Monday, September 26, 2011

Practical Reflections on Using the KJV

Some people, having read my preceding responses to Joel Beeke’s piece, might conclude that I think the KJV ought to be dumped on the rubbish heap of ancient Bible translations. That could not be further from the truth. However, I do think that the general usefulness of the KJV is not what it once was. Fifty year ago my home church (an admittedly liberal UPCUSA congregation) was using the RSV as the pew Bible, and the Bible they gave to students in Sunday school. Conservative congregations were still using the KJV. So how should the KJV be used today?

First, I do not recommend the KJV as a pulpit/pew Bible. Unless you have a unique congregation (such as Dr. Beeke’s), regular reading from the KJV will serve primarily to confuse and alienate the congregation. An exception to this might be at Christmas and Easter services (if your church has such) and where even the man off the street should be able to follow the Bible narratives associated with those events.

In general, however, the KJV requires a sophisticated reader, and apparently American Christians (perhaps like Americans in general) are becoming less able to handle sophisticated reading. The prominence of the NIV and, increasingly the NLT, in evangelical circles bears witness to that fact.

It is still possible for the individual reader to use the KJV profitably. In order to do this, though, you need to be willing to read it with a good historical dictionary beside you (or online, available at a few keystrokes). Many words have changed meaning, or have different nuances than they did four hundred years ago. For this reason you also need to read slowly and thoughtfully. The KJV is not the version to read if you are doing the Bible in 90 days program.

One of its characteristics is that it reflects the original Greek and Hebrew syntax more clearly than many modern translations. Thus, the KJV provides a way of reading the original for those who have no command of the original languages. For example, the style of Jeremiah is very different from the style of Isaiah. This is very clear in the KJV, but it is not so clear in the functional equivalence translations that are popular today. Those versions have reduced it all to a simple-minded sameness.

An example may help here. In Isaiah 3:19-23 (a passage I criticized in an earlier post because of the archaic words used), every “and” in the KJV represents the presence of the standard Hebrew conjunction. Most modern versions do not do that. They simply turn the series into a list, which then ceases to have any rhetorical power. The KJV, in following the lead of the Hebrew text, has a rhythm to the “list” that actually produces a good rhetorical effect, in spite of the fact that the various words are mostly unknown. Incidentally, the NASB Update, which is in general a very literal translation, misses the boat here, completely ignoring the Hebrew connective and using only commas.

One other suggestion for making good use of the KJV: buy a copy of the recorded version read by Alexander Scourby. It is the best of the recorded versions. Listen to Scourby read as you follow along. That will help you to keep pace, and it will also help you with the pronunciation of names and archaic words.


K. Hugh Acton said...

Putting aside the merits or demerits of the KJV as a translation, I couldn't disagree with you more about its unsuitableness for a pulpit Bible. If it is read well (and I find it is easier to read the KJV well out loud than the ESV) it is easily understood. I remember as an elementary Sunday School teaching using it and the 3rd graders could repeat back to me, in their own words, the passage. And these children were not very bright otherwise. Visually it is archaic, no doubt; and unless you are use to it it can be off putting. But audibly its archaicness is exceedingly exaggerated by its distractors.

Benjamin Shaw said...

Hugh, all I can say is that your experience is different from mine. I have no trouble reading it, but congregational comments that I have heard have been pretty consistently of the view that they have a hard time following it. Any more, congregations are not used to the language.

K. Hugh Acton said...

Well, maybe it's a geographical thing. It has been my experience both in college and my ministerial experience. And not just with people who have grown up in church, but it my consistent experience with many of unchurched people I have pastored (admittedly rural situations, not urban). That is why I am generally skeptical of its obliqueness. In fact, the only time a translation was an issue it was because it wasn't the KJV. BUT I do know that places differ, I am NOT calling your experience into question. Maybe Beeke's situation is closer to mine.

K. Hugh Acton said...

Sorry about the bad editing.