Paradigm Issues Facing the Church – Translations

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On the surface, translation issues don’t appear to be a very big deal and all else being equal, they really aren’t. But in some cases it can really go much further below the surface to a whole mindset that can be incredibly devastating. Most of this debate goes straight to the KJV vs. a variety of modern translations. That in and of itself is really not that big of a deal. However, the mindset that the KJV is the only appropriate translation to be used in churches is where the real problem occurs. The more we educate ourselves on this issue the better.

I went to interview at a church once that solely used the KJV (and at times even the NKJV). I was preaching from Isa 6. Not knowing the scripture reading would be coming from the 1611, I wondered where I should even start the sermon. Words and phrases like “twain” for two, being “undone” for “ruined”, and making the people’s hearts “fat” rather than “calloused” caught me a little off guard. I doubt more than a handful of people in that room really understood what those words meant and there I was left with the challenge of making it meaningful when the text that was read was entirely confusing. It was vital to many of them that it be read from a translation that they hardly understood. I really don’t know how different that really is than the Catholics having a service entirely in Latin. It used to be and still is in some places mandatory that people pray using thee and thou for God, otherwise they are in danger of judgment. Therein lies the problem.

In writing this I am not implying that everyone who uses a KJV has a problem. I know and love many who are unaware that there can even be a deeper issue involved here. That, I have no problem with. But in some places this is more than a translation issue, it is a paradigm issue. That is, there is much more to it than meets the eye. There is an entire mindset that binds what scripture does not bind (this translation vs. that). In a sense there is an inherent Pharisaicalism in holding any translation over someone else’s head (whether that translation be the KJV, NIV, Message, or whatever it is still just as wrong – yes, the Message is actually considered a translation), especially one that is written in a language that is for all practical purposes incomprehensible. If you don’t believe that last statement to be true, take a look at the following list (excised from Jack Lewis’ Questions You’ve Asked About Bible Translations):

KJV word – Modern Meaning (Text)
Halt – Lame Mark (9:45)
Lovers – Friends (Psalm 38:11, Lam 1:2,19)
Suffer – Permit (Matthew 3:15, 19:14)
Mean man – Common man (Prov 22:29, Isa 2:9)
Pitiful woman – Compassionate woman (Lam 4:10)
Shambles – Market (1 Cor 10:25)
Wax great – Grow large (Ezek 16:7)
Cockle – Weed (Job 31:40)
Advertised – Advised (Num 24:14)
Hosen – Robes (Dan 3:21,27)
Upbraids – denounces (Matthew 11:20)
Somewhat – noteworthy (Gal 2:6)
Common – unclean (Acts 10:14-15)
Doves’ dung – seed pods (2 Kings 6:25)
Besom – broom (Isa 14:23)

These are just a few of hundreds of words that can’t just be thrust upon the uninitiated with an authoritarian twist. Not only is it often expected that this be the translation used, it is often demanded. Jack Lewis notes that when the people returned from exile and Ezra and Nehemiah were trying to remind the people about God’s Law, Ezra “translated” it to the people (Neh 8:8). He spoke it to them in words they could understand. Go figure, it is biblical to speak the word of God comprehensibly.

Everything besides the Greek New Testament (which even that is a conglomeration of texts based on the best available evidence) is a translation that attempts to communicate the ideas of the underlying text in a readily understandable way. All translations involve some level of interpretation. There are no if’s and’s or but’s about it. I personally would rather trust a translation made from older/more reliable texts with a broader knowledge of cultural backgrounds and extra-biblical occurances of words to help refine the definitions (more on that in just a moment).

Just by looking at the list above it is very obvious that what was clearly understood in 1611 or even 1901 is not so easily understood today. It takes a well studied person to really understand what those words mean. I have been at Vacation Bible Schools where all the children (ages 5-teens) were handed a 1611 KJV Bible and I just don’t understand how that is very helpful due to reasons discussed below. Give them one they can understand.

According to “It’s All Greek To Me! Clearing Up the Confusion About Bible Translations” in Discipleship Journal, 132, Nov/Dec 2002. Pp. 28-36 by Clinton E. Arnold, the KJV is written at a 12th grade reading level. The NKJV brings it down to a 9th grade reading level compared to the NASB (11th grade) and the NIV (7.8th grade). While I don’t think reading level alone makes a translation “inappropriate” (and by the way I wouldn’t ever call any credible translation “inappropriate” in a broad sense) to thrust upon the uneducated and the youth, I do think it is one piece of the puzzle that says maybe it isn’t such a good idea.

Before I go on I feel the need to say this – the KJV has been used faithfully by generations over centuries with good effect. It has helped people understand God and changed lives. It has an outstanding track record and clearly has a place in the life of the church in communicating God’s intent to His people. There are some passages in the KJV that just cannot be matched by any other translation. But does that mean it is the best way or the only way for lives to be exposed to the word of God? I don’t believe so.

Another reason the KJV is not adequate to reach the seekers of today and should not be bound upon people as the sole translation of the Bible is the fact that our knowledge of Hebrew and Greek has substantially improved since 1611.

1) In 1611 they did not know the difference between Hellenistic/Koine Greek (that makes up the NT) and Classical/Attic Greek.
2) Even by 1886 Thayer listed 767 words that were at that time distinct to the New Testament. That means they had nothing to compare those words to, no context in extrabiblical literature to help refine how those 767 words were translated. D.A. Carson says there are now less than 50 words in the New Testament that we have not found in extrabiblical literature (KJV Debate, 95). That has a profound impact on the accuracy with which we translate the Greek New Testament.
3) The Dead Sea Scrolls had not been found at the time of the KJV. They were found in 1947 and have shed tremendous light on the Old Testament (over 800 manuscripts were found dating roughly 1000 years earlier than any other OT manuscripts that had been found to that point).

What is more, the manuscripts that were used in translating the 1611 KJV were no where near as sound as what we have today. Here is an excerpt from Carson,

“The first edition of the Greek New Testament to be published was edited by…Erasmus (1469-1536)…To prepare his text Erasmus utilized several Greek manuscripts, not one of which contained the entire New Testament. None of his manuscripts was earlier than the twelfth century. For the Book of Revelation he had but one manuscript, and it was lacking the final leaf, which contained the last six verses of the book. Therefore Erasmus translated the Latin Vulgate back into Greek and published that. Hence in the last six verses of Revelation in Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, several words and phrases may be found that are attested in no Greek manuscript whatsoever…” (Carson, 33-34)

Pretty amazing, huh? Erasmus work was reprinted by Stephanus, slightly reworked by Beza and then on to be used by the KJV translators. What Carson did not mention was the fact that Erasmus only had 7 Greek manuscripts to work with. Today we have thousands of texts, some going back as far as the 2nd century, nearly within the lifetime of the apostle John. While the KJV was revolutionary in its day, there are far more resources used in translation today.

Why mention all that? I thought this was about a paradigm? Exactly. I mention all that to say, churches that see the KJV as the only version that should be used are just not looking at the facts. They are binding upon people something that is extremely difficult to understand and based on weak Greek texts at best. I think the root of this paradigm issue goes back to the previous post on fear vs. grace. This issue normally doesn’t stop at translations. Translations may be symptomatic of an underlying heart issue that runs out of fear with no balance of grace. Doing something just because that is the way it has always been done is just as dangerous as doing whatever we want, whether or not it has ever been done before. We need to use our common sense when approaching seekers and the uninitiated. We need to be careful what we bind on others. We need to check our motivation for which translation we use and if we expect our congregation to use a specific translation. I would think if you actually expect an entire congregation to use the same translation, then you probably need to check your motives on that one (even if that translation is a newer one). There is not one perfect translation but if there were, I would be willing to bet it would be one that everyone could understand. The English language will continue to change and some day in the next generation or so the NIV, TNIV, you name it, will be out of date and in need of revision. Let us be sure that we don’t become a stumbling block to the learning and maturing of others even decades from now as we have our cherished versions that we hold dear. It is easy to point the finger to the past but let us remember that we are also vulnerable to it as well.

One last note, before we think we are the only ones who have gone through this let me give some additional perspective:

Did you know that when Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew/Greek into Latin (the Vulgate) he was met with tremendous opposition but went on to be regarded as all but sacred for nearly 1000 years. Eventually people would reject anyone translating from his work to English because the Latin was traditionally seen as the language of religious expression.

Did you know that the pilgrims did not like the KJV because they thought it was too modern? The pilgrims preferred the Geneva Bible (known as the “Breeches Bible” because in that translation God made Adam and Eve “coverings as breeches.” Today some believe anything but the KJV is too modern.

Did you know that translating the Bible into English from Latin was opposed because some believed Latin was the only proper religious expression? Today some believe that 1611 English is the only proper expression – perhaps they should go back to Latin?

Did you know that people objected to an English Bible because they thought a Bible in the vernacular of the people would lead to unorthodoxy? Now people think the TNIV, which is understandable, will lead to unorthodoxy.

We aren’t looking at anything new. We are having the same conversations people have been debating for centuries. People thought Greek was the only way and fought Latin and one day the Latin was embraced as the only way. People fought it being translated into English and that English versions were heretical until eventually that version because the “only true means of religious expression” and anything else too modern. Let us certainly not keep people from seeking God through words that make sense to them and speak to their heart. Let us also be aware of deeper issues (Pharisaicalism, etc) that may just be seen most plainly with this issue but may make themselves into other arenas of our lives.

Thank you for taking time to read all of that.

0 Responses

  1. Good thoughts, Matt! I really like the NLT. I studied with Jack Lewis and to say the least, his classes in the ancient languages were THOROUGH.

    I think D. A. Carson’s book is what any KJV only person needs to digest.

    Near our Bible camp in Eustis there used to be a church whose sign read King James Only Church.


  2. Steve,
    Jack Lewis is pretty stout when it
    comes to languages. Did you ever know Mike Brooks from Muscle Shoals, AL and Paragould, AR?

  3. I’m very fond of the ESV that came out a couple of years ago. In a congregation where I have some NIV people and some KJV people, it seems to be readable enough to sound like modern English, but it has a literal enough translation so that the KJV people don’t think I’ve gone off the deep end. I love studying translations.

  4. Matt … stumbled across your site. Enjoyed this article on translations. I did a class on translations a while back, wish I would have had some of this material. THanks for letting me look around.



  5. Matt,
    Have you read Leland Ryken’s book, The Word of God in English? It’s about translations and in particular the ESV. Ryken was a part of the translation committee although his part was not so much the original language translation as it was the literary style into English.

  6. You’re right, there is definitely a pattern in Christian history of translations becoming sacred. And translation A only loses its holiness when translation B becomes sacred. From the Septuagint to the Vulgate to the KJV, we seem locked into this Highlander mindset that “There can only be one!” So do you have any predictions on what translation will replace the Moste Holy and Moste Sacred Authorized Version?

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