Some of you may have noticed that I use the King James Version quite a bit on this blog — almost as much as the NIV. I’ve been getting into the KJV more and more lately, and I’m becoming convinced it’s an underrated treasure. It’s become my daily reading Bible, and I consult it whenever I’m preparing a translation for a sermon or Bible class now. Since comparatively few people use and read the KJV (at least compared to the amount that once did), and it’s not the main version I preach and teach out of (that distinction goes to the NIV), you might be wondering why I’m bothering with it. Isn’t that old, you ask? Isn’t it hard to understand? Forthwith, my reasons for liking the venerable King James Version:
1) The King James Version makes you work harder — which is a good thing. When you have to work at understanding what you read, it tends to stick in your head better. That’s why I can remember things I read for Latin classes in the past, or for translating work I’ve done out of the Bible — I had to rack my brains over it in order for it to make some coherent sense. The King James Version does the same thing for its readers, although not to that same extent (depending on one’s reading level, of course.) Familiar passages from the NIV come alive with a twist of phrase that you’re not used to hearing, or when you have to go back and look twice at the words in order to make sure you really know what it’s saying. This is kind of annoying when you’re doing any other kind of reading, but it is actually beneficial when you’re reading the Bible. It forces you to slow down, take your time, consider, think, ponder — all good things that our fast-paced, hyper-productive society is allergic to. When you have to work at it, you retain the information better. It’s often more memorable then, too, because once you’ve sweated it over and it’s in your head, it has a lot better chance of staying there than if you didn’t have to work at it.
Interestingly, one of the selling points of many modern translations — their ease of comprehension through their modern, simple language — can be considered a drawback when viewed from this angle. Sure, you may get reading easier and quicker with the Message (which isn’t even really a translation, it’s Eugene Peterson’s opinions of what God said) or the NLT, say, but how long will you keep reading before you get bored, put it down, and walk away? I submit that that’s the problem with a lot of people’s personal Bible reading and they don’t even know it. The NIV is another one I would put in that same category. Admittedly it’s difficult to find a translation that covers all the bases (serious scholarly work, catechism instruction, adult learning, and Sunday school, to name a few) and can be understood by the widest variety of people, but sometimes the choices you make can pay off (or not) in ways you hadn’t anticipated.
2) The King James Version has wonderful language. The KJV has often been lauded for its poetic quality. One commentator praised its “fine roll of Bible English.” It just sounds right. Part of the reason for that is that the original translators of the King James Version worked out loud. They each did their work, brought it to the whole group, and then read it out loud as the other scholars compared it with other versions. They then revised and improved based, in part, on what they heard. The ear will often catch things that the eye will not. This ties in with the fact that Bible was originally meant to be read aloud and primarily heard — not read in silence out of a book on your lap. For many people, the King James Version just sounds like Scripture should sound. The sound of the King James Version is the Bible, for them. Give me enough time, and I might become one of them.
Part of the reason for the King James’ wonderful language is that it’s often closer to the Greek and Hebrew originals than many modern translations. The KJV translators preserved many ancient idioms and phrases in their translation, which can be a two-edged sword. Sometimes it makes the text sound awkward or stilted. But at other times — and especially moreso as you become used to the language — they communicate the thoughts and the wording of the original with clarity and overwhelming force. As you read the King James more, the awkward and stilted parts seem to recede, and the beauty of the language begins to come to the fore. You begin to appreciate the melodious, powerful words themselves and you don’t think so much, “This seems weird or old.”
Because it’s so close to the originals, the KJV is a reliable translation for those who translate the Bible into English for themselves, or as part of pastoral or scholarly pursuits. You can rely on it to be telling you with the same words in the same order what a particular passage says in the original. A lot of modern translations aren’t like that. They might get the basic thought across — but how much of your thoughts is shaped by the words you use (or leave out)? I’d rather have the translation give me the words God gave and let me sort out any difficult or obscure words and phrases on my own, rather than deciding for me what a passage means (or, what’s far worse, doing violence to a passage by straining to import an interpretation foreign to the true sense of the passage, and to the rest of Scripture’s doctrine.) No translation is perfect, but I’ve found that the King James, while certainly not perfect (or inspired by God, as some misguided souls claim), manages to avoid a lot of pitfalls that many newer translations get swallowed up by.
3) The King James Version is foundational to the English language. There are two main influences on the development of the modern English language: Shakespeare and the King James Version — and the King James Version wins hands down in my mind, because there are people who never gave a fig for Shakespeare yet knew and loved their King James Bibles, or who never read or heard Shakespeare yet heard or read the King James at pivotal moments of deep personal significance in their lives — marriages, births, deaths, and so on. Shakespeare gave us lots of words and phrases, but the King James Version did more by helping to shape the very structure and sound of our language. There has never been anything to compare with it in terms of effect on the English language, and there never will be again. The Internet might (I say might) come close, but it’s still debated exactly what effect, if any, the Internet is going to have on our language.
4) We owe it to those who went before us. Part of the reason for at least becoming familiar with the King James, in my mind, is because of the multitudes now gone who used it. Not only to help us understand what they thought and felt when we read the same words they did and experience the same text, but the Bible they used shaped their thoughts, their devotion — their whole inner life. It informed the art and the literature they produced. People who knew only the King James as their Bible naturally drew much of their vocabulary, their phrasing and cadences, and the imagery they used from it. In many cases it supplied the raw material for what they created. The King James Version was the standard Bible for over 300 years. Don’t you think that would have an effect on what people wrote and created? We miss out on so much in art and literature, especially, if we do not know the King James Version, or even the Bible at all. Many of today’s students (and professors) have been robbed of more fully experiencing the literature they study and dissect by the cherished liberalism and rationalism that they are indoctrinated with — a sad irony. Come to think of it, we owe it not so much to the believers of the past, but ourselves, to be at least passing familiar with the King James.
I probably won’t ever preach or teach out of the King James Version extensively — if at all. That’s okay. I understand the world has changed and most people haven’t been equipped by their educations to handle it, nor do they have the time, energy, or desire to put in the work to become familiar with the King James, whether for the first time or again. But the value is still there. For those who are willing to work with it, I highly recommend it. The luster of its beauty and the stirring power of its language are undimmed by the passage of time. Even such an “old” sounding version as the King James can still have still have a big impact in our fast-paced, superficial, ADD-addled world. For those who are interested in the King James but who feel intimidated & aren’t sure where to begin, I recommend the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible. You can also investigate ordering one here. Cambridge is to be commended for making this classic of classics, the KJV, more accessible for people.
Anybody reading the KJV? Anybody love the KJV or puzzled by it? Let me know!