By David Murray
I was stunned to read yesterday that the most popular and fastest growing Bible Translation is the King James Version. According to research carried out by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University:
- When Americans reach for their Bibles, more than half of them pick up a King James Version (KJV).
- The 55 percent who read the KJV easily outnumber the 19 percent who read the New International Version (NIV).
- The percentages drop into the single digits for competitors such as the New Revised Standard Version, New America Bible, and the Living Bible.
- The KJV also received almost 45 percent of the Bible translation-related searches on Google, compared with almost 24 percent for the NIV, according to Bible Gateway’s Stephen Smith.
Respected historian Mark Noll, an adviser for some of the research, said:
Although the bookstores are now crowded with alternative versions, and although several different translations are now widely used in church services and for preaching, the large presence of the KJV testifies to the extraordinary power of this one classic English text.
A bit more reading behind the scenes revealed that there was no option in the survey to choose the New King James Version, which makes it likely that many who use that version chose the KJV as the next best option. That would fit with previous research which found that 52% used either the KJV or the NKJV (split 38% KJV and 14% NKJV).
Despite the flawed methodology and the incomplete reporting, it’s staggering that the KJV is still so dominant. Although some of the congregations I preach in use the KJV, I was under the distinct impression that such churches were in a tiny minority now. Perhaps such false impressions show the power of skillful marketing.
But it still raises the question, why so many Christians and churches have stuck with the KJV when there are so many alternatives and when it is laboring under the huge disadvantage of ancient English that sounds so strange to modern, and especially to unchurched, ears? Some answers might be:
1. Tradition: Many Christians were brought up with the KJV and love the familiarity of it. The language is part of their spiritual vocabulary and reminds them of many sermons they heard throughout the years. It would be interesting to see an age breakdown of the KJV users. I suspect the majority of them would be in the older age group who naturally tend to be more conservative and resistant to change.
2. Suspicion: Some of the modern versions employed scholars who were decidedly liberal in their theology. Questions have been raised about some of the KJV translators as well, but it’s far easier to identify modern scholars and to uncover their theology (or lack of it).
3. Division: Many churches have been divided by the clumsy and careless introduction of a modern version. Even when it’s done prayerfully and wisely, it often has the painful effect of driving a wedge between members and even driving some away. Although some pastors and elders have identified that using the KJV is a factor in the loss of their young people, they fear losing their older members or provoking their “louder members” by changing. This results in numerous churches where the pastor and the vast majority of members are using modern versions at home and yet when they come together for public worship they are using a version that few of them ever read.
4. Superstition: I know very little about the KJV Only Movement, and it’s not monolithic either, but there are some who put the KJV pretty close to, if not on the same level as, the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Some will even call it “inspired” and argue that it should never be updated in any way. This almost “magical” view of a Bible translation fits the dictionary definition of superstition: “a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge.”
5. Association: I know many people who have no objection to a modern Bible translation in principle. However, they look at the churches that have adopted modern translations and see that many have not only given up the “old version” but have also given up the “old doctrine.” The new Bible version seems to be part of a liberalizing package that’s associated with many unwelcome “guests.” Of course, often the doctrine went first and the Bible was simply the last bastion to fall, but it often looks like the loss of the old Bible produced the loss of doctrine and also of reverent worship and prayer.
6. Accuracy: Some of the popular versions, like the NIV, deliberately moved away from a literal word-for-word translation of Scripture to more “dynamic” or “readable” renderings which often read more like an interpretation than a translation. Even though the KJV is harder to understand, a large number of Christians still prefer a literal rendering and to do their own interpreting.
7. Red Letters: Many KJV churches have investigated moving to the NKJV in order to reduce the whiplash of change. However, it is almost impossible to get NKJVs without Christ’s words being in red, which raises another set of awkward theological questions.
8. Vision: Or lack of it. Some churches simply want to preserve the status quo and have no desire to reach beyond their own church community to people and cultures that have no hope of ever understanding or learning the KJV language. It’s extremely difficult for those of us brought up with the KJV to realize how hard it is for those without that background to learn a new language in order to learn what the Bible teaches.
9. Conviction: As far as I know, there is no credible modern translation that (a) holds to the Received Text and (b) to a literal translation of Scripture. The NIV meets neither. The ESV meets the latter requirement but not the former.
The NKJV meets (b) and almost meets (a). Although it uses the Received Text for the New Testament, it also incorporates readings from the Majority Text and the “Critical Text” (or NU) in the margins/footnotes (see below).
These are not just preferences or traditions, but biblical convictions about the preservation of Scripture and the nature of Scripture. Of course, there is a third biblical principle of (c) readability or perspicuity. KJV advocates often minimize or ignore this principle because that can’t find a Bible translation that combines (a) and (b) with (c). In that sense, some conservative Bible societies have royally failed the church.
10. Confusion: Perhaps the single biggest reason behind the refusal of so many to adopt a modern version of Scripture is the footnotes that litter the pages of modern New Testaments, casting doubt on many parts of the God’s Word. I know many Christians who detest this and resist changing translations because of the psychological effect of these footnotes. Many ministers also hate having to explain these alleged textual variants in sermons.
It’s all very well for scholars and academics to do their clever stuff with variant readings, and some of us do need some Bibles with these footnotes. However, the vast majority of Christians just want a clean and clear Bible version, without question marks, qualifications, or thick black lines and brackets around cherished passages.
I know there is a deeper issue at stake here – which text of Scripture is being translated. However, regardless of which text is the basis of the translation, if the scholars had simply made their decision and translated accordingly without adding all the textual notes (or at least with far less), the uptake of accurate modern versions among the Christian community would have been much wider and faster and united.
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, blogs at Head Heart Hand, and is author of the books Christians Get Depressed Too and How Sermons Work.