TranslationBorrowing from the KJV Bank and Trust Why we must steward and protect the trust people have in prominent Bible translations. Mark WardIllustration by Josh Koch from the KJV frontispiece. Wikimedia CommonsNovember 8, 2021 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint I want all good evangelical English Bible translations to be trusted and used by all good English-speaking evangelicals. And I think you should want this, too. It makes sense, then, to look to the most popular English Bible of all time for lessons in how a translation might win and keep Bible readers’ trust. That is, of course, the King James Version. The KJV is the one ring to rule them all. There is no escaping its influence—on church history, on Bible translation, on the English language itself. But Rings of Power often get shrouded in hagiographic mist over time. According to a recent poll, 103% of English-speaking Christians believe that the KJV was created on the sixth day and brought over to America on the Mayflower on the seventh. A huge number of English-speaking Christians still use and trust the King James. Okay, that isn’t true. But this is: the most recent reliable poll found that 55% of American Bible readers are still reading the KJV. A huge number of English-speaking Christians still use and trust the King James. And yet, there was when the King James was not. It had to be made by humans, just like today’s translations. There were no angel choirs singing in the sky at its birth (and the Pilgrims carried the Geneva Bible, not the KJV). The KJV had to achieve its status. There are therefore a number of useful lessons we can learn about public trust in Bible translations from the human history of the excellent King James Version. 1. Plan for cavils and parles. First, those who love good English Bible translations today—the ESV, CSB, NIV, NET, NLT, LEB, NKJV, and others—should take heart: even the venerable KJV once faced vituperative opposition. It’s odd, actually, to read the KJV preface, “The Translators to the Reader,” because it opens in what might seem to us to be an unnecessarily defensive crouch. Its author, Myles Smith, is certain people will attack his and his fellow translators’ work. There isn’t much space to read between Smith’s rather dense lines, but I see there a resigned, elite-academic sigh. Smith has no idea he has helped forge the one ring. By sentence two, he is offering this biting prediction: Cavil, if it do not find a hole, will make one.1David Norton, ed., The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with the Apocrypha: King James Version, Revised edition, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), xxvii–xxviii. Page numbers for future quotations of the preface will be given in parentheses. The KJV translators foresaw the inane criticisms (“cavils”) they were about to face, and yet I can’t exactly point to them as examples of how to respond with grace—I don’t hear in Smith much noblesse oblige. He calls out his critics’ “absurdity,” “wickedness,” “envy,” and “malignity.” And listen to this cynical complaint: He that meddleth with men’s religion in any part meddleth with their custom, nay, with their freehold [money-producing land]; and though they find no content in that which they have, yet they cannot abide to hear of altering [it]. (xix) But I actually take some consolation from the mere fact that Smith felt he had to defend the KJV. The malicious treatment that current English Bible translators often get today is not an invention of the social media era. Apparently, it can be overcome. The KJV translators do offer this constructive tip: Being brought together to a parle [conference] face to face, we sooner compose our differences than by writings, which are endless. (xvii) New Bible translations, if they are to be trusted, have to be ready to suffer slings and arrows from outraged Bible readers. And they have to win some of those people over with parles. 2. The KJV is the Septuagint of today. A second lesson we can learn from the KJV translators comes from the insightful comments they make about one of the only Bible translations in history that is more famous than the KJV. This is the Septuagint, the pre-Christian Greek translation of the (Hebrew) Old Testament. Related The Life and Legacy of William TyndalePeter J. GurrySeven Common Misconceptions about the King James BibleTimothy BergPart 1: The Servant Sprinkles Many as Anointed PriestPeter J. Gentry The lesson might go something like this: the trust people have in a prominent Bible translation must be carefully stewarded and protected. The KJV translators were not overly enamored with the accuracy and quality of the Septuagint: It is certain that that translation was not so sound and so perfect but that it needed in many places correction. (xxii) They noted that the coming of the New Testament was a perfect time for God to fix the Septuagint’s problems. Whenever Jesus and the apostles quoted it, they could have adjusted it. But they often didn’t. It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to them to take that which they found (the same being for the greatest part true and sufficient), rather than by making a new, in that new world and green age of the Church, to expose themselves to many exceptions and cavillations, as though they made a translation to serve their own turn. (xxii) The KJV is the Septuagint of today. In general, the safest path to widespread trust is through it. The KJV established a tradition (begun by William Tyndale) of basically literal and beautifully literary translation choices, a tradition that has proven its utility over time. In general, the safest path to widespread trust is through it. While I happen to think that the New International Version is a fine work by fine scholars, and while I use the NIV frequently, it hasn’t hewed as closely to the KJV tradition as a few of the other major modern evangelical English Bible translations. I don’t think there is any kind of biblical requirement that we stick with precedent here; if Christians in your context trust the New International Version, then you have a new and useful tradition worth holding on to. But when it came time for a choice in my own congregation, I found that I was a member of the if-it-ain’t-broke school of Bible translation selection. We now use an English translation that is a more direct heir of the KJV—it was simply an easier sell in my circumstances to borrow from the KJV Bank & Trust. 3. Make the KJV translators thank you. That, in fact, is very like what the KJV translators did in their day. Hence a third lesson: the KJV translators successfully replaced the work of their forebears without disdaining it. I said earlier that Myles Smith wasn’t exactly gentle with his imagined critics. But he was nothing but gracious toward those who went before him in the work of English Bible translation. As nothing is begun and perfected at the same time, and the latter thoughts are thought to be the wiser: so, if we building upon their foundation that went before us, and being helped by their labours, do endeavour to make that better which they left so good, no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us; they, we persuade ourselves, if they were alive, would thank us. (xxvii) There are defenders of exclusive use of the King James Version who take even the gentlest question (Hasn’t English changed enough by now to make portions of the KJV unnecessarily difficult for today’s readers to understand?) as an affront. But it seems to me that if indeed it is time for the English-speaking church to replace the KJV in pulpits and other institutional contexts, pastors and others who must make this change would do well to speak well of the KJV—to refuse to let those defenders lay sole claim to its legacy. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: The KJV translators were not KJV-Only. It is actually those who wish to see the venerable King James revised who are most honoring the KJV tradition. The KJV itself wasn’t a fresh translation; it was a revision of the Bishop’s Bible, first released in 1568. The edition of the KJV that is now in the most common use was produced in 1769 (not 1611). The KJV translators were revisers, and they were sensitive to the charge that revising a translation meant rejecting or even disrespecting that earlier work. They loaded up the metaphors to explain their revision work to non-specialists: It took the work of both Gideon and of the men Ephraim to destroy Midian in Judges 8: both were called for. Likewise, translation and revision are both necessary. (xxvii)Joash struck the ground three times in 2 Kings 13; he should have struck it more. (xxvii)“Books of profane learning” such as Aristotle’s Ethics get translated and then revised—even multiple times. (xxvii)Gold doesn’t stop being gold because it needs at times to be “rubbed and polished.” (xxvii) They did not disdain the work of their forebears. We should not disdain theirs even as we the church begin to use KJV revisions and replacements. Conclusion Some aspects of the KJV’s rise to prominence are unrepeatable, especially 1) the tiny size of the English-speaking world at the time and 2) the fact that pretty well all of it was subject to the king who commissioned the translation. That will never happen again. I am convinced that there will never again be one ring to rule them all. Instead we’ve got something not quite so stirring, though you can still try using a movie-trailer announcer voice to say it: multiple rings with complementary and overlapping powers. It’s a bad idea, then, to take a Bible translation that people trust such as the KJV and cast it into Mount Doom. There is room for many rings. And we can have and use them if we learn some lessons about trust from the wise KJV translators. Mark Ward Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is the editor of Bible Study Magazine and author of its back-page column, “Word Nerd: Language and the Bible.” He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption (BJU Press, 2016), Basics for a Biblical Worldview (BJU Press, 2021), and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018), which became a Faithlife infotainment documentary. He is also the host of the Bible Study Magazine Podcast and is an active (read: obsessive) YouTuber. View all posts Notes1David Norton, ed., The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with the Apocrypha: King James Version, Revised edition, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), xxvii–xxviii. Page numbers for future quotations of the preface will be given in parentheses.