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Problems with Some Bible Translations, including the King James: A Blast from the Past

    In my Introduction to the New Testament undergraduate class this semester, I have told the students that they can use most any Bible translation they want, but I prefer the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and I do *not* want them using either a paraphrase or the King James.  Some of them want to know why, and so I explain to them.  Here is a post on the topic from almost exactly five years ago.  (Note: I’m talking about undergraduates; my graduate students read the NT in Greek) (and also note: despite what I say about the NIV I certainly allow students to use it in class, since it is the most popular translation on college campuses today)

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I have indicated that my preferred translation is the NRSV. Everyone, of course, has their favorite. My judgment is that among main-line, serious biblical scholars, the NRSV is far and away the preferred translation. But it is not so among general readers. I believe the King James Bible (the KJV) (or its slight revision: The New King James) and the New International Version (NIV) are better sellers among the population at large. So let me say a few words about these two. (Some readers of this blog will want to write to me to ask what I think of their own preferred translation: the Jerusalem Bible; the New English Version; the New American Standard Bible; etc etc. Most of the time I tell them that it’s fine. It just isn’t the one that I think is the best)

First: The King James. Published in 1611, the KJV (or “Authorized Version” as it was called, since it was a translation “authorized” by the head of the Anglican Church – guess who? King James of England), is one of the great classics of the English language and ought to be read and learned by everyone. If you want to read a fascinating account of the making of the KJV, see Adam Nicolson’s terrific study, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible.

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Even though it is a great piece of English literature, the KJV is not a great study Bible.  That is for a couple of reasons.  First, when the KJV translators were doing their work at the beginning of the 17th century, they did not have access to most of the thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament that have been discovered and studied in the intervening centuries.  As a result, especially for the NT, the KJV is based on poor manuscripts, and that has a serious effect on the translation.  The KJV includes numerous passages that were not originally part of the NT and altered forms of yet other passages (most famously: the “final twelve verses” of Mark; the story of the woman taken in adultery in John; the passage affirming the Trinity in 1 John 5:7-8; etc.).  Not good, if you want to know what Mark, John, Paul, etc. “originally” wrote.

Second, as much as people (somewhat ignorantly) want to deny it, the English language has changed dramatically over the past four hundred years.  There are places where the KJV just doesn’t seem to make sense in our modern language.  Worse, there are places where the words do seem to make sense, but in fact they meant something different in 1611 from what they mean today.  As just one of my favorite examples:  in Revelation 17 the prophet has a vision of the horrid “Whore of Babylon” who is a terrible and frightening figure seated on a beast with seven heads and ten horns, and who is “drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.”  And after the author describes this horrific woman, he says that he “looked upon her with great admiration.”   (!)   400 years ago “admiration” meant “astonishment.”  It doesn’t carry the same meaning today, leading to a very real possibility that someone reading the passage may be more than a bit confused.

Second: the NIV.   I will admit that the NIV is a very, very readable translation, and that it was produced by some very fine scholars.   The problem is that to be on the NIV translation committee a scholar had to be a committed evangelical Christian with specific views about the infallibility of the Bible (I don’t recall just now the specific doctrinal statement on the Bible that they had to sign off on, but it involved a high view of biblical inspiration).  That means that there was one perspective on the Bible represented on the committee, and it had a real effect on translation decisions that were made.

Rather than spell out the differences for you, I’ll suggest that if you’re really interested, you just do an exercise yourself.   Compare the three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, 22, and 26 in the NRSV and notice the detailed differences; then do the same thing with the NIV, and see if any of these differences have been smoothed over.  Or do the same thing with the sale of Joseph by his brothers to the Midianites (or was it the Ishmaelites?) in Genesis 37.

My view is that a Bible translation should not be driven by a theological view of the text but by the science of philology, and that translating the Bible is in principle no different from translating Homer, Plato, Epictetus, or Ignatius of Antioch.   The translation should be made with an eye of communicating in the new language the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs of the original language, as readably, but also as accurately, as possible.  I think the NRSV does this better than most, if not all, the other translations.


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    johnsotdj  November 4, 2017

    Hello Bart, I read this post with great interest. Forty years ago I remember that every new translation of the New Testament was promoted (by guys at Bible study) as “it really brings out the Greek,” and I recall your comment that reading the NT in the original Greek was like reading it in color. It was also interesting to read that the authentic and questionable letters attributed to Paul can be distinguished by the Greek, as well as the theology.

    The New York Times has just published an article by David Bentley Hart, with the provocative title “Are Christians Supposed to be Communists?” In it I learned of his new translation of the New Testament, and read reviews indicating, among other things, that this translation (and notes) “captures the voices of the different authors,” e.g., Paul’s, Luke’s, Mark’s Greek, etc.

    I’d be very interested in your take on this new translation; not asking if it’s the best (or OK but NRSV is better)! Is it really different, or another single translator’s take like J.B. Phillips?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2017

      I haven’t read it yet, so don’t have an informed opinion. The translator appears not to be a specialist in the New Testament, so I don’t know what his qualifications are. Possibly very good! But on the surface it doesn’t look like it. I really can’t tell. He does appear to have tried to make the English translation give the “feel” of the Greek of each author; that would be a good thing. Whether he has the skill and knowledge to do it — I don’t know.

  2. Avatar
    johnsotdj  November 5, 2017

    Thanks for your response!

  3. Avatar
    Malik  January 6, 2018

    I like how in Rev 3:9 the word for Proskneu is Worship in the KJV and Bowing Down in the NSRV:

    Revelation 3:9King James Version (KJV)
    9 Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.

    Revelation 3:9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
    9 I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying—I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.

    Will the Jews worship the Christians or bow down at their feet?

  4. Avatar
    Kawfmin  March 12, 2018

    Just someone’s personal perspective on choosing translations here, might relate more to a “Bible as Literature” perspective than other perspectives: the NRSV is good but I’ve gravitated towards translations by single individuals…the language just has more cadence, more bite, something like that, when it comes from an individual and not a committee. I also find the commentary in these one-man translations more engaging than the committee-produced stuff in the New Oxford Annotated NSRV. I’m sure there are limitations to having just one person’s take, but there may also be strengths to that type of translation/commentary. I find Robert Alter often great for the OT, Edgar Goodspeed’s Apocrypha more readable than the NRSV version, and Willis Barnstone’s “Restored NT’ compelling, if quirky and in need of more proofreading.

  5. Avatar
    Kitty2Shoes  June 24, 2018

    Thanks for the above. We’re sending our kids to a non-denominational Christian school next year for the academic curriculum alone and they’ve requested we buy NIV. I doubt the subtle differences will matter much to an 8-year old. I grew up with the New Oxford Annotated myself and the same was requested by my Religion professor in college. I’ll mostly likely check out the NRSV for myself.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2018

      Your Oxford Annotated probably does use the NRSV for its translation.

  6. Avatar
    hankgillette  November 15, 2018

    There is a question that I am wondering about: If distinguished New Testament scholars (who presumably are experts in the nuances of Greek) cannot agree on the translation of certain portions of the text, how would learning Greek myself to read the New Testament in Greek be an improvement over selecting the “best” translation?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 16, 2018

      Ha! That’s a *great* question. I’ve never put it to myself that way before….

  7. Avatar
    Enjoli Muthu  December 16, 2018

    What are your thought on the new Adler translation? ( I believe it still hasn’t been released yet, only available for preorder).

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  1. Ofelia Donlan  May 31, 2018