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The King James Version or the New King James Version:

Which is better?

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Question:  I was wondering which translation you think is better: King James Version or New King James Version? I know they are mainly the same, but a friend of mine and I are trying to convince each other that the other is better. He says that the New King James Version changes doctrine, and I don't think it does. I use a NKJV and I think its a great Bible, but he thinks it twists scriptures so I was wondering what your opinion of this is.

Response:  The problem of translating the Bible (or any document) from one language into another is always a challenging one. There is no such thing as a literal equivalent in language B for what language A actually says. The Bible presents a unique problem in that there are 1) textual issues (what exactly is the correct text of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek), 2) theological and cultural issues (one has to actually understand e.g. the doctrine of redemption to properly translate passages which describe it), 3) language issues (i.e., none of these languages is spoken in the same forms anymore, so that our knowledge of them is imperfect).

It is not an impossible task to do a good translation, but it is virtually impossible to do one that is 100% "accurate", because to do so would mean that the translator(s) had 1) figured out precisely the correct solution for all of the thousands of textual variants, 2) completely understood the theology of the Bible in every miniscule detail, 3) knew these three languages perfectly, just as well as the native speakers of the time, and 4) didn't make any mistakes of interpretation. This last point is perhaps the most daunting, because there is no translation that is not also an interpretation. Put it this way, when I translate a sentence from language A into language B, I am first "understanding" exactly (or inexactly) what the exemplar means, and only then am I rendering it into an equivalent in language B which (I hope) will not only mean essentially the same thing, but will also captures the flavor, the nuance, and the emphasis of the exemplar. Given that English is always changing (e.g., "groovey" doesn't evoke the same response today it did in 1969), my translation will mean something different today than it does tomorrow, and most likely something a little different to you than it does to me (or another person whose understanding of English vocabulary is slightly different for regional, educational, generational or other reasons).

That having been said, I do believe that the NKJV was a very, very good idea. I don't personally use it very often (so my comments about it here should be taken with at least a grain of salt), but I believe that the idea of taking a classic translation of the Bible and "updating" and otherwise improving it has much merit. Until one has a lot of experience with the KJV, the older English in which it is written really reduces the impact of its words for most contemporary readers (like listening to Shakespeare for the first time). Even the famous Scofield Reference version of the KJV has alternative, more up to date readings for many of the more difficult words and phrases. NKJV just took this to the next logical step. Wherever I have tested it, I have been pretty happy with this update. You should know that one of the problems with the KJV is that it was translated before some of the best ancient manuscripts where found (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus in particular). Unfortunately, NKJV follows the KJV in those instances I have tracked. For example, in 1st Peter 3:21, NKJV has essentially what the KJV has:

There is also an antitype which now saves us--baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . .

Here the "which" (in both KJV and NKJV) is not actually in the original text, and is the result of scribes trying to "fix" a confusing passage (the actual idea here is NOT to relate Noah's experience directly to the baptism of the Spirit [something the "which" does], but rather to call attention to the parallel: just as Noah and co. were saved by being identified/baptized with/into the ark, so we are saved [i.e., an analogous baptism] by being identified with Christ through being baptized into Him with the Holy Spirit). The NKJV follows lock-step with the KJV in refusing to make use of the better texts here. That is not too surprising, because, without completely understanding what Peter is trying to say here, the chances of eschewing the later textual error and correctly translating this passage are nil (and many of the newer versions also repeat the same mistake using alternative pronouns: e.g., NIV "this"; NASB "that").

A good study Bible version of the NKJV will almost certainly steer the reader away from the worst problems of this sort (like the apocryphal longer ending of Mark, or the "cast the first stone" story of John 8, neither of which are really part of scripture). But, in general, I would cautiously state that NKJV is just a cleaner version of the KJV - it has the all of the same advantages, and many of the same problems. KJV is one of the most creatively ambiguous translations of the Bible, by which I mean that it goes out of its way to avoid being interpretative (a good quality for a study Bible to have, generally speaking). Of course that means that there are many, many verses that are hard to understand in English, whether or not that English is up to date. Take a different version like the NIV, and one finds things made much more understandable for the English reader (the problem is that where the NIV has mis-interpreted, the reader is left with a completely wrong impression about what the Bible has to say - and that happens with some frequency). 

Archaic language can occasionally present problems and the NKJV does correct these things in some instances. Compare these two renderings of Ephesians 3:21:

KJV: Unto Him be the glory in the church by Jesus Christ throughout all the ages, world without end. Amen.

NKJV: To Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

There is nothing in any Greek text, even in the one used by the KJV translators to justify "world without end" - rather, this was their theological understanding of what "forever" meant, whereas today most evangelicals have come to understand the eschatology differently (i.e., that after the Millennium, there will be a New Heavens and a New Earth - this present corrupt world DOES have a definite end).

Overall, my impression is that the NKJV is a very good translation. It has many positive points. I knew one of the editor-translators for some portions of the OT (one of my seminary professors years ago) and he was a very conservative, Bible believing man of God. Believers of all stripes just have to understand that 1) reading the Bible for themselves is critically important, because we all need a large frame of reference for what the Bible says, and 2) listening to Bible teaching is also necessary, because without the languages, the systematic theology, the history, the experience, and the teaching gift, there is a limit to what individual Christians will be able to figure out for themselves on points of theology. With the right balance of reading and teaching, with multiple translations to consult, with consistent and patient seeking of God, all the lumps and bumps will be worked out eventually. Just remember, God does want us to understand His Word, and to that end He has provided the means for all His children to do so, if they will but be consistent, patient, and diligent in so searching for Him and His truth.

You can read more of my comments about the various versions and other related issues at the following links:

Read your Bible: Protection against Cults

Who Wrote the King James Version?

King James "Onlyists"

Issues of Canonicity

How can we know the Bible is true?

Interpolations in the Bible

Yours in Him who is the way, the truth, and the life, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob L.

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