There’s a sidebar called “The Poetic Language of the King James Bible” in the August 2011 Ensign.
The text states:
The King James Bible is regarded by many to be the most beautiful English language version because of its lyrical quality, which seems to speak to the heart and spirit.
My first instinct is to pounce on the weasel phrases “regarded by many” and “seems to speak.” But I’ll resist that urge and point out instead that the authors have decided to emphasize the poetic quality of the language instead of clarity or accuracy. (Note that on the next page, the article states this: “Based on the doctrinal clarity of latter-day revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Church has held to the KJV as being doctrinally more accurate than recent versions.” I’ll address the claim of doctrinal clarity later; let’s first talk about garden-variety clarity.) The sidebar then gives three sample texts from the KJV paralleled with the same three texts from other translations. Let’s look at each one.
First, they quote Genesis 1:1-3. (Always good to start at the beginning!) Here’s the KJV:
1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And then they quote it from the New International Reader’s Version of the Bible. The NIrV is the NIV written in simpler English so as to be more accessible to people whose English is limited (because it is not their first language, because their literacy is limited, etc.) Here is the NIrV version:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth didn’t have any shape. And it was empty. Darkness was over the surface of the ocean. At that time, the ocean covered the earth. The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.
First, let me point out that I don’t think it is entirely fair to quote the NIrV, since it has a specialized audience, in order to show that it isn’t as “lyrical” as the KJV. We might just as well quote from the materials that the Church produces for those with limited literacy skills; I can assure you that the Old Testament Stories are no more lyrical than the NIrV. Let’s look then at the NIV:
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
The major changes between it and the KJV are substituting “formless and empty” for “without form, and void,” using “surface” instead of “face” for the deep, using “hover” instead of “move,” and adding quotation marks around God’s speech. I think “hover” is more “lyrical” than “move,” but I suppose that is in the eye of the beholder. The other changes are, according to what I have read from people who know more Hebrew than I do, at least as accurate, if not moreso. They also make it easier to understand. Is being lyrical more important than being accurate and easy to understand? (Again, I’ll get to doctrinal accuracy later.)
The second example in the sidebar is Psalm 23:4; here’s the KJV:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .
And they give the New Living Translation Bible:
Even when I walk through the darkest valley. . .
The KJV might win the lyricality contest, but the NLT has the virtue of maintaining the concrete imagery (a valley, sheep, grass, water) of the rest of the psalm. I don’t think this one is terribly significant. If the NLT doesn’t “speak to the heart and mind” here but the KJV does, what is that saying about your scripture reading experience?
The third example is 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. (Actually, the citations for both KJV and NRSV say 13:1-3 but the KJV only includes v1-2 while the NRSV includes v1-3. I am assuming this is some sort of formatting error or editing error; I’ll go ahead and include v1-3 of the KJV because I think that was their intention.)
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
And then the NRSV:
1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
The big difference here, obviously, is the use of “love” instead of “charity.” This is clearly a case where the non-KJV translation is more accurate: the word here is agape, which the KJV itself normally translates as love. Of 106 instances of agape in the NT, a full 86 are translated as love. In this case, a reader who thinks that Paul is talking about charity (which in the NT is another word entirely and usually translated as “giving alms” or similar), is missing the point of the passage. At this point, who cares if “charity” is more lyrical than “love”? Do we really give up accuracy for poetry?
The shift to “mortals” instead of “men” may offend your aesthetic sensibilities, but is a better choice for the 21st century, where “men” means “male” [ftn1].
Also note that the KJV has “to be burned” where the NRSV has “that I might boast.” The latter reading is better supported by the ancient manuscripts.
I will grant that a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” is a much uglier phrase than “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal,” but that’s precisely the point! The image here is of an ugly noise! To the extent that “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” sounds kind of pleasant to us, it is a poor translation.
Jeremiah 2:24, first in the KJV:
A wild ass used to the wilderness, that snuffeth up the wind at her pleasure; in her occasion who can turn her away? all they that seek her will not weary themselves; in her month they shall find her.
. . . and the same verse from the NETBible:
You are like a wild female donkey brought up in the wilderness. In her lust she sniffs the wind to get the scent of a male. No one can hold her back when she is in heat. None of the males need wear themselves out chasing after her. At mating time she is easy to find.
Verse 33 is even more fun. The KJV:
Why trimmest thou thy way to seek love? therefore hast thou also taught the wicked ones thy ways.
And the Netbible:
My, how good you have become at chasing after your lovers! Why, you could even teach prostitutes a thing or two!
Yeah, OK, the KJV does have the advantage of obscuring that one from the kids! But it also does that to the rest of the Bible, the part we actually want them to read. I could cite statistics about the relatively small percentage of Americans (not to mention other English-speaking peoples . . .) who have college degrees and therefore may be more equipped to wade through the KJV [ftn2], but that doesn’t touch the fact that one of the primary audiences that we want to understand the Bible is youth, who are completely unequipped to have the “lyricality” of the KJV “speak to the heart and the mind” when they can’t understand the plain sense of the words. This might explain why a disproportionate share of the current seminary manuals is nothing more or less than a vocabulary lesson in the King’s English (see, e.g., this or this). Why do we choose to spend so much of seminary time teaching students what 400-year-old words mean instead of teaching them the scriptures? And might it be simpler to make doctrinal corrections in, say, an NIV than to make linguistic corrections in the KJV, especially for youth?
Thinking about these three examples together, however, my overall impression is this: That’s the best you can do? This is why we read the KJV? You are asking us to give up the improved readability and faithfulness to ancient texts shown on the right-hand column for the (marginal, subjective) gains in “lyricality” in the left-hand column? We’re going to make the scriptures harder to understand for thirteen-year-olds and people who have not been blessed with opportunities for a decent education and people with learning disabilities so that those of us blessed with a better education can have the phrase “tinkling cymbal” speak to our hearts?
Now it is time to move on to the issue of “doctrinal accuracy.” It is worth nothing that the KJV has some real doctrinal whoppers; probably the most famous is the Johannine comma. The KJV records 1 John 5:7 as follows:
7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
And here it is in all modern English translations of the Bible
For there are three that testify
That’s right, folks: the only explicitly Trinitarian verse in the entire Bible is . . . only found in the Bible the LDS use (very few non-LDS use the KJV any more). Oh, the irony, it burns!
Another example of questionable doctrinal accuracy in the KJV is the numerous times where the Lord repents, such as Amos 7:3:
3 The Lord repented for this: It shall not be, saith the Lord.
Which, in modern translations is usually translated as “relented” (NRSV) or “decided not to do this” (NET).
I’m not willing to enter some undecidable debate as to which translation is most accurate; the (literally) billions of choices translators must make combined with the multiple possible meanings of texts make this a quagmire for sure. But I am seriously uncomfortable with defending the KJV as the “most accurate” doctrinally, if only because I think it is all too easy for the average person to hear “accurate” instead of “most accurate.” The KJV is not perfect [ftn3]. Neither is any other translation.
I can accept that prophets in the past have claimed the KJV as the official Bible in English; it also seems obvious to me that at some point in the future, that decision will need to be reconsidered as the gap between the King’s English and whatever abomination passes for modern English in the future (LOL!) widens. At that point, it would be nice if we weren’t overloaded with all of the baggage that is our reasoning about the wonderfulness that is the KJV (seeing as how well all of that reasoning worked with the priesthood ban . . .).
So perhaps as we decide which English translation to use (personally, and as a Church), (so-called) doctrinal accuracy and poetry need to be weighed alongside clarity, readability, and faithfulness to the best ancient texts.
[ftn1] From the Church Educational System handbook:
“Some scriptures are couched in masculine language due to the nature of the languages they were derived from. For example, in Hebrew [and in Greek], if one is addressing an audience of all females, feminine forms of verbs and pronouns are used. If the audience is mixed, however, then the masculine forms are always used. . . . teachers need to be sensitive to gender-specific language and remind students that some masculine terms refer to both males and females. When Adam was told that ‘all men, everywhere, must repent’ (Moses 6:57), the Lord was certainly speaking of both men and women. . . . And Job’s statement that the ‘morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy’ (Job 38:7) at the creation of the earth was not meant to imply it was an all male chorus!”
[ftn2] Although I have to admit: I have a BA in English from a decent school and an MA in Biblical Studies, so you’d think the KJV would be cake for me, and it isn’t. I sometimes find in impenetrable until I look at the Hebrew, Greek, and modern English translations.
[ftn3] I find it interesting that LDS have had a variety of opinions as to the inspiration of the KJV authors, with Brigham Young famously saying, “I believe the English Bible is translated as well as any book could be by uninspired men.”