Why the KJV?

August 4, 2008    By: Jacob J @ 3:03 pm   Category: Scriptures

Someone asked me recently why the LDS church still uses the King James Version exclusively. My answer was probably a parrot of something I read in the bloggernacle at some point in the past, but I don’t really remember where I got my current view.

My answer was to this effect:

Q1: Why do we use the KJV in the first place?

A1: Because the KJV was the Bible in widespread use at the time of the restoration. We just picked up the KJV by default because it was the Bible used by Joseph Smith and his contemporaries.

Q2: Why do we still stick to the KJV tenaciously after all these years, even to the point of disallowing other translations from use as the basis for Gospel Doctrine classes etc.?

A2: Because the Book of Mormon uses KJV language and we don’t want to do anything to the Book of Mormon language. It would be weird if we started using a plain English translation of the Bible but had a Book of Mormon that still used the KJV English. Since we are not about to “translate” the Book of Mormon into modern English, we can’t officially do it to the Bible either. I don’t think it has anything to do with the KJV being the best, or even a particularly good translation by modern standards.

Further Comments:

This is unfortunate in many ways since the KJV is such an obstacle to understanding the Bible for so many people in the church. Personally, I study primarily from an NRSV study Bible printed by Harper Collins, but I know of several people who have been scared away from using a non-KJV Bible for fear of going against the Church’s position on the KJV. It is sad how often we spend hours of in depth Bible study searching out the roots of Greek words just to untangle the first level meaning of phrases when we could simply read a couple of modern translations to accomplish the same thing. Or how often we miss the plain meaning because we don’t know the meaning of the KJV english and we don’t want to spend hours looking things up.

Do you agree with me that our insistence on the KJV stems from our being stuck with KJV english in the Book of Mormon? Do you find that the Mormons you know are open to studying other translations or that they are fairly hesitant?

32 Comments »

  1. DKL talked about that here a while back, and I got curious and went to the NRSV to read Isaiah 53. I had mixed feelings- the NSRV made a lot of verses clearer, while the KJV language seemed more moving in some instances. I’m going to use them side by side from now on, for that reason.

    Comment by Dan Ellsworth — August 4, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

  2. I currently teach a youth class. They can read the words of the modern scriptures, but they have no idea of the meaning. There is a similar situation in the adult classes — the adults can read the words of the KJV, but they often cannot explain what they just read. I think Paul’s epistles are basically sealed books to most of the Church. I spoke recently to a BYU student who said that the teachers of the last three Bible-based classes he took recommended newer translations, two the NIV and one the ESV. Maybe this will trickle down.

    Comment by Rick — August 4, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

  3. Dan,

    Thanks for the link. DKL’s post cracked me up as usual, and lots of good stuff there. I grew up with the KJV language so it would be hard for me to give it up entirely, but I get plenty of continuing exposure to the KJV just by going to church every week.

    Rick,

    Amen to all your points. When I was at BYU, I took NT-Gospels from Griggs who made us read all of the assigned material from both the KJV and some other translation as one of the course requirements. He explicitely forbad the JST as the “other” translation. On the exam we had some gimme question where we got to tell what we learned from reading the other translation and I said something about how reading an actual alternate translation (not the JST) taught me that the JST should not be called a translation. He gave me no credit for that question because he saw the letters JST in my response and assumed I had read the JST for my alternate translation. lol

    Comment by Jacob J — August 4, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

  4. I don’t know for sure but I’m willing to buy the BoM matching excuse. I actually enjoy the language of the KJV because it feels more precise to me (much of what has become archaic is just lost connotations).

    I think a interesting evidence for the matching theory comes from what we do in choosing a Bible and consequently translating the BoM. For instance, the Reina-Valera is the standard version in Spanish and most versions used today are newer than the KJV (they give the missionaries the 1960 version) even though the original is older. The Spanish BoM quotes basically follow the Reina-Valera whenever the English BoM follows the KJV (not without exception tho). Resultingly, despite my comment about enjoying the KJV language, the RV is actually easier to read for me, even in a second language. (Spanish may be an exception, I’ve read before that Spanish grammar and verb conjugation/exceptions have changed less than the English equivalents in the last few centuries).

    Comment by Robert V. — August 4, 2008 @ 7:12 pm

  5. After I read that DKL post I went out and bought a NIV bible and it’s been really enlightening. I’ve learned a lot–mostly from the additional resources it includes. But I actually enjoy reading the KJV better. I actually love the older language. It’s more poetic, intellectually stimulating, and promotes thinking and revelation that I don’t get when it’s in common and ordinary English. I’m open to other translations of Bibles, but I think I’m biased and will always prefer the KJV over the others.

    Parenthetically, I know that Elder Neal A. Maxwell read from at least the Revised Standard Version because I just read a talk of his entitled “In Him All Things Hold Together” which is based off the text in Colosians 1:17 of the RSV. The KJV says “by him all things consist”.

    By and large, I feel that most LDS are hesitant to pick up another version of the Bible. I think that when I was younger I was biased against other versions feeling that they were somehow less inspired. I’ve since come to know that great care was done and great pains taken to make the newer versions as perfect as possible based off the available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts.

    Since I was able to become more enlightened about my bias, I have hope that more and more Latter-day Saints will change too. If not, they’re only denying themselves an opportunity to enhance their Biblical scholarship, and perhaps relate better to many other Christians who use other versions. I don’t feel we necessarily should or even ever will adopt another version of the Bible, but that shouldn’t keep us from expanding our horizons a bit. Elder Maxwell did it!

    Comment by Clean Cut — August 4, 2008 @ 7:16 pm

  6. I think there is some merit in the matching argument, though I think it’s probably just old General Authorities not wanting to make waves in the church. It’s easier for them to do nothing than to figure out how/when to allow new versions.

    when you say,”It is sad how often we spend hours of in depth Bible study searching out the roots of Greek words just to untangle the first level meaning of phrases…” you lose me. This doesn’t describe any mormon I’ve ever met – but maybe I just know the wrong people.

    Comment by Reuben Collins — August 4, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

  7. I say we all just learn Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic!

    There’s no time like the present. :)

    Comment by The Yellow Dart — August 5, 2008 @ 5:26 am

  8. This is the bible I am currently using:

    When I finish the OT, I was planning on posting a review of it.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 5, 2008 @ 6:50 am

  9. I posted my Institute handout discussion of this a while back, with references. Link

    Comment by Nitsav — August 5, 2008 @ 7:57 am

  10. One benefit of the KJV I saw on my mission was in furthering the missionary work. I served in North Carolina, and most of the people there used the KJV. There was a prevailing attitude that if it wasn’t the KJV, it wasn’t the word of God. We already caught grief for the BoM being “another Bible”. If we had used another Bible translation, nobody would have listened to us.

    Comment by Keri Brooks — August 5, 2008 @ 8:15 am

  11. I don’t know that it is so much the book of mormon that holds us to the KJV as it is the doctrine and covenants. By way of example, I think the KJV usage of celstial, telestial and terrestrial was important to understanding how Jospeh and Sydney came to D&C 76, so I think using the KJV is important in understanding the origin and impetus of many of Joseph’s revelations.

    I don’t think it should be used exclusively, however.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 5, 2008 @ 8:39 am

  12. I have not gotten into other translations. Might there be a legitimate hesitation based on a possible lack of inspiration behind a translation? That perhaps the translater will put some of their own ‘spin’ on translations?

    Comment by Eric Nielson — August 5, 2008 @ 8:53 am

  13. Eric, EVERY translation is an interpretation with spin/bias. Its the nature of translation. Up until the 1950’s, the Church rhetoric regarding the KJV (IIRC) was that it was nothing special and had all kinds of flaws, and the translators weren’t particularly inspired. Post-J. Reuben Clark, that rhetoric was inverted. I think it’s Barlow, Mormons and the Bible that discusses this.

    Also, for those who didn’t click on the link to FPR in my comment above, I advocate (or require, if I’m teaching at BYU) using another translation, and cite precedence by current/recent Apostles and other GA’s for doing so for personal study. There’s nothing shady or apostate about it.

    Comment by Nitsav — August 5, 2008 @ 8:58 am

  14. I have argued over at JI that I see our holding on to KJV English as one of the ways we create sacred language. Many saints don’t want a more recent translation because it would seem too vulgar–too modern. Keeping an old language makes it feel “set-apart” or “sacred.” I think this is easily seen in Clean Cut’s comment above:

    [The KJV is] more poetic, intellectually stimulating, and promotes thinking and revelation that I don’t get when it’s in common and ordinary English.

    I’m definitely not saying this is a bad thing–I find myself doing it all the time–it is just one of the reasons I think we hold on to the KJV.

    Remember one of the key principles in human thought: antiquity = authority

    Comment by Ben — August 5, 2008 @ 10:00 am

  15. Ben, Blake Ostler has said somewhere that one of the good reasons for keeping the KJV is that since hte language is archaic, it helps mark the foreignness of the Bible. That is, it reminds us that the Bible is encoded in ancient cultural language and mores different from our own. Using modern language makes it seem, well, modern. And that can contribute to misreading it.

    Comment by Nitsav — August 5, 2008 @ 10:24 am

  16. Nitsav:

    That’s an interesting point. Going through the OT right now in an audio NIV version has been very challenging for me, partly because the God therein is so foreign to my sensibilities, and partly because the protagonists within are men like Joab and David and Solomon…

    Comment by Matt W. — August 5, 2008 @ 11:11 am

  17. Robert V,

    You lost me when you said the KJV feels more precise. Precise in what way?

    However, you make an excellent point about Bibles in foreign languages. We obviously can’t translate things into archaic languages when we create foreign language versions of the Bible, Book of Mormon, and D&C. The fact that we can’t stick with the KJV is definitive, but it is interesting that since we are translating the BofM and D&C in those situations we are off the hook for the problem I described in the post.

    Clean Cut,

    Good reference with the Maxwell story, I hadn’t picked up that it came from the RSV. Your example is just what I would like to see become widespread. It is unrealistic to think we’ll abandon the KJV, but it would be nice to see the stigma come off of other translations.

    Reuben,

    You might be right that studying the Greek is not as widespread as I make it out. It seems that the “scriptorians” in the church do a lot of what I am saying. I have personally seen this a fair amount, but I don’t know how widespread it is.

    Yellow Dart,

    The opportunity cost is too high. Having everyone learn all the ancient languages would be a monumental waste from that angle, in my opinion. Most people don’t want/need the kind of expertise you gain from knowing the original languages and would get a huge benefit from a good plain english translation with very low cost. The ROI analysis is working against you. :)

    Matt W,

    I look forward to your review. I think you are right to point to the D&C in addition to the Book of Mormon, but I’m not sure how big a factor the KJV words/phrases is (e.g. celestial/terrestrial). Maybe more than I am giving credit, but it still seems to me the much bigger problem is what you would do with the entire text of the BofM and, as you point out, the D&C.

    Nitsav,

    Thanks for the link and your comments in #13 and #15. I am with you all the way (although I don’t think I am with Blake in #15).

    Keri,

    I used to think that was the major reason for sticking with the KJV (not wanting to have a golden Bible AND a different translation of the regular Bible) but I don’t really see it anymore. The use of newer translations is so prevalent in other Christian religions that I don’t think we would get dinged for it unless we created our own translation of the Bible. If we used the NRSV or some other widely accepted translation I don’t think the missionary effort would be hindered. In fact, I bet it would help in LOTS of cases. It is terrible when I hear a new convert trying to learn KJV english in their adulthood and feeling out of place while lifers like me can spit out the thees/thous in the right places during prayers and whatnot.

    Eric,

    I agree with Nitsav. See DKLs post for some more comments along those lines.

    Ben,

    I hope this is not the reason for keeping the KJV. I don’t want sacred language so much as language I understand. To add to what I just said to Keri, I wonder if we took the emphasis off of the KJV if we could get rid of using KJV english in our prayers under the bogus explanation that it is more formal language. (As we all know, the words we use (thee thou) were the informal forms back when KJV language was in use. Everyone else in the world uses the informal constructs in their prayer language and we have a crazy misinformation campain in the USA about why thee/thou are important.)

    Comment by Jacob J — August 5, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

  18. I agree that teaching everyone Greek and Hebrew is unrealistic Jacob. But I can dream, can’t I? :)

    Comment by The Yellow Dart — August 5, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

  19. Jacob: I would argue that “sacred language” is just a reason, not the reason.

    Comment by Ben — August 5, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

  20. I meant it feels more precise because much of our everyday vernacular is extremely watered down.

    That is, the common, shared vocabulary we all work from when not trying to show off is VERY small (relative to the full size of the English language) and so we reuse a greater percentage of it to handle various nuances and connotations for which there are actually distinct words. The KJV (and many other older works) seem to work from a much larger vocabulary than more modern translations (although, even the modern translations use a wider vocabulary than the average American has).
    But maybe that’s just Ben’s comment about authority and antiquity working its way into my bias.

    One thing I didn’t make clear in my comment on BoM translations is that it appears (at least in Spanish) that we do not try to translate the Biblical quotes but rather we first choose a standard Bible and then lift the quotes from that Bible except where there is a clear difference between the BoM and the KJV. If I am correct on that, then the KJV becomes an implicit standard in all languages. And furthermore, the Bible we quoted from becomes that language’s equivalent to the KJV, which we can then no longer easily deviate from using in the future.

    Really, I think it all comes down to consistency in the formal, canonical scriptures. Its much harder for casual readers (those not into Greek, etc) to recognize quoted passages (within distinct works Bible->BoM, BoM->D&C, etc) if the quotes use very distinct wording. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t gain any benefits from reading multiple sources, even if they’re all “just” English.

    Comment by Robert V. — August 6, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

  21. TYD, dream on, brother.

    Ben, fair enough, I don’t disagree that this may be a reason we hang on to the KJV. I forgot to thank you for the link. The Phillip Barlow quote in your post was very on topic for what I was thinking about in this post.

    Robert V, thanks for clarifying. I see your point that there is a wider vocabulary used in the KJV than some of the translations targeted at a basic reading level. I think the KJV of Romans is pretty much opaque to most members of the church, sadly.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 6, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

  22. Ha ha.The initials `KJV` also sound like a french railway network.lol.

    Comment by Martin k — August 7, 2008 @ 3:42 am

  23. ………Or the initials of a russian dictator!

    Comment by Martin k — August 7, 2008 @ 3:43 am

  24. Yeah, sorry, `king james version` sounds better.

    Comment by Martin k — August 7, 2008 @ 3:44 am

  25. Why do we still stick to the KJV tenaciously after all these years, even to the point of disallowing other translations from use as the basis for Gospel Doctrine classes etc.?

    Since when? I used other translations in teach both Old Testament and New Testament in Gospel Doctrine during the past two years. Most of the members, of course, had KJV, but I freely suggested that they look at other translations if they were struggling with Isaiah or Paul. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — August 7, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

  26. While I primarily quote from the KJV on my blog, I do not hesitate to use other versions, such as the New Century Version or the New International Version. The “teacher” in me insists upon clarity, and if I think the KJV is unclear, then I switch. Even so, I realize that the KJV is THE standard, and I think it should be. It has an unmatched beauty.

    I do regularly read from non-KJV Bibles, and I benefit. Most translations are done very responsibly. I think, though, one should be literate in the KJV before one floats off to other versions.

    Comment by S.Faux — August 7, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

  27. I find the New Jerusalem Bible, a modern Catholic translation, every bit as poetic and majestic (in places where it is appropriate) as the KJV. Not all of the modern translations are a dumbed-down as the NIV, which has inexplicable popularity.

    I grew up non-LDS, so I don’t have the emotional ties to that translation that many members of the church do. I don’t associate it with the divine; I associate with Shakespeare. Even after being an active member of the Church for a decade, I still struggle when I read it.

    When I read a good modern translation, I feel that God is speaking to me. When I read the KJV, I feel like I’m reading a textbook. So, except for liturgical use, I’ll stick to the former.

    Comment by Eric — August 12, 2008 @ 7:38 am

  28. Many of the LDS people I have been around, my entire life have little or no knowlege of the bible. I use many translations of the bible in my study and compare and cross note etc. and it changed my life. I love the Bible as I love the BoM and they are companion scriptures that open up new personal revalation and knowlege as we read the.
    The version of the Bible that we should be studying is the one we will read.
    One sister I met actually thought she had to repent because she read out of a Gideons Bible once in a motel and she had forgotton her (JST)scriptures.

    Comment by suzannpappan — August 12, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

  29. I love Shakespeare. But I don’t always understand what he is saying. So I use a number of sources, including simplified translations, to better understand the story. That process helps me to appreciate the rich language. But I can’t imagine replacing “To be or not to be, that is the question” with “there’s a choice between living and dying”.

    I see the same with the KJV. OF course we should use other translations and helps to understand the language of the Bible. Victor Ludlow encourages that in his book on Isaiah and quotes extensively from the NIV. We believe the Bible to be the word of God, not just the KJV, as long as it is translated correctly.

    There is also a more practical reason the church endorses the KJV – all the footnotes, cross references, and other helps. It would be a waste of resources to try and replicate these with other versions.

    Comment by Darin W — August 20, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

  30. Darin,

    You raise an interesting point about what purpose we have in reading the Bible. Do we read it like we read Shakespeare? For me, I am usually reading for very different reasons than I would read Shakespeare. As literature, some of the plain english translations are fairly lacking.

    There is also a more practical reason the church endorses the KJV – all the footnotes, cross references, and other helps. It would be a waste of resources to try and replicate these with other versions.

    I’m not so sure it would be the waste of time you say it would be. If everyone in the church got more out of their scripture study that would be a pretty good reason to put the effort in. We put in FAR more effort to lots of books very few people ever read.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 21, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  31. bfwebster,

    Or course the church is as varied as the people who run it. I am sure there are some wards where other translations fly, but I have heard of other wards where people were strictly forbidden from teaching with a different version. I don’t know if there is an official pronouncement on it or not.

    S. Faux,

    I think, though, one should be literate in the KJV before one floats off to other versions.

    Why? This seems like it puts a big unnecessary hurdle in front of people. I’m thinking especially of a new convert who wasn’t raised hearing KJV english. I’d rather they start getting more out of their Bible study today than saying they have to learn KJV english first.

    Eric,

    Good tip on the New Jerusalem Bible.

    Suzannpappan,

    One sister I met actually thought she had to repent because she read out of a Gideons Bible once in a motel and she had forgotton her (JST)scriptures.

    Ouch.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 21, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  32. Unfortunately, the corelation committee will not allow other translations to ‘fly’ as it’s not standard practice.

    Half of all energies of my scripture study was lost to understanding the english, rather than taking in the word.

    IMO… KJV is a waste of time, it had it’s place in the 19th century and earlier… that english is dead now.

    Comment by Mr. Blue — August 24, 2008 @ 10:59 pm

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