Is Your Bible Still the King's Speech?
EDITOR'S NOTE: During this 500-year celebration of the beginnings of the Reformation, we’ve been reminded of the centrality of sola scriptura to our faith. Dependence upon God’s Word is a key element to both our personal spiritual journeys and in guiding our collective mission as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. So suggestions from fellow believers that a Bible version you are reading is riddled with errors or that key passages have been omitted can be earthshaking. How can we have confidence that our primary source of truth, the Word of God, has been appropriately conveyed to us through fallible human language? Is our challenge found in reading different Bible versions or that we don't read the Bible, any Bible, at all? In the following feature, we welcome the observations of Alden Thompson, Walla Walla University professor of biblical studies and familiar friend to longtime Gleaner readers. Thompsen references several common versions, but whether you get your Bible off the shelf or via a mobile app, the question is the same: Is your Bible still the King's speech? We invite additional perspectives from our readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The email came from a devout believer who was alarmed at the rumor that modern versions of the Bible had stripped more than 64,000 words from the King James Version (KJV). Surely this must be a demonic plot!
If I didn’t know something about how the Bible has come down to us, I too would find such a statistic troubling. And because the subject can be so volatile, pastors and scholars are often reluctant to “educate” the church. That’s tragic. We don’t need to add the Bible to the list of frightening things in our world.
Interestingly enough, the KJV translators themselves shed helpful light, not only on the translation process, but on the psychology of those who resist new translations. Read “The Translators to the Reader,” the original preface to the 1611 KJV (http://www.bible-researcher.com/kjvpref.html). It’s amazing.
In this article we will discuss the question of Bible translations in two parts. The first discusses “missing” words, showing that these omissions are simply human, not demonic, the result of God’s willingness to place His precious words in “earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7).
The second part surveys modern translations to help you find a Bible that is both safe and helpful.
Part 1: Missing Words
The problem of missing words is actually rooted in the habits of devout scribes who didn’t take words out of the Bible but actually added them — unconsciously, to be sure — as they copied biblical manuscripts by hand. Equally devout modern scholars are charged with the task of recovering the original manuscripts as far as possible. It is their God-given task to take out the additional words. These are the words that frightened people announce as “missing.”
Sometimes ancient scribes took dictation, sometimes they copied by sight. By comparing ancient manuscripts scholars can spot the errors. The scribes weren’t wicked. They were simply human. Ironically, the more devout they were the more likely they would be to add words, simply by force of habit. Because of their deep piety, it was easy to write down what they already knew rather than what they heard or saw. Let’s use the Lord’s Prayer to illustrate.
Today, when we repeat the Lord’s Prayer, we quote Matthew 6:9–13. Even though there is another version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:2–4, we never ask, “Which one?” Luke isn’t even on our radar!
Now let’s imagine a dedicated scribe who knows Matthew’s version by heart but is assigned the task of copying Luke. Matthew’s version is a bit longer and includes several phrases that are not in Luke. How do we know they don’t belong in Luke? Because careful scholars have compared manuscripts and have discovered the phrases from Matthew that have sneaked into Luke quite unintentionally. Modern versions remove those lines that originally came from Matthew. “Demonic”? Not at all. These scholars are simply doing what their God-given task calls them to do.
To illustrate, let’s look at the KJV of Luke 11:2–4, capitalizing all the words that came from Matthew and don’t belong in Luke: “OUR Father WHICH ART IN HEAVEN, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. THY WILL BE DONE, AS IN HEAVEN, SO IN EARTH. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; BUT DELIVER US FROM EVIL.”
Note that all the additions are from Matthew. It’s a devout but sleepy scribe at work. We don’t need to panic. We can even chuckle if we do so carefully, for KJV-only defenders are not likely to be amused. B.G. Wilkinson, for example, referred to the “mutilation” of Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. But “mutilation” isn’t the right word once we understand what has happened.
Another example of “missing” words comes from the story of Saul on the Damascus Road, recorded three times in Acts (9:5, 22:7 and 26:14). The KJV rendition is memorable: “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” No translation includes these words in Acts 22:7, all translations include them in Acts 26:14. But in Acts 9:5, the KJV includes them while modern versions omit them. Why? Simply because the scribe remembered the words from 26:14 and slipped them into the narrative of 9:5 without realizing what he was doing. It’s not demonic. It’s simply another example of a serious but human scribe. Yet these words would likely be included in someone's list of 64,000 words left out of your Bible.
Note that with just two examples, we have accounted for 30 missing words: 20 from Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer and 10 from the account of Saul on the Damascus road in Acts 9:5.
One final example of “missing” words involves references to God. Earnest scribes, it seems, found it easy to slip an extra “God” or “Lord” into a passage. And once such a word appeared in a handwritten manuscript, it would not come out until a modern scholar compared manuscripts and discovered what was there originally. I will admit I don’t like it when scholars take “Lord” or “God” out of a familiar passage. Even though I know they had good reasons for doing so, it still triggers a small earthquake in my soul. My favorite New Testament prayer, for example, is from the father of the epileptic boy: “Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Modern versions drop the initial “Lord,” and it nearly ruins the prayer for me!
Scholars who have dropped this “Lord” out are neither wicked or mean. They are simply seeking to be faithful to their God-given task.
As a conclusion to Part 1 of this article and a bridge to Part 2, I refer to four points that the KJV translators made in their original preface, noted above. If modern KJV-only supporters would simply read that preface, it would open their eyes to the value of other translations. Here are the most intriguing points:
- Nobody likes change, especially in connection with religion. The translators noted that King James himself knew the danger of initiating a new translation, for “whoever attempts anything for the public, especially if it has to do with religion or with making the word of God accessible and understandable, sets himself up to be frowned upon by every evil eye and casts himself headlong on a row of pikes, to be stabbed by every sharp tongue. For meddling in any way with a people’s religion is meddling with their customs, with their inalienable rights. And although they may be dissatisfied with what they have, they cannot bear to have it altered.”
- The translators were simply trying to make a good translation better. “We never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, or even to make a bad one into a good one ... but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones to make one principle good one.”
- Even the worst translation is still God’s Word. The King’s speech, said the translators, in whatever language or however poorly translated, “it is still the King’s speech.” Application? God’s Word is still God’s Word.
- God even used translations by heretics to serve His people. Here the translators referred to Greek translations of the Old Testament produced by Symmachus and Theodotion, both “vile heretics.” The early Christians did not burn these translations but “published them openly to be considered and read by everyone.”
With that encouragement from the King James translators, let’s explore the question of how to choose a good and safe Bible from among the many modern versions available today.
Part 2: Choosing Your Next Bible
First, let’s consider three different ways we use our Bibles: the familiar, the devotional, the intellectual. Do you want one, two or three Bibles? Read on.
1. The Heart’s Treasure — the Familiar. For most, this means the KJV, and often in leather and thin paper. Because it is so familiar, some depend on it as a treasure trove of promises, an anchor in trouble: “I have always been able to feel security in the Bible,” wrote one of my students. "When I was scared or frightened as a kid I would sleep with it. I always felt safe then.” But though it contains the precious phrasings many of us have committed to memory over the years, the KJV is also often hard to understand, tempting us to use it as a family heirloom on the shelf, admired but not read.
The familiar is precious and valuable for many of us. But some also struggle to connect it with real life today. The Bible is more than an heirloom or anchor. It cries out to be understood and applied.
2. Soul Food — the Devotional. Not everyone separates the devotional from the intellectual. But many will know what I mean. Devotional reading moves us toward the gentle and the heartwarming and away from the technical, abstract, violent and strange.
A key factor in devotional effectiveness is culture gap. If the gulf is too wide, we simply set the Bible aside or save it for moments of “intellectual” study. Some stories (Ruth, for example) are so powerful they shout down the cultural oddities. And in a case like Psalm 23, the winsome Good Shepherd draws us in even if we don’t know much about sheep.
But usually, a passage is most effective devotionally when it doesn’t force us to grapple with culture. The love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, for example, walks right into our hearts with no cultural hurdles to cross.
As for translations, some prefer the familiar, usually the KJV, though the NIV is gaining ground. Others want a modern paraphrase, such as J.B. Phillips’ The New Testament in Modern English or Eugene Peterson’s The Message. I still remember when we read Phillips at the breakfast table. The Apostle Paul himself seemed to be right there with us. It was a treat.
But reading the Bible is not just dessert; it’s also entree and vegetables. Devotional reading can keep us going day by day. But we also need the tougher stuff — and that calls for a good translation.
3. Muscle Building — the Intellectual. Muscles are not just for fun and good looks; they’re for daily work and major crises. Serious Bible study is like that. Much of Scripture is “embarrassingly clear,” as one of my teachers used to say. But much of it isn’t. That’s why we need help.
If devotional reading meets us in the comfort of our home, serious Bible study takes us into the jungle. There we puzzle over strange customs, hard words, awkward comparisons. By guiding us through this difficult terrain, the Spirit builds a bridge from the biblical world to our world, helping us apply old biblical principles in new circumstances.
The task is serious and requires a good translation. But we shouldn’t worry too much about getting the wrong one. As the KJV translators said, whether translated brilliantly or poorly, the King’s speech is “still the King’s speech.”
What Makes a Good Translation?
The history of serious Bible translation begins late in the Old Testament era when translations of the Hebrew Old Testament began to appear in Greek. Then the early Christians quickly multiplied Bible translations, especially of the New Testament. They too worked mostly with Greek, not Hebrew. Jerome (d. 420 A.D.), the great translator of the Latin Bible, was the first Christian to master Hebrew – also the last for many centuries. In his eagerness to learn Hebrew he moved into a cave in the Syrian desert for several years and persuaded a converted Jew to teach him.
As Latin came to dominate medieval Europe, Greek joined Hebrew in scholarly exile. The Renaissance Italian poet Petrarch (d. 1374 A.D.) desperately wanted to learn Greek but searched in vain for someone to teach him.
But Latin ruled only in high culture. By the time of the Reformation, it was no longer the people’s language. Scholars were eager to go back to the original languages and forward to the everyday language of the people. The result was revolutionary. The Reformation fueled a passion for new translations, and new translations fueled the Reformation.
In the last half of the 19th century a surge of interest in new translations was sparked by exciting manuscript discoveries and by the desire to update the often archaic King James Version. As a result, we now have an amazing selection of good Bibles based on good manuscripts.
So how does one sort out such wealth and choose the right Bible? Start with two questions: 1) Is it accurate? 2) Is it readable? Most other questions fall under those two.
Is the Translation Accurate?
Though accuracy and readability interact, accuracy comes first in a study Bible. The questions below should help.
1. Translation style: “formal,” “dynamic equivalent” or “paraphrase”? Though every translation is a paraphrase in a sense, it’s a matter of degree. We have no trouble identifying the extremes: A “literal” translation stands out clearly from one that seeks to be “free,” a “paraphrase.”
In translation jargon, “formal” style means a literal, one-to-one equivalent with the original. "Dynamic equivalent” moves closer to paraphrase by translating the culture as well as the words. In Matthew 6:17, for example, the New American Standard Bible (NASB) is formal: “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.” The Contemporary English Version (CEV) is dynamic: “comb your hair and wash your face” (today’s joyful ascetic uses a comb, not oil). A “paraphrase” (here, The Message) moves further from the original: “Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth....”
Put bluntly, a study Bible should be a formal translation. In my opinion, NASB is the best, though not as readable as some. KJV, New King James Version (NKJV), Revised Standard Version (RSV), English Standard Version (ESV) and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) are all formal. The New International Version (NIV) moves toward dynamic equivalent.
2. Single translator or a committee? All good translations, including the KJV, have been produced by committees of 50–60 scholars. The result is standard, but not exciting. The one-author versions — Phillips and Eugene Peterson’s Message — can be stimulating, but they’re not study Bibles. In at least one case, however, a popular but sometimes erratic one-person translation — Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible — has been transformed into a well-done committee version, The New Living Translation (NLT).
3. Translation of ambiguous passages? Though clarity may seem preferable to ambiguity, working with ambiguity (and there’s enough in Scripture to go around) builds spiritual muscle. Here the formal translation shines, preserving the ambiguity so that modern readers face the same God-given puzzles as the original readers did.
In Revelation 1:1, for example, “revelation of Jesus Christ” is ambiguous in both English and Greek. Is the revelation about Jesus, from Jesus, belonging to Jesus? Dynamic translations tend to resolve the ambiguity: CEV, “This is what God showed to Jesus Christ”; NLT, “This is a revelation from Jesus Christ”; Message, “A revealing of Jesus.” A good study Bible keeps the ambiguity.
4. Gender inclusiveness? “Gender inclusiveness” is an issue that won’t go away. It means using neutral words when the context suggests that both genders are intended. Philippians 4:8 in the KJV reads: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true....” The NRSV is inclusive: “Finally, beloved...” Many major committee translations are now inclusive: NRSV, CEV, NLT and NIV. Some are not: NASB, NKJV and ESV.
It’s worth noting the KJV was already selectively inclusive in 1611. I like to ask believers to complete Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called …” KJV people say “children of God” (inclusive). NASB, ESV and NKJV users say “sons of God” (noninclusive). The Greek word is the word for “sons.” But the KJV translators rightly sensed the inclusive purpose. They did the same in the Old Testament. “Children of Israel” is their inclusive version of the Hebrew “sons of Israel.” Gender-inclusive versions usually footnote their adaptations, thus preserving their usefulness as a study Bible.
Is a Translation Readable?
Finally, readability. Some simply call formal translations accurate and dynamic ones readable. That’s partly true. Certainly the paraphrases are more exciting and provocative. If one can treat them more like commentaries (and less like translations) they can be useful instead of dangerous.
In the end, however, I do want to stay close to what the inspired writers actually said. That means a formal translation. I use the NRSV. It’s formal, in the familiar KJV tradition, and inclusive – increasingly important in our gender-sensitive age.
What I really want, however, is the best of both worlds: formal and dynamic. So I dream of a parallel Bible with the formal NASB — probably the best study Bible — alongside the dynamic CEV. The CEV was published in 1995, the first English Bible to be written for the ear, not the eye. It reads well out loud and is often good for memorization. Sometimes it’s too free. But that’s OK. I have other translations.
Truthfully, our dialog over English language versions of the Bible must seem odd to many language groups who are grateful for just one readable copy of the Scriptures.
So even if no single Bible translation will ever be just right, none of us will likely take the time to make our own. I realize I haven't touched on some of the more recent options available on mobile device apps, but nevertheless, my advice to you is the same I give myself. Pick a good Bible, pick several. And may God grant us the grace to say with Jeremiah that God’s Word is the “joy and rejoicing” of our hearts (Jeremiah 15:16, KJV).
A Select List of Bible Translations
KJV — King James Version, formal equivalent, selectively gender-inclusive
NKJV — New King James Version, formal equivalent, not gender-inclusive
NASB — New American Standard Bible, formal equivalent, not gender-inclusive
RSV — Revised Standard Version, formal equivalent, selectively gender-inclusive
ESV — English Standard Version, formal equivalent, not gender-inclusive
NRSV — New Revised Standard Version, formal equivalent, gender-inclusive
NIV — New International Version, dynamic equivalent, gender-inclusive (since 2011)
NLT – New Living Translation, dynamic equivalent, gender-inclusive, a well-done committee revision of Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible
TEV/GNB – Today’s English Version/Good News Bible, simple vocabulary, selectively gender-inclusive
CEV – Contemporary English Version, dynamic equivalent, gender-inclusive
Message (Eugene Peterson) dynamic equivalent, gender-inclusive
Phillips – Dynamic equivalent, not gender-inclusive
1. B.G. Wilkinson, Our Authorized Bible Vindicated (Washington, D.C: 1930), p. 93.
2. The Translators to the Reader: The Original Preface of the King James Version of 1611 Revisited, Erroll Rhodes and Liana Lupas, eds. (New York: American Bible Society, 1997), p. 69.
3. Ibid., p. 81.
4. Ibid., p. 78.
5. Ibid., p. 79.