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Meridian celebrates this 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible with this exploration of why Latter-day Saints use this version, preferring it above others.

No original manuscripts of Bible books are known to exist today.  Manuscripts written after the originals are called versions, and any translation or version of the Bible admittedly has inherent weaknesses and limitations.  No version can perfectly preserve the intent, thought, and words of the original authors.

Latter-day Saints believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly (Article of Faith 8) and as far as the text is transmitted correctly, but even textual transmission is fraught with difficulties.

The Hebrew/Aramaic text of the Old Testament upon which most modern translations or versions are based is the Masoretic text, the “Received Text,” standardized in the early Christian era and revised by Jewish scholars, the “Masoretes,” during the sixth to ninth centuries A. D.

The Greek Septuagint is the oldest translation of the Old Testament.  It was in common use from the 3rd century B. C. through the formative years of the early Christian Church.

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the late 1940s and early 1950s, are some of the oldest copies of biblical books now in existence, some dating to the second century B. C.  They are frequently consulted for comparative study of portions of the Old Testament.

It is clear from the New Testament that written records of Jesus’ life and teachings were kept during his ministry (see Luke 1:1-4).  Original manuscripts (likely in Aramaic) may have been used by some Gospel writers, while they may also have consulted with each other.

As Christianity spread through the Mediterranean world, the need arose for translations of the Bible into other languages. The three earliest translations were in Syriac, Latin, and Coptic.  Syriac versions are called Old Syriac and Peshitta. Latin versions consist of the Old Latin from the 2nd century, and the Vulgate, a revised Latin text prepared by Jerome in the 4th century.  Greek manuscripts (which are often mere fragments) date back to the 2nd century A. D.  Some of the oldest Greek texts are Codex Sinaiticus, discovered by Tischendorf in St. Catherine’s monastery in 1844, dating to about A. D. 340; Codex Vaticanus dating to the early 4th century, and Codex Alexandrinus, apparently carelessly written and including many errors of transcription, dating to the early 5th century.  Most corruptions of the biblical text originate from the earliest centuries A. D.

English versions of the whole Bible translated from Hebrew and Greek or Latin manuscripts began to appear with John Wycliffe’s translation from the Vulgate in 1382.  William Tyndale translated the Pentateuch from Hebrew and the New Testament from Greek and made the first English printing of the Bible.  The first complete English Bible produced was Miles Coverdale’s translation from the Latin in 1535.  In the 16th century a series of revisions of previous work appeared:  Matthew’s Bible (1537), the Taverner Bible (1539), the Great Bible (1539), the Geneva Bible (1560), and the Bishops’ Bible (1568).  The Catholics’ version of the Bible in English, the Rheims-Douai Bible, was produced in 1609, based on the Latin Vulgate.  In the early 1600s clergy preferred the Bishops’ Bible while the common people preferred the Geneva Bible.

In an attempt to heal differences between Anglicans and Puritans, a select group of fifty-four scholars began work on an “authorized version” of the Bible (meaning one authorized to be read in churches).  As the introduction explains, it was to be “translated out of the original tongues and with the former translations diligently compared and revised.”  (“Original tongues” means Hebrew and Greek, but Greek was not the main language used by Jesus and his apostles, so the English New Testament is a translation of a translation.)  The result of this work was the King James Version of the Bible (KJV), published in 1611. The already long and respected line of English Bibles was indeed diligently compared and adapted.  Much of the KJV text originates from the work of its eminent predecessors, especially from the Tyndale and the Geneva and Bishops’ Bibles.  

It was such a monumental achievement that another English version did not appear for over two and a half centuries.  Various editions of the KJV were published throughout the 1600s, which resulted in many printing inaccuracies.  In 1701 an Oxford edition was issued which included Archbishop Ussher’s chronology with a dating scheme back to the creation of the world.  Later the Cambridge (1762) and Oxford (1769) editions contained carefully revised text, modernized spelling, corrected punctuation, and changed marginal notes.

With the subsequent discovery of the Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus manuscripts, additional versions were produced, notably the English Revised Version (1881-1885), the American Standard Version (1901), and the Revised Standard Version (1952).  The Preface to the Revised Standard Version (RSV) indicates that this new version embodies “the best results of modern scholarship as to the meaning of the Scriptures” and “the best judgment of competent scholars as to the most probable reconstruction of the original text.”

In the 20th century a veritable flood of Bible translations has been poured out on the English-speaking world, so many that students of the Bible wonder which modern English version best represents the original biblical text.

Latter-day Saints continue to use the King James Version of the Bible for reasons both practical and philosophical.  The practical reasons are four:  (1) The KJV, still the largest selling version of the Bible in the world, is more easily obtainable than any other version.  (2) The KJV was the most commonly used Bible in the English-speaking world at the time of the Restoration and has been used for the better part of two centuries in Church publications.  (As the Church has expanded worldwide it has adopted the primary local translation of the Bible in lands using other languages.)

The processes of annotation, bibliography, indexing and cross-referencing of all English-language Church materials have been greatly facilitated by the universal use of one Bible version.  All latter-day prophets have regarded the KJV as the official Bible of the Church.  (3) The KJV, as opposed to many other versions, uses language forms (such as “thee,” “thou,” and “thy”) which are consistent with the other standard works of the Church.  (4) The Bible revisions made by the Prophet Joseph Smith (the “Joseph Smith Translation”) are based on the KJV and are thus in harmony with the tone and expression of the KJV.  

In addition to his work on the Bible, whenever the Prophet came across biblical quotations during his translation of the Book of Mormon (quotations which had been copied from brass plates carried away from Jerusalem and preserved by Nephite prophets), he rendered them in English in the exact language of the KJV, except in instances where the language of that version did not accurately represent the original intent of the biblical author.

Besides the above practical reasons, the philosophical reasons for Latter-day Saint use of the KJV are of yet higher or weightier importance.  The King James Version has superior literary quality; it is the masterpiece of English literature. E. A. Speiser, in his Introduction to the Anchor Bible’s volume on Genesis, wrote the following tribute to the KJV:

It is an inescapable fact .


. . that all subsequent English translations of the Bible, which go back to the original and not, say, to the Vulgate, are loyal revisions of KJ or respectful dissenters from it — a tribute either way to the pre-eminent position of the Authorized Version. . . .The King James Bible has been described as “the noblest monument of English prose.”  If one emends this to read “the most influential work in the English language,” the statement would be valid beyond the remotest shadow of doubt.  The influence of the King James Bible on life and letters in the English-speaking world has been all-pervasive. . . . KJ is the product of a singularly happy stage in the history of English.  It was achieved, moreover, by men who showed great sensitivity in their handling of the original media—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  The translators had the further advantage of invaluable spadework by gifted predecessors, especially the martyred Tyndale.  It was a matchless combination of assets, and the result was a truly inspired version, destined for extraordinary influence and acclaim.  (E. A. Speiser, Anchor Bible Genesis. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1964, pp. LXXIII-LXXIV.)

Admittedly there are a number of problems in the KJV, such as obscure renderings and now-archaic diction, phraseology, and forms currently considered ungrammatical.  In those instances more recent versions do serve a helpful purpose by linguistically clarifying the biblical text.  The KJV is not consistent in the spelling of names in the Old and New Testaments (for example, Elijah/Elias, Isaiah/Esaias, Hosea/Osee, Jeremiah/ Jeremias, and Jonah/Jonas).  Identical passages in the Synoptic Gospels are translated differently.  Misprints were quickly corrected in subsequent editions, although some glaring errors never were corrected (for instance, Matt. 23:24 “straining at a gnat,” which should have been rendered “straining out a gnat”). 

Despite its deficiencies, however, the KJV still stands as the greatest single work in English literature, and when diligently studied can be understood by the careful reader.  In addition to understanding the Bible itself, a familiarity with the KJV leads to greater understanding and appreciation of the writings of great figures such as Milton, Swift, Lamb, Ruskin, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Lincoln, and many others, as the KJV was the Bible that they knew and honored.

While attempting to make the Bible “more intelligible” to modern people, many Bible versions of the 20th century endeavored to “modernize” the Holy Scripture.  Regional and provincial expressions and figures of speech and idioms of Bible times have been kept to a minimum.  Unlike these versions which seek to expunge all provincial and cultural idioms and figures—which are often the key to understanding analogies made by the original writers—the KJV in most cases eloquently captures the sense and meaning of the ancient text.  

One of the favorite literary devices of biblical writers was to compare the human experience with something in nature.  The prophets and Jesus constantly conjured up images from their geographical milieu to illustrate their teachings and used picturesque figures of speech based on the agriculture, horticulture, and viticulture in the Holy Land, as well as its flora and fauna and meteorological phenomena.  The land of the Bible was immortalized through the universal lessons drawn from it.  Rather than attempt to delete or “modernize” the images from the land, the KJV admirably preserves the style and tone and meaning of the biblical expression.

A second philosophical reason for continued use of the KJV is the belief among Latter-day Saints that the group of men who produced it was generally guided by faith in certain beliefs which are basic to the gospel Jesus taught: they held to the divine Sonship and divine mission of Jesus Christ, and they believed in the gift of prophecy and the reality of miracles.  Their renderings strengthen rather than destroy faith.  Later versions introduced subtle changes which raise doubts about these fundamental beliefs of the Church.

The KJV clearly portrays Jesus as the promised Messiah and as the Son of God.  Other versions have tended to cast doubt on these essential tenets which are the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  J. Reuben Clark, Jr., a 20th century diplomat and general authority of the Church, prepared a thorough study of the various modern English versions of the Bible.  After meticulous consideration of tens of thousands of changes made in the Revised Version, the American Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version, and others, he concluded that “we stand in danger of a pollution of the sacred text of the Bible, by destroying the basic Christian concept that Jesus is the Christ. The author’s study convinces him the King James Version is the best version of any yet produced” (Why the King James Version, 33).

The title pages of the above-mentioned modern versions of the Bible claim that they are “the version set forth A. D. 1611, compared with the most ancient authorities and revised” (Why the King James Version, 38-41).  Elder Clark points  out that the claim of these later versions to be reworkings of the KJV is not true.  These versions discredit the Greek text upon which the KJV is based and accuse the KJ translators of mistranslations, mistakes in English grammar, archaisms, anachronisms, and so forth.

Elder Clark cites a host of examples from the more recent versions of textual problems and renderings which raise doubts.  The word “charity” has been eliminated in favor of “love.”  The word “signs” has been substituted for the word “miracles.”  The Revised Standard Version, which perpetuates changes made in its immediate predecessors, omits the latter half of Matthew 6:13, the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer:  “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”  The RSV also omits Matthew 18:11, “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.”  It likewise omits Luke 22:43-44, about an angel ministering to the Savior, and His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.  (These omissions are also followed in the more recent Anchor Bible volumes of Matthew and Luke.)  KJV Mark 1:1 reads, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  The Revised Version, American Standard Version, and Revised Standard Version all read the same, but with a doubt-raising marginal note: “Other ancient authorities omit the Son of God.”  On Luke 23:34 the later versions include a marginal note: “Other ancient authorities omit the sentence And Jesus said, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  (See Clark, Why the King James Version, for many similar examples.)

No claim is made by the Church that the King James Version is a perfect Bible, but no better version has surfaced to rival it.  In short, it is the most available version; it was used by the Prophet Joseph Smith and has been used ever since then by the Church in its publications; it uses language compatible with the other standard works; it stands as the literary masterpiece of the English language; and it encourages faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ, in his miraculous power, and in his atoning sacrifice.  There has been no compelling reason to adopt any other English-language version of the Bible.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. D. Kelly Ogden is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.