Sometimes Older Means Better

We are so into “new” in America. Marketing experts know that if there is any conceivable way that they can find to put the word “new” on a product, it will improve the product’s chances of getting a look, a second look, and an eventual sale.

Most Christians would probably be surprised to find out that the number of Bible translations in the English language is fast approaching 500. That’s right!  There are almost 500 translations. Of course many of them are so obscure, odds are that you will never hear of them, let alone ever see them.

Step into you average Christian bookstore and you will have to face the choice between several translations. No, you won’t have hundreds to choose from, but you will probably have the option between most of these popular translations:

– Amplified

– English Standard Version (ESV)

– God’s Word

– Good News Translation (GNT)

– Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

– King James Version (KJV)

– New American Standard Version (NASB)

– New Century Version (NCV)

– New English Translation (NET)

– New International Version (NIV)

– New International Readers Version (NIrV)

– New King James Version (NKJV)

– New Living Translation (NLT)

– New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

– Revised Standard Version (RSV)

– Today’s New International Version (TNIV)

That’s sixteen translations, over half of which have the word “new” in the name. But all these new translations in the past 50 years really beg the question, “Is newer always better?” It seems that each new translation, upon publication, promises to be THE translation for life.

Go back fifty years and there were only two of those Bibles on the list: the King James Version (KJV) and the Revised Standard Version (RSV). I am not saying that those were the ONLY two versions around back then; I’m only saying that those were the only two versions from the list above.

The New International Version (NIV) has been, by far, the most successful new translation (in terms of sales). But one version in the list still stands alone in influence, popularity, and prestige. And it is far from new. Of course I am referring to the King James Version (KJV).

Even with the success of the NIV, the massive shadow of the KJV looms large over all modern translations. Consider this quote from J. I. Packer (General Editor, ESV) regarding the release of the English Standard Version (ESV) nearly a decade ago:

…I think the ESV is going to go beyond its predecessors and establish itself as, in effect, the new King James for the 21st century.”

It is truly amazing that a translation that is 399 years old is still so influential today! No wonder big plans are being made for the 400th anniversary next year.

As I think about the King James Version, I recognize that a lot of Christians struggle with reading it because of the antiquated language. But I want to suggest that although it may not be the best English translation for reading comprehension, it is definitely one of the best you can choose for in-depth Bible study. Here are a few reasons why:

(1) Literal Translation- The King James Version is a very literal, word-for-word translation, which in today’s terms we call a formal translation. Formal translations are better for in-depth Bible study.

(2) Italicized Words – Pick up a copy of the King James Version and take a look inside. See any italicized words? You should (there is a small chance that you actually own a copy that does not, but the vast majority of copies do). Today we use italics for emphasis but in the King James Version they serve a different purpose. They let us know which words were supplied by the translators in order to help the sentence make sense in English. Translation from one language to another does not always follow a simple one-t0-one correspondence. The translators would translate each word and then maybe make a few syntax adjustments (word order in the sentence). At that point, if it didn’t sound right, they would fill in the words needed for it to sound normal to the English ear.

(3) Precise Pronouns – At one point or another you have probably heard someone complain about the “thees” and “thous” of the King James. For years I did not know that those old pronouns in the King James actually served a positive role for modern readers. The original Hebrew and Greek of the Bible differentiated between the second person singular and plural. In proper modern English we have no differentiation between the two: you/your (singular) and you/your (plural). [In “Southern” English we have differentiation…you and y’all]. When you read the King James Version, thee/thou/thine is singular and ye/you/your is plural. Modern translations have no way for you (thee) to know for sure if the Greek/Hebrew is singular or plural.

(4) Verse-by-Verse Layout – Modern translation are almost always set in paragraph form. For extended reading sessions, paragraph format is more familiar to our modern eyes and preferred by most readers. But for in-depth Bible study the verse-by-verse format has more advantages. For one, it eliminates the interpretive divisions by the modern editors who decided when they thought new paragraphs should begin/end. For two, it leaves more space on the page for you to make notations.

(5) Memory – The very “weakness” of archaic words and unusual phrases becomes a strength when it comes to memorization. The unusual and unfamiliar catches our attention and sticks in our minds more than the familiar. I know many people who say that they can remember verses in the King James far longer than in any of the modern translations in which they have memorized Scripture. The King James Version was translated with oral presentation in mind. The majority of people in the early 1600s were illiterate. Their exposure to the Bible would be completely limited to listening to someone else read it aloud. The translators were highly influenced by this cultural reality and worked hard to produce a translation that would not only be pleasant to the ear, but highly memorable. Based on nearly 400 years of history, I would say they succeeded.

For the above reasons, I would encourage you to consider doing some Bible study in the KJV. Sometimes older is better.

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13 thoughts on “Sometimes Older Means Better”

  1. Pastor, as a former KJV-Onlyist, I would have to greatly disagree with you. First, your list leaves out other important translations of the time, which by doing so, you can then make your argument of ‘new’ and ‘last 50 years.’

    Further. the italicized words are nifty and all, but shouldn’t the entire thing be italicized? I mean, any translation has to had words and change sentence structure. Further, not all added words are in italics.

    The ‘precise pronouns’ argument is a bit faulty. This is why a study of the original languages is a most. We have lexicons, interlinears, etc… for this expressed purpose.

    Verse layout? Most of my ‘new’ bibles actually have verse lay out, which is an invention, as were the chapters, which many times destroy the united of through in passages.

    Finally, the KJV is based on a defunct set of Greek MSS, and considering that words have changed completely (can you prevent God?) studying the ‘old’ versions can lead to bad doctrine.

  2. Great write up Brett!
    I totally like the part~

    “The very “weakness” of archaic words and unusual phrases becomes a strength when it comes to memorization. The unusual and unfamiliar catches our attention and sticks in our minds more than the familiar. I know many people who say that they can remember verses in the King James far longer than in any of the modern translations in which they have memorized Scripture.”

    So true! Thanks for sharing, John

  3. @Joel – I think you need to re-read my post more carefully. A couple of your points sound like you are arguing against things I did not state or intend.
    For example, your first point about “the other translations” is not relevant to what I said. Please re-read. What “of the time” are you referring to? The late 20th Century or the 16th and 17th Centuries?
    Regarding your first question (not that I think you were necessarily asking my opinion), no…I find the italicized words, whether in the NASB (Critical Text) or the KJV (RT) to be very helpful and done rather well.
    I’m not sure why you think the “precise pronouns” argument is a bit faulty. Sure, in an ideal world, everyone would study the original languages, but the italicized concept is a valid tool to help the average person understand a little bit more about the translation process.
    Your next point revealed you totally are not tracking with me. For example, there is no such thing as a verse-by-verse layout in the New Living Translation.
    I am not talking about the chapter and verse divisions, which, true, are interpretive in and of themselves. I’m talking about verse-by-verse text layout vs. paragraph format.
    Finally, the KJV will not lead you to believe any doctrines that thousands of Christians are embracing annually through reading the modern texts based upon the critical text.

    @John – Thanks!

  4. Pastor Brett,

    Sorry, but I believe you aren’t really tracking with me… First, the time period refers to the list time period. There have been good translations developed even after the KJV as well as long before. Tyndale comes to mind.

    In my opinion, again, italics are a fallacy, since the rare translation actually follows the Hebrew/Greek word order with only those actually trying to do word for word (which, as you know, is virtually impossible if you want to create a real translation).

    I have several NLTs and while some are in paragraph form, some are in verse by verse.

    Pastor, I would contend with your last point severely, especially in a fundamentalist area such as Appalachia.

  5. Joel,

    Your first point is why I asked you to re-read my post carefully. This post was not intended to discuss the older translations, but to point out that the KJV can be a good choice to make when deciding on a translation in which to do in-depth Bible study. The Tyndale, Geneva, or any other older translation is irrelevant to my point because the average reader of my blog is not interested in ordering a copy of the Tyndale.

    I find it interesting you seem so eager to denounce the KJV because of its so-called “defunct” manuscripts and then turn around and label the Tyndale as good! What manuscripts do you think Tyndale was working with? Furthermore, to like the Tyndale and not the KJV seems illogical since the KJV NT is probably more depend on the Tyndale than any other document.

    I think we will have to just agree to disagree when it comes to the italics issue. The KJV translators translated word-for-word, adjusted the syntax (a process which they, and I concur, saw no need to demarcate via italics), and then added supplied words to smooth it out, as I mentioned before. This makes perfect sense to me.

    Your logic about all words needing to be italicized seems to push one to the conclusion that all translations are untrustworthy, which perhaps confirmed by your comment: “a study of the original languages is a must.” I think a study of the original languages is ideal, helpful, and wonderful, but not a must. We can trust our English Bibles to provide for us a adequate deposit of the faith entrusted to us.

    I’m glad to be corrected concerning verse-by-verse formats. I have a friend who is a huge fan of the NLT and was interested in finding a verse-by-verse format; we were both under the impression that they didn’t exist. Please pass along an Amazon link or ISBN of your favorite one (leather edition preferred) so I can send it along to him.

    And in regard to Appalachia, I guess you have a point there. Mark 16 is applied quite uniquely by some of the mountain folk up yonder there. But other than those rare exceptions, the vast majority of the people who read the KJV and the modern translations arrive at the same basic core tenets of the historic Christian faith (and I am speaking very narrowly here when I say the same core tenets).

  6. First, the Tyndale remark was about other translations as opposed to only the KJV. It actually has a better base, only by a bit, than the KJV.

    Sorry, Pastor Brett, while I enjoy a good many translations, I don’t place my entire trust in a translation. We must study the Scriptures, so that we can understand what is being said. While most real translations are trustworthy, we should lean towards God’s word and not another’s opinion.

    When I get home, I’ll let you know about the NLTs

    I think that salvation can be found in any translation – although it generally comes by the call of God, etc… but I do believe that the KJV, while beautiful and historic, must not be read alone. Admired but not excluded from criticism.

  7. Joel,

    You said

    “Finally, the KJV is based on a defunct set of Greek MSS, and considering that words have changed completely (can you prevent God?) studying the ‘old’ versions can lead to bad doctrine.”

    So what set of manuscripts would you point to as the gold standard? Because for you to be so certain that Beza’s third edition of the Textus Receptus and the Masoretic text are “defunct” I would assume you knew that based on better texts?

    And studying old versions can lead to bad doctrine? Are you being serious? Sir, the great awakening occured by using this “old” translation. The underlying texts were used by the greats of the reformation. What on earth could you possibly take from the KJV that leads to doctrine that the “critical” texts don’t also teach, except maybe that they don’t refer to Jesus as God as much as the majority texts….but surely you don’t think that is bad doctrine.

    In Christ,
    Matt Ervin

  8. Brett, I really enjoyed your article. I’d just like to share a couple of thoughts:

    First, I actually think paragraph format has more advantages than verse-by-verse. Yes, paragraph divisions are interpretative decisions that are not in the originals; but then again so are verse divisions; and there are places where other modern inventions like punctuation and even spaces in between words are interpretative decisions. The key is to read through the whole book repeatedly in order to gain a sense of the logical flow, and make up your own mind as to paragraph divisions. It’s more work, but as we both know, in-depth study is a lot of work! And it serves as a constant reminder that the parts must always be interpreted in the context of the whole.

    Overall, though, I think the KJV is an excellent translation with both its strengths and its weaknesses. I refer to it when doing sermon preparation. And if you’re going to choose a base translation from which to study, the KJV is certainly a good choice. But any choice of translation must always be accompanied by the recommendation that the BEST way to study the Bible in-depth without a knowledge of Greek or Hebrew is to compare with several translations. No translation is perfect, nor do I believe that any one translation is inherently “better.” There’s been a lot of discoveries of new manuscripts. Let’s evaluate them on their own merits, and allow God to speak a fresh Word to our generation.

  9. Fernando,

    Excellent thoughts, brother. I prefer paragraph form when simply reading. But I prefer verse-by-verse for in-depth study. And yes, we should compare several translations; I believe even when we have a knowledge of Hebrew or Greek.

    I am afraid my word selection in this post has led some to believe that I am saying that the KJV is a superior translation to all others when I say, “Sometimes older is better.”

    So let me be clear: I wasn’t saying that the KJV, as a translation, is better, in all respects, when compared with other translations, either older ones (Tyndale, Geneva, etc.) or newer ones (NASB, NIV, ESV, etc.). I was simply saying that the KJV has some advantages (“Sometimes Older is Better”) when it comes to studying the Bible, when compared to the typical commercial offerings of the modern translations. I then listed a few of those advantages.

    Let me put it another way, when reading my post above, put the emphasis on “sometimes” and not on “better.”

  10. And I will add that I don’t think that the KJV is perfect. I only hold that the originals were God-breathed. However, I can honestly say that I find the KJV to be the best translation. I also really like the Geneva Bible. As far as CT translations go, I like the NASB the most.

  11. Brett, thanks for the clarification! I appreciate your point of view and the thought you put into it!

    And Matthew, from the comments I’ve read from you here and on other forums where I’ve run into you, you have always struck me as someone who is familiar with both the original languages as well as the issues involved in textual criticism, and because of that I greatly respect your opinions.

    I hope I don’t come off as against the KJV, or even simply a contrarian. I’m just the kind of guy who likes to point out the other side of the coin every now and then! 🙂 Thanks for the conversation!

  12. Fernando,

    You are far too kind. I do know Greek fairly well and am maybe on a children’s level with Hebrew. I am also very interested in textual criticism…although I’m afraid to do it myself

    I don’t think you are arguing just to do so. I welcome reasonable ideas from believers/fellow pastors. I would agree that we should be open to at least looking at differing manuscripts. I am also open to reviewing different versions. Although I wouldn’t say I respect them all. I find that some go way too far in so called dynamic equivalence.

  13. Great article. Thank you. One other advantage that the KJV has is that while all translations have flaws and errors, the KJV’s are all very well known and well documented.

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