Advice for The Church (Part 3 – Translation)

There is an epidemic happening in America, and it is clearly not a good thing. Morality is declining, societal issues are vastly changing, and it seems we are at a point of no return for decline in our nation.  A major reason for that decline is the attitude and actions of 80 million people, people born after 1980 of which 68 million claim a personal disbelief in Christianity.  The mentality of this generation is vastly different from any before it, and it continues to move further away from the “norm” that seemed to last for generations.

As we have seen over the last few posts, this generation is commonly referred to as the Millennial generation.  We have also seen that part of the reason why this generation is the most unchurched generation in history is in large part due to their disdain for tradition.  To them, because they have never lived without the internet and great advancements in technology, everything is new, fresh, up-to-date, and relevant.  The problem is that the doctrinally sound church has not followed suit.  They are still attempting to do many things that have been done for several generations, such as hymns, hundreds of year old translations, and even pews, traditional sanctuaries, and regular church services.  In my last post, I gave my opinion on how we should work to update our presentation from a music perspective and in this post, I would like to address the translation most commonly used by doctrinally sound churches…the King James Version.

Since 1611, the King James Version has been the most used, read, and purchased English translation of the Bible in the world.  It certainly is time tested and it certainly has great value…but many Christians have an incorrect perspective on its value and thus, because of tradition, have alienated a generation of people who could be reached if our perspectives change just a little.

For years, in several churches, it has been taught that the King James Version is the ONLY correct version of God’s Word and that all other translations are pagan, inaccurate, and not God’s true Word.  In all honesty, nothing can be further from the truth.  For starters, the King James Version is an English TRANSLATION.  The only true “God’s Word,” if we want to be intellectually honest, is the original writings of the 40+ authors of the Bible.  The problem with that is that we have none of those original writings…we merely have copies of them. Sure, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to those copies (more than 30,000 of the New Testament alone) but it needs to be understood that they are just copies. We also need to understand that NONE of them match perfectly when compared to the same section of another manuscript.  The vast majority of these discrepancies are scribal error, such as spelling and punctuation, but it still must be known that they exist.[1]  Having said that, unless you can read fluent Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic…you are reading a translation of the Bible.  Therefore, I return to my point that the King James Version is an ENGLISH translation.  What that means is that there is no King James in French, Spanish, or any other of the hundreds of languages on the earth today. With that said, to claim that the King James is the only “real” God’s Word is not only intellectually dishonest, but it makes the Bible illegitimate for a large portion of the earth.  It, in essence, says that unless you can read English, you are reading a pagan translation.

The King James Version came about in the early 1600’s when King James of England requested a common translation of the Bible for his people.  He got together the top university scholars at the time and in 1611, the Authorized Version (now known as the King James Version) was released.  It included the 66 books in the bible you use today as well as the Apocrypha, which is a collection of Jewish writings not recognized as Scripture by Protestants.  Also, two presses were used to make copies of it, so in 1611, there were 2 versions of the King James, the “he” version and the “she” version (based on the translation of Ruth 3:15).[2] Because of this, it was difficult from the beginning to determine which version the real Authorized Version was.  (Even today, there are two different versions of the King James, the Oxford Edition and the Cambridge Edition.  Turn in your KJV to Jeremiah 34:16.  Does it read, “whom he” or “whom ye?”  If it says “whom ye,” it is a Cambridge Edition and that one is correct!) Also, if you read a King James Version, it is not the 1611 edition.  Because of changes in the English language and editing factors, the KJV has undergone several major revisions (1629, 1638, 1729, 1762, 1769).  The 1769 revision is the one that is used today.[3]  In just 168 years, thousands of differences were found in the King James translation through these multiple revisions because of how much a language can change over time.  If that many revisions were made in 168 years, just imagine how many revisions are due today, 246 years after the last revision!

There are two major issues we now face with the KJV.  The first issue is one that is likely to be most argued, but I will state it because it is fact.  The text used to translate the KJV from is a much later text and is viewed by most modern scholars as inferior.[4]  This text is called the Textus Receptus or TR.  The TR is constructed from a few, very late manuscripts (10th through 12th centuries)[5] and was published within 100 years of the King James translation.[6]  In contrast, many of the more modern translations have texts that date in the Second Century, which is within 100 years of their original writing.[7] Another issue modern scholars have is that the TR has about 2,500 added words within the manuscripts, which means that the New Testament text had a 2% growth in the 1400 years between our earliest manuscripts and the publishing of the TR.[8]  This also does not consider any substitutions that occurred.[9]  Nevertheless, our discovery of much older and considerably more reliable manuscripts has been found since the completion of the King James.[10]

The second issue that is now faced by the KJV is a more practical one than the first, namely that the language is archaic and thus often either misleads or fails to communicate with the reader the meaning behind the original text.[11]  For example, in the King James, Philippians 1:27 reads, “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ…” This, to the modern reader, is misleading (though certainly not intentionally).  The word conversation has a far different meaning today than it did in 1769 when the last revision was made to the KJV.  To the modern reader, Paul is telling us basically to watch what we say when in actuality, he is telling us to watch what we DO!  The adjustments in the English language over the past 250 years have changed what conversation means.  Conversation today means “what we say,” but in 1769 it described our whole conduct.  Therefore, the ESV, a modern translation published in 2001 (but mine is a 2011 revision) renders this same verse; “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ,” which is far more understandable and appropriate in today’s language.  Also, many of the words in the KJV, such as “peradventure,” “aforetime,” “ must needs,” and so on are far out-of-date expressions that no one has used for a long time.  To someone who was raised on the KJV, these are not major issues, but to the unchurched, can you see why they would think that Christianity is no longer relevant for today?

With that, the issue comes down to the TYPE of translation used.  When coming into translational approaches, there are three major types: formal, functional, and paraphrase.  The formal approach attempts to “stay as close as possible to the structure and words of the source language,” therefore it is often viewed as a “word-for-word: translation.[12] For a long time, the KJV was the only viable translation that used this approach, but today, we have several: the ESV, New King James (NKJV), NASB, and Holman Christian Standard (HCSB) are a few, with the ESV probably being the most formal aside from the KJV.

The functional approach “tries to express the meaning of the original text in today’s language.”[13] They do not feel a responsibility to completely reproduce the text, but rather reproduce the meaning of the text, therefore it is a more “thought-for-thought” approach to translation.  A few of these types in modern days are the New Living Translation, the Good News Bible, and the NIV.  Personally, I will use these in cursory reading but I prefer a more functional translation.

The paraphrase is a far more loose translation, and in fact often times can’t even be considered a translation because it is a “restatement or explanation of another English translation using different English words.”[14]  The Living Bible is an example of this as it was Kenneth Taylor’s version of the ASV that he wrote for his children.  The Amplified Bible is another example of this approach.

Many of you may be wondering then why there is often so much controversy within the church over something that seems fairly trivial.  It often comes down to three things; traditionalism, legalism, and lack of knowledge.

In regards to traditionalism, for years the KJV was the standard, and it certainly was (and is) a good one. It has withstood the test of time and has been used for a long time, therefore it has become a personal preference for many…and most people don’t like change.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that you change your preference or approach if it is what works for you, but understand that it doesn’t work for everyone.  It creates unnecessary barriers between the churched and the unchurched because the unchurched won’t go through the work it takes to simply understand what the King James even SAYS.  If they won’t do that, they certainly won’t put in the effort to understand what it MEANS.

Regarding legalism, the controversy often stems from taking one verse out of context (which is often where a lot of controversy stems from).  In the King James, Revelation 22: 19 says, “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”  In the past, many have claimed that this verse is in regards to translation…but that honestly is hypocritical nonsense.  If that were the case, then we would be forced to read the Bible in its original languages and ANY translation (even KJV) would be pagan and we would suffer the plagues of the Bible.  This verse is speaking of INTENTIONALLY mis-teaching, ignoring, or misleading people about the contents of the book of Revelation.  It certainly is a good standard to hold for the entirety of the Bible, but to claim that this is in regards to translation is silly and untruthful.

Finally, lack of knowledge in regards to translation is the biggest issue.  Many will not go into depth in their research of where we get the Bible, how it’s translated, and what works best for their level of study.  They simply take the word of people they hear as truth, such as our example above, and don’t gain knowledge for themselves about what is going on.  If more people would, this would likely be far less of a controversy than it is, and may not even be one at all.

I said all of that to say this.  Church, my advice for you is to reevaluate why you do what you do in regards to the presentation of Scripture.  Do you use King James because it is a formal equivalent?  I certainly understand that because a formal equivalent is my preference.  If so, I recommend the ESV of HCSB.  Is it because of tradition and an unwillingness to change?  If so, be mindful of Christ’s words to the Pharisees; “So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.”  The Pharisees disobeyed God’s Word for the sake of their traditions and were condemned by Christ for it.  Are you not being effective in witnessing your community possibly because of traditions like translation?  Paul paid whatever price necessary to bring the gospel to the lost and so should we.  I certainly love and respect the KJV, its content, and its strong lineage, but to hold to it as the “true” translation of God’s Word is to admit the need for a revision.[15]  Since there have already been so many, why not continue in the ways they did for over 100 years to keep it modern because the one you read today is not the original and is vastly different from the original? Please know that I am not in any way trying to discredit or bash the King James, I used it for over 30 years, but understand that I am simply hoping that the church becomes revitalized, sound in doctrine, and able to be more effective in bringing about life change in 68 million people under the age of 35 who consider our practices to be archaic and irrelevant…people who are lost in sin and doomed to an eternity of separation from God unless we do something.

Until next time…God Bless!

[1] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2008), 54-63.

[2] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Komoszewski, et al. Reinventing Jesus, 55, 67.

[6] Duvall and Hayes, Grasping God’s Word, 31.

[7] Komoszewski, et al. Reinventing Jesus, 55.

[8] Ibid., 55.

[9] Ibid., 55.

[10] Duvall and Hayes, Grasping God’s Word, 29.

[11] Ibid., 30.

[12] Ibid., 35.

[13] Ibid., 35.

[14] Ibid., 35.

[15] Ibid., 30-31.

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