I routinely give some version of this spiel both when I teach Gospel Doctrine and in the hallway conversations that follow. Several friends have suggested that I blog it, so here goes. I’m aiming for brevity rather than thoroughness, since the point of the spiel is to give people in class who might be wondering why I tend not to use the KJV a short and accessible argument explaining my reasons. Even though we’re currently doing the New Testament, I’ll also include my bit on the Old.
Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures
First of all, a word on the name. The phrase “Old Testament” implies a New Testament, suggesting the replacement of one covenant by another. This possible replacement has two effects. First, it raises the question of why we should bother with the Old Testament at all, instead of just tuning out for a year until we get to the New. Second, it sets us up to read the Old Testament through the New, which is fine, but such typological reading is and should be secondary to the literal reading (which Jews call peshat). If we only read typologically, we can end up missing other kinds of spiritual richness latent in the text–which emphatically include the non-Jesus-centered readings that Jews have been doing for millennia. So, instead of “Old Testament,” I prefer the term “Hebrew Scriptures.” These were, after all, the first Christian scriptures, too. Jesus never quoted from the New Testament, obviously.
Second, a word on translation. The King James translators used the best linguistic resources available to them, but in the last 400 years (and especially the last century) scholarship has produced three major advantages. The first is linguistic: in the past 80 or so years, scholars have greatly expanded their knowledge of ancient Near Eastern languages, which has enabled a clearer understanding of the Hebrew (and occasionally Aramaic) words in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, modern translations can simply be more accurate than the KJV. Beyond this, the Dead Sea Scrolls include earlier versions of biblical texts than were hitherto available. Finally, scholars now understand how Hebrew poetry works. Whereas the KJV renders the whole text (including the Psalms) in its lovely prose, modern translations can distinguish between poetry and prose. Thus, readers of modern translations can tell when, say, the Book of Job switches from prose to poetry and then back to prose.
For the Hebrew Scriptures, I like the NRSV (which can be found in standalone form [including as a free Android app] and also in study Bibles published by HarperCollins and Oxford), as well as the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, which can also be found in the Jewish Study Bible. The translations of Robert Alter are unparalleled in their literary quality, though, and come with very insightful notes on matters of translation and cultural context.
The KJV translators used a descendant of the Greek New Testament first published by Erasmus in 1516. Erasmus’s edition was a major landmark: he was the first to try to assemble a printed New Testament in its original language, instead of the 1000-year-old Latin Vulgate translation. Modern scholarship has improved on Erasmus in two major ways. First, his collection of manuscripts didn’t cover the entire NT text, and to fill the gaps in the Greek he simply translated from the Vulgate, which means that some few passages in the KJV don’t rest directly on manuscript evidence. Second, his manuscripts are late, coming from the 11th-12th century Byzantine family, which aren’t always that textually reliable. Scholars have uncovered many additional manuscripts since Erasmus’s time, including some nearly a millennium older than the ones he used.
For the New Testament I generally use the NRSV, as printed in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, whose notes help to situate the text in 1st-century Judaism. Again, the translation itself can also be found in a free Android app and in other study Bibles.
An important caveat: I’m not a trained biblical scholar. My rusty Greek is usually enough to puzzle through bits of the New Testament, but I don’t know Hebrew. I actually think that this is an important point, and not because I want to tout my own modesty or inoculate myself against correction by those of our commenters (and permas *Ronan* *Kevin*) who know this stuff better than I do. See, Gospel Doctrine isn’t supposed to be a graduate seminar, accessible only to an elite few. Rather, it needs to be engaged in building Zion, whose gates are open to all. Good study Bibles, which can be had for a fraction of what many of us expend on our monthly cell phone or cable/satellite TV bills, make basically everything I know about biblical scholarship available to anyone who wants it. The major goal of Gospel Doctrine as I see it is to show, by precept and example, that the scriptures can be powerful resources for wrestling with the complexities of human life. The slight unfamiliarity of new translations can help class members see the text in new ways, and my hope is always that the unsettling of familiar readings will be recompensed with new riches. Fortunately, I’m reposing this trust in a book that has been delivering riches for thousands of years.
Granted, we should still keep the KJV in our repertoire, because, as Ronan reminds us, knowing its language puts us in better stead to understand our modern scriptures that mimic its style. Even so, I’ve found that my own personal study and my ward Gospel Doctrine classes have benefited from using new translations and study Bible notes. Questioning the translation forces us to think about what the text really says, to consider closely the words on the page. Admittedly, the unfamiliarity does put some people off, but that’s why I routinely explain my reasons for using new translations. As a practical matter, I also do all of the reading out loud in class, so that I at least make the translation available in one form for those who don’t have it.
What experiences have you had using alternative translations in church settings?