Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Revisiting the King James Version: A Personal Reflection on Its History and Relevance

Over a decade ago, in 2011, I attended an event at the American Bible Society (it was still located in New York City at the time) in commemoration of the publication of the Authorized Version. That's more commonly known in the United States as the King James Version (KJV). It was a good day, and I had a chance to chat with N.T. Wright, the Anglican theologian and New Testament scholar. While I agree that the publication of this version was a landmark event in Western religious history, I do think the text has outlived its usefulness. Not everyone agrees with that sentiment, by any means.

A number of years ago I knew a couple who believed that the KJV was God's translation in English. In other words, it was the closest we could get to the originals, and should be taken as God's own words. They aren't alone in this misconception, as there are many fundamental Baptists who hold the same ideas about this translation. When I pointed out to my friends that I was going to Brazil and the language there was Portuguese, they were stumped. They were so ethnocentric that they had no idea how to deal with the fact that most people on earth do not even speak English, let alone have the means to understand the archaic language of the KJV. 

Of course, more sophisticated but still mistaken lovers of the KJV insist that it is perfect (or nearly so) because it is based on the "received text." Unfortunately for them, that doesn't actually mean much. It's just a title was was given to describe the Greek text that Erasmus cobbled together centuries ago. It was another of those landmark publications in history, but let's not get carried away. Erasmus didn't have the complete book of Revelation available in Greek, so he translated from Latin back into Greek. That would be like translated the English of the King James back into ancient Greek. If you've every played around with Google Translate, you'll understand how a lot can get lost in that process. 

One solution to the archaic language of the King James Version is to update the words to something more contemporary. This was done in 1994 with the publication of the 21st Century King James Version. This version isn't a new translation. Instead, it's an updating of the text to modern English. Only the words which have changed in meaning were replaced. So for example, in Acts where Paul refers to his "carriage," it updates that to "luggage." For people who want to have their cake and eat it too, it's not a bad solution. 

It is a mistake to insist on using the King James Version. While it was right for its time, and served religious communities well for generations, language evolves. Further, while in its day the best available scholarship was used to make the translation, since 1611 things have progressed both in academia and in our access to ancient copies of Greek manuscripts. These are texts that for various reasons are more reliable than that used to make the KJV. If people can't understand a text, or if the understanding given to them is flawed or incomplete, then what good is it doing?

Still, I understand if someone loves the language and wants to use the KJV for themselves. Beyond that, though, in liturgies and scholarship, a more modern translation is needed. And there are many of those to choose from.