Loosening the iron grip of the King James Version of the Bible?

A couple of years ago, Elder Richard Maynes (of the Presidency of the Seventy) quoted Matthew 13:44 in his conference talk: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

But wait a second! The King James Version of that verse reads differently: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.” Elder Maynes has quoted, instead, the Revised Standard Version.

This surprised me because the official version of the Bible used by the Church in English is the King James Version. From the days of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the KVJ has been preferred (despite Joseph Smith’s corrections). When the Revised Standard Version was released in 1952, an editorial in the Church News stated, “For the Latter-day Saints there can be but one version of the Bible” — the King James Version. J. Reuben Clark published a book in 1956 entitled Why the King James Version. (This is all laid out in Philip Barlow’s Dialogue article.) In 1992, the First Presidency released a statement saying the following, “While other Bible versions may be easier to read than the King James Version, in doctrinal matters latter-day revelation supports the King James Version in preference to other English translations. All of the Presidents of the Church, beginning with the Prophet Joseph Smith, have supported the King James Version by encouraging its continued use in the Church. In light of all the above, it is the English language Bible used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Last October, in the General Women’s Session of General Conference, President Dieter Uchtdorf quotes four different verses from the New International Version, first published in 1973.

Have others noticed a shift away from exclusive reliance on the King James Version?* Two data points don’t necessarily make a trend, but datum + datum = data.

I’m excited to see leaders drawing on an array of biblical resources, and even if this doesn’t signal a broader trend, I hope that this will help members to feel the space to do the same. As Ben Spackman wrote a few years ago, “The absolute best and easiest thing you can do to increase the quality and frequency of your Bible study is to replace/supplement your KJV with a different translation.” Likewise, Grant Hardy — who earned my immense respect with his book Understanding the Book of Mormonwrites, “The King James Version is no longer a good translation, which is why almost no one uses it anymore. It is inaccurate to the extent that it relies on late, corrupted Greek manuscripts, and it is inadequate in that it does not communicate the authors’ meaning in an intelligible way.” He goes on to recommend “explicitly encouraging Latter-day Saints to read modern translations as supplements to their study of the LDS edition of the scriptures.”

* In addition to the KJV, leaders have often referred to elements of the Joseph Smith translation.

This post has been updated to reflect the correction that the KJV is the official English-language version of the Bible for the Church, not the official version across all languages.

44 comments for “Loosening the iron grip of the King James Version of the Bible?

  1. Now I’m interested as to how different versions of the English-language Bible get translated into other languages.

    What gets /really/ fun is when some common LDS prooftext is based on a modern reading of an archaic KJV phrase… and the most commonly used version of the Bible among non-Anglophone Mormons is a better/more recent translation without the unintelligible archaism!

  2. Grant Hardy points to a possible candidate in his article: “Sometimes favorite verses turn out not to teach doctrines as clearly as we had assumed. For instance, Job 19:25-26 is on the seminary scripture mastery list as evidence for Old Testament belief in the savior and the resurrection: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (KJV; also very familiar from Handel’s Messiah). Yet the underlying Hebrew is quite difficult, and the King James translators had to do a lot of guesswork (as can be seen by the key words they had to add: day, though, worms, body). More likely translations, based on several centuries of advances in Hebrew linguistics, often read like the REB: “But in my heart I know that my vindicator lives and that he will rise last to speak in court; and I shall discern my witness standing at my side and see my defending counsel, even God himself, whom I shall see with my own eyes, I myself and no other.” Missionaries looking for Old Testament teachings of a bodily resurrection would do better with other scriptures such as Ezek. 37:1-14.”

  3. I’ve definitely noticed this as well. My sense is that the weird view of the KJV as somehow better has largely disappeared. That’s not to say there isn’t a strong cultural momentum, but whereas I couldn’t see moving away from it when I was a kid, at least now it’s much more conceivable. Part of me would still like the Church to simply license the NKJV from Oxford and then following it’s style update the Book of Mormon, D&C and so forth. Since most people are now using lds.org or their apps for scriptures this is very doable. It’s not that the NKJV is perfect. Far from it. But it is basically the KJV with archaic and misleading words replaced with contemporary words. The translation is still basically the KJV.

    The value of the NKJV is that it allows one to notice the KJV quotations in the Book of Mormon or D&C. Likewise it preserves idioms that have come to have a more theological sense in Mormonism. Phrases like, “make your calling and election sure” in 1 Peter 1:10. In the NASB for instance this is “make certain about His calling and choosing you” which actually makes explicit the Mormon theological concept but loses the idiom. Admittedly the NIV is closer to the KJV with “make every effort to confirm your calling and election.”

    In general fixing language that’s hard for people in the Book of Mormon or D&C is easier with the NKJV than the NIV.

  4. Clark, your lips to God’s ears, but my guess is that I will be a very old man (mid 30s now) before that happens, largely because of what David says. As a Church, we would have to recant/redo all of our favorite proof-texts, and I don’t see that as a popular decision. I personally think it would also take a sea change in how we view scripture, essentially falling from the mouth of God onto the page (especially the Book of Mormon) as well as not hanging on every word that comes out of a General Authority’s mouth. The Church is not interested in teaching members to evaluate with a critical eye General Authority statements.

  5. Judging by how annoyed GAs seem by people putting up on facebook everything they say at firesides or stake conferences I assume they don’t like members hanging to their every word but want them to take a more pragmatic view. So this may be in keeping with that as opposed to a kind of legalistic literalism that was common in the mid-20th century.

    That said, changing the scriptures is a very complex undertaking with lots of potential problems. So I can appreciate the nature of the problem.

    If we see the digital scriptures get their footnotes updated along with heading fixes then that’s a good sign deeper changes are coming. Right now we still have those horrible footnotes from the late 70’s. They were mostly computer generated using the technology of the late 70’s.

    While the Church was very proud of them at the time realistically they’re pretty bad with “TG: topic” unnecessarily being the most common footnote. That’s kind of useless IMO. Also one could far better make use of say Skousen’s critical text along with the latest scholarship of the D&C that we’ve seen publicized by the Joseph Smith Papers project. For one I’d love to see the KJV quotations recognized as a legitimate way the translation indicates a reference to the Bible. Effectively God and Joseph Smith did a lot of the work for us. You could easily write a quick Python script to look for say 4-gram word quotations that would be vastly superior to what that program in the 70’s did. Likewise there’s been enough work on allusions to other scriptures by texts in the Book of Mormon or D&C that could make it into the footnotes. I’d like to see brief historical or more extensive idiom explanations as well.

    Really the footnotes just plain suck right now.

  6. As the new integrated curriculum lessons are being written for the New Testament and Old Testament, I’ve been helping curriculum identify and avoid scriptures that are uniquely or poorly translated in the KJV, since most non-English Bible translations the Church prefers are more recent productions that are based on better manuscripts and scholarship. Many of the translations will disagree with the KJV if our lesson as translated into German or Finnish or French sends them to somewhere like Job 19:26, and that flatly undermines the lesson. Some of the leaders are better aware of these dynamics now, and we’re working to try to get the culture moving in a direction of greater awareness, particularly among the broader membership. The more Church leadership hears from the membership, the more seriously they’ll take these issues. The Bible Dictionary and the footnotes are in the same boat. The more there are concerns expressed, the easier it will be for us to get the culture shifted.

  7. Something of a threadjack: I’m seeking a solid study Bible that contains not only a solid, accurate translation; but also enough of the cultural and background to make it intelligible. Suggestions?

  8. “The official version of the Bible used by the Church is the King James Version.”

    This is true only for English, which becomes important when speaking of the Church as a whole. The Church now has official Spanish and Portuguese translations, both of which the Church itself created by taking existing translations and updating them. These versions often read very differently than the KJV (which the Church allowed) and reflect different priorities (for example, they use relatively modern language and more up-to-date biblical scholarship). See https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/santa-biblia-latter-day-saint-bible-spanish.

  9. Daniel O. McClellan, thank you for your work! That sounds like a major step.
    How can we possibly let Church leadership hear from us?

  10. Not Just English, that’s a very good point! Thanks for catching that oversight in my post!

  11. Other Clark (7) if you don’t mind electronic the Bibles and footnotes that come with the Faithlife Study Bible app are excellent. It’s published by Logos and is a free download from the app store.

  12. I don’t know that the church will ever fully move away from the KJV, since there are so many linguistic ties to it from the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. At the same time, if one only reads the KJV, I think you miss out on all the things mentioned in the OP. I personally actively use the NRSV (via the Harper Collins Study Bible), and my understanding has been extremely enriched. Yet my previous readings of the KJV help me recognize key phrases in the Book of Mormon that are clear allusions to passages in the bible. If there ever was a full move away from the KJV, I think you would want to have some sort of LDS study bible or detailed footnotes noting the key linguistic ties between various passages in modern scripture and the KJV.

  13. Clark, ok, how about, “hang on every that comes out of a General Authority’s mouth in General Conference?” I’m not sure that I do assume that General Authorities wants us to take a pragmatic view of their teachings. Were that the case, I would probably be a lot more lax in my Sunday attendance, Sabbath-observance, tithes and offerings, etc. There are pragmatic reasons for trying to live those commandments a lot less rigidly than I do (and I am honestly still horribly sinful on my best days), but I doubt I would get much support for my less rigid interpretation from any General Authority.

    While they may not want their statements to be misconstrued, I stand by the idea that the leadership by and large still back the proposition that, when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done and Elder Oaks’ statement that there is no such thing as loyal opposition in the Church.

  14. I confess I don’t quite see that connection. I think one can understand people pragmatically while still thinking what some of the things they say need to be followed. Perhaps that word “pragmatically” I shouldn’t have used. I think my point is just that there’s the main point they’re trying to make and then less essential points or bits of speculation. People haven’t always been good about keeping those separate.

  15. I think a great first step would be to introduce a very short essay at the beginning of the manuals and study guides that addresses this issue and opens up the possibility of cross studying different translations. Two paragraphs in a broader essay (the same one) that also addresses things like historical context, transmission, translation problems, etc. In other words, keep things going as they are but introduce some critical ideas that are often discussed on the blogs but never seem to get addressed in the church classes.

    It could be a faith promoting essay even–the Church is good with writing stuff like that….

  16. Clark, thanks. I can support that. Sorry for making myself quite unclear. My point (I think) was that continued devotion to the KJV is a symptom of an unwillingness to admit that prophets and apostles err and sometimes in big ways on big issues. To my view, despite the doctrine of continued revelation, we are deeply uncomfortable with going against previously declared doctrine (using that term in the loose sense) and we tie ourselves in knots trying to tie disparate positions together (or maybe it’s just me).

    If Apostle A says the KJV is the best translation out there, there is going to be an institutional unwillingness to walk those comments back despite strong proof to the contrary. I seem a similarity to the Church’s continued discomfort with race and the priesthood. It’s been 40 years and yet the most open and honest position the Church has ever taken on the issue was buried in Gospel Topics until the fairly recent updates to the Gospel Library app.

  17. We don’t have to disavow the KJV, and I don’t see this as a high-level “going against declared doctrine” kind of issue. All that is necessary is a few statements here and there in more central LDS sources (manual, Ensign) like Elder Carmack’s.
    “We clearly prefer the King James Version… but we are not adamant about that. Any responsibly prepared version could be used and might be helpful to us.” Elder John K. Carmack, The NT & the LDS, p. 2

  18. Not (19) No problem was mine. I have to watch using terms that could confuse.

    To your final point that’s an interesting question. Not sure I want to go down that tangent away from the OP. I tend to think leaders deserve the benefit of doubt. So there’s a burden of proof we have to meet if we disagree with them. But you’re right that members have sometimes tied themselves up in apologetic knots for things that just weren’t based in revelation. (Think the theology that grew up around the priesthood ban) So I can see both sides. I just worry that the bigger problem is people ignoring our leaders than it is people adopting bad ideas of our leaders.

  19. The 8th Article of Faith says that we believe the Bible is the word of God “as far as it is translated correctly”. That is a declaration that every version of the Bible, including the KJV, has divine authority only to the extent that it correctly transmits the original “word of God”. Presumably the original versions written in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek would be closer to correctly expressing the meaning understood by those people who wrote down the scriptural accounts. The KJV is clearly not as accurate as the text in the original languages. As more texts closer to the originals in time have become available, such as those among the Dead Sea Scrolls, our principal of seeking the “least translated” text would favor a version other than the KJV.

    Personally, the best reasons for being familiar with the KJV are (1) it has the strongest correspondence to the terms used in the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Prices, and D&C, (2) it has been used in almost two centuries of teaching in the LDS Church, and (3) it is a source of much of the English language. Thus, if we are not familiar with the KJV, it is harder for us to see the correspondence with those other texts, so that our understanding of those non-Bible texts becomes harder. Knowing the KJV is important to maintain continuity in our scriptural and English literacy. It is actually remarkable that we can understand terms and grammar from four hundred years ago.

    In Japanese, words and grammar have evolved significantly within the last century. When the Book of Mormon, D&C, and Pearl of Great Price were translated into Japanese a century ago, they were already written in a somewhat archaic style that carried the dignity of scripture. However, The LDS scriptures are almost the only books that a Japanese member ever reads that still uses those traditional forms. The Church has had to update the translations so that the members, especially the new members, can understand them. Additionally, the verses in these scriptures that are most often cited as “proof texts” have been reworked so that they carry the meaning denoted and implied in the English originals, even to reordering the words so that the “punchline” comes in the same order as in the English version.

    As for the Bible, the Church in Japan uses the standard Japan Bible Society Bible, which was originally translated from a German translation owing a lot to Luther’s translation.

  20. Raymond, more significantly what Joseph appears to mean by translate is how close it is to the original word of the prophet. So it’s not just translation from a particular text if that text itself is missing or changes some of the original ideas.

  21. Comment 19: So I do not understand why you believe the church “has a continued discomfort with race and the priesthood”. Please explain.
    Fwiw I have been keen on the Oxford Bible for many years.

  22. Jack, I’ve inappropriately pushed the discussion too far from the OP (I’m going to download the Faithlife Study Bible app today), but read the Gospel Topics essay on race and the priesthood and ask yourself if you can ever recall a General Authority speaking on the topic with anything approaching that level of candor. I can’t.

  23. Ben, I respectfully disagree and think it’s going to take quite a bit more than a few references in the Ensign or a Sunday School manual to make members comfortable with using other translations over the pulpit and in Gospel Doctrine. I remember growing up thinking that, somehow, other translations of the Bible were, if not wicked, then at least not good (not sure if that was something I picked up from my parents or from Primary/Sunday School, but it’s an indelible memory). Just as with white shirts for men and dresses for women, the KJV is deeply ingrained in LDS culture, and I believe nothing less than an official statement a member of the First Presidency or Q12 will make the shift happen.

    One thing I don’t know and would love to know is how different Christian denominations handle this same question. Is it mainly on a congregation-by-congregation basis or do most denominations declare a preferred translation? Or is there little uniformity from household to household?

  24. Northern Virginia (26) I suspect it’ll vary regionally. I bet Utah County where there are so many Mormons and colleges would embrace it fairly quickly. Places with less turnover and perhaps fewer academically inclined would take longer. However if you continue to see GAs doing it you’ll see more people copying them. But you are right that the church is small c conservative in terms of changing how things are done.

  25. The extent to which the Church clings to the KJV and its many poorly rendered passages shows that the Church has no particular interest in teaching a true understanding of the Bible to the membership. The simple fact that the Church prefers an incorrectly translated Bible (the KJV) shows that it doesn’t really take the Bible to be the word of God, whether translated correctly or not.

  26. I suspect part of it is generational. I show my Institute students those examples and talk about the benefits, and none of them have any problem with getting a study bible or using another translation on their phone. 60-yr-olds living in the same ward for 40 years might be a different story. And there’s this , which was in a journal that goes out to all S&I folks. Note the intro and section on “Suggestions for Personal Study.”

  27. It should be noted that the BYU Studies New Testament Commentary (3 volumes released so far with more to come–Hi Julie, no pressure :) ) uses the KJV, but then has what’s called a “New Rendition” for the Greek. As scholarship gets stronger, we’ll have to deal with the Bible issues. I agree with Ben S. Jewish Study Bible is excellent for OT/HB and the HarperCollins Study Bible is good for the total. The Annotated Jewish New Testament has an interesting slant (and there’s a 2d Edition in the works).

  28. Darn you guys for getting me fired up to read the Bible! I spent the whole evening reading the two linked BYU articles and testing out Bible apps (couldn’t stand the Faithlife Bible app’s split screen because I couldn’t get the bottom screen to load anything), but the NET Bible website it really cool, and it’s actually fun to take 20 minutes to read ten words. Thanks for all the resources.

  29. #26
    “One thing I don’t know and would love to know is how different Christian denominations handle this same question. Is it mainly on a congregation-by-congregation basis or do most denominations declare a preferred translation? Or is there little uniformity from household to household?”

    Denominations generally do not declare a preferred translation, although they do exist informally. Catholics have official translations, but that doesn’t mean they have to use them. Many Reformed denominations have gravitated to the ESV since its introduction. Anglicans use the Book of Common Prayer, which is tied to a lot of the language of the KJV, but in the last century the RSV was probably preferred by Anglicans. With that said, none of these translations are decreed to be official.

  30. Joel, thanks for the input. Does anyone recommend a good NET Bible app? I’d rather not plop down $10 after $10 before I find one I like.

  31. I use and like Lumina on my iPhone for the NET. Its free, which means that if you don’t like it all you have lost is time.

  32. For those of us whose English spelling system has not been (fully) Americanised, the KJV is a welcomed text. Frequency counts of words and phrases across the standard works, is, however, interrupted with the need to use both spellings as in labour/labor. Perhaps the Gospel Library App people could create some collocations where this occurs.

  33. Many years ago I attended a singles ward in California for a summer. The Gospel Doctrine class in Sunday School was very relaxed and we used three different bibles in that class, often comparing verses. One version was KJV, the second was NIV, but I don’t remember the third. It doesn’t matter. I thought it was a wonderful way to study the gospel. I prefer the language of the KJV which is extraordinary, but I think insights can be gained from reading other translations that cannot be obtained from reading KJV alone.

  34. So I saw this, and suddenly thought about the ‘Certain Women’ talk from the Women’s Session, riffing on an alternate meaning of the KJV ‘certain’ clearly not intended. I wondered how this talk was handled in translation, and saw in Spanish, when the prooftext was quoted, they had to literally change the verse from ‘y algunas mujeres’ (some women) being replaced by “y [ciertas] mujeres…” .

    I see that she added a footnote to her text noting, “In English the word certain has a second meaning of “a selection of” or “a variety of.” But it is the meaning of assurance, confidence, and faithfulness that I most wish to emphasize today.” – That footnote is so weird in non-English editions, especially since for her talk to work, the quoted scripture has to be literally changed to a completely different word in those languages.

    Is it that’s she’s not aware that just because there are different ways to interpret that English word,that the same ambiguity really doesn’t really exist in the source text, or in likely most translations being used in the world?

  35. David, I tend to think that she understood the trouble involved with it and would admit as much if asked about it. Just as Elder Oaks would admit that the Lord doesn’t always protect his missionaries from harm (citing to his address last fall). I also think the incentive to focus on a verse of scripture that talks about women was so great to her that she was willing to put up with the translation problems. We’re still very much an American-centric church.

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