Why the King James Version Is Still My Favorite Bible
by Timothy D. Finlay, Ph.D., associate professor of Old Testament
“Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars: she hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table. She hath sent forth her maidens: she crieth upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled. Forsake the foolish and live; and go in the way of understanding.” (Proverbs 9:1–6; King James Version).
Surely this translation conveys the Hebrew Scriptures with more power and majesty than any contemporary translation possibly could. The detractors call the language of the King James Version (KJV) archaic. Archaic, perhaps; unintelligible, no. We may no longer use verb forms such as “crieth,” “wanteth,” or “saith,” but we all know what they mean. And because the King James Version is both archaic and intelligible, it resonates richly in both liturgical use and pulpit preaching.
Among the numerous differences between a modern translation and the King James Version, I find the wording of Matthew 5:13 particularly delightful: “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.” The neuter possessive pronoun nowadays is “its,” not “his,” but this hardly impairs our reading. We may not use “trodden,” “wherewith,” or “thenceforth” today, but we understand these words in context and can appreciate how they make the KJV so much pithier, rhythmic, and dramatic than its modern counterparts. Moreover, like Greek and Hebrew, the King James Version distinguishes between the second person singular subject pronoun (thou) and the second person plural subject pronoun (ye), thereby frequently making it more precise than modern translations.
The precision exhibited by the KJV extends beyond the use of pronouns to its translation philosophy of word-for-word equivalents rather than meaning for meaning. Admittedly, this can result in a trade-off in occasional lack of clarity as the price for precision and power. But it is a trade-off I gladly make. I consider it far more inspirational to walk through the “valley of the shadow of death” rather than the prosaic “darkest valley” (Psalm 23:4), and “sons of Belial” makes a much stronger rebuke than “worthless fellows” (1 Samuel 2:11).
In addition to the KJV’s poetic phraseology, even single words lost in translation change the impact of certain passages. In Hebrew, an inordinate number of verses begin with the letter waw, a conjunction whose basic meaning is “and.” Many translations ignore this, for the sake of good English. However, the KJV systematically begins each verse with an “and” or other conjunction if the Hebrew begins with a waw. This seemingly insignificant act sometimes affects the meaning.
For example, Numbers 29:12–16 lists the offerings prescribed for the fifteenth day of the seventh month, which is the first day of the Feast of Booths. Then in verse 17, it says, “And on the second day ye shall offer twelve young bullocks…,” verse 20 says, “And on the third day eleven bullocks…,” verse 23 says, “And on the fourth day ten bullocks…,” verse 26 says, “And on the fifth day nine bullocks…,” verse 29 says, “And on the sixth day eight bullocks…,” and verse 32 says, “And on the seventh day seven bullocks…” However, verse 35 says, “On the eighth day ye shall have a solemn assembly…” It does not use “and” because the eighth day is qualitatively different from the preceding seven in terms of worship and purpose. Translations that omit the “and” from verses 17, 20, 23, 26, 29, and 32 obscure this theological point—another reason I prefer the King James Version.
I like using the liturgy of my forebears. I like to pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” And while I may use other translations for a variety of purposes, I always come back to the King James Version. She calls to me, “Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled.” And I gladly obey.
Timothy D. Finlay, Ph.D. is the associate professor of Old Testament in APU's School of Theology.