Kevin Bauder Celebrates the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible

Kevin Bauder, who is no friend of King James Onlyism, nevertheless explains why he thinks the King James Bible is the best available translation and the one he chooses to use. His thoughts on the King James Bible are shared in light of the 400th anniversary of the publishing of the King James Bible this year. I have excerpted his thoughts below, but encourage you to read the whole thing over at Sharper Iron. There are some interesting thoughts shared on the subject in the comments there too, which may be of interest to our readers.

The clarity of a translation is important—especially for Holy Scripture. Clarity, however, must not be reduced to mere “readability.” If the tradeoff for clarity is a significant loss of precision, then the price may well be too high. We should not feel obligated to make the Scriptures more clear than God Himself did.

The translator helps nothing when he attempts to resolve vagueness or ambiguity by making interpretive decisions for the reader. To assert that “God says” is miles away from humbly suggesting that, “I think this means….” Translators necessarily do the former, which means that they must resist the temptation to insert the latter.

The King James Version strikes a very good balance between accuracy and clarity. In spite of occasional failures (largely enforced by King James’s own dictates), the translation is remarkable both for its precision and for its intelligibility. Anyone who can understand Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book can understand the text of the King James Version.

The translators of the King James Version went beyond balance, however. What they produced is not merely a good translation. Their work is critically regarded as one of the great literary masterpieces of the English language. By translating at a high literary level, they have followed biblical writers such as Asaph and Isaiah, who were themselves masters of literary excellence. The glories of the Psalms and Prophets must not be lost to abecedarian translational technique. In the King James Version, they are not lost. Indeed, the cadences and locutions of the King James Version have seeped deeply into the heart of the English-speaking world.

Translations should reflect the literary level of the original text, and even the Greek of the New Testament was not really ordinary speech. It was not the Greek that one would hear in the shambles or even that one can read in the papyri. It was more formal, and at times it was crafted carefully according to literary considerations (the writer to the Hebrews is a master of literary technique).

Some are bothered by archaisms in the text of the King James Version. They need not be. Most of those archaisms are fairly easy to decipher. By performing that task, contemporary readers are imitating the original readers of many biblical documents. What is more, the archaisms serve a valuable purpose. They teach us that Scripture did not just come into being yesterday. They underline the truth that Scripture provides enduring answers to permanent questions. The Bible is not a book to be perused for momentary amusement, but one to be studied for life.

In the case of truly obsolete language, the King James Version can and should be updated. It has been before. It can be again. The work should be undertaken with reverence, not merely for the content of what is revealed, but for the locutions of the King James Version itself. No more should be changed than is really necessary. The people who would perform this task would place all readers of English in their debt.

It will never happen. The New King James Version fails by making changes that are unnecessary and sometimes banal. It is the worst of all possible worlds. No other translation, however, is likely to do better. The problem is that a version incorporating only necessary changes could never obtain an exclusive copyright. No publisher could hold exclusive rights to it. With no large sums to be made from a gentle revision, the printing houses will distribute and the pious will receive only a continuing stream of translations du jour.

Therein lies the real problem with the proliferation of modern translations. Few of them are objectionable in their own right. Most of them contribute something, and most are worthy of being consulted by readers who cannot understand the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. In the multiplication of translations, however, today’s Christians have lost significant intelligibility in sharing the Scriptures with one another.

Worse, the comparison of versions has made the Word of God into a consumer commodity. In order to attract the purchasing public, every new translation, paraphrase, and amplification has to have its own signature features. Its publisher must convince readers of the in-sufficiency of all previous versions. The purchase of a Bible becomes akin to the selection of a designer tie or perfume. One chooses a version like one chooses a flavor of soda. How can the transitory nature of modern versions not cast aspersion upon the enduring nature of God’s Word, and, consequently, of His character?

In sum, a good version of the Bible will be accurate, but it will not oversimplify. It will choose elevated language because it aims to shape feeling as well as thinking. It should be widely used and readily shared. It must leave the reader with the impression that the book wasn’t just written yesterday. It ought to be just a bit archaic.

In my opinion, the King James Version is the only translation of Holy Scripture into English that meets these criteria. It is not just a good version, it is a great one. It is both a great translation and a great work of literature. For me, the use of the King James Version is not simply a matter of nostalgia or sentimentality. It is unsurpassed for use in the corporate church setting, and it is as good as any for private devotional reading.

If others think differently, then they may use any faithful version without offending me. If I am preaching in their church, I will honor the church’s choice of Bible. At one level, it is a joy to have many good versions at our beck and call. All the same, I wonder how many of those versions will be celebrated four hundred years from now.

Don’t forget to read Bauder’s entire piece: “Four Hundred Years”.

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