As a Pastor I’m often asked about which Bible translation is the best. I’ve written about this in the past but I wanted to update and add to a lot of what has been said to give you a more well rounded look at this particular subject.
The battle over Bible translations is as hot as ever, and if your priority is to win friends and influence people, then it is certainly a topic you want to avoid. This message is sure to offend, especially since there are such strong convictions on both sides. If you’re the type that highlights emotion, tradition, or convenience over common sense and truth then you may want to stop reading now (don’t say I didn’t warn you).
Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!
In one corner, weighing in at over 400 years, we have the narrow-minded “King James Only” mob. In the other corner, carrying a heaping hippy dose of love and acceptance are the empty-headed “any easy-to-read translation will do” crowd. These are, of course, inaccurate caricatures of those with deeply held beliefs on both sides, but they are also an accurate characterization of how each side often views their opposition.
While mere mortals sully themselves in gullies parallel to one another, the truth is often careening down the road between them. Those who still cling to the “King James Only” dogma are becoming extinct as a generation arises defined by a society that equates the “best” with the “newest” or the “easiest.” But have we done the right thing? In a greedy rush for ease and acceptance, has our goal of streamlining God’s holy Word paid off?
The Barna Research Institute conducted a survey of self-pronounced Christians titled, “The State of the Church in 2002” and here’s what they found out about their knowledge of the Bible.
48% could not name the four Gospels.
52% could not identify more than two or three of Jesus’ disciples.
60% of American Christians can’t name five of the Ten Commandments.
61% of American Christians think the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham!
71% of American Christians think that “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse.
In this same report George Barna stated, “Americans revere the Bible, but by and large they don’t know what it says. And because they don’t know it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.” He’s right. It is time to ask if our efforts to simplify scripture have improved Biblical literacy in our society or damaged it.
KJV, NLT, NIV, L, M, N, O, P . . .
How do the newer, more popular translations of scripture like the ESV (English Standard Version), NLT (New Living Translation), and the NIV (New International Version) stand up to the KJV? First, we need to understand the difference between a word-for-word translation (formal equivalence) and a thought-for-thought translation (dynamic equivalence).
Word-for-Word Translation: A translation of the Bible that attempts to match each individual word of the original text with the closest English equivalent. Some examples include the KJV, NKJV, NASB, AMP, and MEV.
Thought-for-Thought Translation: A translation of the Bible that attempts to match the ideas behind each phrase with a similar idea in English. Some examples include the NIV, NLT, and The Message.
It must be stated that there is a place for all well-done translations even if there are some inaccuracies, as long as we understand those inaccuracies and know exactly what we’re reading. If you have kids, you probably have fond memories of reading Bible stories to them from a children’s Bible. I know I do. It’s fun to introduce our children to the Bible through those bright pictures on thick pages.
When reading these children’s stories, Christian parents don’t generally stand up and cry, “Heresy!” due to a bad translation in a “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” coloring book. Why? Because they know that what they’re reading isn’t meant to be that child’s primary source of biblical knowledge for the rest of their life. It is simply an aid to help them understand the story. We don’t throw out these books for being slightly inaccurate or for not mentioning certain verses.
In a similar fashion, I believe that the NIV, NLT, and other thought-for-thought interpretations have been great supports. I personally use them in my own studies and sermons from time to time. I say all of this so that you’ll understand that I am not in the “KJV Only” crowd. However, I would like to start a new faction in this debate called the “KJV Primary” pack. The “KJV Primary” pack appreciates and uses many translations, but they also understand the superior nature of the KJV (along with other word-for-word translations that use the proper manuscripts) and therefore make it their preferred Bible.
We’ve had many great translations arise throughout the years, but the King James is still the gold standard.
It’s also important to understand which manuscripts each Bible translation uses. There are basically two families of manuscripts. One comes from Antioch, Syria and the other comes from Alexandria, Egypt. The Antioch manuscripts are called the, “Textus Receptus” or the received text. This is what the KJV is based on. It is also known as the majority text because of the thousands of manuscripts that confirm its authenticity and accuracy. The Alexandrian manuscripts, on the other hand, have far fewer manuscripts and many more contradictions among them. The Alexandrian manuscripts (which the NIV, NLT, ESV, etc. are based on) have gained popularity because they appear to be older and the assumption is that older is better. However, proponents of these versions conveniently forget that Alexandria, at the time, was a hot bed of Christian cultic practices and beliefs.
In many of the modern versions of the Bible you’ll notice a constant questioning of the validity of the verses you’re reading if they don’t remove them all together. This is because they are using the Alexandrian manuscripts which alter or eliminate entire portions of scripture. I may be the only one but I don’t want a Bible that’s constantly questioning, “Hath God said?” (Gen. 3:1) but that’s exactly what many of these versions do on every other page. This is how a version claiming to be a “Word-for-Word” translation can still be a bad choice as your primary Bible because a good “Word-for-Word” translation of the wrong manuscripts makes for a bad Bible.
Why the KJV Is the Gold Standard of Bible Translations
- The Missing Verses
For those who would argue for the superiority of the ESV, NIV or the NLT, I would encourage you to turn in your Bibles to John 5:4. . . . Go ahead, I’ll give you some time . . . still looking? How about Acts 8:37 or Mark 11:26 . . . having trouble? That’s because if you’re using the ESV, NIV or the NLT, those verses have been omitted along with dozens of others. I know this may come as a shock to some, so if you need to take a break from reading this to breathe into a paper bag, I understand.
“How could they do such a thing?” you might ask. The translators of these versions believed that those verses were not included in the original Hebrew or Greek manuscripts, for reasons mentioned above, and thus elected to leave them out of their translations.”
The proponents of these versions say nothing major was deleted and that none of the omissions or changes are in any way crucial to the theme and doctrines of the Bible. Is this true? In most places this probably is true however in others it’s questionable but you be the judge.
KJV: There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
NLT: So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.
ESV: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Is it important for believers to understand that they carry some responsibility to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh? This is an inescapable issue when reading from a thought-for-thought translation. Though they can be very helpful in understanding some passages, it’s important to note that a thought-for-though translation may be more easily affected by the translators biases than a word-for-word translation.
KJV: And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.
NLT: Jesus replied, “This kind can be cast out only by prayer.”
ESV: And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
The disciples in this instance had been praying but what were they missing? Prayer AND Fasting… and if you use these modern versions as your primary Bible, you’d be missing it too! There are hundreds of verses that have been deleted or translated in such a way that their entire meaning has changed. Does this mean we should cry, “Heresy!” and have an old-fashioned Fahrenheit 451 book burning party? Absolutely not. In many cases, these translations provide unmatched scholarship and wonderful insight. These translations/interpretations can be a great blessing, but I often wonder, why would anyone want to use, as their primary Bible, a book with missing or changed verses?
- The KJV Myth
“Why would anyone want to use a Bible with missing verses as their primary text?” Allow me to take a shot at answering my own question: because it’s easier to read! It’s amazing what we are willing to sacrifice for ease and simplicity.
The big myth of the KJV Bible is that it was good for its day, but now we have no use for thee, thou, thy, and thine. We believe that this outdated language makes the Bible unnecessarily difficult to read and understand. We assume that this is how they spoke back then and say that we need something written in our own modern language. The reality is that this language was as far removed from those in the 1600s as the KJV is to us today.
When the KJV was written it had been nearly 400 years since folks used ye, thee, thou, thy, and thine in regular conversation. Why did the translators forgo the idea of writing in the modern vernacular of their own day? Why did they decide to step back into the Dark Ages and find this antiquated style of writing? Was it merely an attempt to sound poetic as some believe? Nay, and again I say, nay! The translators of the KJV weren’t as concerned with beauty as they were with accuracy. They weren’t perfect (only the originals maintain that title), but their work speaks for itself.
Why Dost Thou Talkest So Strangely?
Today, many mock the KJV, saying, “God doesn’t talk in thees and thous!” A little-known fact about the modern English language is that it is the only language that doesn’t identify singular or plural forms of you. The best we can do is say, “Hey, you over there!” and even with that we don’t know if we’re talking to the group or just one person. This has caused modern English to lose its exactness. In fact, this is something we lost long before the KJV came along. However, the KJV translators revived the use of ye, thee, thou, and the like because of their precision and meticulousness. The original languages the Bible was translated from were so complex and beautiful that they make English look makeshift and rudimentary. The translators needed some help communicating this eternal truth with exactitude.
What does all of that mean? It means that, ye, thou, thee, and thine have a vital purpose that gets completely lost in modern translations.
Here’s a quick lesson:
Thou, thee, and thine communicate a singular you.
Ye, you, and your communicate a plural you.
A great example can be found in Isaiah 7:14 when this messianic prophecy was given: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (emphasis added).
Some expositors, without an understanding of this ye and thou principal, have argued that the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 concerning a virgin birth was given to Isaiah personally and that the reference to the Messiah’s birth is only a secondary shadow. However, when you know that in the KJV you is plural, then you can easily see how this was a prophecy given to the entire nation.
In Luke 22:31-32 Jesus says, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (emphasis added). Now you can see that Satan’s desire was to attack all of the disciples (you), but Jesus prayed for Peter specifically (thy and thee) as He does for each of His disciples.
In John 3:7 we see another great example of why this is important when Jesus is answering Nicodemus: “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again” (emphasis added). Other modern translations would miss that this truth was not just for Nicodemus, but the KJV tells us, “Marvel not that I said unto thee (singular—Nicodemus), Ye (plural—the whole wide world) must be born again.”
This may seem like nitpicking, but when you’re dealing with hundreds of verses it can make a significant difference. Even the words that end with -est or -st show us when the text is referring to the second- or the third-person point of view. We won’t dive into these gems here, but you can certainly find a wealth of resources online.
It is remarkable that all of the things that we seem to dislike about the KJV are actually what has set it apart and add to its value as a translation. Though there are certainly other great word-for-word translations (like the NASB), the KJV is in a class all by itself.
- I Need an Interpreter!
“But Pastor Alan, the KJV is so challenging to read!” Not really. I think most of the struggle we have comes from the expectation of difficulty. Christians from the 1600s all the way up into the twentieth century loved the KJV even though its language was as foreign to them as it is to us. They didn’t feel the need to make the Bible sound like their favorite magazine, because it’s the Bible!
Newer and easier isn’t always better. The KJV is actually written on an eighth to tenth grade level according to one computer analysis made by Dr. Donald Waite who is a Baptist scholar that has studied this very issue since 1971. The analysis also found that while Shakespeare used around 37,000 words in the English language, the KJV only uses 8,000. My children have been able to read and understand the KJV from a very young age. What’s your excuse? (You were warned!)
A survey titled, “The State of the Bible, 2013” conducted by the Barna Group on behalf of the American Bible Society actually showed that, even today, the KJV is the most-read Bible, five to one. If it is so difficult to read, why are more teenagers reading the KJV than any other translation? The answer is that people are capable of rising to any worthwhile challenge.
Bring It Down to My Level
How about instead of suggesting that our preachers dumb down the Word of God, we demand that our members rise up to God’s standard? We really don’t need a new and easier-to-read translation; what we need is to renew our study of the exceptional ones we have.
Leland Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College stated;
“An English Bible translation should strive for maximum readability only within the parameters of accurately expressing what the original actually says, including the difficulty inherent in the original text. The crucial question that should govern translation is what the original authors actually wrote, not our speculations over how they would express themselves today or how we would express the content of the Bible.”
We’re lowering educational standards and then praising higher test scores. If the average Christian is less committed or knowledgeable than they should be, it is the job of the Church to educate and empower them, not to keep them supplied with a steady stream of easy reading matierials. Let’s raise people up so that they can enjoy the Bible in its full richness using all of the good translations we have at our disposal.
In Leland Ryken’s book, “The Word of God in English” he also said,
“The Bible is not a first grade primer. It is God’s book. It is a book that must be diligently read. It is only by ‘searching the Scriptures’ that we find what pertains to life and death. It tells of creation, of the mighty universe, of the future or the past, of the Mighty God and His wonders, of the Holy Spirit’s ministry among Christians, of the Son of God’s great sacrifice for sin, of home in Heaven for the believer, and of a fiery hell for the unsaved. How dare we assume that His Word can be capsulated in a comic book or a version that reads like the morning newspaper. Some people say they like a particular version because ‘it’s more readable.’ Now, readability is one thing, but does the readability conform to what’s in the original Greek and Hebrew language? You can have a lot of readability, but if it doesn’t match up with what God has said, it’s of no profit.”
There are many great versions out there that can be used for a variety of different reasons but for your primary Bible I would say that if you get a Word-for-Word translation based on the “Textus Receptus” you can’t go wrong!
“O give me that Book! At any price, give me the Book of God!”
For more on this subject, check out this message by Pastor Alan DiDio titled, “True Inspiration.”