The words of the LORD are pure words. —Psalm 12:6a

Modernizing the English Bible?

In a previous post, we considered all of the different Modern English translations of the pure text of the scriptures, and concluded that the King James Bible is the pure and faithful word of God in English. However, it was translated in 1611, over 400 years ago, and so naturally its language it not entirely familiar to the modern reader. And so we noted that over time there have been various attempts to modernize the King James Bible, in the form of revisions and new translations. In this post we’ll take a look at these modern alternatives, to determine whether any of them can make the case as a worthy successor of the KJB.

Webster’s Revision #

In 1833 Noah Webster published a light revision of the King James Bible, sometimes called the Common Version. His goal was to create a version more suitable for his use as an educator. Thus, while he did not completely modernize the language, he did alter some archaic words and grammar to better match what was then being taught. At the same time, he also replaced some of the Bible’s stronger language with euphemisms, changing “whore” to “lewd woman”, for example. While this may arguably have some merit in an educational context, the translators of the King James Bible chose to use the courser words that they did, not because they themselves were course (quite the contrary), but because that is simply the language that the Bible uses. To translate it otherwise would be to ignore the language that God inspired.

This makes Webster’s revision unsuitable as a general replacement for the King James, as does Webster’s erroneous attempt to “correct” the text by changing “Easter” to “Passover” in Acts 12:4.

New King James Version #

Almost 150 years would go by before the next notable modernization attempt on the King James Bible. This would be the production of an entirely new translation in the mold of the King James, called the New King James Version, first printed as a complete Bible in 1982. The goal was to use updated vocabulary and grammar, but match the classical style of the King James. Famously, the “thee’s and thou’s” are removed, among many other changes.

The 130 translators involved in the production of the NKJV would pursue faithfulness to the original languages, claiming to adopt the same principles as the King James translators, calling this “complete equivalence.” For the New Testament they would use the Textus Receptus, although they would reference alternative readings from corrupted texts in footnotes, which are careful not to promote one line of texts over the other. For the Old Testament, a different source manuscript for the Masoretic Text would be used than the King James was translated from. The Old Testament would also have some influence from the corrupt Septuagint.

The fact that the translators chose to include notes referencing “alternative readings” in admittedly corrupt texts is alarming. Even more so because they chose to “let the reader choose” which reading to believe, and so do not declare the corrupted nature of the texts from which those readings originate. This is disingenuous, as it places corruptions before the reader as if they might be on an equal plane with the pure text. The translators either believe that these alternate readings are corrupt, but are willing to confound and mislead the ignorant reader; or else they do not actually believe in the purity of the Received Text—in which case they are yet the more disingenuous, having produced a translation from it anyway. (This is in fact the position of the executive editor, Micheal L. Farstad—meaning that he himself believes that this translation which he oversaw is not pure and faithful!)

But unfortunately, disingenuousness would appear to be a core attribute of this translation. It was originally advertised as being only a revision of the King James Bible, with the “thee’s and thou’s” removed. However, this is not true; it is a new translation, not just a revision, and it makes other significant changes besides just the removal of the archaic pronouns. Like the Webster Revision, it changes “Easter” to “Passover” in Acts 12:4, demonstrating both an ignorance of Greek and of the Biblical feasts. In another example among many, consider the first three verses of Revelation chapter 12 in the NKJV:

1 Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars.

2 Then being with child she cried out in labor and pain to give birth.

3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads.

For the two words which I have highlighted here, “garland” and “diadems”, a single term is used in the King James Bible. The term is “crown”.

Why was this word changed? The word “crown” is not archaic, in fact it is a much more familiar and easier word than “diadem”! This demonstrates that the NKJV goes far beyond changing only the “thee’s and thou’s”, and does so for no apparent reason.

But another example is necessary to fully expose the nature of changes that the NKJV makes. Consider Revelation 10:11 in the King James Bible:

11 And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.

And in the NKJV:

11 And *he said to me, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings.”

* NU, M they

Did you catch that? They changed “before” to “about”. This is not only a change that has nothing to do with archaic words, but it actually conveys a different meaning. To prophesy “before” someone is to give prophecies in their presence, but the NKJV says that John would prophesy about them instead.

And you will find other such changes scattered throughout the NKJV. Whether you will find these specific ones in a particular copy of the NKJV, however, I cannot say. The NKJV’s text has been changed on multiple occasions without this being denoted by a new edition. It is just one more way that the publishers of the NKJV appear to be disingenuous. 🙁

Modern English Version #

Completed in 2014, the Modern English Version was produced by an ecumenical committee of 47 scholars, overseen by James F. Linzey. The stated goal was to preserve the literary beauty of the King James Bible by producing a new translation from the same source texts, but with modern language. The publishing director, Jason McMullen has said that “part of what we need to embrace as Christians is that updating the language of the Bible should be normative for us.” Linzey and McMullen seem to believe that even the NKJV, after 30 years, is beginning to lose relevance for our fast-paced culture and evolving language. (Or, at least this is a useful marketing ploy, since the NKJV is their main competition.)

Like the NKJV, however, the MEV goes far beyond just modernizing the language. “Passover” is again used in Acts 12:4, and for example, Psalm 12:5 is altered to end, as it also does in the NKJV:

I will place him in the safety for which he yearns.

Whereas the King James says:

I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.

This completely changes the meaning of the verse, and has nothing to do with updating the language. Many other such examples could be given, but this is sufficient to demonstrate that the MEV is a separate and distinct translation, with renderings contradictory to those found in the King James Bible. To suggest that either it or the NKJV is a faithful translation, therefore, would be to say the the King James Bible is not merely outdated, but actually impure—which would entirely contradict our prior conclusions.

Is modernization needed? #

But though these alternatives are found unsuitable, we might still ask the question as to whether the English Bible requires modernization. Do these new translations have a valid premise, but simply have not been faithful in their updated readings?

The premise upon which all attempts to modernize the King James Bible would seem to be based, is that it was translated into language appropriate for its day, but has over time become outdated. However, English language scholars will tell you that this is simply not true. Although the King James Bible was translated around the close of the Elizabethan Period, it wasn’t translated into Elizabethan English. Instead, it was translated into what we now call The King’s English—a more modern form, much like that we speak today. The King James Bible, far from being a throwback to an earlier time, is actually the foundation of our modern language, and so might indeed be said to have been ahead of its time.

Of course, the King James Bible does contain some archaic words and grammar. But once again, the scholars of the history of the English language will tell us that the King James Bible did not become outdated: much of what we consider archaic now was actually already becoming archaic then. For example, the famous “thee”s and “thou”s do not represent the language of the day, since “you” had already become the second-person singular pronoun of choice. The same is true for many other words and grammar found in the King James. It hasn’t become outdated, it simply used archaic words and older English linguistic constructs to start with, by choice of the translators.

But of course, this begs us to ask the question, “Why would the King James Bible translators intentionally choose to use archaic words and grammar?” The answer is actually very simple: because they wanted to be as faithful to the Greek and Hebrew as possible. This is why the King James Bible wasn’t translated into Elizabethan English (thank God), but into “biblical English”, if you will: Modern English, but with elements from older English retained as needed in order to faithfully convey what God said.

For example, the original languages use different words for singular and plural second-person pronouns, and so the King James translators did so as well. Thus the “thee”s and “thou”s are there, not because people talked funny back then (they did, but not in that way), but because God put the “thee”s and “thou”s there when he inspired the writers of the Hebrew and Greek. They are there by God’s choice, the translators were simply following his leading.

And the same is true for other archaic words and grammar that the translators chose to use: they did so because it was necessary in order to produce a faithful translation. A general problem with attempting to remove these archaic words is that usually this reduces the Bible’s vocabulary, and increases paraphrasing. This lessens the precision and accuracy of the translation, and thus its faithfulness to the original text. Therefore, far from being a problem with the King James Bible, the translators’ willingness to use archaic English demonstrates how earnest they were in pursuing fidelity to the inspired words of God. This painstaking precision is one of things that makes the King James Bible so superior to every other English translation ever produced.

While there are those who will still lament that this makes for more difficult reading, this is subjective, and this writer finds quite the opposite to be the case. Not only does the sing-song meter of the King James Bible make for delightful reading and easy memorization, but upon close examination we find that modern translations actually often unnecessarily use more difficult language—as in the NKJV’s changing of “crowns” to “diadems”, pointed out above. Some will complain that the use of archaic words will mean that they will constantly have to go to the dictionary to look these words up. But of course there’s nothing wrong with that, and in actual experience it is seldom really necessary. Most of these words are used in several different places in scripture, and as one becomes familiar with the Bible the definitions become clear. The words are defined by the text itself, often without the need to even look them up in other locations.

And so while some aspects of the King James Bible may (and indeed, have always,) fallen unfamiliar on the ear, the millions who still read it daily can attest to its unmatched beauty and fidelity to the inspired words of God. Far from being a throwback to a bygone era, the King James Bible providentially sits at the confluence of archaic and Modern English, the only place where God’s word can be fully and faithfully conveyed into the English language. And thus, modernization is not only unnecessary, but it can only result in a less exact rendering of God’s holy inspired words.


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