The Effects of a Modern Translation

If you’ve followed me at all, you know I’m a huge booster of reading the Bible in a modern translation along with the KJV. I’m going to highlight one friend’s experience below, but if you’ve discovered the joys of other translations like he has, you might wonder why I say along with the KJV.

There are a few good reasons.

First, the KJV is our official English Bible. Other translations do not replace, but supplement for study purposes. In that sense, they are like other “helps and aids” such as the Bible Dictionary.

“Any tools that assist in the reading and studying of the scriptures are useful and are likely to promote familiarity with these sacred volumes. Such activity invariably will lead to an increase not only of knowledge, but also of faith.”

President Hinckley, “Feasting upon the Scriptures,” Ensign, Dec. 1985, 42


Second, our other LDS scriptures generally try to emulate KJV language. Which means if you’re not familiar with the KJV, you’re not going to be as fluent in Book of Mormon or D&C language; you won’t pick up on allusions or quotations, and that means you’re not getting the message as intended.

Third, and perhaps most important, the foreignness of the KJV language reminds us that we are reading something foreign and ancient, NOT a 2019 General Conference talk from Paul or Samuel. Modern translations, with their easy (easier?) language and translation of idioms, can hide that fact. For example, ancient Israelites thought the internal organs and heart were the center of both emotion and conscience thought. Whereas we make a “heart/mind” distinction, they didn’t.

There is, it is important to note, no movement among conservative Christians to argue against the modern viewpoint that our thinking and emotions are not centered in either the heart or the bowels [per the Bible] but the brain. Indeed, I think it is worth pointing out that many Christians find themselves able to believe that they are “Biblical literalists”, and that the Bible is in all things scientifically accurate, precisely because they read the Bible in translations that have translated ancient Israel’s literal understanding into modern metaphors, replacing bowels with compassion and heart with mind where necessary. And thus we have the Catch-22 that the better the job that translators do, the more likely it is that Christians reading the Bible may be unaware that they are … vastly different from them in terms of understanding of anatomy and other matters of science.

-James McGrath, review of John Walton.

But that said, the positives of using a modern translation greatly outweighs the negatives. Here is my friend’s experience (quoted by permission.)

Reading the New Testament in the NSRV is a pretty powerful experience. Having grown up in the LDS Church I’m familiar with the King James version, but it’s still a slog to get through sometimes. Especially the Pauline epistles. Being able to read a more modern translation makes it easier to read much longer passages at a single session. And once I start reading much longer passages (like, entire epistles all at once), I see so much that I didn’t see before. 
I’d go so far as to say you haven’t really read a Pauline epistle until you’ve read the whole thing at once. That’s not the only way to read them. Close, focused study of a verse or two at a time is also good. But these were written to be read out in one go, and that’s got to be *a* way that you approach them, among others.
I also just understand more when reading the NSRV. I’d say that I’m going from understanding about 70-80% to about 90 – 95% of the text. Not understanding as in “Now I get what Paul was *really* saying!” Even once you understand the words, there are a lot of questions about the subtext and implications. I’m not talking about any of that. I just mean “Oh, these words are intelligible to me.”
I’m starting to really love the New Testament.

That’s my experience, my wife’s experience, and virtually everyone I know. It becomes much more accessible, much more interesting, and you start to love it.

The rare exception is when people have come to think of “archaic/lofty language” as one of the necessary characteristics of “scripture.” And then they don’t like modern translations, because they don’t sound… scriptural. Of course, the KJV translators imposed the loftiness and magisterial language of the KJV onto the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. The original languages are not like that at all. So rejecting modern translations because they don’t have the same language as the KJV is like rejecting a car because it’s not red, and REAL cars are red.
Philip Barlow puts it this way.

the elegance of the [KJV] warps for the modern ear the tone of the original texts, thus distorting our perception of the very nature of biblical scripture, which our additional scriptures then echo. One can hear no King James-like cathedral bells ringing in the background when one reads the Gospel of Mark in koine Greek. Mark’s writing is raw, fresh, breathless, primitive. The lordly prose of the KJV, as it is heard by 21st-century ears, is for many texts an external imposition, shifting the locus of authority away from the power of the story itself and toward an authority spawned by the partially artificial literary holiness suffusing our culturally created notion of scripture. This exterior authority in one respect gilds the lily of the original message, then construes respect for the gild rather than the lily as a mark of orthodoxy.

See here.

For my list of recommendations, see here. And for history of the Bible, translation, and LDS usage of the KJV, see here. These are permanent pages on my domain here.

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through the Amazon links I post. You can also follow Benjamin the Scribe on Facebook. If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader. I tend not to accept friend requests from people I’m not acquainted with.

5 thoughts on “The Effects of a Modern Translation

  1. Excellent article. I concur with using all the tools available to enhance our Bible study. I listen to Christian radio when I drive and listen to their sermons. There are Golden nuggets of knowledge in every one.


  2. Ben, great post. As SS pres I encouraged the use of modern translations at the beginning of the year and got in some trouble when the RS pres objected. Too many members still think all scripture study resources must be church approved.

    On a side note, you may want to poke your head in over at New Nauvoo. We are actively discussing adding a charter that may severely restrict what can be said there. Your input could be helpful.


  3. Ben, thank you for this. Partly due to your blog articles, I’ve taken to reading other translations in the last two years or so. I got my wife Crossway’s ESV Illuminated Scripture Journals and we’ve been reading from those regularly for our scripture study, and it’s great. I’ve tried Alter’s too, though not systematically, but what I’ve read, I quite like.

    Between the new translations, “The Bible Project” videos, and reading whole books at a time, these last two years have been just transformative in my grasp of scripture. I sympathize with your friend–I’m enjoying Paul’s letters for the first time in my life! So again, thanks for these resources. It’s helped a lot.


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