Why the King James?

Introduction

It is common for people to mistakenly conflate the Received Text position with some version of King James Onlyism. This is somewhat understandable, as most people in the Received Text position exclusively read the King James. The first important distinction to make is that “KJVO” is only an error if somebody believes the King James was re-inspired, or is inspired by virtue of itself. The Confessional starting point is that translations are mediately inspired insofar as they set forth the immediately inspired original texts which have been “kept pure in all ages.” The immediately inspired text is that which God inspired, and a mediately inspired text is that which mediates accurately the immediately inspired text in any “vulgar tongue.”

This means that according to the TR position, any translation that sets forth the correct text accurately is perfectly acceptable. The argument for the King James then, is not that the King James should be used because it is perfect by virtue of itself. The argument is that it accurately sets forth the correct original texts. So if other translations are available to this doctrinal position, why is it that the King James enjoys the readership and defense of most people within the TR camp?

The KJV Sets Forth the Correct Text

This is the first of two arguments that really matter if we are discussing the KJV against a bible built on the Modern Critical Text. It does not matter how beautiful or easy to read a translation is if it does not set forth the correct text into a target language. I have often seen arguments made for the ease-of-use of the ESV, and that argument may be valid, but the ESV is still not an adequate translation if it does not have the correct textual foundation. The primary motivation for a Christian to read a bible translation should be that it translates the right thing.

The KJV is Accurate

This is the most important in terms of practicality and the second argument that matters in this discussion. A bible can use the correct text and also have places where it simply translates the original wrong or perhaps deviates from the correct text in certain places. The KJV accurately sets forth the original and uses a translational methodology that doesn’t interpret the text in its translational choices. This does not mean that the KJV translators used the best possible English words in every place, simply that they used correct words in every single place. In other words, if you can understand the English of the KJV, you can understand what was set forth in the underlying text just fine. The standard for what makes a translation “good” should be that it translates the correct text accurately.

The KJV as a Standard Text

The only objective qualities that matter have been satisfied in the KJV. It is a translation that uses the right original texts and translates those texts accurately. Everything else is simply preference. In terms of preference, there are many reasons to choose the KJV as a translation of the Received Text.

First, it is not subject to the changes in society or the whims of a publishing house. It is set in stone and has been for quite a long time. This ensures that the Bible you read when you’re 7 will be the Bible you read when you’re 70. That means that the Scripture you memorize in your youth will be the same as the Scripture that lives in your head when you die. Additionally, this means that you will not have to buy the latest revision to your Bible every time a publisher decides to release a new edition. This is especially problematic for ESV and NASB readers.

Second, since it is not changing, and there is one standard version of the KJV, it allows a congregation to have the exact same text as each other. When I was a critical text advocate, I had three editions of the ESV, which were all different from each other. My friends who read the ESV had a different ESV than me, depending on which one I brought to church or to Bible study. An ESV pastor could be preaching from a different version of the ESV than the people in the pew, who also had the ESV. This happened to us every Lord’s Day. It engenders confusion, especially if the pastor happens to preach from a text that is different between the 2012 and 2016 editions of the ESV.

Third, it retains first and third person pronouns, which allows the reader to distinguish better what the text is saying. We have dropped this distinction in today’s vernacular, but it’s nice to have with a text as specific as the Holy Bible.

Fourth, it does not include the uncertainty of the scholars in the footnotes, brackets, and margins. Even in modern versions, this is distracting and confusing for people that aren’t steeped in the textual discussion. Without the all of the white noise, it is easier to simply focus on the text and read the Bible as it’s translated.

The last two reasons are minor, but reasons nonetheless. The King James is beautifully crafted and is designed to be read and memorized.

Conclusion

The only two criteria that ultimately matter from an objective standpoint are that the KJV sets forth the correct original texts, and does so accurately. Could the translators of the KJV employed better words in some places? Sure, they could have. Regardless, they employed accurate words that allow the English reader to access what is communicated in the original text.

It is for this reason that those in the Received Text camp choose it over and above modern versions, including the MEV and the NKJV. There are countless subjective reasons such as the beauty of the language, but those are secondary. When viewed simply, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the King James is the crowd favorite among the Received Text camp. One of the most confusing assumptions I see on a daily basis is that the only reason one would read the KJV is due to being a “KJV Onlyist,” as if it’s not an amazing translation without Ruckman’s strange doctrine.

Even if there was no discussion over the TR vs. the Critical Text, many people would still choose to read the KJV over the ESV because the ESV really isn’t that great of a translation (That’s for you Nathan Beatty). The NASB 2020 is so bad that MacArthur created his own translation so he didn’t have to use it. The NIV is incredibly loose in its translation methodology and loses its value quickly in its lack of precision. The NKJV has places where the translation methodology is sub par. Even if the modern versions were viewed without respect to the KJV, they have enough issues to warrant disregarding them. All of the modern versions can be easily evaluated as “just okay,” even if we don’t consider the textual discussion.

There is a reason the modern scholars suggest reading all of them together, and it’s because of the translational weaknesses of each modern version. This is inevitable when you take a subject matter as precise and complex as the Bible and try to make every line accessible to a third grader. I’m sure the translational quality of the ESV would be far better if the translation methodology excluded this feature. There are places in our Bible that are advanced simply because the concepts set forth in the original languages are advanced, and there is very little a translator can do to change that without compromising the meaning of the original text. Since most modern translations compromise precision for readability, it is inevitable that there will be places where you have to “go back to the Greek” or consult another translation to get a full picture of what’s being said.

If we add the textual discussion into our decision-making process, the choice becomes abundantly clear which Bible translation comes out on top. There is a reason modern translations use the “tradition of the King James” as a selling point for their bibles. Even in 2021, modern publishing houses still appeal to the value of the KJV to sell bibles. It is a fantastic translation regardless of one’s view on textual criticism, and most people will happily agree on that point. Add in the theological convictions of the Received Text position, and the choice is really quite easy to make.

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