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The Lasting Impact of the KJV

Note: This article of mine has been previously published on another site.

Not long ago a friend of mine was searching for the verse which reads "Avoid every appearance of evil." He had a hard time locating it until he thought to search through the King James Version (it is 1 Thessalonians 5:22). My friend was surprised because he is not a regular reader of the KJV. This is an illustration of the massive influence on English-speaking Christianity which the KJV still retains despite being published nearly 400 years ago. Even if you rarely read the Authorized Version (another name for the KJV), it is likely that you know quite a bit of it because it is embedded in our English-speaking Christian culture. Many of our favorite verse are memorized and recited in the King James version, even if we are unaware of it. Here are some examples: > For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that > whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting > life. (John 3:16 KJV) This is the version of John 3:16 which I memorized as a child. What is interesting to note is that most modern translations have changed "only begotten" to simply "only" or "unique" due to what we've learned about the underlying Greek word. Some people try to use the incorrect translation "only begotten" to demonstrate the Jesus was created at the time of the incarnation (which is contrary to the orthodox view of the trinity). Here is another example: > Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own > understanding; (Proverbs 3:5 NIV) I quoted this verse from the NIV to demonstrate how the KJV affects our modern translations. Here the New International Version is very similar to the King James, using the "\_\_\_\_ not" construction which is quite awkward in modern English. It is interesting to note that the NIV renders each of the other prohibitions in Proverbs 3 as "do not \_\_\_\_" (do not forget, do not be wise in your own eyes, do not despise, etc. - 10 total times in this chapter). So clearly the NIV is breaking its own translation methodology in this case to conform to the style of the KJV (since such a popular verse is likely memorized in our collective consciousness from the KJV). Finally, we have my initial example: > Abstain from all appearance of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:22 KJV) Far from being abstract like the previous two examples, the interpretation of this verse has clear, concrete implications. In today's English the KJV sounds like it is forbidding being in any situation which "looks evil." At least that is how many of my fellow Christians interpret it. One problem is that this stands in tension with the behavior of Jesus himself. He looked quite evil (at least according to the Pharisees) by speaking with prostitutes and dining with sinners and tax collectors. The modern translations (which rightly replace "appearance" with "kind") simply forbid doing evil. It is the counterpart to the previous sentence: "Hold on to the good." So here the difference between the KJV and modern translations may actually make a difference in how a Christian lives his or her life. The King James is a victim of the times. It has tremendous intrinsic literary value and historical worth, but it is desperately archaic. Advances in various fields of Biblical studies (textual criticism, lexicography, Greek and Hebrew grammar) have proven the King James inadequate. Also, the evolution of English has made the King James obsolete and perhaps even misleading to the modern English reader (who is probably not aware that the meanings of various words and figures of speech have changed since 1611). English-speaking Christians who take serious interest in Bible study should be aware these issues. The King James Version of the Bible is not bad per se, it is just suboptimal.

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