Why don’t we use the KJV?

I. How English has changed.
WHY DON’T WE USE THE KJV? – A series of articles on English translations of the Bible

By Ronald Nugent


Recently a student attending All Nations Presbyterian Church asked me this question: “There are some Christians who claim that the King James Version is the most accurate translation of the Bible and as Christians it is our responsibility to use the most accurate translation to study God’s Word. Therefore, using any other Bible aside from the King James Version is wrong because we are not actively seeking God’s perfect word. It’s not true, is it?”

There is no denying the greatness of the King James Version. It is arguably the greatest work ever published in the English language. It has not only shaped English faith and worship but also the English language. It has inspired poets and playwrights and even politicians. As Alister McGrath has noted: “Without the King James Bible there would have been no Paradise Lost , no Pilgrim’s Progress , no Handel’s Messiah , no Negro spirituals and no Gettysburg Address.”

While the King James Version began as the Bible of the Establishment it soon became the Bible of the people. Many of its phrases have become commonplace. “To lick the dust”, “to fall flat on his face”, “to pour out one’s hear”, “to stand in awe”, “a man after his own heart”, “the land of the living”, and “the skin of my teeth” are some of the many Hebrew idioms that have crept into English through the King James Version. Albert Cook, Professor of English at Yale University in the 1920s, wrote: “No other book has so penetrated the hearts and speech of the English race as has the Bible. What Homer was to the Greeks, and the Koran to the Arabs . . . the Bible has become to the English.” The Bible to which he referred was the King James Version.

The King James Version (KJV) was first published in 1611 and for the next three hundred and fifty years was the Bible of the English speaking world. Other translations were produced but, until the publication of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) in the 1950s, if someone read a Bible in English, it was almost certainly the King James Version that he or she read. And until the latter part of the twentieth century it was always the KJV that people would hear being read when they attended a church service. Indeed, in England it is commonly called the Authorized Version (AV) because it was the only version authorized to be read in the Church of England.

It is called the King James Version after King James I of England , who in 1604 convened a conference at Hampton Court to discuss the differing views of rival parties in the Church of England. The Hampton Court Conference recommended to the King “that a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this to be set out and printed, without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all churches of England in time of divine service.” The motion pleased the King, so a panel of fifty-four leading classical and oriental scholars was appointed to produce the new translation, which in time became known as the KJV.

The first Bible I ever owned was a KJV with a black leather cover given to me on my fourteenth birthday by my grandfather. I soon fell in love with it, fascinated by its stories and enchanted by its language. To this day it remains my favourite Bible. Many older people have a similar sentimental attachment to the KJV. It was the Bible we grew up with. We love its elegant yet simple wording and beautiful cadences. There are some today who prefer to use the KJV because it is the version that they have always used and it is the Bible with which they are most familiar. With such people I have much sympathy.

However, there are other users of the KJV with whom I have little sympathy. They are those who claim that it is the best translation ever made of the Bible into English and that all later translations are inferior and not to be trusted. Is the KJV really the most accurate translation available today and still the best Bible for use in personal study and corporate worship? I believe that the answer to this question is “NO”. I believe that it is a good version, but I do not believe that it is the best or the most reliable. I have two reasons for saying this.

First, the English language has changed over the last four hundred years so that the KJV has become unintelligible to many of today’s generation. Indeed, some changes in the meaning of words have made it not only unintelligible but even inaccurate. Secondly , many more ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of biblical books have been discovered over the last four hundred years, so that the KJV is no longer based upon the earliest or the best available manuscripts. In this article will look at the first reason, and in subsequent articles we will look at the second.

The first reason that the KJV is no longer the best English version of the Bible is that our language has gone through much change since it was first published . Some words that were in common use in 1611 are seldom or never used today. This means that some words and passages in the KJV are quite unintelligible to modern readers. Which of these words do you know the meaning of: almug, chode, chapt, habergeon, hosen, kab, ligure, neesed, ouches, pilled, pruit, ring-sacked, stacte, strake, tatches, trode, trow, wimples, and wot? All are words used in the KJV. If I am in a mischievous mood, I like to ask advocates of the KJV if they can tell me the meaning of we do you to wit . You will find this expression at 2 Corinthians 8:1 and it means “we want you to know.”

While some words have fallen out of use, other words have taken different meanings from what they had in the seventeenth century. For example, here are some passages as translated in the KJV of 1611 and the English Standard Version (ESV) of 2001.

And Jacob sod pottage (Genesis 25:29, KJV).
Jacob was cooking stew (Genesis 25:29, ESV).
In modern English the word sod is a noun and refers to a piece of turf; in the seventeenth century sod was the past tense of the verb seethe meaning to boil or cook.

They fetched a compass of seven days’ journey (2 Kings 3:9, KJV).
They made a circuitous march of seven days (2 Kings 3:9, ESV).
In our day the word compass is usually a noun and refers to an instrument for determining direction; in King James’s day compass was usually a verb meaning to go around or make a circuit.

Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing (Psalm 5:6, KJV).
You destroy those who speak lies (Psalm 5:6, ESV).
Today to lease is to provide a property for rental; at the time the KJV was translated to lease meant to be loose with the truth, that is, to tell lies.

The snares of death prevented me (Psalm 18:5, KJV).
The snares of death confronted me (Psalm 18:5, ESV).
In the morning shall my prayer prevent thee (Psalm 88:13, KJV).
In the morning my prayer comes before you (Psalm 88:13, ESV).
In modern English to prevent means to hinder or stop a person doing something; four hundred years ago to prevent meant to precede or go before, with no thought of hindrance.

Ye have heard of my conversation in time past (Galatians 1:13 , KJV).
You have heard of my former life (Galatians 1:13 , ESV).
Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles (1 Peter 2:12 , KJV).
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable (1 Peter 2:12 , ESV).
In today’s English the word conversation refers to an informal exchange of thought by spoken words; in the seventeenth century conversation referred to a person’s behaviour or manner of life. These are but a few of many similar examples that I could give; their number is legion.

When the Bible was written it was written in the language of the people and when it is translated it should be translated into the language of the people. Now this is a serious matter, as was recognized by the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith:

The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old) and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time it was written was the language most generally known to the nations), being directly inspired by God and by his unique care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authoritative, so that in all controversies of religion the church is finally to appeal to them. But, because these original languages are not understood by all the people of God, who have a right to, and a vital interest in, the Scriptures and are commanded to read and search them in the fear of God, therefore the Scriptures are to be translated into the common language of every nation to which they come ; so that, the Word of God dwelling abundantly in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner and by perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures may have hope. ( The Westminster Confession of Faith: Modern English Study Version , 1.8, my italics).

It is a simple fact that the English of the KJV is not the “common language” of English speakers today. Those who insist that we use only the KJV are denying us the word of God in our native tongue. The KJV was translated into the English of 1611, not into the English of 2005. In the seventeenth century it was easily understood by most people, but it is not so readily understood today. The question to ask is not “Is the language beautiful?” but “Is the language understandable to the reader?” and “Is the language faithful to the original?” Four hundred years ago the answer to these questions was “Yes” but today the answer is “No, not always.”

The English of the KJV is beautiful but it is also obsolete. Because its English is no longer used by ordinary people, it no longer gives the meaning of the ancient writers and it no longer speaks to modern readers. It is neither accurate nor intelligible. As much as we might love the KJV as a monument of the English language, as much as we might delight in its cadences and its beauty, and as much as we might find comfort and strength in its familiar turns of phrase, we must also recognize that it is not an adequate translation for the twenty-first century.
Copyright © Ronald G. Nugent 2005