By Eric Johnson
Officially The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages its members to use the King James Version of the Bible (KJV). While the KJV was a fine version for its time, it can be difficult for modern English-speakers to understand many parts of what the translation is saying. Many readers skim over the archaic words and phrases, diluting comprehension. As apologist Greg Koukl wrote,
The archaic rendering of the King James Bible creates unnecessary confusion for the modern reader. I recommend the KJV for any reader who is 350 years old or older. All others would do better with a more recent version. “Never Read a Bible Verse”
If you are a Latter-day Saint, you may have a desire to better understand the teachings of the Bible. You may be loyal to the KJV but don’t know how to make your Bible reading simpler. By using the KJV along with a modern translation of the Bible—examples include the English Standard Version, the New International Version, and the New American Standard Version—it is possible to shed light on what the Bible actually says. Let’s take a closer look.
The notes offered in a modern translation can offer the reader great insight
Modern translations can help the reader understand what was written in the “autographs,” a word signifying the original biblical manuscripts. There are rules used by biblical scholars to determine the most accurate rendering of any text. For one, the earlier the dating of a text, the more accurate it is considered to be when compared to older texts (all things being equal). It is more probable that any changes in any particular copy would have come from later, not earlier, copyists—whether those changes were intentional or accidental.
Another rule is that the more difficult a text is to understand compared to other copies, all things considered, the more likely this is what the original author wrote. After all, a copyist may have wanted to clarify a difficult text by smoothing out the language or words, changing it to try make it more understandable. That makes sense if we understand that the vast majority of the copyists wanted to do everything they could to make sure the reading more understandable, so there could have been a temptation to change the hard-to-comprehend wording or even add clarifying language.
Of course, many other factors are considered when determining which biblical manuscript is correct. Modern scholars do their best to present the original writings as they were initially written down. Passages not found in the earliest and most accurate copies that were included in the KJV are pointed out in modern translations as probably not being included in the original autographs.
For example, the KJV includes Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 as part of its regular text. No indication is given that these passages may not have been included in the original writing. However, neither portion can be found in any of the earliest and most accurate manuscripts. Thus, both modern translations include the two passages in brackets but offer this qualifier in front of each section: “The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have _________”
There are many other places where scholars provide notes linked to certain verses to provide more information about why certain portions are not included in the biblical text. For example, Acts 24:7 is not in found in the NIV; its footnote reads “Some manuscripts” before citing the words not included in the regular text. In other words, the translators wanted to let the reader know that this verse should not be included with the passage.
A famous example is 1 John 5:7-8. The footnote in the NIV states,
Later manuscripts of the Vulgate testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the (not found in any Greek manuscript before the sixteenth century).
The KJV renders this portion in its version without warning the reader that this is “not found in any Greek manuscript before the sixteenth century.” With no evidence that these words can be found in the earliest, most accurate texts, this could not have been written by the apostle John. Unlike modern-day scholars, the King James Version translators did not have access to biblical manuscripts made available after the 16th century.
As a matter of fact, a number of important copies not available to those translators shed additional light on what the original New Testament authors wrote. These manuscript discoveries provide more complete information to help determine the Bible’s original words.
While some might mistakenly assume that these issues should cause concern, it instead is a reflection on the integrity of these scholars. After all, if scholars wanted to manipulate what the Bible says, they would have been tempted to change things to best fit their presuppositions. In the case of 1 John 5, if the translators wanted to allow a powerful citation to support the doctrine of the Trinity, why not let the Vulgate’s wording remain intact?
After all, the Trinity is considered to be a controversial teaching that Mormon leaders claim is not supported by the Bible. But voila, 1 John 5:7-8 could have been the perfect proof text to support this teaching and refute these leaders! Instead, modern translators removed the words that were not in the original text while relegating those words to a footnote. Instead of questioning their integrity, observers should be impressed that scholars are honest in their assessment while not fudging the truth. Their integrity is proven rather than diminished.
Archaic words/phrases in the KJV can now be understood
Anyone who has spent much time reading the KJV will admit that there are words and phrases found in this translation that are difficult to understand. Let me tell you a story to illustrate. When I was a high school Bible teacher at a Christian school in the early 2000s, I required my junior students to memorize Proverbs chapter 3 over the course of the first semester.
Although the students were required to memorize the chapter in the NIV, one young man who believed that the King James Version is the best Bible translation asked if he could memorize the passage in his favorite version. Each week, he walked up to my desk and orally recited the memorized verses to me.
One week, he recited verses 7 and 8. To see if my student was comprehending what he was memorizing, I asked if he could tell me what verse 7 was saying. It reads in the KJV, “It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones.”
At first, he looked at me and appeared confused.
“Navel is a belly button,” he said.
“And what does this mean, ‘health to thy navel’?”
He wasn’t sure. For the second part of that verse, he understood “marrow” as the white tissue between bones, but he admitted he did not understand what the Proverb writer was trying to communicate. Then I cited the NIV translation: “This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.”
His eyes brightened. After all, the verse now was clearly aligned with the previous verse that reads in the KJV, “Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil.”
This was an A student who regularly read the KJV and got perfect marks on his verse quizzes each week. But, when it came to this verse, he had difficulty understanding the basic message of a straight-forward Proverb. How many other passages would he have had a difficult time understanding?
Here are a few other examples of hard-to-understand language comparing the KJV with the ESV:
Exodus 25:38 (KJV): “And the tongs thereof, and the snuffdishes thereof, shall be of pure gold.”
The ESV makes the words more understandable when it reads, “Its tongs and their trays shall be of pure gold.”
Hosea 14:2 (KJV): “Take with you words, and turn to the Lord: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips.”
The ESV states, “Take with you words and return to the Lord; say to him, ‘Take away all iniquity;
accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips.’’
Luke 14:32 (KJV): “Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace.”
Again, the ESV makes this verse understandable when it says, “And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.”
Thousands of additional examples could be given. Yet notice, the modern translation of these three examples is no different from what the KJV was attempting to convey. It put the words in such a way that they can be understood by the 21st century reader.
Someone might say that they prefer the KJV and feel that the context can help them ascertain what was being said in the KJV. In many cases, this can be true. Those who enjoy reading the KJV are certainly free to use this translation and, with enough study, learn to understand tough-to-understand passages. Yet, if the meaning is not easily comprehended for the average reader, the question is why a reader should not have the freedom to utilize a much easier-to-understand translation. As Luke Wayne from carm.org writes,
All translations have at least a few rare or unfamiliar words. The issue is that the KJV has numerous and unnecessary archaic words and phrases which create an additional hurdle for the modern reader that simply need not be. Source.
And that’s the point. The confusing Elizabethan words used in the KJV can hide the meaning of a passage and make the Bible’s message jumbled. A solution is to use a modern translation, but most Latter-day Saints feel bound by their church to use this particular version. Is there a way to use the KJV and still grasp the meaning of what the English words mean? I think there is.
What is recommended?
Even though a Latter-day Saints may be skittish when asked to consider reading a modern translation of the Bible, I have made this challenge to Mormons when I hand out copies of modern versions of the New Testament. For sure, I’m not asking the Latter-day Saint to throw away his treasured copy of the Bible which I make clear. Here is the challenge:
Take your copy of the KJV and open up to any passage you would like to study. Take a modern translation (again, there are several to choose from) and open it up to the same passage. Now read the KJV and, in a short paragraph, write down what you think it is saying. Then read the modern translation and see how it translates the same passage.
Doing this will help clarify unclear language that was veiled by archaic wording in the KJV. Try to find anything in the modern translation that “contradicts” the KJV. You will be hard-pressed to find any examples. As you become more comfortable with a modern Bible version, you will realize that, for the most part, it says exactly what was written in the KJV several centuries ago but in a much more understandable format.
There are several places on the Internet where multiple Bible translations can be read for free. One of my favorites is biblegateway.com. In the right corner of the page, you will choose your translation. (Again, three excellent translations are ESV, NASB, NIV, though there are other good ones as well.) With your KJV in front of you, use the electronic modern version to compare. You can even put two versions side-by-side so you can compare online. To learn how, click here.
All in all, your Bible reading can become more alive and meaningful if you can more easily understand what the original authors. If you are a Latter-day Saint, I challenge you to try this and see how a modern translation can help you in your Bible reading. Your understanding of God’s Word could help take some of the mystery out of what God’s Word is saying to those who live in the 21st century.
For other articles on the Bible, click here.