About 88% of Americans have a Bible in their home, and when they reach for their Bibles, more than half of them are still reaching for the King James Version (KJV). Although the NIV tops Bible sales each year (KJV and NKJV are number 2 & 3), only 19% of Americans own that modern translation, and other modern translations take much smaller slices of the Bible sales pie.
“KJV only” churches, of course, believe that their translation is the only version that faithfully embodies the Word of God. All other translations are to be rejected out of hand. Such churches hold this faulty position based on a misunderstanding of the ancient manuscripts behind the Bible (we will have to discuss that misunderstanding in a future blog post).
Yet, it is interesting that the KJV translators themselves had particular ideas about translations other than their own, and they lay out their views clearly and forcefully in the published Preface of the original edition of their eloquent translation. Ironically, their views are very different from those who champion their translation today. So here are 6 ideas the KJV translators had about other translations of the Bible.
1. Other translations are noble, helpful companions in the process of translation.
In addition to the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the 3 committees that worked on the KJV used other translations, both those in English that had gone before them, as well as translations in other languages. They used translations of the Bible to consider how best to interpret and render the original languages in the English of the early 17th Century. Thus, the KJV translators expressed thanks to God for other translations as a valuable resource in their work.
2. Other translations are part of a long, celebrated history of Christian mission.
In their Preface, the KJV translators detail the many, many tongues into which the Scriptures had been translated, and they celebrate this crossing of linguistic boundaries as important for the work of God. It seems that from the beginning of the Christian movement, translation work was in the heart of God as a part of his purposes. We may suggest that this work goes on to this day in the ministry of Wycliffe Bible Translators and others, who continue to pair down the over 1,800 languages in the world that lack a translated Bible. Translation work is important for gospel mission worldwide, a fact understood and celebrated by the KJV translators.
3. Other translations past and present should be celebrated rather than condemned, having been raised up by God for “the building and furnishing of [God’s] Church.”
According to the KJV translators, translation work is a work of edification and education for the church. Thus, other translations should be embraced as good, and they should be built upon. The KJV translators, speaking of other translators, write in their Preface, “Therefore blessed be they, and most honoured be their name, that breake the ice, and glueth onset upon that which helpeth forward to the saving of soules. Now what can bee more availeable thereto, then to deliver Gods booke unto Gods people in a tongue which they understand?” They continue later in the Preface, “Truly (good Christian Reader) wee never thought from the beginning, that we should neede to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principall good one, . . . .” In other words, they saw themselves as used by God to build upon the work of others in an ongoing process of providing translations for the people of God.
4. No translation is perfect, and even the poorest English translation, carried out by responsible scholars, not only contains the Word of God but is the Word of God.
The KJV translators give an analogy: “As the Kings Speech which hee uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian and Latine, is still the Kings Speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expresly for sense, every where.” They go on to note that even a man considered handsome may have a wart or two! The apostles and their fellow-writers of Scripture were infallible. Translators are not. So in translation, blemishes here and there are normal but do not lessen the Word as the Word of God. They suggest the pre-eminent example of this is the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the early church. It was not perfect, but it was embraced by the apostles and others as God’s good Word.
5. Translations (including the KJV) should be corrected and improved.
The KJV translators worked to correct places in other translations that needed correcting—even as they did ongoing work of correction on their own translation. They studied to correct the work of others, and they studied to continue to improve their own translation, seeking to grow in their understanding of God’s good Word. Consequently, modern translators who work to correct imperfections in the KJV, are very much working in the Spirit of the KJV translators themselves.
6. A variety of translations is profitable for discerning the sense of the Scriptures.
The KJV translators at points included in the margins variations on how a passage could be translated (even as is done in some modern translations), and they believed that people having access to various translations is a very good thing. They suggested that the kingdom of God does not hinge on a rigid rendering of individual words and syllables, but that there is freedom in translating the sense of the text. They further say that this freedom follows God’s own pattern of using various words to express the same ideas at different points in Scripture.
In short, the KJV translators wanted to do an excellent translation “to make God’s holy Trueth to be yet more and more knowen unto the people . . .” and they saw translations other than their own as important ministry partners in that process. They thought that the Bible itself should be translated again and again, since it is more worthy of such work than any body of ancient literature. Consequently, the translators of the King James Version would be the first to affirm the importance of modern translations carrying on their legacy for the good of the Church and the advance of the gospel in the world.