The Bible Version Aversion

Written by James Damron

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I am frequently asked which version of the Bible I read. In addition, I am asked which version of the Bible I think others should read. With so many available versions, it is easy to appreciate the confusion. But far from being a new phenomenon, these questions have a long history where a particular year stands out.

 The year was 1566. England was awash in political and religious controversy. Queen Elizabeth I had been crowned eight years earlier and was struggling to manage the increased tension between Roman Catholics and Protestants and between the Church and the laity. This was due, in no small part, to her family’s historical exploits.

Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII, had left only one legitimate male heir to his throne, Edward VI. But Edward was only 9 years old when his father died. Though he was crowned, his impact was limited as he reigned only six years before falling ill and dying. Edward’s older half-sister Mary, Henry’s only survivable offspring from his 1st wife Katherine of Aragon, was then coronated and reigned five years until her death in 1558. But it was a tumultuous five years. Queen Mary was a staunch Catholic and disapproved of her father’s previous actions to usurp papal authority in Rome and appoint himself supreme head of the Church of England. Fueled by his desire to annul the marriage between himself and Mary’s mother in order to wed his mistress, Anne Boleyn, King Henry caused great distress in the Church. As a result, Queen Mary persecuted non-Catholics forcing many to flee and find sanctuary in Geneva, Switzerland. Others, over 280, were not so fortunate. They were sentenced to burn at the stake. This violent display of persecution earned her the devious nickname, Bloody Mary.

After Queen Mary’s death in 1558, the crown went to the next oldest surviving heir of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry and Ann Boleyn. Unfortunately, Queen Mary had made matters worse. The chasm between Catholics and Protestants was growing. Church corruption was well known and being exacerbated by the followers of an Augustinian monk turned “heretic” who had sparked a Reformation forty-one years earlier. As a result, Queen Elizabeth commissioned a translation of the Bible that would hopefully quell the growing division between the Church and the populace. But this was no original translation. This version, begun by English clergy, was a revision of the Great Bible that was itself a revision of another translation, Matthew’s Bible. Revised in 1539, the Great Bible was the first authorized English Bible to be read in churches around the country. But by 1560 another version of the Bible had gained prominence, especially among the populace. This version was used by Shakespeare, the Pilgrims, and had commentary and illustrations. Its authors were revered as part of the group who escaped persecution under Queen “Bloody” Mary. This was the Bible of the people, the Geneva Bible. Though its scholarship in Greek and Hebrew was revered, it was not accepted among English clergy. It had unacceptable commentary influenced by John Calvin and other reformers. What was needed was a version that was both clergy and people friendly which would compete with the Geneva Bible. Enter the Bishop’s Bible.

Unfortunately for British clergy, the Bishop’s Bible failed to unite the country and never reached the popular status as the Geneva Bible. But all was not lost. Two years before the Bishop’s Bible was completed in 1568 an event occurred that would eventually change the way the world would read the Bible.

In 1566, a boy was born in Edinburgh Castle in Scotland. But this was no ordinary boy. His mother was the Queen of Scotland and first cousin (once removed) to the current Queen of England, Elizabeth I. If that weren’t enough, Queen Elizabeth had no expectation of producing an heir to her throne. Consequently, the English crown would fall to the next available kin, the Queen of Scotland. Is it possible that Mary, Queen of Scots could also be crowned the next Queen of England?  No, history was not that kind. Under suspicion of murder and adultery Mary was imprisoned and forced to abdicate her crown to her one year old son.  Twenty years later, in 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots was executed by order of Queen Elizabeth by beheading. Subsequently if her son survived, he would not only be the King of Scotland but eventually assume the English crown upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I. And that is what he did.

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, King James VI of Scotland was also crowned King of England and became known as King James I. Like his predecessors, King James I assumed the title amidst religious division.

As already stated, the Bishop’s Bible had not lived up to its expectations. It was unpopular among the populace and lacked the scholarship of the Geneva Bible. Therefore, in 1604 King James summoned a meeting and later commissioned forty-seven Greek and Hebrew scholars to revise the translation of the Bishop’s Bible in order to provide a translation that would not only be a majestic translation fit for a King, but also would sufficient for public use. Seven years later the King James Version was published and over four hundred years later is still the version of sacred Scripture that many read today.The KJV is still so prominent that many claim it is the only version that is the exclusive Word of God.¹  Others claim that the significant changes made since the 1611 translations have made the KJV essentially obsolete. The truth is there have been significant changes to the KJV, and what we have today is a far cry from what was translated in 1611. In fact since 1611, the KJV has endured three revisions compiling over 100,000 changes.²   For example:  in the KJV, Revelation 22:19 reads,

. . . God shall take away his part out of the book of life . . .” while modern translations have “. . . God will take away his share in the tree of life . . .” (ESV).  Also, Matthew 23:24 in the KJV reads, “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”  Modern translations have, “You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (NIV).

As Danial Wallace explains, modern translations are based on the most recent findings of older manuscripts (MSS) that we have discovered. The Greek text used for the translation of the KJV, which was translated by Erasmus, a Roman Catholic priest, is inferior to what we have today.³  Does this make it obsolete?  Hardly. The reality is, despite the changes, no major doctrine has been affected as the examples above illustrate.

So when someone asks, “Which version of the Bible do you read, the KJV, ESV, or NIV? Or “Which version should I read, any of those or maybe the NKJV, NASB, or even NLT?”  I simply smile and say, “Yes.”

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