The Bible contains words that are presented as spoken directly from God. In other places the biblical writers record what they believe God revealed directly to them. In addition, the remainder of the Bible is considered by many to be inspired by God. Thus, the Bible is often referred to as the “Word of God.”
If the Bible is the Word of God and God has spoken in the Bible, either directly or indirectly, in what language did He speak, and what exactly did He say? The Old Testament (39 books-Genesis through Malachi) was written primarily in the Hebrew language, and the New Testament (27 books--Matthew through Revelation) was written in Greek. Few people in America read Hebrew or Greek, so most rely on an English translation of the Bible. But when one compares English translations, there is a great deal of difference in the wording. Why is this, and is this a problem?
The King James Version
Most English speaking Protestants, until the last 40 years, used the King James Version. Sometimes this is called the “Authorized Version.” Let’s clear up some misconceptions. James I of England, when he ascended to the throne of a united England and Scotland in 1603, wanted his new realm to flourish. He held a conference at Hampton Court and solicited ideas to make his kingdom great. One idea that was adopted came from Puritan John Reynolds, who recommended a “fresh translation” of the Scriptures (there were several English translations available at the time). King James liked the idea and “authorized” a new translation. Beginning in 1604, more than 50 scholars worked on the translation using William Tyndale’s early 16th century English translation as a template while consulting the best existing Hebrew and Greek texts to achieve a high level of accuracy.
The early 17th century was a “high water mark” for the English language, the time when William Shakespeare completed the last of his 37 plays. There is a certain beauty in the King James Version’s style, and what is often called its “thundering diction” made it the popular choice for 350 years (although, in the early years the KJV was not an instant success—it took several decades for the translation to gain popularity).
Into the mid-to-late 20th century many people memorized Scripture using the King James Version, and many favorite Christian hymns incorporate the KJV wording. This had a unifying effect on English-speaking Protestants, since most everyone was literally “on the same page.” The biblical marching orders were the same across the English-speaking world because of the common presence of the King James Version. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (I Corinthians 14:8). Through the mid-20th century, the Scriptural sound was the familiar voice of the KJV.
The Decline of the King James Version’s Supremacy
By the mid-20th century the supremacy of the KJV began to change, slowly at first, but then at a much more brisk pace. As a result, in the 21st century the King James Version has been supplanted by more recent translations, and the unity it brought has diminished. The effects of the recent rise of modern English translations include a wholesale lack of Scripture memorization and a decline in the reverential awe that accompanied reading the KJV. It is hard to escape the conclusion that in some ways Christendom was better off when the KJV reigned supreme.
Accuracy or Readability? Competing Goals Among Translations
The first major revision of the King James Version was completed in England in 1885, and was called the “Revised Version” because it was primarily a revision of the KJV. In America scholars had some concerns about the Revised Version, and in 1901 they completed their own revision of the KJV, commonly known as the “American Standard” Version (“ASV”). The ASV was revised in a translation that was completed in 1952 called the Revised Standard Version (“RSV”). This was the first serious challenge to the KJV’s dominance among English-speaking Protestants. The RSV intended to be a clearer version while maintaining literal accuracy. The RSV was also revised, most recently in 2001 under the name “English Standard Version” (“ESV”).
In 1971 a new translation from the prevailing Hebrew and Greek texts was completed, known as the New American Standard Bible (“NASB”). The NASB uses a “word for word” translation style, resulting in a translation very faithful to the original text, although some think the “word for word” approach makes the translation too rigid. An updated version of the NASB was published in 1995.
In the early 1960s portions of Scripture were released that were not translations at all, but paraphrases. First called “Living Letters,” the Pauline Epistles were presented in simple language that reflected the theology of the paraphraser Ken Taylor. Billy Graham helped popularize the Living Letters when in 1962 his ministry first printed 50,000 copies, and within the year distributed more than 600,000 copies. Ken Taylor’s entire paraphrased Bible was completed in 1971, taking the name “Living Bible.” It was a smash hit, not only in America, but world-wide, as many people enjoyed its “readability.”
New International Version
The New International Version (“NIV”) was published in 1978, and updated in 1984. The purpose of the NIV was to provide a modern English Bible to replace the KJV, incorporating both “word for word” and “thought for thought” approaches to translating. In 2005 a revision was released called “Today’s New International Version” (“TNIV”). Another update of the NIV was published in 2011, and it dropped the “gender-neutral” language of the 2005 TNIV. Today the NIV is the best selling English translation of the Bible, and can be found in many (if not most) churches as their “pew Bible.”
Bible Translations After the King James Version
Bible translations come in two general forms: Those translated directly from the original Hebrew and Greek texts and those intending to revise existing translations. The other category, “paraphrases,” are not translations at all, and readers should understand that the purpose of a paraphrase, as confirmed by Living Bible creator Ken Taylor, is “rapid reading” as opposed to careful studying.
Regarding translations, some try to bring out the force of the original by attempting word for word translations (e.g., NASB) while others want to also bring the out the perceived thoughts of the writers (NIV). “Thought for thought” translations sacrifice grammatical accuracy for readability and comprehension, and like paraphrases, the “thoughts” presented in the translation are dependent on the theology of the translator rather than strictly the text.
A Look Back, A Look Forward
The unifying quality the KJV brought to English speaking Protestants for 350 years has not reappeared in the NIV, NASB, or any modern translation. There is no reason to believe this will change, so perhaps we should ask whether this even matters. I believe it does.
Protestants have no Pope, so there is no unifying figure for non-Catholic and non-Orthodox believers. What unites Protestants is the Scriptures, and the view that God has spoken through the text of the Bible. Unfortunately, the formerly unifying text—the King James Version—is now largely seen as obsolete (The New King James, published in 1982, tried to update the language, with some success, while keeping the KJV’s style, including its thundering diction). Thus, there is no unified way for Bible believers to memorize or quote Scripture other than the retro reliance on the KJV. Perhaps it was necessary for some to wean themselves from solely using the Authorized Version lest they become bibliolaters. However, those who bypass the KJV and its rich heritage are missing out on the beauty of a translation that served Christendom well for 400 years.
God has spoken. Whoever wants to read what He, His prophets and the writers of Scripture said can study the original Hebrew and Greek texts, but that is impractical for most people. A more realistic approach for those who read the Bible is to make use of more than one of the many modern translations available today. These translations may lack the beauty, unifying effect, and nostalgia of the King James Version, but they are valuable modern language versions that communicate the timeless truth of Scripture. As we look ahead, the more people read the Bible, in virtually any version, the more people are exposed to those timeless truths. Even without the unifying effect of a common translation of the Bible, a sovereign God is able to bring about unity, as Jesus prayed in John 17:21, “That they all may be one.”