I would like to thank my friend Kevin for writing this post from his perspective as a Mennonite. I hope you all find it as fascinating as I did.
Based upon the title of this post alone, it is safe to assume that I am not a Catholic. I am a Mennonite, but I have been a reader (but not really a commenter) of the Catholic Bibles Blog for quite some time. I appreciate the Bible in all its forms, and I am always intrigued by how manuscripts, denominational differences, and language have created so much diversity in the art of translating the Bible into English.
I received my first Bible ten years ago this year. It was a NLT Student’s Life Application Bible in paperback. Now, I primarily use a rather elegant KJV Westminster Reference Bible in black calfskin. As you can probably tell, from my first experiences of church ten years ago until now, my Bible preferences have shifted drastically. My first Bible and my current go-to are on completely different ends of the spectrum on textual sources, translation style, and physical quality. The main point of this post is to discuss textual sources and translation style.
So far, I have used for at least several months, or read several books of, the following translations (in no particular order): NLT, NIV (1984 and 2011), NAB, NABRE, RSV, RSV-2CE, NRSV, ESV, NASB, NKJV, NAV/TMB, and KJV. I have never limited myself by any one translations philosophy or denominational perspective. I am a Protestant, but I like the Bible in all its myriad forms. However, if you look at the aforementioned list of translations, there is a preference for versions in the Tyndale-King James tradition (e.g. KJV, RSV).
My time with so many versions has taught me one major truth: they are all good. None are perfect, but every single major, committee-produced translation is good. You can read the NLT, RSV, and KJV side-by-side, and get the same basic message. They will read differently, sound differently, and have different variations based upon textual sources, but the same message is there. Once this truth really started to settle in, my pickiness with different Bibles started to go away. However, if you are Catholic or Orthodox, the Protestant options are often going to be missing some important books.
My journey to the King James Version involves three key points:
As a Mennonite, to talk about church tradition seems a bit strange, but I have to admit that I value it. I especially value the English Protestant tradition that has given us so many masterpieces of English literature and liturgy (e.g. the King James Bible, Book of Common Prayer, the works of Shakespeare). The King James Version of the Bible permeates English. There are many times when we speak, and we unintentionally quote from the KJV. The KJV is all over English language liturgies/worship services, and the KJV is found in other Bibles that are its descendants (ASV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, NKJV, etc.).
However, there is a far greater aspect of tradition that just makes the KJV “click” for me. The KJV is the Bible of my family. Both of my parents grew up in KJV using churches. My father will still say that the KJV is the “most accurate” translation (which I know is debatable). All of the Bibles that mean something to me since they were passed down by loved ones are King James Bibles. When I read my KJV, it reminds me of the coverless KJV my great-grandmother used until her death, or the large Holman KJV my grandfather has studied from for 50 years. That level of sentimentality cannot be found in any other version.
This is not unrelated to my previous point. The KJV endures because of how beautiful it is. The KJV was translated in such a way that it was both faithful to the original languages and faithful to English. It is both literal and literary. Because of how common illiteracy was 400 years ago, it had to be. Any Bible translation was going to be primarily heard from lectors during the liturgy, not in private homes.
Consider, for instance, one of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9 KJV). In the Tyndale-King James tradition, this passage is rendered in such a way that it is both faithful to Greek and beautiful in English. It is somewhat gender inclusive with “sons of God” becoming “children of God”, but it retains Greek idiom quite well while bring it alive in English. Compare this to the Good News Bible, which says, “Happy are those who work for peace; God will call them his children!” It says the same basic message in today’s English, but you lose the balance between the original languages and good English literature.
Even today, many of the most popular versions are intentionally based in the KJV style. They take from the KJV (or other KJV-based versions) because of the translational majesty of this particular version. Peter Hitchens wrote, “The new versions tend only to be tolerable at all when they stick closely to the Authorised Version's poetic text.” (His brother, Christopher Hitchens, also praised the KJV.) Peter is right. Just look at the towering popularity of the RSV and now ESV, or the NKJV. The only English version that comes close the KJV family in terms of popularity is the NIV, but even it falls very short. In terms of style, the KJV continues to reign as king.
The source texts behind the KJV are where the real debate tends to lie. If you look at the KJV tradition, it has branched in two directions: 1. towards the critical text with the Revised Version and its revisions; 2. continued reliance upon the Textus Receptus (e.g. NKJV, KJ21). (I only mention the New Testament Greek sources, because most English versions almost only use the Masoretic Text for the Hebrew Old Testament. Not all Masoretic Texts were created equal, but there is very little difference.) The textual debate is not a major concern for me, since it seems so little of the New Testament is actually affected. Sure, you have a handful of important places (e.g. Mark 16:9-20, 1 John 5:7), but most differences would not be noticed by the average reader.
However, I do appreciate the King James Version’s use of the Textus Receptus. It comes closest to what the majority of Greek manuscripts reflect, and I have my reservations about current trends in textual criticism. I am personally a bit troubled by the reliance upon two primary sources (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus) even when other sources that could be contemporary or older disagree. Mark 16:9-20, for example, can be found in some early witnesses such as the church fathers, Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, and Vulgate. Scholars seem to be biased in favor of only a couple sources to the exclusion of others. The KJV’s use of the Textus Receptus, however, gives one a good alternative to current textual standards.
In conclusion, I have found the KJV to be a wonderful Bible. It has enriched my devotional reading and study for the reasons I only briefly covered here. I would never recommend using the KJV only, but I also would not recommend using any one translation only. We are blessed today with so many websites and programs that allow us to explore the Scriptures even without having a physical copy in front of us. We should always utilize those resources.
If you are Catholic, I strongly suggest exploring the King James Version (even though you do have the wonderful Douay-Rheims Version). The King James Version originally included all of the books as found in the Vulgate, and even many Orthodox Christians utilize the KJV. I personally recommend the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with Apocrypha or Cambridge Cameo Reference Bible with Apocrypha. They both come the closest to providing an unabridged edition of the King James Bible. There is also the little-known Third Millennium Bible (New Authorized Version) which is a slightly updated KJV with Apocrypha.