As you all no doubt have noticed, I preach from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV). This version is also sometimes referred to as the Authorized Version (AV), being authorized by King James I of England. This edition of the Bible came out in 1611, making the year 2011 its 400th birthday. I thought that this would be a suitable occasion for me to explain this particular pulpit oddity of mine. And if anyone does not pay attention to this explanation, what goeth on, he wots not.
“What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:1-2).
“But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
Summary of the Texts
In the Romans text, Paul mentions in passing that one of the privileges that the Jews had was that they had been entrusted with the oracles of God, very plainly referring to the Old Testament Scriptures. In the transition between the covenants, clearly the responsibility for the New Testament would not lie with unbelieving Israel, with the Israel that had rejected and crucified the Messiah. No, the covenant, and all attendant covenantal responsibilities, were transferred over to the Christian Church, the new Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). This church is the church of the living God, and is responsible to support the truth. This would naturally include the repository of all God’s revealed truth—the Scriptures.
Four Basic Issues
There are four basic issues when it comes to selection of a Bible translation, and we will consider each one of them in turn. The first is the one already alluded to—who is responsible for the task of guarding “the oracles of God”? Is the church, or some other entity? The second is which manuscripts are being translated. The third has to do with translation philosophy. And the fourth has to do with intelligibility for the modern reader.
As it currently stands, the decision to release a new translation of the Bible is a decision that is made between academics and businessmen. A corporation or business decides that the market will bear yet another translation, and they sign up experts in the original languages, usually men from the academy. The church is viewed as the target marketing demographic, and is not seen as an entity that has anything whatever to say about the translation or publication of a new Bible. The sure fire sign of this is the fact that new translations are all copyrighted. The KJV is in the public domain.
The earliest complete manuscripts belong to a different manuscript “family” than do the thousands of later manuscripts which are spread around the ancient world much more broadly, and which were in common use down to the invention of the printing press. Let us call the two basic families the Alexandrian and the Byzantine (sometimes called the textus receptus). The KJV is based on the Byzantine and almost all modern translations are based on the Alexandrian. When we consider it carefully, nothing is more apparent than that this is actually the “battle of the paradigms.” In some respects, this is very much like the reconstruction of the evolutionary fossil tree, 98 percent of which is missing. The Byzantine text type is a very broad river which we can trace to about a century after the narrow river called the Alexandrian.
Two of complete Alexandrian manuscripts are held up as the closest exemplars of what the NT autographs supposedly contained. But they differ between themselves in the Gospels over 3,000 times, and they are about 300 years after the autographs. To applaud them therefore as the “most reliable” means that reliability is an elastic term. This means scholars are not really submitting to the authority of the Alexandrian texts, but rather are using them to overthrow any idea of a settled textual authority. This gives them room to speculate in a scholarly way.
Dynamic or Formal
Suppose we agree on which manuscript family we translate from. There is still quite a bit of diversity possible. Translations can range from very strict, and formal, trying to reproduce the original wording as much as possible, or they can be very breezy. This debate is between the school of dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence. There is a spectrum on this of course, but here is a drastic example:
“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful” (Ps. 1:1, KJV).
“How well God must like you—you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon, you don’t slink along Dead-End Road, you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College” (Ps. 1:1, The Message)
Thees and Thous
This is the one place where the KJV lies at a disadvantage. There are many archaic words and expressions which are widely misunderstood. For example, we see many people, even today, who believe that thees and thous are pronouns for talking to God—as though they were spiritual talk. But thou is actually singular, while you is plural.
At the same time, for those who want to write ably and well, ignorance of the cadences of the KJV is no more reasonable than ignorance of Shakespeare.
So as you are choosing a Bible, I would recommend that you limit your choices to these. And I recommend you grade them accordingly.
Let’s look at four translations, and give each of them four grades, for responsibility, manuscript, translation, and readability respectively. The KJV would A, A, A, and C. The NKJV would get F, A, B, and A. The ESV would get F, C, B, and A. And the NASB would get F, C, B, and B.
At the same time, don’t fret about all this. Trust God in two respects. The first area is that if God providentially preserved His Word throughout all history, as the Westminster Confession puts it, He didn’t quit preserving it in our day. So don’t worry about the Bible. And secondly, trust God by actually reading your Bibles. This issue must not be an academic one for you—as in, what translation of the Bible is sitting untouched on your shelf?