Unity and the KJV, part 3

Part one, part two.

Unity with Mormon Christology

Despite the complaints of some Christians, Mormon beliefs regarding Christ are in many ways very traditional, so it was no surprise that Clark (and others) were worried about the RSV’s use of “young woman” rather than “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14. Such was the indignation surrounding this passage that copies of the RSV were publicly burned by some conservative Christians. Senator McCarthy even claimed that the translation was part of a Communist plot to undermine American Christianity. Thus, at a time when KJV-use was being made official in the LDS church, the KJV was itself seen as conservative, American, and (Protestant) Christian. Mormons want to situate themselves in that group for missionary and other reasons.

There are other assumed offences against Mormon Christology. Newer translations often note textual doubts over the use of “Son of God” in Mark 1:1; offer alternative marginal readings for Christ as “God over all” in Romans 9:4-5; and highlight the problem of the end of Mark, a passage crucial for the belief in universal evangelisation. The most troublesome is the question mark often placed over the story of Christ’s bleeding from every pore in Luke. For Mormons, the Gethsemane narrative — Jesus’ “inner crucifixion” (Davies) — is central to their view of atonement (cf. D&C 19 and Mormon Cross aversion). The KJV raises none of these problems, and provides what Mormons need in the Bible to support their view of Christ.


The use of the King James Version is an enlightening token of LDS beliefs, practices, and especially the importance of unity in the faith. For English readers, different Bibles are simply too jarring to warrant a wholesale move away from the KJV. It is true that these are not problems encountered outside of the Anglophone church; it is also true that Mormons are free to use other translations in their reading and scholarship (I use the Harper Collins NRSV; the NIV has been cited in the Ensign). However, for the time being the costs to unity for sanctioning another Bible are too high for the American-led LDS church to consider.

This series began as a talk at the European Mormon Studies Association in Tilburg, Netherlands, 2010. A longer print version is in preparation.


  1. Interesting post and examples.

    Isaiah 28:10 “precept upon precept” is translated as “babble upon babble” in the Revised English Bible. The KJV translation is necessary for Mormon idea of revelation being given bit by bit.

  2. The relation to Mormon Christology is very important but I wonder whether the bleeding from every pore is connected with a different issue. I don’t have to say that the problem with Luke’s account is not the translation (the KJV and NRSV are very similar) but rather it is with the sources. Thus this issue could arise for readers of the KJV as well as other translations. Admittedly these concerns are highlighted in the other versions, but the LDS Church could still produce their own version of the NRSV and omit these troubling references; as they seem to have done with the editions we currently have. I suspect that it would be possible to maintain unity whilst using other translations but this would take more work than the Church has the inclination to invest.

  3. Aaron,
    You are right that it’s a problem with marginal notes. You are also right that the church, given all the other points I have raised, sees no need to move from the KJV.

  4. Also, Ronan, do you have any sense for how the BYU NT Commentary will depart from the tradition established thus far with the in-house commentaries mentioned earlier. Will their base text, for example, be the NRSV (or some variant)?

  5. This has been an interesting series to think about. However, I have a question regarding the idea that interpretations have edged into the newer translations, which is inevitable. To compare, though, considering the recent changes to the chapter headings and footnotes in the BoM, how much of our footnoting and other explanatory text in our LDS version of the KJV could be considered “interpretive?”

  6. It’s interpretive, Kevin, but authorised. That is the key.

  7. It’s only authorised in Great Britain. Here in the colonies, it is authorized.

  8. Ronan, perhaps to be more specific, I see dissonance with praise for the KJV and yet LDS scholarly acceptance of the NRSV.

    I have enjoyed reading some of the latest books put out by scholars in celebration of the KJV.

    And Leland Ryken in his book, The Legacy of the King James Bible (2011), affirms my point.

    “There are three modern translations that are indisputably in the procession of the King James Bible. They are the Revised Standard Version of 1952, the New King James Bible of 1983, and the English Standard Version of 2011. . . . On the other side, the New Revised Standard Version wants to align itself with the King James tradition, but its actual adherence to it is halfhearted” (pp. 72-73).


  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaron R, my understanding is that the BYU NT commentary will have the KJV and a new translation, prepared by the authors themselves, in parallel columns. For purposes of optics the new translation will not be called what it is, i.e., a “translation,” but rather a “rendition” or some such. That is suggestive of the sensitivity that exists in certain quarters on this subject.

  10. misprint – it should be “English Standard Version of 2001”

  11. #5
    Isn’t any translated document “interpretive” to some degree?

  12. Aren’t all of your arguments appeals to tradition? Traditional language and terms, traditional stances of the bretheren, and traditional verses quoted in support of different positions. Surely there must be a better reason for using the KJV than simple tradition.

  13. Occasional interpretive issues aside, to me the NIV reads like a “dumbed down Bible”, the sort of thing you would prepare for students in elementary school.

    Beyond that, one of the major advantages of a literal translation like the KJV or NKJV is that it bears a far closer relationship to the original text. That not only avoids substantial interpretive issues with dynamic translations, it allows the reader a far greater acquaintance with the language and style of the original texts without learning Hebrew or Greek.

  14. ” it bears a far closer relationship to the original text.”

    Which “original” text?

  15. Every translation is interpretive, as are the surrounding notes, cross-references, punctuation, layout of the text and even font color (Here I’m thinking of “words of Jesus in red” translations.) All of these things affect how we read and understand what has been transmitted.

    “the KJV translation is necessary for Mormon idea of revelation being given bit by bit.” Strictly speaking, I think only Nephi’s interpretation of Isaiah is necessary, as that’s where we get the idea.

    Hemi- By original text, he presumably means the original languages the English is translated from, not the Urtext autographs.

    There are two opposing philosophies of translation- one more literal and less interpretive, but harder for a reader to grasp because less is being translated; the KJV and NRSV are in this tradition. The other philosophy has the advantage of being easier for a reader to grasp because the translator does more idiomatic and cultural translation, effectively (and theoretically for better) interposing herself more between the text and reader. Of course, if the translator’s understanding of the text is off, then the reader is gaining a clearer but less accurate understanding of the text.

    Ryan- Phillip Barlow has explained at length the history of how the KJV became the official English Bible of the Church. Tradition has a lot to do with it, but wasn’t the only driving concern.

  16. Ronan,

    You’ve laid this out well. I now have a greater appreciation for why the Church has and will continue to use the KJV. Unfortunately, my big beef with the translation still remains:

    For many people in the Church, its nearly un-readable – especially when it comes to key passages in Isaiah and the letters of Paul. The result is a lack of intimacy with the book as whole. To put it plainly – Mormons are generally ignorant when it comes to the Bible. Mostly, it serves as a supplement to the modern revelations – something to proof text, some thing to read at Christmas. As you’ve mentioned, it holds very little real authoritative power in the Church these days – and that’s a shame.

    I guess for me its personal – I didn’t love reading the Bible until I picked up a modern translation. Now I hunger and thirst for it – something the KJV could never do.

  17. “For many people in the Church, its nearly un-readable”

    Are there any statistics to back this statement? I’ve seen it pop up every now and then, but I’ve never seen evidence to establish the truthfulness of it. I can accept that there are some words/phrases that are difficult to understand, but context clues go a long way to help one work through those. I can also accept that there are passages of Isaiah that are extremely difficult to understand, but that does not make the entire book unreadable. Having used the Bible Gateway numerous times to compare the KJV with other translations, as well as my modest collection of English-language translations, I haven’t found the language or style of the KJV to be so far removed from other translations as to justify the claim that the Jacobean renderings are “nearly unreadable” to the majority, or even a sizable portion, of the Church.

  18. Um, Alex–how many years of schooling do you have under your belt, compared to the average in the church?

  19. Compared to the average English-language speaker? I don’t know what the comparison is, but I have a bachelor’s degree. Does that make me considerably better educated than the typical English-speaking Mormon? How does that matter when taking into account that many KJV passages are similar, if not identical, to a multitude of other English translations?

  20. Alex –

    Passages may not differ greatly, but I’ve personally known “many people” who have a difficult time with the overall flow of the KJV. My declaration of Mormon ignorance toward the Bible is simply based on 30 + years of church meetings and classes around different parts of the US. Concluding that the two are linked is not much of a stretch – IMHO.

  21. CJ – Okay, I understand your point better. Dealing with the overall flow is a bit different, in my mind, to a declaration of it being unreadable.

    FWIW, I know people who have difficulty with the overall flow of the Bible, regardless of the translation.

%d bloggers like this: