Mark Noll

Long Live the King

The 400th anniversary of the KJV.

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Even here there is more to the story, since what we today read as the KJB was not what readers before 1769 possessed. That year saw the publication of a refined and corrected text by Benjamin Blayney, an Oxford scholar who judiciously regularized the tens of thousands of variations (typos, "corrections," idiosyncratic printings, spelling changes, flat-out mistakes) that proliferated in KJBs through the translation's first century and a half.

(3) What kind of translation is the KJB, and why should we care?

Besides providing a wealth of well-digested literary history, Leland Ryken stresses in his book that the KJB was "essentially literal." According to Ryken, this way of translating Scripture, added to the singular virtues of the KJB in following this approach, set a very high standard against which the inadequacies of modern "dynamic equivalent" translations are glaringly obvious. Ryken raises here a most important issue with far-ranging implications. In his opinion, which he has developed more extensively in works related to the English Standard Version of Scripture, dynamic equivalent translations cannot begin to compare "with the grandeur and the elegance" of the KJB. In addition, by following the principle of verbal equivalence, the KJB represented "the most accurate English translation" available in the early 17th century. Even today, in his view, and despite better scholarly understanding of the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts along with changes in the English language, the KJB is still notable for its accuracy.

Ryken's argument deserves much more than a simple response. But one textual example and one more reference to the KJB's prefatory "note to the reader" can nonetheless highlight the important issues at stake. The example is translations of John 20:31, given first in the "essentially literal" version of William Tyndale, which was followed closely in the KJB and then later in modern revisions of the KJB, and then second in a "dynamic equivalent" version:

Tyndale: These are written that ye might believe, that Jesus is Christ the son of God, and that in believing ye might have life through his name (spelling modernized).
Dynamic Equivalent: These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.

In my judgment, Ryken is correct that the Tyndale/KJB translation is both more accurate and more elegant than the modern comparison. Yet if the Tyndale/KJB translation sounds odd or archaic enough to put off a modern reader, or if the dynamic equivalent version communicates to that reader, or if Tyndale/KJB is favored only because of superior elegance without any consideration of what is being communicated by the text—then interpretive judgments become complicated.

The complication relates to an important point that Myles Smith made as the author of the translators' "note to the reader" in 1611. In an extensive defense of Protestant eagerness to translate the Bible and distribute it as widely as possible, against Roman Catholic strictures on giving Scripture to the laity, Smith claimed that "the very meanest translation of the Bible in English … containeth the word of God, yea, is the word of God." Even as Smith was taking pains to explain why the Bible he had worked on was a good translation, he contended that "the word of God" was what any even half-way adequate translation communicated. For Smith, "the word of God" was of utmost importance since, as he wrote in another part of the prefatory note: "But now what piety without truth? What truth, what saving truth, without the word of God? What word of God whereof we may be sure, without the Scripture?"

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