I was stunned to read yesterday that the most popular and fastest growing Bible Translation is the King James Version. According to research carried out by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University:

  • When Americans reach for their Bibles, more than half of them pick up a King James Version (KJV).
  • The 55 percent who read the KJV easily outnumber the 19 percent who read the New International Version (NIV).
  • The percentages drop into the single digits for competitors such as the New Revised Standard Version, New America Bible, and the Living Bible.
  • The KJV also received almost 45 percent of the Bible translation-related searches on Google, compared with almost 24 percent for the NIV, according to Bible Gateway’s Stephen Smith.

Respected historian Mark Noll, an adviser for some of the research, said:

Although the bookstores are now crowded with alternative versions, and although several different translations are now widely used in church services and for preaching, the large presence of the KJV testifies to the extraordinary power of this one classic English text.

Skewed Statistics
A bit more reading behind the scenes revealed that there was no option in the survey to choose the New King James Version, which makes it likely that many who use that version chose the KJV as the next best option. That would fit with previous research which found that 52% used either the KJV or the NKJV (split 38% KJV and 14% NKJV).

Despite the flawed methodology and the incomplete reporting, it’s staggering that the KJV is still so dominant. Although some of the congregations I preach in use the KJV, I was under the distinct impression that such churches were in a tiny minority now. Perhaps such false impressions show the power of skillful marketing.

But it still raises the question, why so many Christians and churches have stuck with the KJV when there are so many alternatives and when it is laboring under the huge disadvantage of ancient English that sounds so strange to modern, and especially to unchurched, ears? Some answers might be:

1. Tradition: Many Christians were brought up with the KJV and love the familiarity of it. The language is part of their spiritual vocabulary and reminds them of many sermons they heard throughout the years. It would be interesting to see an age breakdown of the KJV users. I suspect the majority of them would be in the older age group who naturally tend to be more conservative and resistant to change.

2. Suspicion: Some of the modern versions employed scholars who were decidedly liberal in their theology. Questions have been raised about some of the KJV translators as well, but it’s far easier to identify modern scholars and to uncover their theology (or lack of it).

3. Division: Many churches have been divided by the clumsy and careless introduction of a modern version. Even when it’s done prayerfully and wisely, it often has the painful effect of driving a wedge between members and even driving some away. Although some pastors and elders have identified that using the KJV is a factor in the loss of their young people, they fear losing their older members  or provoking their “louder members” by changing. This results in numerous churches where the pastor and the vast majority of members are using modern versions at home and yet when they come together for public worship they are using a version that few of them ever read.

4. Superstition: I know very little about the KJV Only Movement, and it’s not monolithic either, but there are some who put the KJV pretty close to, if not on the same level as, the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Some will even call it “inspired” and argue that it should never be updated in any way. This almost “magical” view of a Bible translation fits the dictionary definition of superstition: “a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge.”

5. Association: I know many people who have no objection to a modern Bible translation in principle. However, they look at the churches that have adopted modern translations and see that many have not only given up the “old version” but have also given up the “old doctrine.” The new Bible version seems to be part of a liberalizing package that’s associated with many unwelcome “guests.” Of course, often the doctrine went first and the Bible was simply the last bastion  to fall, but it often looks like the loss of the old Bible produced the loss of doctrine and also of reverent worship and prayer.

6. Accuracy: Some of the popular versions, like the NIV, deliberately moved away from a literal word-for-word translation of Scripture to more “dynamic” or “readable” renderings which often read more like an interpretation than a translation. Even though the KJV is harder to understand, a large number of Christians still prefer a literal rendering and to do their own interpreting.

7. Red Letters: Many KJV churches have investigated moving to the NKJV in order to reduce the whiplash of change. However, it is almost impossible to get NKJVs without Christ’s words being in red, which raises another set of awkward theological questions.

8. Vision:  Or lack of it. Some churches simply want to preserve the status quo and have no desire to reach beyond their own church community to people and cultures that have no hope of ever understanding or learning the KJV language. It’s extremely difficult for those of us brought up with the KJV to realize how hard it is for those without that background to learn a new language in order to learn what the Bible teaches.

9. Conviction: As far as I know, there is no credible modern translation that (a) holds to the Received Text and (b) to a literal translation of Scripture. The NIV meets neither. The ESV meets the latter requirement but not the former.

The NKJV meets (b) and almost meets (a). Although it uses the Received Text for the New Testament, it also incorporates readings from the Majority Text and the “Critical Text” (or NU) in the margins/footnotes (see below).

These are not just preferences or traditions, but biblical convictions about the preservation of Scripture and the nature of Scripture. Of course, there is a third biblical principle of (c) readability or perspicuity. KJV advocates often minimize or ignore this principle because that can’t find a Bible translation that combines (a) and (b) with (c). In that sense, some conservative Bible societies have royally failed the church.

10. Confusion: Perhaps the single biggest reason behind the refusal of so many to adopt a modern version of Scripture is the footnotes that litter the pages of modern New Testaments, casting doubt on many parts of the God’s Word. I know many Christians who detest this and resist changing translations because of the psychological effect of these footnotes. Many ministers also hate having to explain these alleged textual variants in sermons.

It’s all very well for scholars and academics to do their clever stuff with variant readings, and some of us do need some Bibles with these footnotes. However, the vast majority of Christians just want a clean and clear Bible version, without question marks, qualifications, or thick black lines and brackets around cherished passages.

I know there is a deeper issue at stake here – which text of Scripture is being translated. However, regardless of which text is the basis of the translation, if the scholars had simply made their decision and translated accordingly without adding all the textual notes (or at least with far less), the uptake of accurate modern versions among the Christian community would have been much wider and faster and united.

  • Sean McDonald

    In all fairness, it should be pointed out that the New King James Version (NKJV) is based upon the Received Text. It includes readings from the Critical Text and the Majority Text in the margins; but the “main text” (the part that everybody reads) is the Received Text. If you compare it with the AV on any “disputed text” (Acts 8:37; 1 John 5:7, etc.), you will find this to be the case. I say this as one who only uses the AV.

  • Cliff

    Dr. Murray,

    You stated in point #9 “As far as I know, there is no credible modern translation that (a) holds to the Received Text and (b) to a literal translation of Scripture. The ESV and the NKJV meet the latter requirement but not the former.” Of course the NKJV is indeed based on the TR.

    Cliff

    • David Murray

      I’ll amend that section to make it clearer. While the NKJV does use the TR, it also incorporates readings from the critical text and majority text. I should have used more precise language.

      • http://alastairmanderson.wordpress.com Alastair Manderson

        The NKJV deviates from the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament with altered readings in certain place. While it follows the TR 99.9% of the time, it also deviates from it time to time http://www.tbsbibles.org/pdf_information/130-1.pdf
        So this isn’t a noticeable change – but it is a change. The question is, whether this change is correct or not.

  • Victor Leonardo Barbosa

    Hi Pastor David!
    I’m not a north-american christian, but I think that even with some vocabulary problems, the KJV is the best translation (together with the old Geneva Bible) in English avaliable today. Of course there are good points in other translations like NKJV and ESV, but the principle of translation adopted by the AV follows the theology of the translators and consistency with the doctrine of the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. Also I think the reformed view about the Receveid Text (endorsed by John Owen and Edward F. Hills) is better that the view of those who hold a Majority Text’s position or a Critical text’s position(the worse, in my opinion).

    Concerning the language and other things like archaic words, I think that the Lloyd-Jones lecture and Joel Beeke’s article give a good response to these questions:

    http://www.salisburyemmanuel.org.uk/Practical%20Reasons%20for%20Retaining%20the%20KJV.pdf

    http://hnrc.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/JulyAugust11-final-lo-res.pdf

    God bless you!

  • scott

    I wonder if this is my own mistaken notion, but is it possible that there is something in the KJV that makes it in some places easier to read? Perhaps 1) a familiarity, 2) not actually as hard as often touted 3) contains the source of many common idiomatic phrases 4) modern translations have their own difficult sentences, 5) appreciation for the beauty of the language – especially in the Psalms – where some other versions lack in this beauty of language.

    I was surprised also with the results of this study.

    A couple of years ago while attending a local church retreat, the speaker, a native from Cameroon, was lamenting the English lack of separate pronouns to show 2nd person singular and 2nd person plural. He might have appreciated the KJV ability to show this.

    Thanks for walking us through this.

    • David Murray

      Yes, Scott, in a strange way and in some ways, the KJV’s very unique English can make it easier to memorize, especially for those brought up with it.

      Yes English does lack the ability to distinguish between 2nd person singular and second person plural. I don’t know if being able to distinguish that using Thee/Thou is worth all the additional -est endings on the verbs and the convoluted sentence structure that sometimes results.

  • Nick

    David I would really appreciate an additional post explaining why you regard the Received Text as superior to other editions of the Greek text.

    • David Murray

      Sure Nick. I’ll try to get to that in the coming weeks.

      • Brett Maragni

        Did you ever follow up on this? I’ve searched your blog for a post on the Received Text (which I also think is superior, even though I preach weekly from the ESV), but couldn’t find it.

  • Bill Noonkesser

    Dr. Murray,

    Great post. So how do we get one of the conservative Bible societies to do something about this? I would love to see a “modern” translation using conservative principles of interpretation and the received text.

    “KJV advocates often minimize or ignore this principle because that can’t find a Bible translation that combines (a) and (b) with (c). In that sense, some conservative Bible societies have royally failed the church.”

    • David Murray

      Many have tried. But so far, only crickets.

  • Marcia

    Thank you for such a balanced approach to a rather contentious issue. I am a KJV reader myself, but
    have often wondered whether it is an appropriate choice for all persons in all situations. Just this week, our children’s memory work for Sunday School held little meaning until I explained that “conversation” really meant “conduct.” We keep a NKJV on hand just for that purpose!

    In line with #4 on your list: http://ninetysixandten.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/collective-howls-of-derision/

  • Kate Genoff

    Maybe because KJVs are the ones you can pick up at Sam’s Club and Costco which buy in bulk what people who grew up going to church 30 years ago remember as the Bible. Before I was a Christian I bought KJV Bibles at stores like that. But I didn’t read them. Once I became a Christan and started actually reading it, I got an ESV. Is there a difference in translations found between the people who buy a Bible and the people who read the Bible?

    • David Murray

      Good question Kate. I would imagine so. Survey was of general public, so the results are probably not going to be the same as the Christian community.

  • Mark Moerdyk

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful reflection on Bible Translations! In your closing, you mentioned that the deeper issue at stake is which text of Scripture is being translated. I would find it really valuable, if we could have offer your insights as to why the Received Text is preferred–if that is in fact the case.

    • David Murray

      Sure Mark, that will take me some time to get to but I’ll let you know when I post on it.

  • David Murray

    A friend has also pointed out that the survey group was the general public and that the first option for which Bible version they used was the KJV, which probably most have at least hear of. Also note that the Living Bible was in the survey which has not been in print for years. The same friend pointed out that the KJV is in the public domain so there are no fees, licenses, etc. Anyone can print it. Websites can use it as a free default, etc.

  • David Murray

    Sure Mark. That will take me some time to get to, but I will let you know when I post on it.

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  • Justin Dillehay

    Dr. Murray,
    Thanks for the post. I always enjoy your blog.

    I grew up reading the KJV, and became KJV-Only for a few years in my late teens, during which time I read a lot of David Cloud, D.A. Waite, etc. Later I came to reject these views, but it gave me exposure to their arguments at least. In the spirit of full disclosure, today I normally use the ESV as my reading Bible, though some years I will read the NIV.

    I sympathize with many of the reasons you give above. I also appreciate your acknowledging the issue of clarity in translation, and how this needs to be factored into any discussion of translation.

    The only point I would really take any issue with is your tenth point:

    “Confusion: Perhaps the single biggest reason behind the refusal of so many to adopt a modern version of Scripture is the footnotes that litter the pages of modern New Testaments, casting doubt on many parts of the God’s Word. I know many Christians who detest this and resist changing translations because of the psychological effect of these footnotes…It’s all very well for scholars and academics to do their clever stuff with variant readings, and some of us do need some Bibles with these footnotes. However, the vast majority of Christians just want a clean and clear Bible version, without question marks, qualifications, or thick black lines and brackets around cherished passages.”

    Perhaps my experience with this has simply been different from yours. In my experience, the response to textual footnotes has usually been, not doubt about the Bible, but uninformed anger against the translators for including them–as though they were simply making them up out of thin air. But while this may be zeal for God’s Word, too often it is a zeal that is not according to knowledge.

    The fact is, the original KJV also included marginal notes, with at least some of them giving variant readings (though not as many, obviously, since they were dealing with far fewer manuscripts, hence far fewer variants). Not surprisingly, given human nature, people made the same complaints about textual footnotes then that they do today. But I would agree with the defense of such footnotes offered by the KJV translators themselves:

    “Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty, should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so sound in this point. For though, whatsoever things are necessary are manifest, as S. Chrysostom saith, and as S. Augustine, In those things that are plainly set down in the Scriptures, all such matters are found that concern Faith, Hope, and Charity. Yet for all that it cannot be dissembled, that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from loathing of them for their every-where plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God’s spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, and never scorn those that be not in all respects so complete as they should be, being to seek in many things ourselves, it hath pleased God in his divine providence, here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation, (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain) but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we will resolve, to resolve upon modesty with S. Augustine, (though not in this same case altogether, yet upon the same ground) Melius est dubitare de occultis, quam litigare de incertis, it is better to make doubt of those things which are secret, than to strive about those things that are uncertain. There be many words in the Scriptures, which be never found there but once, (having neither brother nor neighbor, as the Hebrews speak) so that we cannot be holpen by conference of places. Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts and precious stones, etc. concerning which the Hebrews themselves are so divided among themselves for judgment, that they may seem to have defined this or that, rather because they would say something, than because they were sure of that which they said, as S. Jerome somewhere saith of the Septuagint. Now in such a case, doth not a margin do well to admonish the Reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as S. Augustine saith, that variety of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is no so clear, must needs do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded. We know that Sixtus Quintus expressly forbiddeth, that any variety of readings of their vulgar edition, should be put in the margin, (which though it be not altogether the same thing to that we have in hand, yet it looketh that way) but we think he hath not all of his own side his favorers, for this conceit. They that are wise, had rather have their judgments at liberty in differences of readings, than to be captivated to one, when it may be the other
    -Miles Smith, “Translators to the Reader” (AV 1611)

  • Michael Snow

    Yes as your No. 1 “Tradition” notes, AGE, I would suspect, is a major factor. But I really don’t trust these statistics. (e.g. as in your note about the absence of the NKJV).

  • http://www.brandonschmidt.me/ Brandon Schmidt

    I think some of the popularity may also be a matter of volume. Unlike more modern translations, the King James is in the public domain. This means it can be printed at a much reduced price, since they don’t have to pay for copyright usage.

    This is why the KJV is used as a free giveaway Bible, with the Gideons and others groups distributing countless copies throughout the States. And when that many free copies of one translation are distributed, it will be in the hands of a much larger portion of the population.

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