If the main reasons for retaining the KJV do not stand up to scrutiny, what about the reasons for change – and how should Bible readers go about selecting a translation?
A clear reason for change is that believers have the task of showing the Gospel to be up-to-date, relevant and powerful. Using the language of the past makes this task a great deal harder. Instead, it damages the cause of truth by suggesting our faith is quaint and outdated, with little in common with the hopes, worries and concerns of people today. Furthermore, it exposes Christianity to ridicule – consider for example that when the media tries to mock religious belief, it is often archaic language that features as part of the mockery.
Moreover, archaic language hinders the understanding of the Bible and its message for people who aren’t familiar with it - and sometimes for those who are, too. With its vocabulary, constructions and word usages, some of them obsolete even in the seventeenth century, the KJV is no longer clear to many regular Bible readers, and still less clear to the great majority of people who have little or no Biblical knowledge. Even those who can handle the language may struggle to explain its meaning: familiarity is not to be confused with understanding. Changes in meaning, and the misleading ecclesiastical terms that King James’ translators put back in place of Tyndale’s choice of words, continue to present obstacles. How many hours have been expended explaining what ‘hell’, ‘soul’ or ‘ghost’ doesn’t mean, that ecclesia refers to the people, not the building, or that ‘let’ and ‘prevent’ mean just the opposite of what the unfortunate listener might think?
These issues are all the more pressing in trying to share the truth of Scripture with the next generation – who often have all too little familiarity with Biblical ideas and teaching. We owe it to them and to God to present the timeless truth of the Gospel in ways that are attractive, engaging, contemporary and readily understood. Sometimes, older believers’ familiarity with 16th century language leads us to underestimate quite how great an obstacle it can be. There are enough difficulties in the way of young people coming to discipleship in the 21st century, without allowing language to be an extra barrier.
Instead, our job is to make the Bible’s message plain, whether to one another or to others. This way, we will have the privilege of following the example of Ezra’s Levite colleagues who “read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” (Nehemiah 8:8 NIV). To do so, believers today, compared to previous generations, are immensely fortunate to have access to the Bible in clear contemporary language.
The choice of a particular translation will depend to some degree on personal circumstances and the context in which it is going to be used. But there are some general principles to be recommended.
First, choose a version that’s translated by scholars with a high respect for the Word of God, rather than one whose translators see the Bible as another piece of ancient Middle Eastern literature, and that takes advantage of the mass of textual evidence now available.
Unfortunately, some translations will be unsuitable on the first of these criteria, and the second criterion rules out the New King James Version, which just updates the language using essentially the same ‘Received Text’ that underlies the KJV.
Don’t be reluctant to use different versions for different purposes. For example, the version that’s most helpful for a detailed study might not be ideal for a devotional service or for working with newcomers to the Bible.
Be careful with paraphrases, such as ‘The Message’: they can be helpful in bringing out a specific point in a fresh way, but they can also seriously mislead – sometimes with renderings that bear little resemblance to the text.
And finally, do compare one version with another when studying a passage – an alternative translation can draw attention to something you might have missed in a more familiar version.
It isn’t the purpose of this article to specify a particular version to use, but many find the New International Version or the English Standard Version a good choice for general use, while the New American Standard Bible is valuable for study purposes. Why not try each of them?
This is more than just a question of personal taste. It is hard to imagine a cause more important than the clear understanding of the Word of God. We opened by referring to Tyndale, whose passionate hope was for the Bible to be in the everyday language of the people – racy, street English; the English that would change lives. If that hope is to be realized, the Bibles we read; the talks we give; the prayers we lead; the literature we publish; the majority of hymns and songs we sing – all should be in clear, contemporary English, so that the language we use, like the truth we convey, is up-to-date, clear and compelling. The language of the past, eloquent though it may have been, will no longer blunt the sharp edge of the ‘sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17): instead, the Bible will speak as powerfully and clearly today as ever it has.