Why We Should Use Modern Translations

There are scriptural, historical, and practical reasons for using multiple translations.

At KCBC I've preached from the NIV, the ESV, the CSB, and most recently from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The ESV is a more of a "word for word" translation, the NIV is more "thought for thought" and the CSB is somewhere in the middle. The NASB is even more “word for word” than the ESV. I love all of these translations because together they can really help me understand the original languages.

Even though I have formally studied Greek and Hebrew extensively for several years, I find one of the quickest ways to get at the meaning of a passage is to compare multiple modern translations. It’s relatively easy to do and is especially helpful in preventing a misunderstanding of a passage even if you don't have any formal education in Biblical languages.

A Recent Example

In a sermon I gave a few weeks ago we looked at a passage in Jeremiah 10:5. I read it from the NASB “Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field are they, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot walk! Do not fear them, for they can do no harm, nor can they do any good.”

Most of you didn’t have any problem with the translation because the modern translations all say pretty much the same thing:

  • ESV: Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak;

  • CSB: Like scarecrows in a cucumber patch, their idols cannot speak

  • NIV: Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak;

But if you were reading from the KJV (or the NKJV) you might have been confused because it says something completely different:

  • KJV: They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not:

Palm tree? Scarecrow? Which is it? Let me try to explain what’s going on.

The original Hebrew transliterated into English reads as follows: Ke-tomer miqsah hemmoh welo yedabberu.

And literally translated into English the original words are: Like (ke) scarecrows of (tomer) - a cucumber field (miqsah)- they (hemmoh) - and not (welo) - they can speak (yedabberu).

So you can see there are three main differences between the the KJV and the modern translations. The first difference in the KJV is the change from “scarecrow” to “palm tree” and the second is the deletion of “cucumber field” and third is the addition of “upright.”

All of the translations, including the KJV, are formed from the same five Hebrew words so it’s not an issue of manuscripts. The reason the KJV is different is because it was translated 400 years ago when we had less understanding of the Hebrew language.

400 years ago the translators of the KJV thought the word “tomer” meant “palm tree” but since that time, other classical texts have been discovered to show that the word is better translated as “scarecrow” which is now the preferred translation. It’s not really the fault of the KJV translators; they were just doing the best they could with what they knew at the time.

As a bonus, the use of “scarecrow” fits the context better and doesn’t require deleting the word that means “cucumber field.” A scarecrow in a cucumber field makes a lot more sense than a palm tree in a cucumber field. Why the KJV translators added the word “upright” is unknown but perhaps it’s because it seemed to fit with their use of “palm tree”; however the word is not in the original Hebrew manuscripts.

This is how translation works. It’s not an exact science. New information is being learned all of the time about the meaning (or breadth of meaning) of the original Hebrew and Greek words used in scripture; and what’s more our own English language is continuing to change. Nothing is static. This is why using modern translations is important.

I’m not saying that older translations are useless. The KJV is a beautiful translation. It has a richness and a loftiness that will likely never be reproduced. But the modern translations tend to do a better job clearly communicating what the original authors meant and that is what is most important. So, the point is it’s best to utilize multiple modern translations in your study of God’s word in order to increase comprehension and decrease the possibility of misunderstanding.

King James Only?

Most people accept the value of using modern translations, but there is resistance among some who view the KJV of the Bible as the only preserved word of God. This is often referred to as the King James Only movement.

The King James Only movement asserts that the KJV version of the Bible is superior to all other translations of the Bible. Although there are slight differences in belief, and I don’t want to speak as if everyone believes exactly the same thing, most are very dogmatic that the KJV is the greatest Bible ever produced, needs no improvement, and that all other translations produced after the KJV are corrupt.

As a result they make various arguments doubting the legitimacy of the older manuscripts, attacking the character of those that translate the modern translations, and of course ask a lot of questions about “all those missing verses.”

We’ve addressed all of these issues before in Sunday School and in sermons so I don’t want to rehash those discussions again partly because, as I said, we’ve already done that, but also because I don’t think those are the real issues.

We can argue about whether the “extra verses” were added or deleted (I believe added). We can make our best case for why the Byzantine Manuscripts are better than the Alexandrian (I don’t think they are). Or we can explain or refute how the modern translators themselves were corrupt with secret agendas and can’t be trusted (I believe they can be trusted) .

All of those things are worth looking into but, you see, for the King James Only-ist, the real issue is that the KJV (specifically the 1611 version) is the ultimate standard of the Bible and the only version that has been faithfully preserved. Some even believe it to be superior to the original Greek and Hebrew texts and that God used it to correct “errors” made in the original languages.

So for the King James Only-ist, using multiple translations, or even updating with their preferred manuscripts, isn’t an option. But let me make a Biblical case for why it should be.

Intelligibility

Perhaps the best case for using multiple modern translations in addition to the KJV comes from the Bible itself. 1 Corinthians 14:9 tells us “So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air” (NASB). Or if you prefer, in the KJV: “So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? For ye shall speak into the air.”

Of course, Paul is talking about speaking in tongues, but his point is that if we can’t understand God’s word, it’s of no value. Although the KJV can still be generally understood, it is obviously not as understandable by as many as it was in 1611. And it is common knowledge that it contains many dead, obsolete words and phrases that are difficult to understand.

Words like besom, choler, or a habergeon are not easily understood and for many people you might as well be speaking in tongues. King James Only-ists will argue that there aren’t that many archaic words and they can just be looked up when you come to them but that only address part of the problem.

The bigger threat to intelligibility isn’t from words that we know we don’t understand, but from words that we think we know the meaning to, but don’t.

In the KJV, words like conversation or replenish or instant sound familiar to us so we think we know what they mean, but the reality is that their meanings have changed significantly since the time of Shakespeare. Sure, these words can be explained in a sermon by someone who is knowledgeable, but shouldn’t the average person be able to pick up the Bible and read it in a language they understand without further translation? I think 1 Corinthians 14:9 says they should be able to.

So, taking 1 Corinthians 14:9 seriously means the language of the Bible should be translated into words that that are, as much as possible, easily and clearly understood. That’s a biblical rational for the use of modern translations.

This principle is why Jesus and the other apostles often quoted from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. They could have quoted exclusively from the more accurate original Hebrew but they didn’t. And it’s why the New Testament was written in common, Koine Greek, not scholarly Greek. Koine Greek was easier to understand and it’s what the people spoke on a daily basis.

Ironically, this desire to communicate God’s word in a language that was readily understandable is what drove the original translators of the KJV. In the no longer printed Preface to the Reader, the KJV translators said their goal was for their translation to be “understood even of the very vulgar”, that is, even of the very common person. Their aim was that the average, even below average person, would have little difficulty picking up God’s word and understanding it on their own.

There are computer programs that have analyzed the KJV to be at about a 5th grade reading level but the accuracy of these tests is disputed. Computers don’t “read” with comprehension. They count the number of words in a sentence, paragraph lengths, and the number of syllables in the words. Besom is only a two syllable word but that doesn’t mean it is understood by the average 5th grader. The reality is that the KJV is much harder to understand than nearly all modern translations and in many places unintelligible.

What’s more, the original translators of the KJV didn’t see their version as the perfect Bible but as an improvement still needing yet further improvement. The translators believed, “nothing is begun and perfected at the same time.” They didn’t claim the KJV was perfect and the thousands of textual footnotes in the original 1611 version helps to prove that they saw the version as a work in progress.

Even further, the original 1611 version actually contained the Apocrypha and underwent many revisions until 1769. Some King James Only-ists might be surprised to learn that the most widely read version of the KJV today is not the 1611 version but one that was updated for more than a hundred years.

But even with those updates, the language of the KJV is difficult, and becoming more difficult to understand all the time. And I think the original translators of the KJV would be very discouraged to learn of the King James Only movement because updating the Bible into the language of the common people is what has been historically done and also what Scripture demands.

Human Tradition

See, if the real issue for the King James Only-ist is one of “corrupted manuscripts” and “deleted verses,” then why isn’t there a concerted effort to update the language of the KJV from the manuscripts that they think are legitimate? The New King James Version (NKJV) doesn’t count, by the way, because to the KJV Only-ist the NKJV is also a perversion filled with “deadly poison” and “lies” since it relies on the same manuscripts the modern translations use.

The only reason for not updating the KJV that makes any sense to me is that King James Only-ists have let human tradition become more important than the Word itself. See, if it was really a matter of manuscripts as many King James Only-ists say, then why not use their preferred manuscripts and update the KJV?

But by being unwilling to update the KJV, or to even acknowledge when a modern translation does a better job of translating the Hebrew or Greek, they are revealing that their own human traditions, their own commitment to an idea, are more important than God’s commands. Essentially they have made a translation of God’s word into an idol.

Mark 7:13 warns us of ignoring God’s commands, “thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down.” That’s what we do when we ignore 1 Corinthians 14, insisting on using only one translation, and that everyone else should use only one translation, too, even if it’s not easily understood.

King James Only-ism is a commandment of men. Matthew 15:9 says, “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” God doesn’t tell us that the KJV is the only version of the Bible we should use. He tells us that unless we make his word intelligible, it’s like “speaking into the air.”

KCBC’s Practice

In KCBC’s statement of faith we say: “We believe in the Bible, as contained in both the Old and New Testaments, to be the inspired Word of God and without error in the original language…”

At KCBC we believe the Bible is inspired in the original languages. This means that we believe the original authors were inspired, not the translators. As a result, we believe there are no perfect translations of the Bible; all of them have some errors (although relatively minor) but they are being improved all of the time. This is a positive, not a negative, thing. It should be celebrated that as the English language changes, Bible translations will also adapt and change so that future generations of Christians can continue to read and fully understand God’s word.

This is what I think Isaiah meant in Isaiah 40:8 when he said, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” God’s promise that His word will stand forever is a wonderful promise, and one that is not exclusively fulfilled in any one translation, but in multiple. People all over the world, from every tribe and nation, can rejoice that God keeps his promises, not just those who speak English.

So, go ahead and keep using your favorite Bible, whether it be the CSB, ESV or even the KJV, but I’d like to also encourage you to use multiple modern translations. It’s scriptural, it’s historical, and even essential for a better understanding of the inspired Word of God.