I suppose I should qualify that answer. A church should not switch from (abandon) the KJV to another version of the Bible if it would truly be harmful to the well-being of the church. But it is difficult to imagine there are many instances where this would be the result. Also, obviously, I don’t mean to imply that any church should be compelled by some external authority to make such a change. But I am saying, in general, churches that use the KJV would be better off if they made a purposeful change to a modern version. It would be helpful to both the pastor and members of the church to make the switch.
I believe there are two main reasons why moving to a modern version is beneficial. The first is the nature of the NT Greek text from which the KJV was translated in 1611. The Greek text behind the KJV is inferior to the editions of the the Greek text available to modern Bible translators. This is not a fault of the translators of the KJV; they simply used the best text available to them at the time. But in the last 400 years things have dramatically improved.
The KJV was translated from what is commonly called the Textus Receptus (TR), which is Latin for “Received Text.” For the first 1500 years of the church, all available copies of Greek NT were handwritten manuscripts, copies of copies of the original writings themselves. Today, there are about 5,800 of these copies, many of which are fragmentary in nature. While these copies of the NT are in general agreement as to what they say, there are differences, mostly minor, among them. But still, no two of these 5,800 manuscripts of any size agree exactly. It is necessary to carefully compare these manuscripts in order to identify the exact words of the original writers.
In the year 1516 the Roman Catholic priest Erasmus of Rotterdam published the first printed Greek NT. Sadly, Erasmus’ text suffered from two primary defects. Because of time constraints, his edition was, as he himself said, “thrown together rather than edited.” As such it contained hundreds of typographical errors, some of which have been perpetuated down to our day. But more problematic was the limited amount of manuscripts evidence available to Erasmus. While 5,800 manuscripts are known to exist today, only a few were available in Erasmus’ time. In fact, he had access to only seven Greek manuscripts, and none of these contained the entire NT. The seven included three copies of the Gospels and Acts, four of the Pauline Epistles, and one incomplete copy (missing the last page) of the book of Revelation. The earliest of any of these is from the 11th century—1000 years later than the original writings.
Erasmus produced five editions of his Greek NT. Since there were no copyright restrictions in those days, others copied and republished Erasmus’ text, with some modification. Theodore Beza, the successor of John Calvin at Geneva, produced nine editions between 1565 and 1604. It is generally accepted that Beza’s 1598 edition was the Greek text used by the translators of the KJV. In 1633 Bonaventura and Abraham Elzevir published their own edition containing an advertising blurb in Latin that claimed the reader could be assured they were in possession of “the text now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted.” It is from the words “text…received” that the phrase Textus Receptus is derived. We commonly apply the phrase to about thirty editions of the Greek NT from 1516 to 1678. None of these editions agree exactly—there are hundreds of individual differences—but given the number of words in the NT, all these TRs are very similar. [For more detailed info on the TR, see my article here.]
The problem with the KJV is that it was translated from the TR, which, as we have seen, was based on a very few, very late manuscripts. Today we have access to numerous early manuscripts, copied within a few decades of the originals themselves. We now have manuscripts from as early as the 2nd (possibly 1st) century. This means that we are able to produce a Greek NT that is acknowledged by most informed scholars to be much closer to the original manuscripts than the TR. It is this Greek NT, based on all 5,800 manuscripts, that is the text behind modern English Bibles like the English Standard Version (ESV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New International Version (NIV), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).
All of this is not to say that the TR is a theologically bad text. The differences between it and modern editions do not affect doctrine in any way, but there are differences, and we naturally want our English translations to be based on a Greek text that is as close to the original writings as possible. For instance, in 1 John 3:1 the KJV reads, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God.” But the ESV reads, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” The ESV (and NASB, NIV, HCSB) add the phrase “and so we are,” reflecting the fact that we now possess very old manuscripts which add those words at this point in the text. The best evidence suggests that John actually wrote these words, but they apparently accidentally dropped out of the manuscript tradition. Although these words don’t ultimately change the message of 1 John, nevertheless, the user of a modern version like the ESV is in possession of a Bible that more accurately reflects what the authors of Scripture actually wrote. And that is exactly one key advantage of modern versions like the ESV, NASB, NIV, and HCSB.
In my next post I will discuss the second reason a church will benefit from switching to a modern Bible version.