Getting Past the KJV

King James I of England

The Summer 2012 issue of Dialogue contains an article by Grant Hardy titled “The King James Bible and the Future of Missionary Work.” The main point Hardy stresses in the article is that the King James Version (KJV) has become so outdated that it now creates problems for LDS missionaries using the KJV in their teaching. Recounting a missionary encounter of his own with a young woman who was reading selected scriptures in her New International Version (NIV) Bible along with the visiting LDS missionaries, Hardy comments, “The meanings did not match up. … The elders were flustered …. In this case, our exclusive reliance on the King James Version … had become a barrier to sharing the message of the gospel” (p. 1). Given how few denominations still rely on the KJV and the popularity of newer and better translations like the NIV and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), I am certain similar episodes occur hundreds of times each month.

The Problem

Hardy lays out the problem in more detail.

Two generations ago, when the KJV was the most widely accepted and trusted translation, it was an advantage for Latter-day Saints to also use that version because it allowed us to present the restored gospel in terms that were familiar to most people. This is no longer the case. Several major translations today are more reliable than the KJV in terms of accuracy, clarity, readability, and closeness to the biblical texts as they were originally written. (p. 2)

It’s not just missionaries that have a problem: LDS high school and college students in Seminary and Institute classes have difficulty penetrating archaic KJV vocabulary and grammar. Most LDS adults don’t fare much better. And these difficulties don’t even address the translation errors contained in the KJV but remedied in modern translations, whose translators have access to better manuscripts and better scholarship than did the KJV translators in the early 17th century.

To compound the problem, in a 1992 letter the First Presidency of the LDS Church more or less declared the KJV to be the official Bible of the English-speaking Church. That letter reads in part:

The most reliable way to measure the accuracy of any biblical passage is not by comparing different texts, but by comparison with the Book of Mormon and modern-day revelations.While other Bible versions may be easier to read than the King James Version, in doctrinal matters latter-day revelation supports the King James Version in preference to other English translations.

Consequently, use of modern translations like the NIV and the NRSV even for personal study or to help explain an opaque KJV passage to an LDS Sunday School class is discouraged.

The Solution?

It would be impractical to simply designate a newer translation as the new Bible for the English-speaking Church. Latter-day Saints who have been raised on the awkward syntax of the KJV might find the change to clear English prose troubling. Furthermore, the LDS Edition of the Bible (which uses the KJV text with LDS-oriented study aids and footnotes) published in 1979 is now too deeply embedded in the LDS curriculum to easily replace. Given these practical difficulties, Hardy’s recommendation is to encourage the use of modern translations as supplementary resources for personal study and for instruction in BYU religion classes. At present, Deseret Book does not even stock modern translations of the Bible such as the NIV and the NRSV. Apart from the LDS KJV edition, only simplified versions such as Baby’s First Bible and My First Read and Learn Bible are listed in Deseret Book’s online inventory catalog.

A Question

No doubt readers have their own stories to share about the challenges of the KJV and the utility of newer translations. One topic I have never seen addressed is how other Protestant denominations that relied on the KJV until just the last generation or two managed the transition to a newer translation. Do other denominations have a designated or preferred translation? Was there a formal statement disfavoring the KJV and recommending use of a newer translation? Or do other denominations simply recommend Bible study using whatever translation appeals to individual readers? The experience of other denominations that have successfully managed a transition to newer translations of the Bible should provide a road map for an eventual LDS transition to a newer translation. The sooner the better.


Getting Past the KJV — 16 Comments

  1. This isn’t directly related but over the past few years there has been a project at BYU using its Religion & Classics professors to produce a new “rendition” (a.k.a., translation) of the New Testament in several volumes. Even though a few of these volumes are essentially completed, apparently the project has been put on an indefinite hiatus for a few complicated reasons.

  2. Do other denominations have a designated or preferred translation? Was there a formal statement disfavoring the KJV and recommending use of a newer translation?

    From the website for the UMC (my denomination):

    The United Methodist Church does not have an “official” version or translation of the Bible. Only the General Conference can designate specific ritual texts or other liturgical or teaching resources as official. Protestant denominations never designate a single Bible translation for use. Rather United Methodists affirm the usefulness of a number of translations and versions as being helpful for study, teaching, memorization and other purposes, since each sheds a slightly different light in translating or paraphrasing the original languages and manuscripts.

    I have highlighted the answer to your question, assuming the person writing this page has the correct answer.

    This works for Protestants because the emphasis is on reading the same passages together, not the same Bible. Well, at least for those Protestants who follow more or less the Revised Common Lectionary. The common passage is emphasized during services by reading the passage(s) from the same Bible the preacher will be using to preach. In my congregation this varies between the NIV, the Message, and (rarely) the NRSV. The translation is presumably chosen because it better brings out the themes the preacher wants to emphasize.

    Because LDS don’t have this fixed reading schedule, nor the custom of reading the passages aloud prior to a sermon, the LDS church is much more dependent on a common Bible translation so that everyone can read little snippets of scripture as they follow along in a talk. The only thing that makes for a common scripture reading experience in this setting is the practice of making sure everyone reads the exact same words. Hence, the need for official Bible translations in LDS culture.

    Or do other denominations simply recommend Bible study using whatever translation appeals to individual readers?

    Yes, my local Bible study group involves several different translations. But even if people have the same translation, they can also choose from different levels and types of study aids, commentary etc. In fact, I don’t think a single person in the group has the same Bible as anyone else. It works just fine because it’s a study group, and people tend to appreciate hearing other viewpoints and translations. I tend to avoid the whole translation issue by following along in my Greek NT.

    This is going to sound snarky, but I really don’t think LDS Sunday School and seminary are geared towards learning new things as much as they are geared towards reviewing what people already believe. People give answers called “Sunday School Answers” for a good reason, they are generally the right answers and it’s generally appreciated. Since Sunday School is more of an exercise in community building and community remembering, it is helpful for all members to share the same translation and the same study aids. Again, community requirements dictate a need for officiality that is not present in Protestant denominations.

  3. The question you pose is an interesting one, Dave. There are definitely still Protestants who cling to the 1611 KJV as the one and only true translation. There have always been different translations among Protestants, though, so for most Protestants I don’t think it’s been that big an issue. The project of more accurate, more vernacular Bible translation was one of the original impetuses of the Reformation, and the project has continued throughout Protestant history despite the rather surprising persistence of the KJV.

    Protestants also tend not to be top-down gerontocracies like the LDS Church. Among Protestants, these sorts of transitions are typically handled at a congregational level, and tend to coincide with generational turnover in congregational leadership. As congregations age and begin to worry about their survival, they seek to revitalize themselves by calling on young, charismatic leaders with newfangled ideas. The inevitable grassroots resistance among conservative elderly members is overcome by youthful enthusiasm and competitive pressure.

    In other words, I’m not sure a Protestant model can be applied to the LDS Church. The rules don’t really allow for youthful General Authorities, which means a top-down reform is unlikely. I suppose that the General Authorities could make a decision to allow more freedom for innovation at the grassroots level, but this risks achieving cultural relevancy at the expense of the uniformity that gives Mormonism its semi-ethnic cohesion.

    There’s also the problem that the other LDS scriptures, for which re-translation is not an option, use a similar (if rather dumbed-down) archaic diction. Perhaps a new translation could be produced that keeps the archaic personal pronouns, but eliminates most of the other obsolete vocabulary. Bring the incredibly obtuse KJV at least up to a Book of Mormon level of readability.

  4. To echo Chris above, I think the main problem we face with choosing a new translation is the fact that the Book of Mormon and other LDS scriptures mimic the archaic style of the KJV. Therefore, to choose a new translation of the bible might be opening a Pandora’s box of questions like “When will the Book of Mormon be released in a more readable form?” Which I think would be a very difficult if not impossible feat for the church to do and still retain its claim that the book has only been translated once and that was by a prophet of God.
    Concerning missionary work with the KJV, I never found it to be a problem. The problem came when asking people to read the Book of Mormon with its archaisms. Therefore, if our quest is an easier missionary outreach, perhaps a more readable form of the Book of Mormon should be considered. Again, I think this would be difficult. I think the only way the church could pull that off is if they were to say that President Monson himself (or Bruce R. McConkie) did most of the rewording. I don’t think it will ever happen but I am one of the most staunch supporters of adopting a new version of the bible (no suggestion on which version).

  5. I wonder how this issue plays out in non-English speaking mission fields. When the Book of Mormon is translated into Spanish or Finnish or whatever, is contemporary vernacular used? Does the translation seek to adhere to the style and vocabulary of the popular Bible used in that country?

    When it endorses a Bible for its members, does the LDS Church use the most contemporary language Bible translation in that language, or does it opt for the most revered?

    The issue of updating the Book of Mormon into contemporary English is interesting. Why would that need to be the task of the Prophet, when translating it into other languages is done by low level functionaries. Does anybody every think that the Book of Mormon loses some authenticity or authority when it is translated from archaic English into contemporary Spanish? I don’t think so. Why would translating it into contemporary English be any different?

  6. Interestingly, the Community of Christ (RLDS) community has done a more reader-friendly version of the Book of Mormon. The 1908 Authorized Version replaced the previously used versions based on the 1874 First RLDS Edition, which was, in turn, based on the 1840 Third American Edition. There was a period in which two or three versions were simultaneously used, as the transition took place. Then in 1966 the church put forth a somewhat modernized version of the book, but the General Conference rejected it as a replacement for the Authorized Version. Now the Community of Christ uses both the 1908 and 1966 versions, as I understand it.

  7. When I am asked to read aloud from the Bible in my Sunday School class, I always read from the Revised English Bible. In fact I often volunteer alternative readings or an analysis from a Greek or Hebrew word. If anyone were to challenge me on this alternative use of versions, I simply am ready to relate my own experince with an apostle. I recall hearing Mark E. Petersen speak in the tabernacle to a university aged audience. He read a passage from the KJV then read from three other transtions of the same passage to get at the point. I am suggesting that if we want to change our Sunday School class, we ought to change it ourselves. We have the apostolic precedent. This KJV discussion reminds me of Seng Tsan, the third patriach of Chinese Buddhism (6th century). A disciple came to the Patriach and asked him “How can I be made free?” The master relied, “Who is it that binds you?”

  8. Great comments all around.

    Most Protestant denominations don’t have an “official Bible,” but they do often have translations that they favor or recommend. Remember, they have to select a translation to invest in by putting it in the pews. They also have to select Bibles for events like confirmation. I remember having a conversation with the gentleman from my denomination who was in charge of selecting what Bible to use as confirmation gifts (he’s my pastor’s father). Previously, the ECC (Evangelical Covenant Church) had been using the TNIV, but when that was discontinued in 2011, they needed to choose another translation and were deciding between the NLT and NIV-2011 edition. I remember showing him my (then pre-published) review of the NIV-2011 and discussing both some of the things it did well and the things it did poorly. Ultimately he wound up abandoning the NIV series in favor of the NLT.

    As another example, here is a list of translations approved by the Episcopal Church. The only churches which tend to be zealously devoted to one translation are King-James-Only churches. So if we wanted to compare how Protestants have made similar transitions, we’d have to look for a King-James-Only denomination that recently stopped being KJ-only. I’ll ask my advisor if he knows anyone who might have done work on this.

    If the LDS church ever chose to update the BoM, I really don’t think this would be all that different from speakers of other languages having to live with BoM translations that were made from the current English text.

  9. I’ve used the Lexham English Bible with success in a number of LDS settings, including Sunday School, firesides, and BYU classes. Only one person has approached me about how the prose doesn’t sound like the KJV, and I mentioned Joseph Smith’s own thoughts about Bible translation. In short, JS gives us some excellent statements about how he wished to learn Hebrew so that he could access the “original language” of the Bible and correct errors in the English version. You all know this; this person didn’t. Just alerting her to that was enough to assuage any of her anxiety over a different English rendition of the text.

  10. I use the Harper Collins Study Bible (NRSV). I disguise it in a leather book cover when I go to church. 🙂

    I love the notes at the bottom of each page — they provide great context and explanation to the text.

  11. @#5 Ross
    I served my mission in Brazil, which has an interesting problem in that only one translation of the bible is allowed to be printed and sold, a translation by joao ferreira de almeida (if I remember the spelling right).This was translated in the 1600’s and maintains that style of Portuguese. The Book of Mormon was not translated into modern or even Brazilian Portuguese, but rather had all the same archaicisms as the the bible.
    So I guess I don’t understand why we can’t move to a different verion as a church, because we already have in other countries

  12. I like the King James version because psychologically when I see the more “formal” (if I may call it that) language my mind immediately treats it like a sacred text. When I read the more modern versions it *to me* comes across as more modern language and I get the feeling I have secularized the sacred.

    That said, perhaps if I was raised on another version I would find that style more scared sounding but I’m not so sure. Anything that reads with the same contemporary common language like the Twilight Series may not ever seem sacred no matter how you were raised.

    For example, a recently proposed version on an LDS website was the NRSV. John 17:1 reads “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you” and King James: “Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee”

    Referring to God with your and you just doesn’t seem very sacred. And this example is just a microcosm of all that I would worry about the switch. Society is becoming secularized enough as it is.

  13. Joseph Smidt, remember that in 1611 when the KJV was published, it was written in the familiar, colloquial form of English. In essence, it was a “modern” version for its time. Ironically, “thine” and “thou”, which we take as reverent or formal forms of speech, were actually the familiar forms of address, basically equivalent to “your” and “you” today. So when the KJV was written, it wasn’t written in sacralized language. It would have read to its original readers much like the contemporary translations read to us. The language of the KJV came to be sacralized because of its connection with holy writ. As the English language evolved away from Elizabethan forms, only the Bible continued to sound like that, so people began to see that form of language as special or holy.

  14. Baptism Quotations – Baptism is subsequent to conversion rather than a saving ordinance, but an external sign of an inward function. Baptism isn’t optional for the believer, but an order of our Lord to be followed. Right before Jesus came back to heaven, He commanded His supporters to preach the gospel to all individuals and to baptize christians. Baptism is a sign to everyone else watching that he or she has accepted Christ as Savior and that he/she plans to live to please Him and mind Christ. Everyone who is remorseful for his or her sins, repents, and believes in Jesus as Savior should be baptized. There is no age limit for baptism. Comprehends what baptism signifies and when a person is preserved, they needs to be baptized. As cited in the Holy Bible.