The King James Version of the Bible (hereafter KJV) is crap. It’s a sketchy translation from an era in which scholars were largely ignorant of the nuances of ancient languages and understood little of the provenance of major biblical texts. To be sure, the KJV has (brief) moments of unsurpassed eloquence, but on the whole its Jacobean English is ham-fisted and at times it is altogether unintelligible.

The popular myth is that the language is brilliant, but archaisms make the text difficult for the modern reader. In other words, if one doesn’t enjoy reading it, it’s her fault. The implication is that if we could somehow recapture the brilliance of the age of the KJV, we’d enjoy it in its full glory. But let’s take a closer look at the archaisms:

  1. The second person pronouns (thee, thou, ye, thy, and thine). These don’t confuse anyone. Even if people often misuse them when left to their own devices in prayers, they understand their meaning when they read them in texts.
  2. The use of “-est” and “-eth” verb endings in the 2nd person and 3rd person singular conjugations. Like the archaic 2nd person pronouns, these just aren’t confusing.
  3. The occasional odd usage or archaic construction. These are always explained in the footnotes, so there’s also no issue here.

The truth is that the KJV seldom illuminates and often obscures the meaning of complex passages that the reader doesn’t already understand — poor English by any standard, archaic or otherwise.

If you doubt this, choose several 25-verse passages at random from anywhere in the Old Testament in both the KJV and the Revised Standard Version or the New Revised Standard Version or the English Standard Version. I know full well that numerous academics spout all kinds of nonsense about beauty of the KJV; calling it “the noblest monument of English prose” seems to be the penance they offer for not reading it. Even so, the results of a direct comparison will speak for themselves.

It’s worth nothing that the LDS study bible is the Cottage Bible, a common version of the KJV first published in the 1830s using a KJV text dating to 1789. There are many versions of the KJV, most of which come from the 1789 text. Each KJV version contains different corruptions of the original KJV text and italicizes a slightly different set of words. Thanks to Robert Matthews’ adaptation of the Cambridge Bible Dictionary to the familiar “Bible Dictionary” we see in our LDS study bible, everyone knows that these italicized words are supposed to represent those words that (in some sense) do not actually occur in the original text, though this notion of words that do not occur in the original text is utter nonsense and does more to distort the text than clarify it.

Beyond the poor quality of KJV text and the distortion of the italics, the LDS study bible is poorly formatted. The footnotes are terrific, but the formatting of the text by numbered verse is difficult to read and disfigures the actual structure of the text. Danithew posted on the usage of the pilcrow in the LDS study bible yesterday. It’s worth noting that these breaks occur in the original, published KJV text (as seen here in this scanned facsimile of an original; see verse 6 — it represents the breaks using the capitulum character instead of the pilcrow character).

No such breaks occur in the original Hebrew. In fact, no punctuation at all occurs in the ancient Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament, because ancient peoples didn’t tend to use punctuation. Translators added these paragraph breaks for the same reason they add punctuation: to render the translated language appropriately for its readers.

Many of the more recent Bibles jettison the pilcrow and simply format the text as paragraphs (or poetic verse) with verse numbers as superscripts within the text. It is not appropriate to write English by putting a single sentence on each line and separating paragraphs with the pilcrow character, and a preponderance of translations finally recognize this obvious fact. Why shouldn’t ours? (Of course, there’s no reason the KJV text cannot be rendered this way, but traditionally it’s not.)

One can guess why the church chose the KJV for its study bible: when the committee began working on the new study Bible, the KJV was far-and-away the most widely used bible. It had very strong brand recognition, so that there was no risk in it becoming merely, “The bible that Mormons use,” a Mormon equivalent to the Jehovah Witness’s Green Dragon.

Since the publication of the LDS study bible, the KJV has been relegated to the relative obscurity that it deserves. In this day and age, if you cling to the KJV, then you are to the Bible what the Amish are to modern convenience.

The 1978 LDS Study bible was a quantum leap forward. It was among the first study bibles to utilize a clear and easy-to-use footnoting system. It includes a condensed and edited version of the Cambridge Bible Dictionary. Its topical guide is better than many comparable guides that are much larger. The chapter headings are descriptive, useful, and generally right on the mark. The font and text layout (beyond the numbered-verse organization) are attractive and easy to look at for long periods of time. Anyone who owns an older version of the standard-issue LDS scriptures can attest to the vast superiority of the 1978 scriptures.

Now, 30 years later, the time is ripe to revise the LDS study bible to make another leap in quality. In my opinion, the church should begin to offer the LDS study bible in another translation in addition to the KJV. Here are the translations I recommend:

  1. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) is beautifully done, and it is probably the least controversial Bible in use. It’s a bit long in the tooth as far as textual scholarship, but this results in mostly minor issues, and it remains head-and-shoulders above the KJV. Plus, the RSV retains thee/thou/thy 2nd person pronouns when they are used to refer to deity.
  2. The New International Version (NIV) is clear and uncontroversial. Rumor has it that Bruce McConkie liked it. Personally, I find it discouraging to read, because the text is aimed at such a low reading level. Today’s New International Version is basically the gender-neutral version of this Bible.
  3. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is the official revision of the RSV. One can think of it as the American descendant of the King James Bible:
    KJV
    (1611)
    American Standard Version
    (1901)
    Revised Standard Version
    (1952; rev NT 1971)
    New Revised Standard Version
    (1989)
  4. The NRSV is also beautifully done, and it is the most gender-neutral of the major Bibles. This gender neutrality is no longer as controversial as it was when the NRSV first appeared. Adopting a gender-neutral bible would allow the church to ease perceptions that it subjugates women.

  5. The English Standard Version is another update to the RSV, but it is more traditional than the NRSV. This is fairly new, and may not have a strong enough brand recognition to avoid becoming perceived as “the Bible that the Mormons use.”
  6. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is well respected and has the reputation for being the most literal, but I find it to be unduly literal.
  7. The Revised English Bible (REB) is my personal favorite. One can think of it as the UK equivalent to the NRSV:
    KJV
    (1611)
    English Revised Version
    (1885)
    New English Bible
    (1970)
    Revised English Bible
    (1989)

    Unfortunately, many perceive the REB to be controversial due to its departure from several traditional renderings.

I’ve read each of these Bibles from cover to cover except the English Standard Version, which I’ve read samples of. Each of these is vastly superior to the KJV, which I’ve also read cover-to-cover.

We are a global church. The KJV is just one of many bible translations that we use. It’s a mistake to think that changing the favored English translation would be a big deal. Let’s just get it done with.