King James’s 400 Years of Inadequacy

First, I sincerely apologize to my Episcopalian friends. I saw over and over on Facebook today that the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, the “Authorized” version of the Bible in the English language, is upon us. If they haven’t already, I’m sure that many people are making great plans for how to celebrate this landmark anniversary.

I will not be one of them.

The KJV has never appealed to me. Sorry, folks, but it’s the truth. Even as a child, I never felt moved by its language or captured by its imagery. Reading the KJV amounted practically to deciphering a foreign language that, in my child-age mind, was known only to old people who yelled at me for taking one-too-many cookies after church.

My Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod school never required us to use the KJV, instead bouncing between the New International Version and Today’s English Version. My ELCA church has used the New Revised Standard Version for as long as I can remember (it was published when I was 3 years old). As a result, thankfully, I never had the chance to fall in love with the KJV as others have.

“Wow, Ken, you must really hate the KJV!”

That’s not quite true, either. I am aware of the tremendous impact that the KJV has had not only on Biblical scholarship and translation, but also on the development of the English language.

The KJV truly stands proud as an example of the highest quality of English literature and poetry and deserves recognition for that. While there were other English Bibles produced before the KJV, some arguably just as influential (like the Geneva Bible), once the KJV gained prominence, it revolutionized the Bible in English.

No, my problem with the KJV is that it is still in common use–sometimes fanatically. Frankly, I am astonished. The KJV was inadequate when it was published, and though later revisions did an excellent job of resolving many inadequacies, later scholarship uncovered just as many new errors as it corrected.

Worse, still, there are entire churches who confess that the KJV is the only legitimate English translation of the Bible! Widespread use of the KJV should have disappeared decades if not centuries ago, and here is why:

The Kings James Version of the Bible is Not the Authorized Version

This may come as a shock to many people, but while the KJV (after many necessary revisions) enjoyed widespread reception and became the de facto translation of the Church of England, it was never technically authorized as such. It took its place as the “authorized version” because printers simply stopped printing the many previous translations in favor of the newer, more popular (and, arguably, better) King James Version.

Furthermore, the KJV was “authorized” by the Church of England, for the Church of England. I am not a member of the Church of England, and chances are, neither are you. I have had a number of American protestant Christians tell me that the KJV is the only acceptable translation because it is the “authorized” version.

Authorized by whom? You do not belong to the Church of England or the Anglican Communion (except those of you who do actually belong to the CoE and AC, of course). In every other way you would fight against another church having authority over you, so why, when it comes to the Bible, do you claim to fall under the authority of another church?

Simply put, the “authorization” of the KJV was limited in scope even 400 years ago. There is no logical reason to assert that it is authorized for the entire English-speaking world today. Even the Church of England recommends the KJV as only one of many translations.

The KJV is a Poor Translation

This, too, must of course be clarified. At the time, the translators who compiled the KJV used the best manuscripts available to them. The Textus Receptus is an important collection of manuscripts, but scholars are more and more in agreement that it is not the most authentic–partly because missing pieces were filled in from the Latin Vulgate and Erasmus made his own changes here and there.

Now that better, more authentic manuscripts have been unearthed over 400 years of archaeological work, the manuscript basis for the KJV translation is no longer adequate; indeed, we know now that it never was.

Then there are the errors apart from those inherent in the manuscripts. When first published, there were so many errors in the KJV that major revisions had to be made before it could be considered acceptable. Every translation has its errors–even my preferred NRSV, which has a few glaring ones–so I do not blame the translators for making mistakes like every other translator throughout history.

However, when some of these errors go uncorrected for 400 years, I find the credibility of the republishing to be lacking.

English Has Evolved Over the Past 400 Years…

…but the KJV has not. I would be remiss if I did not mention the New King James Version, which I must commend for updating the language of the old KJV. But which is more popular, the KJV or the NKJV? There are certainly passages of the KJV which are more poetic in the “old” language than in the new. But who can’t help but twist their tongues with this one:

And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good?
(Matthew 19 17)

Or how about this:

And Shechem spake unto his father Hamor, saying, Get me this damsel to wife.
(Genesis 34:4)

Contrary to popular notion, the above is not “high English”. This was the rough language of the common person. 400 years later, this is no longer the case. The KJV should be rightfully applauded for its use of the common language of the time and being readily accessible to the common folk. Yet, this is precisely why, today, it should not be overly revered: it is no longer the common language of the time or readily accessible.

The KJV Was Neither the First Nor the Last Translation of the Bible into English

You caught me: this last reason is personal rather than professional, and is mostly the reason I wrote this post. I have to resist the urge to laugh every time someone tells me that the KJV is the “only” version of the Bible (English or otherwise) that can be read. It is as if they do not acknowledge, or do not know, that the KJV depended heavily on earlier English translations. This condition was part of the mandate given to the translators. The title page of the KJV I happen to have handy reads:


Holy Bible

containing the

Old and New Testaments

Being the Version set forth 1611 A. D.

Translated out of the Original Tongues

and with the Former Translations Dili-

gently Compared and Revised.

The translators knew what we know today: that language changes, and that new sources may be found for the Holy Scriptures. They assumed that, over time, changes and new translations would have to be made. They even wrote it down in their preface.

Why is the KJV the only acceptable translation? To this day, not a single person has been able to justify that position to my satisfaction. Common replies include, “It’s inspired” (with no explanation of how) or “It’s the authorized version” (see above).

I do not mind as much if people just prefer the KJV. I can accept that, to a point, though I still think it should not be in common use. When it comes to accuracy and authenticity there are other, better versions. It’s really the KJV-only people who baffle me. And, unfortunately, it is those people who have turned me away from the KJV. I doubt I will ever come to fully appreciate what it was and what it is: the best translation for its time and an important step in English Biblical translation.

But let’s not make more of it than it is. We have enough idols in our society as it is.


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