While the King James Version of the Bible may rank among the great achievements of 18th century literature, the era, the style and the presuppositions underlying this most classic of English translations pose significant problems for the Christian who wants to interact with God through his living and active Word in the twenty-first century.
First, as a piece of 18th century literature, the language of the King James Version is archaic by today’s standards. This presents us with all sorts of foreign vocabulary and sentence structure. The language and culture gap between us as readers and the time of the Bible is already quite significant. Why compound the problem by reading this book in 18th century English when exellent modern translations are available?
Second, the style of the King James Version is very high literature. While the style of the writing is beautiful, the very high style of the writing makes it less accessible to the average reader. (We’ll come back to this in a moment.)
Thirdly, the presupposition behind Greek translation of the time was that the New Testament was written in a special Greek style that was unique to this book of divine revelation. Scholars at the time thought this because the style of Greek did not match any of the ancient Greek literature that was available. However, the reason for the style mismatch was more prosaic. High Greek literature had been preserved precisely because it was of high literary value and called for preservation. Archaeological evidence uncovered in the 20th century shed light on what was thought to be “Holy Spirit” Greek. Researchers combing through dumps in two places uncovered treasure troves of documents from daily life of the period written in Greek: shopping lists, letters from travelling family members, instructions to servants. The real shocker was that contrary to the prevailing opinion, it turned out that the Bible was not written in “Holy Spirit” Greek, but mostly in “street Greek.” The New Testament is a book of common letters written very much in the common man’s language. (To be fair, some of the books of the New Testament are of fairly high literary style.)
Why do I call this “dangerous”? Because taken together, these three factors combine to create distance precisely where God contrived to create intimacy. Humans naturally tend to want a God who is distant, who speaks in odd language, who is best studied by candlelight. We gravitate to the ideas of the mystical and the unapproachable other. The King James Version sets us up to hold God at a distance when God, as he has revealed himself, is abba, “dad.” God wants to be in our family rooms not just our living rooms, at our kitchen tables not just in our formal dining rooms. The real language of New Testament Greek to the people who were the first recipients was much closer to, “Hey, let me ask you something,” than “I pray thee, hearken unto my request.”
The other gods of the era (and our other gods of today) are gods that are worshiped from a distance, from behind the rope, from the bottom of the steps. The true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ, wants to come in close and sit on the couch with us. Just as he comes to us by the plainest of foods — bread and wine — in the Lord’s Supper, so he wants to come close to us in His Word, in plain everyday language that was so common that it wasn’t even considered worth preserving for posterity.
The King James Version is dangerous because, quite without intention, it presents God in a way that He has not presented himself to us. The older it gets, the more the danger increases. It is ancient, formal, dead language and it is inappropriate for growing close to our living, earthy, incarnational God. The God of the Bible is the God who comes down and takes on flesh and blood, walks around with dirty feet, welcomes outcasts and eats with sinners. He prefers drawing in the dirt and rubbing mud on people’s eyes. He tells simple stories about travelers and farmers.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the language of the King James Version is beautiful. If you love it and understand it, more power to you. But it is dangerous for the average person because it misrepresents the original common and approachable language of the New Testament.
That’s what I think at this point in my journey…