Which Bible Translation is Best for Christian Writers?
Which Bible translation is best for Christian writers? Grammar is dynamic. Many Christians don’t believe that, however. For example, a large number are happy with the thundering diction and confusing vocabulary and contorted syntax of the King James Version (KJV). Clarity means nothing to KJV devotees.
“But the KJV language is so beautiful,” they say. It is. However, when I read my Bible, I want information, not beauty. Beauty is nice for special occasions, but why should I have to study the KJV to understand it when other translations provide instant clarity? In addition, the range of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, and the level of scholarship, is far superior than it was 400 years ago when the KJV was translated.
Those who insist on reading the KJV don’t speak in Elizabethan English at home, in school or at work. That’s beside the point to them. They think a “Holy Bible” requires a holy sounding language despite that Koine Greek, or simple “peasant Greek,” was the language of the first translation of the New Testament.
Many people think the KJV is the “Authorized Version” (AV) and thus more holy than others. However, it was not authorized by God, only King James (1566-1625) and by an Act of Parliament. King James had no reputation as a spiritual leader, and his main purpose in allowing the new transition was to appease the Puritans, an important political faction during his reign. Overall, James’ reign was known for its depravity and corruption.
Dead Out of the Gate
Clarity was important to the writers of the KJV when they translated it. Today, “Thou, thee, thy and thine” have a holy ring to them, but that is how regular people talked in the 1600s. This chart by A. Davies, R. Lipton, D. Richoux et. al. shows that King James style English fell out of favor by 1700, which was within 90 years of publication of the Bible. As these linguist said,
You may have been told that “thou” and “thee” were for familiar use, and “you” and “ye” were formal. This was not true originally, but it was true for about two centuries, roughly 1450-1650, including Shakespeare’s time. The previously plural “you” was used in the singular to signify politeness and respect, which left “thou” and “thee” for all the other singular uses, ranging from endearing intimacy to bitter rudeness. Eventually, the politer “you” drove out nearly all uses of “thee” and “thou”; they survived mostly in poetry and religion.
The archaic language of the KJV was from the Early Modern English (1470-1700) era and it was replaced by Modern English. The transition took time to ripple through culture, yet if there was one year that marked the change from the archaic language of the KJV to Modern English, it was 1755. That was the year Samuel Johnson published his famous dictionary, and it standardized spelling and usage.
The Real Reasons the KJV Became Popular
There were three reasons the KJV became popular, and none of them had anything to do with the purity that some people think it contains.
First was the rise of literacy. Most people could not read until the 1700s (and well after), so there was no point in owning a Bible. Most local churches had them, individuals did not. When people learned to read, they wanted to read the Bible. Before formal education became the norm, many people learned to read from the family Bible.
The second reason the KJV became popular was that it was the only translation available. The market was flooded with them as printing technology advanced.
The third reason was that it was not copyrighted and anyone could print it without paying a fee. As literacy and demand for books grew, printers made all the money and authors got almost nothing. There was no way for an author to protect his or her intellectual property until the British enacted the Statute of Anne in 1710. The concept was so important that copyright was included in the new United States Constitution in 1787. Authors and translators had the right from that point forward to get a royalty for published copies of creative work.
The KJV was created before copyright laws were enacted, and that’s why paperback copies are as low as $1. There is a copyright on later translations, like the New International Version (NIV), and that’s the reason, in part, why the cheapest copies of it sell for $9.95.
The Struggle to Find the Right Word
Which Bible translation is best for Christian writers? As writers, we struggle to find the right word. Likewise, we should struggle to find the right Word in our quest for clarity. Sometimes the KJV will do, but usually only for readers who are already familiar with it. For most of society, clarity comes from newer translations that reflect changes in the English language. Contrary to what some say, it is not about changing the content of Scripture, but making the existing content clear to today’s readers.
Christian communication is about encoding the message of Jesus Christ so it is easy for others to decode it in their minds. That’s why Christian writers want to dispense with their own preferences, cultural or theological, and think about how readers will receive what you have to say. That is never more important than when you include scripture passages in your writing.