The church should value a Bible translation’s readability as much as its fidelity to the intent of the original authors. For a translation of God’s Word to change lives, it must be understandable. Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 14:9: “If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.” Though Paul addresses the ability to share the gospel in a foreign language through divine inspiration, the passage can be easily applied to the topic of Bible translations. Just as witnessing proves useless if no one can understand you what you are saying, a Bible translation proves useless if people cannot understand it.
Understandability proves to be the great downfall of the view that King James Bible is the best Bible translation of all time. Most readers simply cannot understand the Old English of the KJV as they don’t use “thee” and “thou” when grabbing a soda at their local gas station.
A Brief KJV History
Admittedly, the King James Bible has not always been associated with Shakespearian or highbrow English. It has not always been hard to understand. The original translators often stated that the goal of their translation was to gift English speakers a Bible in their “vulgar” or common tongue. When the translators of the King James Bible wrote out 1 Corinthians 15:31 as,
I protest by your reiocycing which I haue in Christ Iesus our Lord, I die daily,
the average 1611 reader could easily understand the terms above.
Thankfully, the original translators understood that no Bible translation “is begun and perfected at the same time.” The translators of the KJV Bible were in large part updating the text of the Bishop’s Bible and anticipated that the KJV would need to be updated in the years ahead. The KJV would be undergo five major updates and more than 100,000 changes between 1611 and 1769. Because of those changes, 1 Corinthians 15:31 reads, “I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.” The text undoubtedly benefited from the updating. I have yet to meet anyone who carries around a first edition 1611 KJV reprint.
After 1769, the updates stopped. The translators made a more decisive break from the KJV and published the Revised Version of the Bible in 1885. Around 1930 following the teachings of a Seventh Day Adventists, the King James only crowd emerged and rather arbitrarily declared that the KJV could no longer be updated. The sentiment reflected their misplaced effort to protect the inherent meaning of the text against the attacks of Christian liberalism which had gained influence at the beginning of the 20th century. In the process of trying to protect the relevance of the KJV, KJV only crowd fossilized the text.
More Than A Dictionary
Admittedly with the help of a dictionary, readers can look up some uncommon words like ‘chapmen’ and get to the meaning of the text. But that is not the only challenge facing readers of the KJV. In addition to relying upon an antiquated vocabulary, the KJV also contains a host of “false friends“: words which meant one thing in 1611 and another in 2022. For example, 2 Timothy 2:15 in the KJV reads “Study to shew thyself approved unto God.” The word “study” in the KJV does not mean Timothy needs to grab his Bible, pencils, and highlighters and head to the library. The word in Old English meant “to do one’s best.” The KJV contains countless such illusionary words that can lead readers to false assumptions about the Biblical text. The fault lies not with the translators nor with the readers but in the span of time between the two groups during which the meaning of words naturally changes. Even academic works published in English a few hundred years ago such as John Wycliffe’s volumes require translation. Like many other old English works, the KJV no longer contains the “vulgar” language of the everyday reader.
Church History & KJV
Still some counter that the beauty and history of the KJV should compel readers to pull out their massive English dictionaries. Though well intended, the impulse to demand that Christians read the KJV as opposed to a more colloquial translations goes against the intent of the Scriptures and of the history of the protestant Church. When the apostles penned the New Testament, they used Konia Greek which was spoken by everyday merchants as opposed to the “Classical Greek” of Plato and Aristotle. The God who was the Word become flesh desired for people to readily have access to his thoughts.
Before there was a King James only camp, there existed a Latin only camp. This group of scholars, pastors, and churchmen believed that the poetic nature of the Latin Bible translated by Jerome proved far superior to the then unimaginative and modern language Bibles appearing in vulgar tongues such as English. Yet as John Wycliffe noted in 1384, those who mandate the usage of a hard-to-understand Bible unquestionably go against the teaching of Scriptures they seek to protect. He wrote,
“The Holy Spirit gave the Apostles essential knowledge at Pentecost in order to know all languages to teach the people God’s Word. God willed that people were taught his Word in diverse tongues; therefore, what man acting on God’s behalf would reverse God’s ordinance and his revealed will?”
One of the things Protestants protested was the absence of the Bible in the common language. For sinners to be saved, Christians sanctified, and pastors held accountable, men and women needed access to Bibles that they could understand.
The events of Pentecost, Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 15, and the history of the church reveal that God intended for people to have a Bible in their language. Since the KJV no longer contains common English, readers should be suspicious of pastors who demand strict adherence to the KJV. That sentiment resides outside the bounds of Scripture and historic Protestantism. John Calvin concluded, “Faith needs the Word as much as fruit needs the living root of the tree.” The Scriptures should be understandable.
Benefits of the KJV
Despite its perils, the KJV remains an accurate translation of the Bible. Many pastors, Christians, and historians can still appreciate the poetic beauty of the KJV. Others rightfully find a sense of peaceful familiarity in the KJV when they recite the Lord’s Prayer and other well-known passages. The KJV was a masterful translation for its time and still contains value for some modern readers.
A Readable Bible
But it was never meant to be the final English translation as all the updates to the original 1611 edition make clear. We also no longer live in a world of “thee’s” and “haveth’s” or “harts.” The Bibles in our homes and in our pews should be readable. They should use the language of today’s construction workers, middle school teachers, and doctors. A good Bible translation will be accessible to all readers.