ESV, NIV, NLT, NASB: It’s Time to Retire King James!

king james

No, I’m not talking about LeBron James. I really have no opinion on basketball players and team rosters.

When it comes to Bible issues, though, I tend to be very opinionated!

And, quite simply, it’s time to fire King James.

I know that this issue tends to be very heated among some Christians. Some live and die by their King James Version (KJV). Before you get out your pitchforks and torches, let me give a caveat:

Ultimately, I believe that you should use whatever Bible version you will actually read and apply to your life. God cares more about that than he cares about the translation you use. From my own childhood I have also memorized verses from the KJV and I have difficulty thinking about those verses in any other way than the version I memorized.

Having said that, let’s talk about the KJV as opposed to other versions in two specific areas.

The Text:

In a nutshell, since there were no copy machines in the ancient world, all Bibles were copied by hand. It was quite laborious, the the human factor involved in copying meant that human goofs eventually worked their way in to the text. Sometimes a copy would accidentally add or omit a word, phrase or sentence. Sometimes a copy accidentally repeated an entire line of text. Sometimes one scribe’s marginal notes were accidentally written into the text by another scribe.

All said and done, there is a process by which men and women familiar with the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek (the languages of the Bible) sift through all of the manuscripts and work their way back to the form closest to the original text of the Bible. Along the way of the thousands of copies that exist we start to see trends and we can group the different manuscripts into textual “families.” The KJV is based on one of these families.

There is a school of thought that says the family upon which the KJV is based is not the oldest and most authentic family – that other manuscripts reflect an older and closer-to-the-original tradition. Those of us who hold to this school of thought prefer to use Bibles based on examining multiple manuscripts rather than a single family. Such Bibles are “eclectic” and are represented by the ESV, NIV, NLT, NASB, and many other fine translations.

The Translation and Language:

There are several areas to consider when looking at the KJV versus other versions.

  • Word count: I have heard KVJ advocates blast “corrupt versions” for not having nearly the same word count as the KJV. The idea is that the KJV is closer in word count to the original languages. But this is a false dilemma. There is no translation of any work that has identical word count to the original language. Anyone who has studied a foreign language understands this simple fact. There is ALWAYS something a little different when you translate from one language to another.

Thus we hold that the original manuscripts, those originally penned by the original authors, are the inspired Bible and Word of God. All other translations are faithful attempts at taking those ancient languages and transporting them to other languages, but the KJV is a translation just like any other. The originals are superior to any translation.

  • Out of date language: The KJV uses vocabulary, grammar, and syntax that are simply out of date. Because language is fluid and ever-changing, the way we spoke 400 years ago is radically different from how we speak today. Some words have fallen out of use. Some words have actually CHANGED meanings in the last 400 years. For a silly example, the KJV regularly uses words like ass and piss. One of my favorite KJV jokes is:

Q: Who is the stretchiest man in the Bible?
A: Abraham, because he tied his ass to a tree and walked up a mountain.

It’s not foul – it’s biblical…if you’re reading the King James Version. While I want my kids reading the Bible, I don’t really want them running around using Bible words that now have different meanings and usage.

One of the founders of the Reformation movement that broke away from the Catholic Church and birthed the Protestant movement (Lutherans, Baptists, Charismatics, etc.) was Martin Luther. In his lifetime, the Bible was only for use by the trained clergy because it was only available in Latin. Only priests could read it! He was a big believer that all people should have the Bible accessible in their own native language. Thus he began work to translate the Bible from Latin into his native German.

17th century English is not the native language of 21st century English speakers. In the spirit of the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther, Christians should be leading the way in making sure contemporary people have a Bible accessible to them in their own language and vernacular. It is possible to retain the meaning of the original text while making the vocabulary and style contemporary. There are several versions that accomplish this well.

I want to end by reiterating this important point:

The best Bible for you to use is the one you will actually read and apply to your life.

If that’s the KJV for you – more power to you! If it’s not, there’s nothing wrong with other translations.

God’s Word has been impacting people’s lives for thousands of years – even before the King James Version was around. It will continue to impact lives long into the future, even when our contemporary versions become the outdated versions.

Photo by Ian Via Flickr

Chaplain Chris Linzey
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Comments 2
  1. Nice article. The last few weeks I have been working on my lesson plans and came across problems in the new version Bibles, that originated from the Kings James. As an Old Testament guy, I work in the Hebrew text and find problems in the English Translations in how the verses are numbered and the misuse of terms. For example, Genesis 50:17 says that Joseph can forgive sin (חטא), yet as you know and I know we can only forgive the iniquity and transgression of others. Only God can blot out sin(the act). One thing I teach my students is to look deeper into the text. Use things like to find the deeper meaning. My favorite Bible is Die Bibel nach Martin Luther. Older than the King James and numerically correct.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! Misuse of terms is a big one when teaching people how to read an ancient text in a modern setting. 🙂

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