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:

The

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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Sermon–November 13, 2011–Pentecost 22A

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI, while on Internship.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90: 1-8, [9-11] 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

As I’m sure most of you know by now, I have been a tuba player since the sixth grade. I played the tuba through all of high school, both in the marching band in the concert bands. This tuba was my graduation present. In college, I continued to play the tuba and to take private lessons. I grew stronger and more competent every year. I was playing every day, and it felt good.

After I graduated from college, I moved a few times and began preparing for seminary. I no longer had a band to play in or a regular place to practice. I played less and less until I stopped playing altogether—not because I wanted to, but because circumstances prevented me from playing all the time.

I pick it up every now and then for special occasions, like playing with my old college groups or if the seminary needed me. But that incredible skill I had built up was gone. The talent remained, and the knowledge, for sure. But my lips and lungs were no longer as strong. My tone was not as clear, my articulation sloppy.

Every time this has happened, it’s crushed me. The gift of music is important to who I am. When I lose that ability… it’s like losing a piece of myself. When I don’t use that gift, I start to lose it.

Jesus understood that a great gift was a terrible thing to waste. In our parable this morning, three men are given great gifts. A talent was not an ability, as we have come to understand it in English, but it was a huge sum of money. To receive five talents was an extravagant sum. To receive two was a great sum. And even to receive a single talent of money was an exceedingly large sum.

I’d like to point out the obvious—not every man receives an equal amount of money to deal with. Jesus tells us that to each was given “according to his ability.” This may lead us to believe that the man who received the one talent really was of no worth at all. But remember, even one talent was a large sum of money to deal with.

With each gift comes responsibility. I can imagine that the man who received the five talents must have felt the pressure put on him by his master. So much could go wrong if he misused the gift he had been given. The one with two talents, in the same way, understood how important it was to take advantage of the trust put in him by his master.

But the third—I wonder what goes through his mind. It would be easy for him to notice that the next man up received TWICE as much as he did. TWICE. Not a little bit more, but a LOT more. He has one talent, yes, and a heavy talent it is… but he only gets HALF of the money the next guy gets? I’d probably feel discouraged to.

Not to mention what the last man thinks and feels about the master. He has heard so many rumors about his master. He has heard Zephaniah cry out about the Great Day of the Lord,  a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.

What will this master DO to me if I lose the talent? What if it gets stolen? What if I am tricked out of it? What if I am not able to get as much back through trade, what if…. What if what if what if. The only way he can be sure that his talent will be safe is to hide it away, where no one will ever find it. He refuses to use the gift he has been given. And we know what happens to him at the end—he loses it anyway.

Here at First Lutheran, we just held our annual Stewardship drive, which included an evaluation of our time and talents. I have a feeling that many of us don’t recognize the many talents we have been gifted. “I’m not all that good,” we say. “Well I can do that, but this person can do it so much better than I can.” “I can do this, but it doesn’t help anyone.” Or even, “I just don’t have anything I’m good at.”

Whether we have five talents, two, or just one, God has given each of us gifts to use. Every gift, every talent is important. It is not enough to hold on to our gift. It is not enough to take the safe road. It is not enough not to take the risk. God didn’t give us our gifts to keep them safe for a while. God’s gifts are given to be USED.

The five-talent man and two-talent man are not rewarded because of how much money they brought back to their master. They were rewarded because they took their gifts and took the risk. They all had equal opportunity and received equal reward. It doesn’t matter how much talent we have. What matters is that we use it.

There is no shortage of need in the world for the gifts of God. Go out and share them! Not because we are afraid of what will happen to us on the Great Day of the Lord. Paul makes it clear that we are not destined for destruction, but for salvation.

No, go out and share them because you are NEEDED. You are NEEDED. No matter what your talent or calling, you are not irrelevant or unimportant. God has given you a gift. There is no greater honor, and no higher responsibility. The Day of the Lord is near. And after all,

“It’s a great day to be alive
I know the sun’s still shinin’ when I close my eye,
There’s some – hard times in the neighborhood,
So why can’t every day be just this good.”

Announcing ELN!

Ecumenical Life News has been launched! The site is a simple hub that gathers together in one place links to news headlines from organizations and churches relevant to an ELCA seminarian trying to live an ecumenical life. News headlines are drawn from:

  • Anglican Communion
  • World Council of Churches
  • World Communion of Reformed Churches
  • Ecumenical News International
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You can reach the hub through the News link in the menu.