As a young man I self-righteously endeavored to make certain I received the best of everything in terms of my Christian faith and practice. Since the Bible is the very foundation of the Christian faith, I wanted to ensure that I started building my doctrinal beliefs from a proper foundation. In the past, well-meaning pastors and various other important people had led me to believe that some translations of the Bible were simply not an option for the true Christian. Armed with inexperience and zeal, I set out to discover the great secret to beginning the serious Christian life aright.
A mentor of mine quickly quenched my penchant for exactitude by pointing out that Bible translations are much like toothbrushes. Some people like their bristles very hard. Others, very soft. The important thing, of course, is that we brush. Very well, I would continue to read my King James Version of the Bible until I unlocked the mystical meaning of my mentor’s periodontal profundity.
The King James Version
Of course, the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible seemed perfectly fine. People know and love the KJV. Most of us were raised on it. We are familiar with the way it reads and sounds. We might even prefer it to more modern translations of the Bible. The KJV is an accurate and beautiful translation. But is the KJV the only or even the best translation of the Bible?
The Word of God
Interestingly, the Bible does not tell us which specific translation of the Bible to use. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Just as the Bible does not tell us which specific translation of the Bible to use, so also it does not tell us that we must learn Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. The Bible does not require us to learn those languages, but if we do not learn them then the Bible must be translated for us to read it. Moreover, the Bible should be translated.
The Mission of God
The mission of God might provide a reason why God never instructs us about which specific translation of the Bible we should use. Take, for example, the “Great Commission” text of Matthew 28:18-20.
And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
One point that sticks out in this passage is that the command from Jesus involves “all nations.” And yet, making disciples requires the Word of God. Without the Word of God being translated into languages other than its original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, nobody could ever hope to obey the Great Commission, the command from Jesus to make disciples of all nations. Indeed, if the Word of God were never translated into other languages, then we could never hope to see the scenes described for us in Revelation 5:9 and 7:9.
And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.’
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.
Notice that the people described in the two passages above not only come from different tribes, peoples, and nations, but they also speak different tongues, or languages. At some point somebody preached the gospel to them in their own languages. The Word of God was faithfully translated into other languages.
The Nearest and Clearest
If we love both the Bible and the people to whom we are sent with the Bible, then we will strive to translate the Bible in such a way that it is nearest to what its authors originally wrote but also clearest for those who will receive it. The task of faithfully transmitting and translating the text of Scripture is nothing new to the Church, and is an extremely important task for anyone who loves the Bible and missions.
The Bible and Missions
The observations above were not lost on the translators of the 1611 KJV, who denied that it was the only translation of Scripture. At the time the 1611 KJV was translated, numerous other English translations of the Bible already existed, such as Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the Douai-Rheims Bible. The KJV also went through changes in 1612, 1613, 1616, 1629, 1638, and 1769. But all of this work was an attempt to get translations that were nearest and clearest as explained above.
Some denominations, such as Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, will sometimes teach that those who do not use the KJV are wrong not to, or cannot be saved. As mentioned above, the Bible never makes such a claim. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also uses the KJV. Unlike IFBs, LDS also use other books they falsely believe are from God (Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants). Those who try to defend the KJV as the only or real translation of the Bible usually seek to demonize those who use other translations, dismiss modern translations as part of a grand Satanic conspiracy, and randomly select one of the many editions of the KJV to serve as a standard by which to judge all other translations.
However, as already pointed out, the KJV is not the standard for what the Bible should say. What the authors of Scripture originally wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek is the standard. The KJV, as well as every other translation of the Bible, must be compared to the aforementioned standard. Proper transmission and translation of the text of Scripture are crucial for making the gospel clear to people in need of the Lord Jesus Christ. The English translations have done an excellent job here.
Today, there is very little reason to use a KJV Bible. The Early Modern English of the KJV is not the same as the Modern English used by English-speaking congregations. We certainly are not going to go door-to-door asking people, “How art thou this day?” Nobody talks that way anymore. Setting aside the entire enterprise of lower textual criticism, the most missions-minded among us will still prefer a translation of Scripture written in such a way as to be readily readable by the average English-speaking congregant or person to whom we take the gospel.
We love the Bible. We love the gospel. We love people.
We should speak so people can understand. We want to make the Word of God clear.
We can do so by choosing translations that are nearest what the original authors wrote and clearest to our current audience.