Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Celebrating the King James Version

Part 1
It's 2011, and some time this year I should post something to celebrate the fact that in 1611, the King James Version was published.  I love the magnificent KJV the way I like Shakespeare, and accordingly, believe it is generally an obstacle to the church's mission in the world.  It points toward a congregation that is more inwardly than outwardly focused.  It should thus be used sparingly at best within public worship today, especially when there are likely to be visitors among you (it's kind of like tongues in that regard--an obstacle to unbelievers in your midst).  I'm sure there are exceptions, but it's hard to think of them.

Small groups that aim at discipleship can certainly use it.  No problem there because the focus is more on personal growth rather than mission.  But even if most of the people in your church use it, the ideal would be to wean them off it in public worship in a gentle and slow manner, because churches are meant to impact their surrounding context, and the KJV is a major linguistic obstacle in our current day and age.  Move them to the NKJV (although don't cause a split over it--it's not worth that).

I know I must sound from time to time like I'm flippant about things that are very sensitive to others, but to have perspective on the ease with which I say such things you have to know that most of these things did not come easy to me at first.  I felt the horror with which some might read some of my comments the same as you might--it's just that I did it 25 years ago.  I preached and read from the KJV in college.  I reacted with the same protest as others when a revivalist once scolded a camp meeting for putting an obstacle to faith in front of their children with the KJV.  It's time that allows me to make such bald statements.

Most people don't understand how language works (I'm sure I don't either).  Words change meanings over time.  Old meanings fall out of the dictionary.  New meanings enter.  The KJV was never treated as a linguistic fossil to be maintained until the last century or so.  It was regularly updated until the late 1700s (the version you buy in the bookstore is not the 1611 version but a version that has already been updated about 5 times).  Those who think they understand the language of the KJV just fine probably don't--they don't know that the word that looks familiar actually does not mean the same thing that it did two hundred years ago when the KJV tradition fossilized (e.g., intercourse, conversation).

The KJV is thus a magnificent piece of art today.  It is not, however, a magnificent piece of communication to anyone but those who have been schooled in it like learning a different language.  It is thus a very bad tool to use with a view to the church's mission in the world.

Interestingly, the KJV was a compromise translation.  The Puritans used the Geneva Bible at the time, with its Calvinist study notes.  King James didn't like it because some of those notes were perceived to be anti-monarchy.  Meanwhile the Puritans eschewed the Bishop's Bible, believing that it did not have a strong enough reverence for the authority of the text.  The KJV was thus a compromise--a fairly "literal" translation using what was already slightly archaic language with no study notes.

It took about a century to catch on and I have heard some argue that that the Puritans who first came to America came as much with the Geneva Bible still as the KJV.

Part 2
There are other things I like about the KJV--things that are both strengths and weaknesses.  For example, it is a formal equivalence translation.  I personally like those sorts of translations (NASB, RSV, NKJV, ESV) because they come closest to giving you a window into the original wording and sentence structure.

It's important to recognize, however, that while this fact is nice for people who want to study the text in detail, such an orientation actually works against them being good translations as such.  A good translation renders the thought of the original sentence in fluid English.  If you have ever learned another language--especially one that is a little further removed from English than Spanish--then you know that different languages don't put words in the same order or in the same way.  The American Standard Version of the late 1800s was very "wooden" in trying to follow the original Greek and Hebrew--and it is one of the worst translations of all time.

Another strength of the KJV is that it follows the catholic text of the church of the ages.  No, I'm not being mischievous and pointing out that the original KJV included the Apocrypha (although it did ;-).  I mean that the text of the KJV basically reflects the words of the New Testament as Christians had read it for 1200 years.

Again, it is only because I have some 25 years of study behind me that I say with relative ease that this precise wording of the original texts (not talking about the way they are translated now but in what the precise words were in the original that you are translating in the first place), while completely appropriate for Christians to use in worship if they wish, is not at all likely to reflect the precise wording of the original text of the Bible at a few points.  This may require a little more explanation.  We do not have the original copy of any book of the Bible, only copies of copies of copies.  There are variations between what these copies say at various points, and one branch of biblical studies is dedicated to working through the variations to try to decide what the very first copy of, say, Mark actually said in Greek.

We are not talking about a lot of passages, only a few.  No one should get worried.  In fact, if you're that focused around the details of the biblical text, your faith is probably out of focus.  No one can lay any foundation but that which is laid: Jesus Christ... not the Bible!

But you should know as a preacher that it is very unlikely, for example, that Mark 16:8-20 was part of the original copy of Mark.  There's nothing incorrect in those verses.  I actually don't mind a person preaching from these verses because the church has preached from them for 1600 years.  But you should know that the overwhelming majority of those who know the issues involved do not believe they are original.

When you are first encountering these issues, they can seem significant, but no doctrine is lost with this small handful of variations.  And, if you know my theology, a lot of our theology has come as much from Christians reflecting on the text as on the original text itself anyway, and there's nothing wrong with that.  We have often been too focused on "getting back" rather than on how God brought us forward.

An educated pastor should know the key verses of this discussion.  The story of the woman caught in adultery could be historical, but it was not likely in the earliest versions of John.  1 John 5:7 almost certainly did not exist in its KJV form until the Latin translations of the 400s.  Acts 8:37 is not there because the verse divisions come from the 1550 Greek New Testament of Stephanus.  It's a great verse... just not at all likely original.  They wisely did not change the versification when printing modern versions so the verse now does not appear at all in modern translations.  There are others but these are the best known.

Can a case be made for the originality of these sorts of verses?  Sure. But know thyself.  Those who argue against such things are almost certainly oriented around whether it is possible to maintain what I grew up believing rather than around what is the most probable truth.  There is no question, however, that those who are willing to come to either conclusion have overwhelmingly come down on the side of almost all modern translations (as far as I know, the Holman Standard is the only exception outside the KJV tradition).

This may seem like a strange celebration of the KJV.  But we cannot celebrate it properly until we understand it.  It was a magnificent work of art and millions have heard and experienced God through it.  There's no other translation I'd rather hear the Christmas story from.  For many, it is still the best version for them to have their devotions in or for their small group to study from.  Long live the King James!


Martin LaBar said...

As usual, well said, and correctly so.

One advantage of the KJV is that it's easier to memorize using it -- the stranger a word or phrase, or a person's name, the easier it is to memorize it.


Stan said...

when I was growing up, the KJV was just about all we had. I remember sitting in Bible studies, spending more time trying to translate it into common English than applying it. I value the gift that it was to the church for so long (one authorized English version), but loath how it held (and is sill holding) so many churches back from being in mission. The Gospel was meant to be accessible and language should not be a barrier. Koine (common) Greek should teach us that.

Ken Schenck said...

Dr. LaBar, I agree that I find the KJV easier to memorize, although I've fascinatingly found that my memory has subconsciously replaced the thee's and thou's. ;-)

Stan, it seems so obvious to me now that use of the KJV in worship usually belies an inwardly rather than mission focused congregation. You also bring up an interesting point about the nature of the original language. While it is true that the loftiness of the KJV fits the grandeur of the Bible, the ancients made fun of the Greek of the NT as uncivilized, street level language befitting lower class people--not like the lofty literary Greek of a Thucydides or a Plutarch. The Bible was not meant to be worshiped in an inaccessible shrine but to communicate a message to common people.

Mr. Mcgranor said...