When I started this series of posts, I had no idea it would attract such invective. There has been a lot of criticism and even a fair bit of ridicule for the versions I have included and the ones I have not. Let me reiterate for all the readers – this series is what it is. Some versions people think should be included haven’t been included. Some positions people think should be taken haven’t been taken. It is perfectly fine to disagree with the content of these articles. Your disagreement will be noted.
On to the final post, “Updating the King James Version.”
In the first post of the series, we explored the major revisions of the Authorized Version or King James Version of the Bible (AV or KJV). More than one commenter noted the absence of the New King James Version (NKJV). I intentionally omitted the NKJV from that post because it is part of a different line of thinking than the other revisions (RV, ASV, RSV, NASB, NRSV, ESV). The NKJV is different for a number of reasons:
- The translators attempted to retain as much of the KJV wording as possible.
- For the most part, the translators adhered to the same textual tradition from which the KJV was rendered.
- The translators were overwhelming conservative evangelicals – which was not true of most of the other revisions (except the NASB and ESV).
- The translation itself was not intended to be a standard version – for use in all English-speaking denominations.
Although various of the other revisions might share one or two of these characteristics, the NKJV is the only one which intentionally employed all of them.
A Brief Contextual History
The New King James Version came about because of some conversations that Arthur Farstad (who was later responsible for the Holman Christian Standard Bible) had with prominent conservatives in the late 70’s. These conversations culminated in the publication of the New King James Version in 1982, but the conversation that spawned it came out of a broader context that we need to explore.
You might think that this information is extraneous, but it does have a direct bearing on the reasons the NKJV was developed.
Getting to the King James Version…
The original King James Version was actually an overhaul of William Tyndale’s translations of the previous century. Tyndale had the misfortune of doing his work during the reign of Henry VIII, who hated Protestants, even after he became one in the 1530’s. As a result, Tyndale worked in exile, and his New Testaments were smuggled into England. He was eventually burned at the stake, but his work continued to influence English translation works.
Henry VIII died, followed quickly by his son Edward VI. Then came his slightly mad, Catholic daughter Mary and then his long-lived and intriguing youngest daughter Elizabeth I. She ruled for decades, but eventually also died – leaving no heir. Her cousin once removed, James VI of Scotland, was summoned to take the throne of England.
In 1603, James was on his way to take his throne in London as James I. He made a number of stops along the way, ostensibly to hear from supplicants but actually just to avoid the outbreak of plague in London. At Hampton Court, James heard from a number of Puritans who made a number of requests – all of which he denied except their request for his sponsorship of a new translation of the Scripture. This was nothing new. Both Henry and Elizabeth had authorized Bibles.
This project however was massive, spreading over Oxford and Cambridge’s campuses. James made a few easily followed rules, and the translators were supplied with copies of the Bishop’s Bible as well as permission to draw from several other English Bibles. The work took the better part of seven years and in the end, the result is a masterful work of translation and English composition. It is truthfully, as I have pointed out before, the last translation into English that has forced English to conform to the original texts rather than the other way round.
…and then Stopping?
After the 1611 publication of the KJV, there were several small revisions made to the English text – usually correcting spelling or printer’s errors but also some minor reworking – until 1769. One assumes that these revisions should have gone on but they did not. (To be fair, there were some minor corrections that went on, but nothing ‘official’.)
For some KJVO advocates, this is because the text reached perfection and needed no further work. But if you look closely at the history of the world during the period between 1769 and Arthur Farstad’s suggestion of a revision of the KJV over 200 years later, you see something more was going on in the world.
The Rise of Modernity…
A lot of things happened shortly before and after 1769 which altered the world forever, most of which never get discussed in the Bible version debate. Chief among them, there was a shift in Europe to a new view of the world – what became modernity. This shift had many reasons, but ‘religion’ was becoming something of an anathema in academic circles. Theology became more and more anthropocentric. Textual studies became increasingly concerned with nuance and minutiae. Biological and cultural evolution became all the rage in academic circles.
In short, Western mankind felt like they were ‘growing’ out of the need for religion. One of the most stunning event that gave credence to this was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. It struck while thousands were in church, and people were killed in their pews. Those who escaped to the shoreline were drowned by a massive tsunami. Theologians of the time wrote extensively about the event, asking how God could possibly allow this to happen.
Although not necessarily the cause of the rise of modernity, it was things like it that gave credence to the ideas of deism and ultimately humanism. The Age of Modernity was one in which religion and ‘intellectual pursuits’ became distinct. Particularly in Europe, academia questioned everything about faith and turn radically against it.
This happened even as imperial ambitions motivated the European powers to expand ever outward into ‘unknown’ lands. The British Empire in particular expanded immeasurably. Human progress seemed to be moving onward unchecked and often with nothing more than a nod in the general direction of faith.
It is a mistake then to assume that the KJV was not revised after 1769 because it had reached perfection. One has only to sit in a liturgical Anglican church and you realize that the Church of England is frozen in its heyday – frozen in Tudor and Jacobean England. The KJV was reasserted as the English Bible after the English Civil War and the Commonwealth failed miserably, and the English welcomed back their monarchy in the person of Charles II in 1660. Revisions picked up again, but then faltered with the coming of the House of Hanover and particularly with the rule of George III. Modernity made church, even a state church, purely perfunctory. Why revise a Bible which worked perfectly well with a religion that was increasingly pressed to the margins?
(The same was not true in America where once printers were freed from the British Crown’s right to the printing of the KJV, they printed it with typical American gusto. Unfortunately, in their rush, they often misprinted it as well. It wasn’t until the late 19th century and early 20th century that it all got sorted out on this side of the Atlantic.)
And when the task of revision was undertaken in the 1881, it was undertaken by men of Victorian England – men who saw their own society as the pinnacle of humanity’s march toward perfection. They believed their science was superior to anything that had come before it, and the translation they produced (and the texts they used to produce it) were symptomatic of their times. This is neither good nor bad. It simply is.
The turn of the 19th to the 20th century was often heralded as the age of mankind’s greatest accomplishments and advancement. We as a race believed we had overcome all opposition, discovered all there was to know and were all around doing just fine. If there was a God, he would soon show up to pat us on the back for setting up his perfect kingdom for him.
…and the Fall of Modernity
And then, the world descended into war. First it was small local conflicts which grew into greater conflicts. In 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Austra declared war on Bosnia. Before the end of the year, virtually the entire known world west of the Urals was at war. Four years later, 15 million people were dead.
The enlightened human race had left 15 million of their own people dead on battlefields, fighting a war which (and I don’t have time to go over all of this) had been fought off and on since the 9th century. What’s more, the victors subjected the losers to a so harshly unjust peace that inevitably war broke out again. This time, it truly was a world war – raging on every continent except Antarctica and ending with another 60 million people dead, including some from mass genocide and others from the only detonation of atomic bombs in warfare.
Clearly, ‘modern’ man was not all that progressive. The only thing he had evolved was better weapons to kill more of his fellow man. The myth of modernity began to fall apart, and in its wake came a movement of trying to make sense of things. This movement, known as postmodernity, has gone many different directions; but perhaps its most fruitful has been the attempt to recover what was good and true prior to the rise of modernity.
Reconnecting with the pre-Modern KJV
This brings us to Arthur Farstad and the NKJV. Frustrated with the numerous modern revisions of the KJV, Farstad and company proposed that a translation committee skip over the work of the previous revisions and go back to the KJV. The translation would be a minimal update utilizing what they called complete equivalence – a form of formal equivalence that permitted dynamic translation only when absolutely impossible to avoid.
The NKJV Preface contains a very telling statement, linking their own postmodern world with the academic pursuits of 17th century England:
Although the Elizabethan period and our own era share in zeal for technical advance, the former period was more aggressively devoted to classical learning.
Notice the connection, perhaps unconscious, to a period that the translators acknowledge to be superior to their own. The modernists would never have made such a concession, but the translators do so freely.
They state their reverence for the work of their predecessors, while subtly denying the quality of the works that lie between them and the present day:
The real character of the Authorized Version does not reside in its archaic pronouns or verbs or other grammatical forms of the seventeenth century, but rather in the care taken by its scholars to impart the letter and spirit of the original text in a majestic and reverent style.
While KJVO advocates often criticize the NKJV for not maintaining their standard of a Bible translation (namely, replicating the KJV exactly), the NKJV translators were doing their best to strike a middle ground between the knowledge that English had changed since the 17th century and a desire to return to the pre-modern faith which the KJV reflects.
(Author’s Note) Some People Don’t Like the KJV…
And that’s ok. The NKJV is not a perfect redux of the KJV. You can’t capture lightning in a bottle. For me personally, the NKJV feels like a fuzzy KJV. It is hard to explain, but because I grew up with the KJV, I actually struggle with the NKJV. The English Standard Bible feels, to me, more like a formal translation than the New King James does. But that’s a preference and it has more to do with my style of thinking/preaching/worshiping than it does with the quality of the work.
The NKJV is definitely a step backward in the right direction, in my opinion. I would love to see the work continue on the KJV, reworking and taking into consideration our growing knowledge of koine Greek without having to completely retranslate it.
Other KJV Updates
There are a number of alternative KJV’s in circulation – the 21st century KJV, the Modern KJV (1963) – but they are generally one-man or small group updates of the KJV. the Modern KJV is available in e-sword, but I am not sure if it is still available in print.
These are not translations but edits of the KJV – just as there were a number of edits made by various publishers in America during the 19th century, and they don’t even approach the NKJV in scope or in sales.