I’ve been teaching the second half of the Old Testament in Institute this semester. The KJV is a terrible obstacle to understanding the scriptures.
I find that before we can actually discuss the text, I have to spend a significant amount of class time essentially retranslating the text for my students. Here’s a sample:
My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name. (Malachi 2:5 KJV)
The KJV for Malachi 2:5 is basically incomprehensible. Now read the Netbible translation:
My covenant with him was designed to bring life and peace. I gave its statutes to him to fill him with awe, and he indeed revered me and stood in awe before me.” (Malachi 2:5 Netbible)
I can only imagine how difficult it would be for someone without a college education–without a high school education–to understand the scriptures. The situation is even worse for people who weren’t raised with the scriptures. Consider this passage from Romans 4 from the perspective of a new convert with a high school education:
WHAT shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.
Aside from the difficult syntax, I imagine that ‘whereof’, ‘saith’, and ‘impute’ would not be familiar to our reader. Now read it in the NIV:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”
It actually makes sense, doesn’t it?
In the past, I’ve lept to defend the Church’s use of the KJV because the language of the KJV is the language of Joseph Smith. Therefore, the reader is likely to miss biblical allusions in the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants (or, really, in anything Joseph Smith wrote) if she is not familiar with the KJV Bible. What I overlooked is that picking up on biblical allusions is a fairly advanced skill for a scripture reader. It is certainly a much lower priority than actually reading the Bible is. If an investigator or new convert can’t even read the Bible, they are hardly in a position to notice allusions to other sacred texts.
I’m not looking forward to accusations of ark steadying in the comments, or to the inevitable quotations from mid-twentieth century Church leaders stating that the KJV is the best translation available. I have no beef with them; what they wrote was true when they wrote it. But to stand still is to move relative to the rest of the world, and I’ll spare you the harangue on the failures of the American educational system and the decline of biblical literacy in our culture in making the point that the KJV may have been reasonably comprehensible to someone coming out of a one-room schoolhouse, but it is as a sealed book to many of our high school graduates today. If I have to retranslate the text before I can begin to discuss it with a room full of advanced undergraduates and graduate students at the University of Texas, I can only imagine what happens when a Latino domestic worker or an inner-city high school student tries to read the Bible.
The ramifications of the Church switching to another English translation of the Bible are enormous. Every manual would have to be rewritten to reflect the new text. The seminary memory verses and supporting materials would have to be re-done. The LDS scriptures would have to be reformatted. It would be extremely expensive and complicated. Is there a way to get the benefits of a modern translation while avoiding some of these complications? I believe that there is. I have heard reports (perhaps someone can confirm?) that some BYU Religion professors encourage students to first read a passage in a modern translation and then to read it in the KJV. This seems to me to be a wise practice: it makes the text comprehensible while maintaining our commitment to the KJV. Try it with Leviticus 13:12:
But if the disease breaks out in the skin, so that it covers all the skin of the diseased person from head to foot, so far as the priest can see, (Leviticus 13:12 NRSV)
Now read the KJV:
And if a leprosy break out abroad in the skin, and the leprosy cover all the skin of him that hath the plague from his head even to his foot, wheresoever the priest looketh; (Leviticus 13:12 KJV)
In an ideal world, an inexpensive NIV or NRSV (or whatever) that could fit–along with a triple combination and KJV Bible–into a standard LDS scripture cover would be available through Church distribution. Until then, try it yourself and see if you don’t get immeasurably more from your study of the Bible.