The 400th anniversary of the King James Version has been the occasion for many writers and speakers to evaluate the KJV’s legacy and to sing its praise. Few would quibble with the common assertion that the KJV is the most influential book ever published in the English language and that its influence has been incalculable and will never be equaled by another translation. But does the KJV’s historic importance mean that it still has contemporary relevance? In short, is it still a good translation for today?
There is nothing wrong with the KJV. It is an accurate and reliable translation of the ancient biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek. But it is an accurate and reliable translation into seventeenth-century English. And the problem is that, while most seventeenth-century Englishmen easily understood it, most twenty-first-century English speakers do not. The practical issue, then, is one of clarity. The KJV will remain a good translation to the extent that it can clearly communicate God’s Word to a contemporary audience.
Long gone are the days when the average English speaker grew up with an acquaintance with the KJV. Long gone are the days when the average English speaker grew up with an acquaintance with classic English literature. There is little in our culture today that encourages the reading of significant texts, let alone the reading of difficult texts such as the KJV. And so, for the KJV to continue to play a leading role in the spiritual formation of believers, in particular new believers, pastors and teachers who are committed to the KJV will have to make an extra effort to equip their congregations or students with the tools to intelligently read the translation’s seventeenth-century English.
Some may regard this suggestion as exaggerating the difficulties involved and may be inclined to dismiss it, thinking that more people struggle with laziness and a lack of passion for the Word than with the supposed difficulties of the KJV. Maybe this would apply to some people, but most faithful people in our churches that use the KJV really do want to read and understand Scripture but may still struggle because they lack the resources to understand language that is so far removed from their normal experience. We would do well to have the same attitude that the original KJV translators had toward regular people and their need for a Bible they can easily understand.
In the preface to the original KJV, The Translators to the Reader,  the translators raise the issue of the need for clarity and explain why it is necessary to translate the Bible into “the vulgar tongue,” or the common language of regular people, so that they will have direct access to the riches and saving truth of the Scripture, rather than having to depend upon learned clergy to reveal to them what would otherwise remain hidden:
Happy is the man that delighteth in the Scripture, and thrice happy that meditateth in it day and night. But how shall man meditate in that which they cannot understand?. . . Translation is it that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water. . . . Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) without a bucket or something to draw with.
The translators’ aim was to translate the ancient biblical languages, known only to the learned clergy, into the language of the average person, because they believed that the greatest thing they could do for the saving of souls was “to deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue which they understand.” They did not translate with a highly literate audience in mind, but desired that their translation “be understood even of the very vulgar.” Can the KJV still fulfill the translators’ aim today and in the future? Without us equipping people to read it, probably not.
There are, of course, other issues besides the KJV’s clarity or readability that must be addressed in deciding whether the KJV is still a good translation for today.  But its clarity is probably the most practical issue involved. Most of us are fully aware that the KJV can be rough going in many spots. But those raised with the KJV, or those who have spent a significant amount of time with it, may find it difficult to appreciate really how difficult it can be for others. For many, constant usage has worn away the rough spots, and now the KJV sounds normal, or at least familiar, and therefore unproblematic. Indeed, for many, the KJV’s odd syntax, archaic vocabulary, obsolete verb endings, and other unique features are actually an aid to devotion and part of the power and charm of reading it. But few of us will encounter a new convert, for example, who will find that the KJV makes the Word of God easily accessible. Unless that new convert is already well read in early seventeenth-century English literature—a rarity indeed—the path to the Word of God through the KJV will be rocky and steep.
For those who believe that they and their congregations should continue to use the KJV, an effort should be made to remove some of the difficulties and make the path a bit less arduous for people, especially those new to the translation. Perhaps a portion of an intro class on the Bible or of a new converts class could be used to discuss some of the peculiarities of the KJV’s language. Dictionaries devoted to the KJV are available,  and so are special editions of the KJV with explanatory notes at the bottom of each page that define archaic words.  Parallel Bibles with multiple translations are readily available as well.  All the difficulties cannot be entirely overcome; after all, it’s still seventeenth-century English. But with a modest effort, we can equip people to engage and be transformed by this magnificent translation that rightly has been cherished for 400 years.
So, is the KJV still a good translation for today? Does it still open the window, break the shell, put aside the curtain, and remove the cover of the well? Does it still hand a bucket to children at Jacob’s well? Perhaps—if we prepare people to read it.
So let’s get them a bucket! Or an NKJV.
1 This preface is rarely included in modern printings of the KJV, in order to save space, and so is largely unknown and seldom read. Some editions from Cambridge University Press, for example, include it. The preface is easily found online.
2 Basic questions about textual criticism and translation philosophy have to be considered as well.
3 E.g., The King James Bible Word Book by Ronald Bridges and Luther Weigle
4 E.g., The Defined King James Bible by D. A. Waite. The definitions of archaic words are very helpful, but the work is marred, in my opinion, by the author’s strong KJV-Only position, which he expresses in other sections of the work. In the next few months, Norton Critical Editions of the Old and New Testaments will be released. Norton Critical Editions are available for many other literary works and are commonly used in college literature classes. The Norton Old Testament and New Testament will likely be more appropriate for ministers and teachers than regular members of a congregation.
5 The New Hendrickson Parallel Bible: King James Version, New King James Version, New International Version, New Living Translation, 2nd Ed, is one among many parallel Bibles that include the KJV.
This article originally was published in the July-December 2011 issue of the Forward, the official magazine for the ministers of the United Pentecostal Church International.