I’m not sure what you mean about Joseph Smith, nor how it might be relevant.

  4. BrianJ said

    By the way, when I teach from the Bible in Sunday School, after reading a verse I will often ask for a volunteer to “translate it into English.” The class always laughs a little, not because the KJV is already in English, but because they know exactly what I mean. And many of them—including those who would often feel lost and otherwise not participate in class—appreciate someone finally acknowledging that the reason they didn’t understand is not because they’re “uneducated,” but because they’re reading a Bible in a foreign language.

    (When I teach Isaiah, I just read from a modern translation from the get-go. Again: sighs of relief.)

  5. Todd Wood said

    I am wondering if any current GA has ever suggested this, Brian J.? The shift would be monumental.

  6. […] you imagine if the current LDS General Authorities actually took Brian J.’s proposal on the KJV […]

  7. BrianJ said

    Todd Wood: Not to my knowledge. The closest is the occasional use of a non-KJV verse (some of instances are listed here.)

    • joespencer said

      Actually, at least one General Authority has, if I understand correctly, suggested that something beside the KJV be used. And ironically, it was—wait for it—J. Reuben Clark, author of Why the KJV? If I’m remembering right, in the biography of Hugh Nibley from a few years ago, it explains that President Clark came to Nibley at one point and asked him what he thought about helping to produce a uniquely Mormon translation of the Bible to replace the now-defunct language of the KJV. Nibley wasn’t enthusiastic about such a project, and it seems to have died in the water….

  8. Sally said

    If I were to buy one modern translation, which would you recommend?

    • BrianJ said

      I’ve seen many different suggestions from Mormons, but it seems nearly everyone agrees that the NIV, NRSV, and even the NET are good options. (I say “even the NET” because it has some strong Evangelical bias, so you might think it would be frowned upon. But I use it a lot and just consult the footnotes to try to identify—and judge—bias.)

      One I’ve heard more about recently is the ESV. I haven’t used it so I can’t recommend it one way or the other.

      So, with the disclaimer that I haven’t purchased any of these—I read them all free online (see the links I included with the words “reading someone else” in the original post)—I would say:

      1) Buy one that has student/translator notes, preferably as footnotes and not endnotes,
      2) Make sure those footnotes include discussion of translation difficulties and disagreements,
      3) Buy whichever is least expensive :)

      • joespencer said

        I prefer the NRSV among modern translations. It’s the one I read to my children from every Sunday morning. I really like the HarperCollins Study Bible edition of it. The footnotes are a good place to get started for those without a good deal of background in the Bible.

      • veastman said

        Through the years, I’ve become very fond of the Revised English Bible, the Oxford Study Edition. Very readable and the footnotes help a lot. Brought to you by the same folks who did the KJV.

  9. Todd Wood said

    Tyndale -> Geneva -> KJV -> RSV -> ESV

    I think this reflects a fair continuity if one desires to follow in the tradition and theology of Tyndale. :)

    And why not use a NKJV if one loves the majority tradition of biblical Greek manuscripts? Thousands of people listen to teaching from this Bible translation in churches along Interstate 15 in the Intermountain West.

  10. NathanG said

    When I was a teenager I thought my college aged sister had apostatized when I found a different translation of the bible in the house that belonged to her. I wouldn’t hear her arguments.

    Then I had a great Sunday School teacher who provided study notes every week for the upcoming lessons. There were times that the notes would say something like, what do you think about this verse. Does that change after reading any of these alternate translations, and a verse would be written from several translations to show subtle, and sometimes striking differences. It came up in the lesson discussion from time to time, but more so in the study notes. Now I have the Blue Letter Bible app on my phone and can quickly look at alternate translations as well as some brief look at original Greek or Hebrew meanings. I feel so grown up. Thanks for the post.

  11. Ben S said

    “If I could convince myself that people would read scripture more just because the language was more accessible, I’d be game”

    In my experience teaching (as well as personal experience), many people read the Bible on a more regular basis and beyond the usual comfort zone of the Gospels, once they have a new translation.

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