OTFTW 2: Is the King James a Good Translation

Before discussing my 3 Bible suggestions from OTFTW 1, we need to discuss the KJV a bit. Below is a slightly fleshed-out Institute handout I’ve used in my Bible classes. 

Is the King James Bible a Good Translation?

Short Answer: “No with an if, Yes with a but…”

Long Answer:

A good translation is one by which the reader can accurately understand the meaning of the original text through the language of the translator(s). “Accurately” has been understood various ways, with two theories of translation at opposite endpoints along a spectrum.

  1. “Word-for-word” AKA “formal equivalence” or “text-oriented” = more literal, potentially less understandable.
    1. Translator preserves more of the original language at the cost of being less accessible to the target language and culture.
  2. “Thought-for-thought” AKA “dynamic equivalence,” “functional equivalence” or “reader-oriented” = more understandable, potentially less reliable.
    1. Translator does more interpreting in order to smooth and adapt to target language and culture.  Easier to read, but potentially introduces more translator bias.
  3. These two points give us three more positions. More literal than formal equivalence is “literal,” between Formal and Dynamic is “mixed,” and even more translational and loosed are “paraphrases.” See http://www.notjustanotherbook.com/biblecomparison.htm for a chart and comparison.
  4. For example, when Isaiah talks about sins being white as snow, how should it be translated for a language/culture that does not know snow? A formal equivalence translation would use “snow” anyway or a periphrastic phrase if “snow” didn’t exist, whereas a dynamic equivalence translation would translate as something white or pure in that culture, such as wool or clouds or something.
  5. The KJV is far towards the word-for-word/formal end of the spectrum.

Problems with the KJV

  • Translated into English we don’t always understand because it’s so archaic. (Greek and Hebrew footnotes are helpful, but cannot entirely counterbalance this problem, because it’s not limited to simple word choice, but also syntax, punctuation, etc.)
    1. The KJV was not intended as a new translation done from scratch in 1611, but was a revision of The Bishop’s Bible (1568) and others such as Tyndale’s New Testament (1526).
    2. Example- What does 2 Timothy 4:2 mean? “Be instant in season, out of season.”
  • We now have many more, much older, and better manuscripts than were known in 1611.
    1. Contemporary Greek papyri, Dead Sea Scrolls, etc. Hebrew mss 1000 years older than the KJV translators had.
    2. Example- Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7-8) This passage included in the KJV is more-or-less a medieval forgery created for theological purposes.
  • We now have better understanding of the original languages and cultures.
    1. “Holy Spirit Greek” Earlier translators were unfamiliar with the dialect of the NT, and considered it a special dialect written only by those inspired by the Spirit. We now know that it was simply the common everyday Greek speech of Palestine at the time of the NT.
    2. Job 7:12 and Sea. Thanks to the Ugaritic texts, we have greater understanding of this passage. (Can’t explain it in a line or two.)

Why do we read the KJV as the official public Bible?

These are reasons I think can be offered. They are not mutually exclusive, nor necessarily those offered in official publications.

1)    Tradition. Nuff said.

2)    KJV-like language is used by our other scriptures. That is, if you want to catch allusions, references, and quotations to the Bible in the Book of Mormon, D&C, and Pearl of Great Price, you need to be familiar with the KJV translation. Alternately, according to some, this indicates that the KJV is the best translation, based on the best manuscripts, or has divine approval lacking in other translations.

3)    The foreignness of KJV language reminds us of the foreignness of the Biblical period, that the people and events we read about in the Bible are not contemporary in our time or culture. Cf. Our tendency to read the Book of Mormon as if it were a General Conference talk. (I thank Blake Ostler for pointing this out.)

4) Latter-day revelation supports the KJV in doctrinal matters. (Scroll down.)  This is less of an argument than a very short statement, and I find vague and problematic in its brevity. I’m not entirely sure how it is intended. Other translations can be more doctrinally correct than the KJV, such as the NRSV or NJPS at Genesis 1:1, which do not assert creation ex nihilo. In any case, this statement, which can be read as near a  KJV-only position, must be balanced with others.

Things other Bibles do that KJV doesn’t, beyond translational issues

1) Quotations and poetry are set off by highlighting, special spacing, etc.

2)  Old Testament quotations are all reference and footnoted. Why our KJV does not do this, I am at a loss to explain. Compare our KJV  Matthew 22:37-39 with Deut. 6:4-6 and Lev. 19:18. (How many LDS do not understand that Jesus statements here are quoted from the Law of Moses, not some new thing he’s saying?)


David Norton, A Textual History of the King James Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2005)- More technical, scholarly and dry.

Alister McGrath, In the Beginning- The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (Anchor, 2002) – Highly recommended. Humorous and very readable.

Joe Stringham, “The Bible: Only 4263 Languages to Go” Ensign, January 1990.

John Lundquist, “The Value of New Textual Sources to the King James Bible” Ensign, (August 1983)

Harvey Minkoff, “Problems of Translation: Concern for the Text versus Concern for the Reader” Bible Review 4:4 (August 1988)

Harvey Minkoff, “How to Buy a Bible” Bible Review 8:2 (April 1992)

Philip Barlow, “Why the King James Version? From the Common to the Official Bible of Mormonism” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 22:2 (Summer 1986): 19-41

14 Replies to “OTFTW 2: Is the King James a Good Translation”

  1. The problem with dynamic equivalence is that it requires the translator to divine the intent of the original author in a way that formal equivalence does not. It wouldn’t take a very long excursion into some modern dynamic translations to find passages where it is arguable that the translator got the intent of the original author either completely wrong, or hopelessly watered it down (from whatever is was, discoverable or otherwise).

    And of course, when these things happen, the resulting translation inevitably reflects the interpretive biases of the translator to a degree far greater than in any formal translation.

  2. That is a legitimate criticism, Mark D.

    This argument over translation philosophy is one that plays out daily in some spheres, such as among Evangelicals and Bible translators.

    Bill Mounce, a prominent Evangelical Greek scholar and translator, has a lot of discussions about how this plays out in specific examples on his blog, http://www.billmounce.com/blog

  3. Good post Nitsav. I don’t mind a focus on the KJV as long as we are allowed to use other translations as well. I like to use the KJV for one of the the reasons you have articulated well: it constantly reminds me that I am dealing with a foreign and arcane text that is alien to me in many ways. In addition, learning the original languages is important and relying on translations is the easy way to avoid a hard subject. I think that using the KJV is also important to see the link with the revelations and translations of the Restoration.

    However, there is another reason to use the KJV: it’s language is somehow beautiful and exalted in a way that current modern English is not. It reminds me of the beauty of God’s use of language when he speaks to us. Invariably when God speaks to me he speaks the KJV idiom for some reason.

  4. My impression is that the Church has moved more toward literal/formal translation than functional equivalence in its translation of its English based materials into other languages. I have notices that the words of the newer Spanish hymnal track much more closely the original English wording of the U.S. hymnal than did the Spanish hymnal when I served a Spanish speaking mission 35 years ago. I cannot say whether this newer wording is more or less reader/singer friendly.

    The new “official” LDS Spanish Bible translation is based on the earlier, arguably more archaic 1909 Reina Valera Protestant version, rather than the more modern 1960 Reina Valera version we used when I served. I liked the more modern translation better.

    For example, I never understood 1 Corinthians 13 until I served a mission and used the more modern Reina Valera translation that speaks of the preeminence of “amor” (love) rather than using the (what I think is archaic) word “caridad” (charity).

    I can understand the concept that doing great things without “love” is ultimately hollow. Because I know, or at least I think I know, what “love” is (even special kinds of love).

    But when we use the KJV word “charity” instead of “love”, it does cloud, for me, the concept in a little bit of mystery, even though the Book of Mormon defines this KJV word as “pure love of Christ.” In my opinion, the addition of this aspect of mystery makes the passage less accessible.

    Spanish speakers in the Church now are returning to “caridad” as the word in 1 Corinthians 13 rather than “amor”. Of course, this will be consistent with the Book of Mormon translation, which used “caridad” to translate the BofM word “charity” in the passages parallel to 1 Corinthians 13 (in keeping with a literal/formal translation).

  5. Thanks for the comment Blake.

    DavidH, that’s interesting. My Spanish isn’t good enough to evaluate the new Bible, and I don’t think I’ve seen a blog post dedicated to its analysis yet.

    The KJV translators opted for a special translation in 1Co 13, since there’s not a specific Greek word for “charity” as most of us would define it. The Greek there is simply one of the three common Greek words for “love.”

  6. This reminds me of an experience I had while living in Rexburg. A ward member who travelled regularly for his insurance-related job related in testimony meeting that he was so glad to live in Rexburg where the members were more faithful. He had been in Providence, RI and during Sunday School there was a serious discussion about which translation of the Bible was the best. I laughed to myself because I realized that a number of those discussants were likely grad students in Religion at Brown. The laugh soon turned to depression as I thought about how he had gotten to attend Sunday School with FPR-types and hated it. I turned to my wife and said, “I want to go to Church there.”


  7. “The new “official” LDS Spanish Bible translation is based on the earlier, arguably more archaic 1909 Reina Valera Protestant version, rather than the more modern 1960 Reina Valera version we used when I served. I liked the more modern translation better.”

    DavidH: It should be noted, though it may not be the only reason for this decision, that the Church said that one reason for the 1909 edition was because it was the most recent version in the public domain which they could use. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they would have wanted the more arcane language regardless.

  8. Despite the positive reasons given in the post and comments for utilizing the KJV translation, I still really don’t like it very much. For me, at least, the Bible often remains an arcane document even in a good modern scholarly translations, or even in the original languages for that matter, and so the archaic language of the KJV Bible is quite unnecessary in order to help me realize that I am dealing with a foreign text (although perhaps this is simply because I am not as inherently intelligent as everyone else). Further, God doesn’t speak to me in KJV English–rather, he speaks to me in my own language according to my understanding (2 Nephi 31:3); and, at any rate, I think that it is more valuable for readers to understand their religious texts which they are dealing with as easily and thoroughly as possible than that they should struggle with overcoming both the foreignness of the Bible and a translation that can often foster misunderstanding through its arcane language. I also think that the modern translations not only aid in understanding, but also frankly make reading the Bible more enjoyable (for instance, by formatting the text more appropriately to poetry, etc.), and so make it more likely that persons will 1) read the text, 2) keep reading, 3) understand more completely what they are reading, and 4) want to read it again (and again). I also think that it is unnecessary to know KJV English to understand the rest of the Restoration scriptures (I read the BofM in modern German, and I think I do alright with it), and, while it might be useful is seeing some scriptural cross-references, etc., it certainly doesn’t seem essential. I also don’t think that the language of the KJV is inherently more aesthetically appealing–rather, reading with understanding is the most desirable objective in my judgment, and when I read a translation that is clear and understandable (or the original texts), the “light,” “spirit,” and “truth” that I feel emanating from it is its most invigorating, valuable, and appealing feature for me.

    Best wishes,


  9. I used to attend a ward many moons ago in which we used three different Bibles in Gospel Doctrine, KJV being one of them, and we would compare how the different versions handled the scriptures we studied. It was the most fascinating class I ever attended.

  10. For pulpit study, I have a wide-margined Cambridge KJV, containing the full preface by the translators.

    When I was reading it again yesterday, I really liked this statement at the end of the second to the last paragraph on page xxv:

    “But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.”

    I preach with the KJV on Sundays, teach with the ESV on Mondays with teens, and then converse with the NASB during Wednesday night Inductive studies. And I use the NLT for readings with my family.

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