Jana Riess comes to us as one of the regular Dialogue participants.
Recently on the AML (Association of Mormon Letters) list, there’s been an interesting discussion of Bible translations, including the merits and demerits of the King James Version. My own feeling is that the KJV, however magnificent its language, is not always the best translation to help us understand the scriptures. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. I wish we Mormons would get out more.
When I was teaching Gospel Doctrine, I routinely brought in other translations, my favorite being the NRSV, to demonstrate places where the KJV needs supplementation. In Psalm 145, the last of the nine acrostic psalms in the OT, the KJV is missing an entire verse. In fact, most translations are missing it, and what’s more, scholars have always known it was missing. That’s because in an alphabetical poem, each letter begins its own verse, and the whole nun (N) verse was never in the Masoretic text that our modern translations have as their root manuscript. I told my class that its absence is as obvious to Hebrew-literate hearers as it would be if someone today were singing our song to help children learn the alphabet, and they skipped a letter. Everyone in the room would know immediately that it was incomplete.
The Qumran (Dead Sea) version of the psalm has the nun verse, which confirmed a couple of isolated (but much later) versions that differed from the Masoretic text. The NRSV is one of the first modern translations to restore the verse, which ironically enough, is about how the “Lord is faithful in all his words.” I’ll say!
But that’s the most clear-cut example I can think of; most others are less obvious. The problems start right off the bat with Genesis 1:1. What we translate as “In the beginning, when God created” could be more accurately rendered from Hebrew as “when God began to create.” (Interesting that this more correct translation is more in line with Mormon theology anyway.)
Most of the problems with the KJV are with the Hebrew OT, not the Greek NT, because by the time of its translation, classical scholarship was very well established in England. People really knew their Greek. Hebrew was a slipperier and less systematic language, and it was new to them. The KJV translators weren’t exactly schooled in Rashi and Hillel, as they most certainly were in Herodotus and Euripides. Understandably, they made a lot of mistakes.
I must object to the argument, which someone raised on the AML list and which I have also heard at church, that other translations were done by committee for political purposes, but the KJV was simply inspired. Are people thinking that it sprang full-blown out of nowhere, like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus? It most certainly was done in committee. Well, actually, in six. There were two committees at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster. All in all, there were more than 50 people working on it.
And if we’re somehow imagining that the KJV had no political agenda, look at whose name is still on the translation. It’s certainly not Jesus’. This version was authorized by King James because he sought to bring the scriptures into the English vernacular, thus carrying out one of the most significant religious reforms of the previous century. He was also, not coincidentally, firmly establishing England as a Protestant state. What’s not political about that?
That’s not to say the KJV isn’t lovely. It’s got some of the most gorgeous English around, and its influence on Western poets, writers, and musicians is inestimable. But if we’re really serious about the notion of restoration, and we take Joseph at his word that the Bible is true insofar as it is translated correctly, then we Latter-day Saints carry a particular spiritual burden to seek out the most accurate translations possible. And the KJV, however beautiful, is not the very best tool out there to accomplish that.