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.