(See last week’s post for an introduction to this topic)
Let’s start with the venerable King James Bible. First published in 1611, this version claims the title of most printed book ever. Even though it is more than 400 years old, it is still retained and used by many Christians.
The reasons behind this retention vary from sensible and practical to just plain silly. First of all, due to its age there is a strong tradition and legacy accompanying the KJV. Since it was so widely accepted for so long, many secondary resources (e.g. commentaries, devotionals, references) of years gone by exclusively used the KJV, and many of these same resources are still in use, further increasing exposure to the KJV and encouraging its use. On top of this legacy, the KJV enjoys a particular advantage with regard to contemporary publications that cite or quote the Bible: unlike all other mainstream translations, the KJV is in the public domain (at least outside the UK), and so the decision to use it rather than a modern translation greatly simplifies copyright and permissions issues. Authors and publishers who lack the resources (or the stomach) to wade into these legal questions have a simple, easy out—use the KJV, and don’t worry about it!
Another reason has nothing to do with the age of the translation, but deals instead with its textual basis (and thus, indirectly, it deals with the age of the manuscripts from which it was translated). This issue is mostly confined to the New Testament, and so that’s where we’ll focus, but it applies to a lesser extent to the Old Testament as well. The KJV NT was translated from the Textus Receptus, which is based on the Byzantine text-type, and at the time was generally considered to be the official Greek New Testament. Since then, many older manuscripts (MSS) have been discovered, and the TR has been largely abandoned in favor of more modern critical editions; however, many proponents of the KJV argue that the TR really is a better source. The story proposed goes something like this: poorly copied (i.e. error-laden) MSS in Europe in ancient times and late antiquity were quickly discovered to be flawed, and case aside; these therefore survived due to simple disuse and were eventually discovered by scholars over the past few centuries, who unwittingly added these acknowledged mistakes to their critical apparatus. At the same time, so the story goes, the better MSS were being used until they wore out and fell apart, and so have not survived materially—but they have survived in the faithful copies made from them among the churches of Europe, and they eventually came down to us as the Textus Receptus. Concurrently, it is posited that the flawed scribal processes of the Alexandrian scholars created a textual tradition among Egyptian Christians that reinforced a corrupt NT. The Alexandrian text and ancient MS apparatus form the basis of practically all modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament, and therefore of practically all modern Bible translations. So, if this is all true, these modern Bibles are also corrupt, while the KJV is the only translation in English that rests on a pure, trustworthy textual basis.
Another oft-cited reason for preferring the KJV has to do with the English dialect it uses. To many, it simply sounds more holy, or godly, or reverent than newer translations, which are taken to make the word of God sound like a common thing. Ironically, the text of the KJV was crafted in deliberate opposition to this ideal—it was not written in a lofty, flowery manner as the social elite of 17th-century England spoke, but as the commoners spoke! The preference today is understandable, but not rooted in reality, I’m afraid. It’s purely sensual, not rational. (The same misconception, by the way, applies to the language of Shakespeare, most of whose works were produced or published within just a few years of the KJV in 1611.)
Stepping further down on the scale of rationality, we encounter simple prejudices about newer translations. Instead of seeing divergences as possible corrections of faulty interpretation or translation, they see them as attempts to water down, or viciously alter God’s word, or at least to give it some particular slant which God didn’t intend. This opinion first of all neglects that the translators of the KJV were just as likely as anyone to have had these very goals when doing their work, but I’ll leave that point aside. The sentiment is also fostered by a trend among newer translations of omitting words, phrases, or even full sentences that appear in the KJV. Therefore, to someone who uses the KJV as a touchstone, it seems that the new translators are attempting to censor God’s word! Of course, the reason for these omissions is that the text in question does not appear in earlier MSS, and these instances are frequently explained as a marginal note making its way into the text, or an attempt by a scribe to “fix” a supposed error and supply something missing. It’s tough, however, for the average Bible student to see this perspective, and so the prejudice remains. (Examples include Mt 17.21, Jn 5.3-4, Ac 8.37, 1Jn 5.7-8)
Finally, there are some who espouse the KJV without bothering to truly consider the question, and allow their ideas to descend into goofy conspiracy theories and vitriolic put-downs for any who disagree. An ironic point about some of these is in their mistaken impression that the KJV is the “original” English Bible, and needs no improvement. There were, in fact, several English Bibles prior to 1611, including the Douay-Rheims, the Geneva Bible, the Tyndale Bible, the Wycliffe Bible, and even portions in real Old English (the KJV is Early Modern English, contrary to the assumptions of some) from the 10th century or before! On top of this, in nearly every case the KJV apologists are not using the 1611 KJV, but a later revision. These were published in 1638, 1762, and 1769—the last of these being almost universally used today. If the KJV needed no improvement, then why are they using the 5th major revision?
Each of these reasons has its issues, but that’s not to say that the KJV is somehow useless—far from it! Tradition isn’t always a good thing, but neither is it always necessarily bad. The arguments for the Textus Receptus may not be the most logical, but at least there is a coherent argument, which can push both sides to further learning. An implicit prejudice against anything new is hardly constructive, but equally silly is to ignore anything that isn’t the latest and greatest.
In the end, the KJV is a perfectly good Bible. It’s certainly not the best; for someone new to the Bible, the language is a huge obstacle, and for a lifelong Christian the deficient textual basis and translation are significant obstacles. But for someone who has nothing else and wants to read the word of God, it is perfectly sufficient for the task at hand.