There’s an old, old joke—did I mention it was old?—in Christian circles that if the Authorized, or King James, version of the Bible was good enough for Christ and the Apostles, it should be good enough for us today.
Knowledgeable folks know it’s a joke, because they know that (a) Jesus spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, not 16th Century English and (b) the canon we know as the New Testament wasn’t even written down yet.
Bad jokes notwithstanding, the question of Bible translations is a fair one. Our Seventh-day Adventist pioneers used the King James as their primary scriptural resource; the Revised Version was first published in 1885, some 30 years before Ellen G. White passed to her rest. More familiar translations such as the Revised Standard Version, the Good News Bible, and the New International Version appeared decades after the last of those pioneers had left the scene. Paraphrases such as the Living Bible and the Adventist-linked Clear Word would come years after those translations.
Today, the Living Bible has given way to the New Living Translation, the Christian Standard Bible (and its earlier incarnation as the Holman Christian Standard Bible), and the Common English Version, for which Seventh-day Adventist scholar Roy Gane was the primary translator of Leviticus. The Modern English Version is another Bible in the marketplace, and there are translations—some good, some far less so—that seek to reflect the Hebrew (Jewish) roots of both testaments. Let’s also not forget the New King James Version, published in the early 1980s, which supporters say renders the Authorized text into more modern usage, while critics say it takes the heart out of the old book.
And while recent surveys show that 55 percent of all Bibles sold in the U.S. are the good, old King James, author Mark Ward, a Bible scholar and pastoral veteran, contends that the fragmentation of the Bible marketplace means we’re in danger of losing a common bond. In other words, not every believer in a given congregation is literally on the same page when it comes to a Scripture portion.
While the “King James Only” debate, in which the 1611 Authorized Version (itself “revised” in 1769) is held up as the sole “infallible” Word of God in English, hasn’t raged recently within Adventism, the question of which translation to use remains. If Seventh-day Adventists are, as we often say, “People of the Book,” which version is best?
Ward, in a compelling and well-reasoned volume says: Just about all of them. He’s an evangelical, so he favors the Protestant-facing translations. And having cut his spiritual teeth on the King James, he embraces it as well.
But Ward notes things have changed in the more than 400 years since the Authorized Version first appeared in print. When today’s eyes read Romans 5:8 in the King James Version—“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”—we might understand “commendeth” as “recommend,” but, Ward notes, the Oxford English Dictionary says the 1611 meaning would have been “showcase,” as a jeweler displays a precious stone.
“You can’t use current English dictionaries to reliably study the KJV,” Ward writes. “You can’t even use Webster’s 1828 dictionary, which has been reprinted in recent years.”
Ward calls “commendeth” a word that’s a “false friend”—one which seems to mean something that the original translators couldn’t have intended. This does not invalidate all of the King James, but it suggests that more modern translations have their place in helping to bring the Bible’s meaning into focus.
I found “Authorized” a helpful and important read. Its arguments are good ones to have around should a “King James Only” advocate show up in your church or its Sabbath School class.
Purchase here: Ward, Mark. Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. Published by Lexham Press (2018)