Those who actually read the Bible prefer the KJV

Although there are two dozen English-language Bibles in many contemporary translations, the King James Version reigns even more supreme among those who actually read their Bibles: 82% of those who read the Good Book at least once a month rely on the translation that first brought the Scripture to the English-speaking masses worldwide.

USA Today: Bible readers prefer King James version

Thanks to Dan H. for sharing this interesting story on our Share page:

Far from finding the stilted archaic language to be a stumbling block, these devout readers find the KJV language to be “beautiful” and “easy to remember.”

Why look for a Better Bible when the best Bible has been with us all along?

I’d like to offer three alternative explanations for the popularity of the KJV in this study:

1. King (James) Kong in the land of the dwarves: If you look at the total number of Bibles purchased and read you would probably see that the King James is monolithic but surrounded by many translations serving diverse markets.

2. It’s Number One because it’s Number One. Long tradition has assured that the King James is well-loved and widely used. For centuries there was really no number two.

3. It’s free. Because the King James is public domain, it is widely reproduced simply because publishers don’t have to pay licenses or royalties for its use.

In January I spent several weeks reading the King James for my daily Bible reading. It was interesting. It was quite often “beautiful and majestic.” But in the end it was more like a language puzzle than a devotional exercise. I switched back to my Contemporary English Version which is quite often neither beautiful or majestic but it is clear. And based on the best scholarship and the best manuscripts. And translated with an aim at speaking to a diverse world of “englishes.”

I’m glad to hear that people are reading the Bible regularly. And I’m happy for them if they enjoy and find spiritual profit in reading the KJV. However, I feel that an archaic translation based on poor manuscripts is going to very often lead readers astray with regard to the actual intended meaning of the text.

Posted in: KJV

17 thoughts on “Those who actually read the Bible prefer the KJV

  1. Kenny says:

    The article says “82% of those who read the Good Book at least once a month rely on the [KJV]”, but that’s not quite true.

    What the survey says is that 82% of people who read the Bible at least once a month own a copy of the KJV. The survey doesn’t ask if they use the KJV regularly, just whether or not they own one.

    Well, I own a KJV. It was a gift from my grandparents. It sits on my bookshelf and I never read it. My NLT is on my nightstand and that’s what I read. But I would be among that 82% according to the survey, because I read the Bible at least once a month and yes, I do own a KJV.

  2. John Hobbins says:

    Any and every Bible will be a language puzzle of sorts. What do you expect: its components were written down thousands of years ago and reflects cultures quite different from ours.

    I prefer an accurate translation, one that does not leave piece after piece on the cutting floor; one that is respectful of the diction, structure, and rhetoric of the source text.

    My 7 year old Anna loves prayers with her Dad at bedtime. She memorized the Lord’s Prayer long before she knew what it meant in all details. As it should be. I asked her what it means when we we say, “Our Father who art in heaven.” She answered, “Our Father who lives in heaven.” I asked her what “Hallowed by thy name.” She said she didn’t know. I said it means to keep God’s name holy. She said she didn’t know what “holy” meant. That’s okay. There will be time to learn.

    It isn’t a matter of translation. It’s a matter of life-experience, of finding a community of faith that sanctifies things. My teaching moment with her is to have her describe what her older sister did for Lent, which was to do without chocolate, sweets, dessert, soft drinks. Anna was in awe of big Betta on that one. “That,” I point out, “is what is to means to sanctify something. It means to treat it with special reverence; to change what you do with something you care so much about it.”

    CEV, like NLT, seems to make the truth clear. In reality, it erases the truth of countless passages. It assimilates them to others. For example< John 3:20-21 says (my translation):

    For every one who does wrong
    hates the light
    and doesn’t come to the light
    so their deeds may not be exposed.

    But whoever does the truth
    comes to the light
    so their deeds may be seen
    to have been done in God.

    CEV has (the formatting is mine; the advantages of visual tracking are well-known):

    People who do evil
    hate the light
    and won't come to the the light,
    because it clearly shows what they have done.

    But everyone who lives by the truth
    will come to the light,
    because they want others to know
    that God is really the one doing what they do.

    CEV does your exegesis for you. One less headache I guess.

    Too bad that this is John speaking, not Paul. The notion that is "Not I, but Christ who works in me" is not the thought of the text.

    The thought is that if you do what is right, you did so "in God," even if you haven't yet come to the light.

  3. John C. Poirier says:

    I agree with John Hobbins’s remarks. A translation shouldn’t do the exegesis for you. It should instead give you an accurate rendering of the sense of the words, on as word-for-word a level as is Englishly possible.

  4. Kevin Knox says:

    Accuracy has its benefits and costs. The benefits are regularly enumerated on sites like this one, and they’re real. The costs, though, keep the KJV in the mix.

    Loss of Community: I can no longer just quote a verse because it doesn’t feel right to some large percentage of my readers.

    Problems at the Interface: I need to identify my version now when I quote a verse, and the debate can switch to the words instead of their meaning. The interface between an ESV and a TNIV reader can be really, really sticky.

    Problems with Tools: I can no longer log on to a bible search engine and search for the terms I remember from a bible verse. I now must also remember the version against which I should search. Did I read that in NLT? Or is that term left over from my decades of KJV study?

    Sites like BBB are a living testimony to the problem of claiming precision looking at a 2000 years old text.

    Science invented the concept of “significance.” Scientists realize that if you have one measurement that’s accurate to one significant digit and another that’s accurate to 18 decimal places, retaining the 18 decimal points of precision is actually a lie. 1 ton plus .00001 ounces is 1 ton.

    As we wrestle over the meaning of different portions of this text, our precision seems to ignore significance. And significance is truth. When we wrestle over the meaning of a single preposition, we lose community, interface, and tools. And for what? How can I, a programmer who reads a little bit, know whether the argument is significant?

    How can I tell whether the differences between the ESV and NIV are significant? And tomorrow we’ll gain yet another version we’re promised is better for study or reading or evangelizing, and someone else will reject that version. Is it worth it? I don’t know, but I’m sure we lose the ability to hear and trust each other.

    The precision djinni can’t be stuffed back in the bottle. I get that. But I could sit down and cry for the days when we suffered with inaccuracies and had each other.

  5. White Man says:

    The KJV is copyright free–so what? So is the version officialy commissioned to retire it to oblivion: the ERV. Instead, the ERV was retired to oblivion, having been replaced by the new, improved, scholarly, latest-manuscript-following RSV (but not until its copyright had run out). The RSV is still technically under copyright, thanks to the ridiculous and seemingly limitless expansion of copyright protection. But it’s also been retired, by the NRSV–which initial edition will no doubt have sunk into oblivion long before its copyright expires.

    In America, the ASV quickly replaced the ERV once its exclusive copyright protection had run out. But, no sooner had copyright run out on the ASV, but it was replaced by the NASB. This, too, was rendered obsolete by a long series of revisions, culminating in a major overhaul in 1995. By the time the original edition’s copyright finally runs out sometime in the next century, no one is going to be interested in republishing it.

    I own hard copies of most popular versions of the 1900’s and have electronic access to the popular versions of the 2000’s–all acquired at no expense to me. But I paid for my copies of the KJV and NKJV. They weren’t free.

  6. Larry says:

    @John Hobbins

    Did you consider teaching your daughter the KJV of the Lord’s Prayer?

    Our Father WHICH art in heaven

  7. Mike Sangrey says:

    3. It’s free. Because the King James is public domain,

    Practically speaking, this is somewhat true. Technically, my understanding is that it is copyrighted in perpetuity and owned by The Crown.

  8. Mike Sangrey says:

    If the exegesis of the original text is easy, then the translation choices are easy. All translations, literal and otherwise, do this. And, no one complains. Most people don’t even recognize that exegesis is done in these cases. For example, there doesn’t seem to be any fight over translating δέω (DEW) as ‘bind’ when in a prison context and ‘tied’ when it refers to a colt.

    However, as the exegesis becomes harder, then the translation choices become increasingly more difficult. Then the translators face a choice where current scholarship is insufficient (or the choice would be relatively easier). Or, they must choose between either accurate and unacceptable or less accurate and acceptable. In these cases, I think, they choose less clear. So, it’s still accurate, it simply isn’t up to the same level of clarity as the rest (this generally looks like “more literal”).

    All readers exist somewhere along this continuous line of ability to do easy to hard exegesis. For any given audience, a bar can be drawn where harder is generally too hard for that audience. On the easy side, the text can be translated into his/her language and there won’t be much fuss about “too much exegesis” (as noted above). Also, if the audience generally gets the exegesis wrong, then the text in question is too hard for them. Sadly, they won’t know that.

    The bar is in a different place for linguistically informed, skilled, trained translators. The hard segment of the line is smaller relatively speaking. [Note: See P.S. below!]

    Ironically, translating with less clarity, while it has this feel that less exegesis was “put in the text”, presents the reader with a set of texts which require the most difficult exegesis. A reader defined as one who does not have the time to wrestle with the text, nor skills necessary to use the tools, nor access to the scholarship the translator has wrestled with. Generally, the common reader doesn’t even know such level of expertise is required of him/her. They are simply told what the text means and re-reminded that “literal is better.” They don’t even have the wherewithal to refute or confirm what they have been told. A given reader can change his or her position on the line, but the audience can still be characterized as I have here.

    But, here’s my point.

    What would be so helpful to the reader is for the reader to know where these places are. Where was the exegesis hard? Where was it easy? I believe the majority of readers would be capable enough and mature enough to handle this.

    Unless, of course, we’re willing to say we really have no idea what the vast majority of texts mean. Then we could simply render the entire text literally and the readers would know to be very, very careful believing anyone who says, “O!, this text means…”.

    Is the goal to present a language puzzle? Or is the goal to present a human translation?

    P.S. I believe translators should be transparent about their translation choices so they can be held accountable. So, I’m most definitely not saying, “Trust me. Don’t peek at what I do.”

    Also, I think it is enormously valuable for a given student to be passionate about justifying a given exegesis. To own it for themselves. Learning is not, it is not, simply memorizing a clear, accurate, and natural translation. It’s believing it. All real translations are human.

  9. John Hobbins says:

    When it comes to Bible memorization, is there anyone who learns verses or passages by heart in CEV or NLT? There must be a few, but the vast majority of people who love scripture enough to memorize it do so in translations like KJV, RSV, and NIV.

    There are plenty of Catholics and Protestants with a love for Scripture and learning verses by heart who study and memorize from RSVCE or ESV, respectively (the difference is minimal). I happen to be a Protestant, and it comes naturally to me to use RSV or ESV. So I teach my children and my confirmands verses by heart in the ESV/RSV.

    Catholic resources for serious Bible study often come in two versions: RSVCE and NAB. For example, go here:
    The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible I have is RSVCE.

    KJV, as David Ker remarks, creates too much of a barrier.
    Alternatives are available, for the pulpit, serious study, and for memorization: NJKV, RSV, ESV, NASB, and NIV.

    The Navigator Topical Memory System, used by millions over the years, offers KJV, NIV (1984), NJKV, and NASB.

    It could be that NLTers and CEVers are just not into learning Scripture by heart.

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    John, I think you may be extrapolating from your own experience to that of others when it comes to memorization.

    Our four children all grew up on the TEV (GNB), similar to the CEV. It was the pulpit and pew Bible in our church and we were happy to use it at home. They did their Bible memorization from the TEV. They would have done it from the CEV if the CEV had been available when they were children. Their pastor would have been happy to use the CEV. Our children were not alone. Other children in our church did some scripture memory from the TEV.

    I did all my children scripture memory from the KJV. I was not exposed to any other Bible versions in the 1950s when I was a child.

    When I was in college I memorized several passages from J.B. Phillips translation, which is another natural English translation. I know that many others have also memorized from Phillips, partly due to the influence of Bill Gothard who memorized from Phillips.

    As you already know, many people have memorized from the NIV. Its English is more natural for current speakers than the English found in the KJV, NASB, NRSV, and ESV.

    I suspect that some are memorizing from the NLT. We could find out about that by contacting Tyndale and asking them what they hear about NLT memorization.

    Scripture memorization is an important discipline, one which only a few churches and families encourage anymore. It needs to be encouraged as much as possible. And the closer that the language in the translation is to that person’s heart language, the more impact that memorization will have helping transform that person’s mind and life.

    If more pastors understood how important it is to use a Bible translated into a person’s heart language, they would be more likely to encourage their people to memorize from such a version. There is such a lack of such understanding among pastors today about what parameters are necessary for a translation to be adequate, including adequate for accuracy. There are too many broad-brush statements dismissing some versions as “inaccurate” or paraphrases, when those making the statements have often done little of their own research on enough translated passages to be able to make statements about translation backed up by good evidence.

    Too many people are influenced by gatekeepers and advertising. People in the pews do not have adequate training to be able to sift the chaff from the wheat when it comes to advertising about Bible versions.

    We know that BBB is a little voice crying in the wilderness. But we will keep trying to help people better understand how important it is to have Bible translations in the heart language of everyone around the world, including those whose native languages are English. Heart language does not include Biblish. Heart language is what babies hear from their parents and older siblings. It is language which best moves people emotionally and spiritually. We have to give people a chance to hear God’s Word in their heart language if they are native speakers of English.

    English speakers should be able to read and study the Bible for themselves and understand its *language* without having a feeling that God must not speak English very well. Understanding the biblical *concepts* that the language of a Bible version expresses often needs the help of a Bible teacher. But if we encouraged more use of better translated Bibles in faith communities, pastors and other Bible teachers could focus more on the tasks which those in the pew have little, if any, training for. Pastors should not have to explain the language in English Bibles. Language issues should be taken care of by translation teams. That’s the purpose of translation.

  11. Mike Sangrey says:

    I’m glad Wayne responded as he did. Because I realize it might be rather easy to misunderstand what I said in my comment a little before.

    Someone might think I meant that a translation should be a commentary. That is, that the exegesis should be “told” in the text. That’s no where close to what I mean. Wayne’s statement at the end of his comment is very much a part of my thinking. The language of the text should not have to be explained.

    Just like postings and comments on BBB might need their concepts clarified and applied, so, too, the Bible. Just like postings and comments on BBB are (for the most part 🙂 ) using standard English, so, too, the Bible.

    [Which isn’t meant to imply that anything I’ve said here on BBB needs no further editing 🙂 ]

  12. John Hobbins says:

    It’s wonderful if people memorize scripture. As I already suggested, it’s true that some people memorize from NLT, just as some memorized from the Living Bible before that.

    I want to memorize verses from a translation that has staying power. I want my children and grandchildren to memorize from a translation that echoes down the ages. This is one of the selling points of a translation in the King James tradition: NKJV, RSV, ESV, to a somewhat lesser extent, NRSV.

    A word about Biblish. All translations of the Bible are full of expressions and idioms and phrases that are not part of the vernacular. I love translating the text without regard for them.

    For example, it comes naturally to me to translate Jeremiah 51:7 as follows:

    A gold cup, Babylon, in the LORD’s hand
    leaving the whole earth smashed.
    Nations drink her wine;
    nations become silly.

    For the most part, I mimic the syntax, morphology, and structure. It helps transfer the force of the original. Such a translation, it seems to me, is memorable and worth memorizing. It has a figural quality, a trait a translation of the Bible should have. A test: in place of Babylon, read “America,” “Saudi Arabia,” or “China.”

    A great deal of the creative diction of the NLT was removed in later revisions. That is a plus and a minus. The old NLT did not even bother to translate poetry with poetry:

    Babylon has been a golden cup in the LORD’s hands, a cup from which he made the whole earth drink and go mad.

    IMHO NLT’s diction sounds peculiar to me. No one talks like that. No one says, “X has been a golden cup in Y’s hands.”

    It *is* possible to say, “Y held a gold cup in his hand.” It is possible to say, “X is like a gold cup in Y’s hand.”

    Still, I imagine old NLT Jer 51:7 field tests well. I think that we should abandon the idea that a passage like this should pass a field test. It is poetry. Poetry by definition “lisps with numbers” and terseness and springing rhythm and rhetorical tropes. It is insane, for example, not to reproduce the epimone or twofold “nations” of the source text.

    NIV is marginally better:

    Babylon was a gold cup in the LORD’s hand;
    she made the whole earth drunk.
    The nations drank her wine;
    therefore they have now gone mad.

    The “has been” – a calque of KJV – is gone; so is the plural “hands.” But NIV puts things in the past though the Hebrew describes the main line of action as continuing in the present with an eye to the future (see preceding 51:6). What a loss, furthermore, that it is “she,” Babylon, who makes the whole earth drunk, not the cup. Sure, “cup” is feminine in Hebrew, but who is going to guess that in translation? “Therefore,” of course, is standard Biblish. No one talks like that. Unfortunately, once again the epimone is removed.

    Finally, I wonder what people imagine on reading “have now gone mad.” The meaning, I think, is that Babylon’s fantastic glam and glitz, her lethal attractiveness, made the consumers thereof, her hangers-on, punch-drunk or silly-drunk, easy prey. If so, I don’t think the translation “have now gone mad” gets one there without explanation.

    CEV at this verse, as exegetical translations often do, unduly limits the scope of the source text. The passage is now about Babylon as an instrument of wrath rather than an intoxicating party-thrower whose hangers-on would love to prop her up a little bit longer (see 51:8-9). A verse like 51:7 one needs to be read of what follows and against the background of Hab 2:6-17 and Rev 17, not just Jer 25:15ff. Finally, one must take care not to over-translate. CEV at this verse is an example of “more is less.”

  13. David Ker says:

    John asked, “When it comes to Bible memorization, is there anyone who learns verses or passages by heart in CEV or NLT?”

    Our children have memorized chapters and chapters of the CEV for more than a decade. My kids frequently finish my sentences for me during family Bible reading time.

    I memorized a lot of NASB when I was a teen and 20-something. And much of it still rings in my ears when I think of a particular passage. But on closer inspection I realized that I memorized much without really understanding what I was saying. The situation here in Africa is such that the “English” of the ESV and NIV is largely incomprehensible to most English speakers especially second language users of English. I saw first hand on Sunday a sermon preached from ESV and NIV to a majority second-language English audience that was simply lost on the hearers because the language was too arcane.

    A preacher, or a parent, can graciously set aside their translation of tradition and communicate with the intended audience in their language. Like Hobbins, Joel and others my preferred translation register is probably NRSV. But I know that for the sake of the next generation and “every tribe tongue and nation” and even for myself if I’m honest, it’s best to use a communicative translation.

  14. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    I wonder if this verse really communicates the meaning of the Hebrew,

    Psalm 11:2 (English Standard Version)(also NRSV)

    2for behold, the wicked(A) bend the bow;
    (B) they have fitted their arrow to the string
    to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart;

    I read elsewhere an impassioned sermon on what it means to “shoot in the dark.” I don’t believe that it represented the meaning of the hebrew in any way. I would have to recommend the KJV as much clearer in this case, although obscure in its own way. The NIV and other translations are much clearer.

    There is also the matter of altered theology. Phil. 2,

    “though he was in(L) the form of God, did not count equality with God(M) a thing to be grasped,” (ESV) is now used to prove the eternal functional inequality of Christ.

    I would hesitate to insist that there is some superior virtue to a translation that easily leads into these oddities.

    I find it hard to reconcile arguing about which style of translation is better with my idea of “what would Jesus do?” If a translation leads to obvious error then this needs to be pointed out. Otherwise, I can’t see that style should matter.

  15. David Ker says:

    Thanks all for an interesting conversation. I’m closing comments on this post since I’ll be offline for a while and unable to moderate.

    I’ve left trackbacks open so if you mention this post on your blog the link should appear here.

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