June 25th, 2008

Modernizing the King James Bible

[NOTE: Yesterday I wrote about literary style vs. substance. I concluded that it’s possible to have the first while lacking the second, especially in the realm of politics. Today I’m writing about a work that undoubtedly has both style and substance—the King James Version of the Bible—and the effect of changing the style.]

As a child who loved poetry, I memorized it almost without intending to. Just a few readings of a poem I liked and its cadences seemed to stick in my brain. Lines and phrases came to me at odd times and repeated themselves, the way song lyrics often do.

The best of them had a strange and hypnotic power. As I got older they took on meanings and subtleties I hadn’t understood as a child. But I had always understood the beauty of the words and the way they fit together, sound complementing sense.

The same was true of certain prayers and Bible passages—the Psalms, for instance, which I knew were also poems, although they didn’t rhyme.

Their language was archaic. I learned the King James Version, even though I didn’t know at the time that it was called that. But it was easy to understand, not hard at all. And to me, all those “thys” and “thous” and “eths” and “ests” made it seem as though the psalms came not from the olden days, but from a place beyond and outside of time.

Then I went to a service that used a revised and modernized version of the Bible. I could still recognize the prayers and psalms, but now they had a jarring pedestrian quality, almost like a Dick and Jane reader. I was still relatively young, but even then I felt the tug of nostalgia for the beautiful language of the past, despite the fact that I couldn’t articulate what was missing or why I minded so much.

Well, maybe now I can articulate it. Here’s the 23rd Psalm in the King James Version:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

And here’s the same 23rd Psalm in the New American Standard version, written in 1971 with the twin goals of translational accuracy and modernization of the language.

It’s not necessarily identical with the first new version I encountered. But it’s typical of versions that make changes that are relatively minimal and yet still seem to me to represent a loss, however slight, of something very beautiful that was part of what made the earlier version so compelling. Is that loss compensated for by any gain in accessibility? You be the judge:

The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

It doesn’t take too many liberties with the older version, not really. Mostly it clears out the “thous,” and substitutes the modern “you,” in addition to removing the archaic endings from the verbs. So it oughtn’t to be so bad, right? And yet, and yet…it feels so much flatter, although you may disagree.

The revisers have made a few other changes that seem to me to be gratuitous, although I imagine they have something to do with translating more literally and correctly from the original Hebrew (of which I understand only a few words, although I’ve heard it’s the very best way of all to appreciate the splendor and poetry of the work, as well as its meaning).

There are a couple of changes that jump out at me in jarring fashion. I feel something akin to a pang at the missing words and phrases, and come close to wincing at the additions.

Why oh why, in line 4 (corresponding to line 2 in the older version), are the waters described as “quiet” instead of “still?” Surely the phrases indicate close to the same thing in English, but “still” has the added virtue of conjuring up other references such as “still waters run deep,” as well as the repetitive “s” sound that harmonically resonates with the “s” at the end of the word “waters” and the one in the middle of “beside.” That’s poetry.

Then there’s the worst offense of all, at least to my ears: the omission of the word “Yea” in line 4 of the old version (it would be line 8 in the new). “Yea” was a great change of pace, a dramatic stopping point where the rhythmic variation of the unstressed and stressed syllables stood still for a moment, like a rest in music, before charging forward again. It worked as wonderful emphasis: yes, indeed; hear hear!

The substitution of “Even though” for “Yea, though” not only fails to serve this rhythmic function, it doesn’t even have the same meaning. “Yea” is an affirmation and an emphasis, underlining the thought to follow. The “even” is weak, tentative: “despite the fact that I walk through the valley….”

I can’t imagine anyone caring quite the same way about the newer version as the older one. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to memorize it for the sheer beauty of it, although some of the poetry still comes through. Perhaps there’s even someone who prefers it, just as there are people who prefer frozen french fries to the real thing. But that someone isn’t me.

The changes for the sake of accuracy seem so minimal that I can’t believe they make much of a difference, although in some other parts of the Bible they may be more important. I say keep the important ones and ditch the rest.

I challenge anyone to prefer an even newer version, though, one that departs far more from King James. It’s called the Contemporary English Version, written in 1995 with the purpose of simplicity and ease of reading:

You, LORD, are my shepherd.

I will never be in need.

You let me rest in fields

of green grass.

You lead me to streams

of peaceful water,

and you refresh my life.

You are true to your name,

and you lead me

along the right paths.

I may walk through valleys

as dark as death,

but I won’t be afraid.

You are with me,

and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.

You treat me to a feast,

while my enemies watch.

You honor me as your guest,

and you fill my cup

until it overflows.

Your kindness and love

will always be with me

each day of my life,

and I will live forever

in your house, LORD.

One might just as well call it the Hallmark greeting card version and be done with it. Or maybe it’s the “You Light Up My Life” version.

This version simplifies to the point of boredom. Nearly all the things that make the first (and even the second, to a certain extent) version uniquely vivid are blanded out. I have no idea why the water is now “peaceful,” for example, but it’s certainly the most dull choice of the three.

But perhaps the worst offense in the passage is totally eliminating the specificity of the image of anointing the speaker’s head with oil, substituting instead the generic and soporific (big yawn) “You honor me as your guest.” Yes, I get the reason: the meaning of the ritual, along with all its rich associations, has been lost. But I don’t think it’s that difficult to guess at in context or to teach, even for a child. For what shall it profit a religious text, if it shall gain a small modicum of enhanced comprehensibility, and lose its own power?

The King James Bible was once new and modern, I suppose, back in the early 1600s when it was first written. But there’s a reason why it’s so popular and has stood the test of time: it’s a masterpiece (and wonder of wonders, it’s a masterpiece produced by a committee).

And yet the urge to improve on the King James Version is nearly irresistible, it seems. There are no fewer than twenty other English-language versions listed at the BibleGateway site, and no doubt there are more on the way. That’s progress for you.

50 Responses to “Modernizing the King James Bible”

  1. Sergey Says:

    Recently I reread the book you refer to: Book of Psalms, a new Russian translation. This is unusual version, the translation made by a poet, Naum Grebnev, directly from original Hebrew text, and not in prose, as the canonical Russian text used in liturgy, but in rhymed verses equirhythmical to original. The canonical translation I also remember by heart; it also was a creation of a committee and has a stellar reputation. It also is full of archaisms, and this was done deliberately, to make impression of solemnity and out-of-time importance. But, of course, in days of King David these words were not archaic, their expressiveness did not contradict simplicity and even naivety. Grebnev, who knew Hebrew from childhood, almost as a mother language, attempted to re-create these very attributes, and wonderfully succeeded. So now I try to memorize his version too: it is so beautiful!

  2. TorchofLiberty Says:

    Great and detailed analysis Neocon!

  3. gcotharn Says:

    When I am fearful, out of sorts, and very off my game, The Lord’s Prayer is one of the things I can turn to for comfort. I learned the King James Version, thankfully.

    In the Contemporary Version, I am particularly appalled at “You refresh my life” in place of “He restoreth my soul”.

    Completely different meanings!

    “You refresh my life” actually misses the entire thrust and message of Christianity. When I am desperate, or approaching desperation, I don’t want my LIFE refreshed! I want my soul restored. There is where truth resides.

    I have other quibbles, yet they pale. I’m sorry to move away from focus on the language – but, you blogged the language part so completely, not much arises to be said.

    I want to mention one other religiously significant quibble:

    “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”

    The major meaning: “Though my life might soon end, I will not fear Satan or Hell.” Now, consider:

    I may walk through valleys
    as dark as death,
    but I won’t be afraid.

    Significantly different meaning. To get the same meaning, one must infuse much metaphorical significance into “valleys as dark as death” – which, of course, defeats one purpose of a Contemporary English Version … whose other purpose is, apparently, to remove at least some Christian significance from the Bible.

    Let the grammar police guy suck on that sentence. I will unleash a valley as dark as death on his derrierre.

  4. njcommuter Says:

    Simplicity isn’t ugliness, or shouldn’t be.

    If prayer is to be whole, it should not leave us starved of beauty while it tells us how we shall be filled.

    If it carries its message awkardly, if it does not give us cadences to measure it by and shape its grammar to guide us, do we not risk dropping the message when we try to receive it?

    Ease of understanding of the sentence misses the point; it is the message, not the sentence, which must be understood.

    There is a parallel in typesetting. Sans-serif type looks simpler that serifed, but in body type a good serif face is easier to read. The serifs help us recognize the letterforms and speed us along. (The reason they don’t work well on the screen is that screen resolution is not nearly high enough to reproduce the serifs in their correct shape and proportion, unless the face is designed around the pixel structure. Such faces don’t scale and must be manually created in each size.)

    It is not enough to remove the archaic forms; one must replace the loss with appropriate new forms.

    I shall not want is a graceful utterance. I will never be in need is utterly graceless; even moving the adverb will improve it: Never will I be in need. I have no skill in the language that describes cadences, nor in the formalties of cadence, but I think even a sixth grader would see this. And be in need may be acceptible to the eye, but not to the lips; I don’t see a good replacement.

    Nor is using the more familiar will for shall an improvement; in this case the less familiar form is not only correct but provides an emphasis by its rarity: it is special.

    One might as well make a painting more accessible by reproducing it with the limited palette of the printed comic book.

  5. Steve Rosenbach Says:

    I think it’s futile to worry about transations of the Tanach (Torah-Prophets-Writings.)

    Unless you are very literate in Hebrew, it’s nigh impossible to really understand the text… and you just have to read the original Hebrew text.

    Not only that, you have to have a lot of background (like Yeshiva study) to truly understand the context. That’s just how it is (I lack that background, unfortunately)

    For example, in the 23rd Psalm, the word that’s translated as “follow”, as in “goodness and mercy shall follow” is from the Hebrew shoresh (root) RESH-DALET-FEY. The verb means “pursue,” which is more intense that “follow.”

    Not only that, but the text then causes the reader to wonder, why should goodness and lovingkindness PURSUE me, shouldn’t I pursue THEM? So this leads to interpretations by Tanach scholars, and so forth.

    Having said that, aside from some really whopping translation errors, the language in the King James is certainly much more compelling than any of the recent attempts.

  6. Dave Says:

    Speaking as a non-Christian:

    – I agree entirely. The newer versions lack [i]gravitas[/i], and thus lack authority.

    However, I think Psalm 23 is a bad example of this, being such beautiful poetry that it’s very hard to screw it up.

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    gcotharn: That version really does sound like “you light up my life.”

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    Dave: and yet they’ve managed to screw up even such transcendentally wonderful poetry.

  9. vanderleun Says:

    The entire movement for a more “accessible” Bible is just a normal extension of dumbing it all down in order to create dumber people who will need the dumbed down stuff to be dumbed down again. And so it goes….

  10. Sergey Says:

    One of the wonderfull traits of Hebrew language is its methaphorical nature, in-built in its very structure: one single word can mean a lot of different things, but they all are semantically coupled. That is, it is very context-dependent, so every phrase can be interpreted by many ways; these different possible interpretations are the main subject of a huge body of biblical comments. But it also posed a formidable challenge for all translators of the Bible to other languages, usually lacking this property of multiple meaning, all of them containing and resonating in a mind of a Hebrew speaker. This makes ordinary Hebrew prose comparable to poetry in its multidimensionality, so attemts to retail biblical verses in plain English almost certainly will rob them of their real meaning, which is not in the words themselves, but in a play upon words that only poetry can express.

  11. Fred Says:


    Your article shows that there is some substance even to style.

    To repeat the others; I personally know many who insist that only the original Hebrew has the full poetry and depth. I am so jealous of their linguistic skills!

  12. FredHjr Says:

    The Contemporary English Version of the psalm is TERRIBLE. The King James Version can be rendered into music quite beautifully, and it has a way of blending beauty and emotion that tugs at the heart. These other versions are indeed flat, featureless, and are simply missing the whole point.

    What kind of people prefer The Contemporary English Version?

  13. FredHjr Says:

    The difference among the versions can be accounted for by one very important fact: the original Hebrew was meant TO BE SUNG. It is the musical dimension which adds to its richness.

    When I was in a Catholic boarding school in high school and then many years later, after college, when I was in the Jesuit seminary, for services like lauds, matins, and vespers we sang the psalms and other prayers. Occasionally, if there was a translation closer to the modern English, it was rendered in such a way as to retain as much of its musical, lyrical qualities as possible.

  14. CGHill Says:

    I find the English Standard Version easier to deal with than other contemporary translations, but like its peers, it remains short on sheer lyricism.

  15. expat Says:

    Isn’t it sad that a grandmother and grandchild no longer pray in the same words? Isn’t it worth a little effort to maintain that connection to past generations and, as you said, timelessness? If the young are not taught to make the effort to understand the words, will they learn that it takes effort to get to all the layers of meaning the words convey?

    A “correct” translation of the Bible was recently published in Germany in which God is sometimes female. I have no idea what other atrocities it might contain. I guess the next step will be the Bible for text messaging complete with emoticons.

  16. Uh-huh Says:

    “I guess the next step will be the Bible for text messaging complete with emoticons.”

    Actually no, the next step is the Lolcatz bible. I’ve seen it online somewhere, it’s cute in a lolcats kind of way.

  17. Jamie Says:

    And the King James was written in a time when the spoken word was known to be enthralling, entertaining, powerful. Now we live in a visual age, and writers are up against the undeniable truth that it’s a lot easier to present a shimmering vista than to articulate one.

    That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort, though! “You treat me to a feast while my enemies watch”?! I try to be cautious of the slippery slope, but how far is it from that to “You buy me some cheese fries while the mean girls have to eat rice cakes”?

    (And as anybody who’s seen the execrable Dune knows, when the visual medium fails, it fails in a big spectacular way. I’m trembling for Deathly Hallows…)

  18. Uh-huh Says:

    While I completely agree with our dear Neo-Neocon’s point here, as I brought up the lolcats bible I feel compelled to offer a link

    For which, I shall probably burn.

  19. Uh-huh Says:


  20. Lame-R Says:

    Another great post, neocon.

    Steve Rosenbach: thank you for that excellent illustration of the depth of meaning to be found in the original language.

  21. John Spragge Says:

    I believe the 23 psalm presents an accurate picture of the activities of a Holy Land shepherd (then or now), from leading and protecting the sheep to treating any wounds they suffered with olive oil. It refers to an ordinary activity, one understood by and essential to the community, much the way Melville refers to whaling.

    But the evolution of language since the seventeenth century has distorted our understanding of the text in several important ways. Since English no longer uses the second person singular, most of us who grow up speaking English no longer recognise it as the intimate form of address. Instead of reinforcing the perception that we belong to God’s family, as the original did to the contemporaries of the translators, it gives an impression of distance.

    For example, if someone translated the Magnificat into modern language and gave it to Michelle Obama to read, many American conservatives would profess themselves horrified at the “Marxism” if the sentiments, particularly the ones about filling the poor with good things and sending the rich away empty. Yet setting to music or reading as poetry, we fail to see, much less respond to, the moral demands of the text. The same holds for the Sermon on the Mount, which both shows us how to practice non-violence and demands that we do so (blessed are the meek, the poor, the peace makers). The text of the Bible should come to us with beauty and majesty, but only so far as that appreciating that beauty and standing in awe of that majesty does not hide what the text actually says. Ideally, we could read the Bible as noble poetry with the directness and urgency of a surgeon’s notes. To the extent we cannot do that, the meaning of the words has to take precedence.

  22. Jamie Irons Says:


    I think this is one of your finest posts (though of course I have not read every single one, any more than I have read every word of the King James Bible!).

    And great comments, too. I especially enjoyed Sergey’s and njcommuter’s.

    Since I was raised as a Presbyterian, whose grandfather was a prominent figure among Oregon’s Presbyterians (whenever I watch A River Runs Through It, Tom Skerrit makes me feel like I am seeing him again), I was bound to develop an inordinate love of the King James Bible.

    Jamie Irons

  23. Webutante Says:

    After the Episcopal Church—which I’ve since left— modernized the Book of Common prayer and all the creeds and started using other translations of the Bible, I felt some of the soul went out of the original texts.

    Wonderful post and oh so true. Thou hast done a great and godly service here. The King James version doth rule and like so many originals can never be replaced by the over-simplified versions.
    Thanks be to God.

  24. DC Says:

    The NLT offers us: “I have everything I need” for “I shall not want”. One can hear the whole thing on tape:


    A cd version is harder to come by, but there appears to be a new DVD version.
    I liked listening to the Psalms this way, reading poetry is a chore for me, especially the King James variety.

    Although that “I have everything I need” does ruin that one special Psalm, it’s a small price to pay for the spoon feeding method, which can be a treat if one isn’t in the mood for doing the work of reading.

    An excellent tonic before bed are any of Paul’s short letters, I nearly always fall asleep before the end.

  25. LTEC Says:

    “valleys as dark as death” is still better than the translation in my bible (seriously): “a gloomy valley”.

  26. Artfldgr Says:

    take each version and run them through ms words analyser, you will find that each one represents a drop in grade level.

    in the late 1800s, we were reaching the opitime of uplifting art and expressions. our view of god, the value of the world, etc… all brought us some great classical music, poetry, literature, etc.

    but since the ‘revolution’ our abilities have been steadily dropping.

    when my career started you generally wrote at a 8th grade level to be understood.. now you have to write at a 5th grade level.

    it was strange that neo mentioned run spot run, because prior to that, we didnt treat our children like idiots.

    shakespeare wrote for the common man, childrens books were things like leatherstocking by james fenimore cooper. or the bronte sisters. or shelly with her frankenstein…

    we cant grasp subtly any more, and we as a collective dont really want religion. these other inferior forms are not the kind of thing that 2000 years kept alive, nor will they let it last more than 200 years with that kind of socialist realism for a form.

    also the last version was more pagan. i walk through valleys would imply reincarnation.. becasue the valley of the shadow of death is our world. we live with death and death always is there, and none of us can escape him/(her?)

    so to change that to valleys is to bow to pagan forms. edenic forms. which is a big part of our culture. or hasnt any one noticed?

    that the form this utopian push is towards is edenic. dumb humans in a desease free wilderness communing in peace with animals, etc. disney is selling it… and isnt that what all the cute anthorpomorphic exotic beasts are implying?

    there is another very important difference.

    the last one is a plea directly…

    while the other one is from a more subtle angle.

    the first one KJV is not a prayer, its a reminder of how the world works.

    who is the lord. he is my shepard.
    does a shepard provide? i shall not want

    its a reminder of whats going on outside your vision. its not a prayer to god, its a reminder to the person that god is doing all these things all the time, and never forget it.

    while the last one more dictates to god what god is. you lord are my shepard… i told you thats what you are. i will never be in need. are they telling god? the next line tlls god with a disrespectful ‘you’ that he lets which implies the green grass is the persons choice. streams of peaceful water is contradictory, while the next passage erases the concept of an eternal soul that somtimes is tired.

    the point is that they are very different in how they approach ones mental state. the new ones are jarring because they are not written to serve the over arching purpose which is to sooth one and calm one and compose one by reminding them what god does all the time.

    the others are basically semantic replacements that serve no over arching purpose other than change and an alternative to destroy the conservation and deep meaning that comes from that.

    this is why religions with central protectors, like islam and catholic church, do not let changes be made. catholic church has determined that more modern ways are more productive doing so, and so the dueling and such has stopped. islam hasnt done that yet. however, this kind of modification game is exactlhy why they are so serious against the west. or at least why there is something there to exploit and direct.

    the personalization of things is also a problem. it allows one to belong to things without accepting all that belonging means. so you can be a catholic, but you get to choose which things are ok… you get to say the psalm, but you get to choose which version personally.

    its a destructive thing… its designed for it… as the outcomes of these other translation serve no purpose other than to remove meaning.

    kjv has lots more meaning. even more if you understand the jewish symbolism of what waters mean, and oil and wine… (wine not being in the psalm)

    so it was really enjoyable reading all that neo!!!

    a VERY refreshing difference than the obamination.


  27. Vince P Says:

    I like a version of the Bible called the NET Bible. It claims to err on the side of being true to the Hebrew as much as possible with concessions for sentence placement.

    So far it passes two tests that I have seen made.

    One is Daniel 9:26. The Jewish objection to the KJV is by the KJV’s use of Messiah. In the Hebrew there is no reference to the Messiah explicitly. The KJV people read this verse, thought that it referred undoubtedly to the Messiah and so used the word Messiah for the translation.

    My version says this..
    Now after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one will be cut off and have nothing

    Which is closest to the Hebrew meaning.

    and the other test was made by Steve Rosenbach , regarding ps 23:6 and how the word “Follow” should be “pursue”.. My version has pursue.

    23:6 Surely your goodness and faithfulness will pursue me all my days, and I will live in the Lord’s house for the rest of my life.

    With the word pursue was this footnote:

    The use of רָדַף (radaf, “pursue, chase”) with טוֹב וָחֶסֶד (tov vakhesed, “goodness and faithfulness”) as subject is ironic. This is the only place in the entire OT where either of these nouns appears as the subject of this verb רָדַף (radaf, “pursue”). This verb is often used to describe the hostile actions of enemies. One might expect the psalmist’s enemies (see v. 5) to chase him, but ironically God’s “goodness and faithfulness” (which are personified and stand by metonymy for God himself) pursue him instead. The word “pursue” is used outside of its normal context in an ironic manner and creates a unique, but pleasant word picture of God’s favor (or a kind God) “chasing down” the one whom he loves.

    You can find out more about the NET Bible here there are free downloads of it in microsoft Chm Help file format and others.

  28. sergey Says:

    It worth to mention that Psalms were some sort of political speech as well: King David had a lot of enemies both external and internal, and he needed to assert his claims to the throne as God’s own decrees. It also worth remind that he was a rather young man when most of the psalms were written, and very impulsive and passionate. Archaisms in the translation depict him as an old, wise King; but in reality, he was in his twenties, sometimes trembling and desperate, that is why he needed so much divine help and guidance.

  29. Jamie Says:

    Vince, how wonderful! God’s pursuit calls to mind the Song of Songs. I was mighty intrigued as a young teenage girl to read that account of God’s pursuit. (Unfortunately I was reading it in The Way at the time… speaking of your un-uplifting language.)

  30. Whig Says:

    couldn’t agree with you more neo-neo, with regard to “modernized” Bibles.

    I’m baptized, but do not attend church or having any religious beliefs.

    I’ve always liked the Lord’s Prayer, however – the old version.

    Recently, I attended a church service with my wife, and there found that the Lord’s prayer has been made “contemporary”.

    I say, yech.

  31. Tom Says:

    Curious that you should post this out of the blue, Neo. Last week I, not a church-goer, felt compelled to buy the King James version, and did.

  32. Sgt. Mom Says:

    Count me in as another die-hard fan of the un-modernized King James (and the Book of Common Prayer, also!) There was so much of American writing and literature that unconsciously (or consciously) patterned on that Bible. The modernizations just seem so… empty, trivial, even.

  33. OldTexan Says:

    I love the King James Version of the bible and I have not trouble with the language which I find beautiful. Having said that skipping from the Old Testament to the New I find various translations, more true to the original language, helpful when I work on my Sunday School Lessons.

    Of course, for logical reason, I think the Lord will be using thee’s and thou’s when I get to heaven.

  34. Richard Aubrey Says:

    “praise music” at contemporary services is simple, repetitive, and, although the folks seem to get into it, flat.
    Apparently, old stuff doesn’t get it.
    Try youtubing Celtic Woman, their performance of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”. Except for the tempo, ain’t that praise music?
    But you couldn’t sell that to a contemporary music director.

  35. Steve Rosenbach Says:

    BTW, this “modernization” trend is not limited to texts intended for Christians. In the Reform Temple (Jewish) I have belonged to for 20 years, we have used “Gates of Prayer” a horrible, dumbed-down prayer book edited by Chaim Stern. It was published in 1975 (surprise!)

    If you like Hallmark prose and “poetry,” if you’re still stuck in a 1970’s Weltanschauung, if you enjoy distorted translations, if you like having others decide which parts of the traditional liturgy you will even see, you will love this siddur (prayerbook.) As for me, I have suffered with it for the past 20 years as a member of a Reform congregation in Maryland.

    Can you imagine… whole sections of some prayers, such as the Shema, are left out. I suspect much of this was for ideological reasons dictated by the elite of the Reform Movement. For example, the entire section in the Shema about Tzizit is missing, because, hey, who needs to be reminded about Mitzvot (Biblical “commandments”), after all?

    Often, a section of the liturgy is “freely translated” but “maintains the spirit of the original,” according to the editors. The problem is, the “spirit” is often quite a bit stretched and distorted by the time the editors have gotten through with it. And these distortions are *in place* of an accurate translation, not as an alternate reading. Another serious problem I have seen is that Hebrew school students (and sometimes adult Hebrew beginners) often believe the “translation” on the left side represents the Hebrew on the facing page.

    “Gates of Repentence,” the Reform Machzor (holy day prayerbook) for Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur is similar but worse. Another Chaim Stern special from the ’70s, you’ll find passages like “… child runs through the jellied fire….” How timeless!

  36. njcommuter Says:

    You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
    You have anointed my head with oil;
    My cup overflows.

    I remember this as

    You set a table for me in the presence of my foes;
    You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

    There is room for some poetry, even in clipped, contemporary English. (Is the change in tense important? I’m sure a student of the Hebrew version would say so.)

  37. Truth Says:

    Which is closest to the Hebrew meaning.

    Why then you call it Bible?
    Its better to call it Torah is misleading here to call it Bible?
    Why you bother go read Torah,

  38. Sergey Says:

    This tendency to dilute religious texts, strip them of all mystical and trancendental, reduce religion to a rather flat moralism began long ago – a by-product of Enlightenment and Reformation. Martin Luther himself set an example, demolishing some mysteries and translating the Bible from Latin to German. To his credit, he was a poet, and, as my German-speaking friends assert, a great poet, so at least some marvels of Latin original were conserved.
    May be, a perfect illustration of such vandalism was Leo Tolstoy, a fierce enemy of beauty, art and culture in general. His most famous phrase is “To write verses is like to dance behind a plough”.
    When culture began unravel, the process go on and on, untill people see themselves robbed of everything meaningfull, and restoration starts up. Several important figures symbolize this process: Thomas Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Herbert Chesterton, C. S. Lewis and other. It takes time, though, to reverse a trend established three centures ago.

  39. Timotheus Says:

    I think there is a pretty stark difference between attempting to improve translation for the modern English vernacular (e.g., NASV) and the sort of dumbing-down you mention in the CEV (the omission of anointing the head with oil).

    Sometimes the KJV simply has poor translation. For example, Job 36:32-33 in the KJV:

    With clouds he covereth the light; and commandeth it not to shine by the cloud that cometh betwixt. The noise thereof sheweth concerning it, the cattle also concerning the vapour.

    Maybe you can make heads or tales of that, but I can’t. Compare the NIV (which I don’t even care for):

    He fills his hands with lightning and commands it to strike its mark. His thunder announces the coming storm; even the cattle make known its approach.

    It may not have cool words like “betwixt”, but it sure makes a lot more sense. Assuming that the modern translations are correct as to the sense of the Hebrew text, they are certainly superior to the KJV in this instance; and surely when Elihu spoke these verses they were meant to be sensible and clearly understood by his audience.

  40. Rob Says:

    Excellent post, neo, and great comments. Could I say also that even if the King James Bible may contain inaccuracies, its cadences and rhythms have endured and survived the generation and even entered the cultural bloodstream because of their intense prosodic appeal. It appeals to something in us at the deepest level, like the music of Bach. Quite simply, it is great language: nothing else written in English can surpass the King James Bible, except, perhaps, Shakespeare. The contemporary versions neo quotes would never have converted so many ‘heathen’ down the centuries. They are pale and flaccid in comparison, even if they claim greater accuracy.

  41. sergey Says:

    Traditional translations of ancient texts, even the best one, are not free of obvious mistakes, so to correct them makes sense. I once mentioned that the well-known phrase from Matthias “It is easier to draw a camel trough needle eye than for a rich man to enter into heavenly kingdom” is a mistake, a very old one, so it was repeated in a Greek translation, in Latin, in English and in Russian. Actually, there were no camels in Holy Land in this period. But Aramaic word “Kanat”, meaning thick rope, has the same consonants as Aramaic word “Kanut”, meaning camel. Since in Aramaic, just as in Hebrew and Arabic, only consonants are written down, a Greek translator erroneously read it as “camel”. So the correct translation of the phrase should be “It is easier to draw a rope through a needle eye than for rich man enter into heavenly kingdom”. It surely makes more sense, than a wild hyperbole of camel drawn trough a needle eye.

  42. Vince P Says:

    I remember another verse in the Bible that the KJV obscures with its word choice. Similiar to their use of “Messiah” in Dan 9:26, is their use of “Lucifer” in Isaiah 14:12.

    Isaiah 14 is about the judging of the enemy nations at the Last Day, when God finally protects Israel from its enemies and Israel will from then on be in close communion with God and at peace.

    The enemy nations are Babylon, Assyria, Philistine. They are helmed by the future King of Babylon, who the chapter is addressed to. The personage of the King of babylon is the same as King of Tyre (referenced elsewhere), The Assyrian, The man of lawlessness, The boastful Horn, The Beast, the Antichrist.

    In the 12th verse he is conflated with:

    (KJV) “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”

    In English , Lucifer is the angel who is the Devil.

    In Latin, where the KJV was translated from (it wasn’t directed translated from Hebrew), the origin of the word Lucifer is Being of Light.

    In hebrew , KJV’s Lucifer is helel ben-shakhar.

    In the NET version (and many others) it is translated as

    (NET) 14:12 Look how you have fallen from the sky,
    O shining one, son of the dawn!
    You have been cut down to the ground,
    O conqueror of the nations!

    This verse is one of the things that opened my eyes to the “real” identity of Allah and the forces behind Islam.

    The footnote to “O shining one, son of the dawn” reads:

    The Hebrew text has הֵילֵל בֶּן־שָׁחַר (helel ben-shakhar, “Helel son of Shachar”), which is probably a name for the morning star (Venus) or the crescent moon. See HALOT 245 s.v. הֵילֵל.

    In Arabic Helel is the root for crescent.

    Need I remind anyone that the Crescent and Star is the emblem of Islam?

  43. waltj Says:

    Even some of us of the Roman persuasion (like me) enjoy the poetry and cadences of the KJV. As someone who speaks several languages, I can confirm the obvious from personal experience that nothing translates perfectly from one language to another, especially when grammar, structure, and historical context are radically different (such as modern English and ancient Hebrew). But despite its errors of translation and occasional incomprehensible passages (thanks, Timotheus), I’ll still read the KJV when I have a choice.

  44. Truth Says:

    The enemy nations are Babylon, Assyria, Philistine. They are helmed by the future King of Babylon, who the chapter is addressed to. The personage of the King of babylon is the same as King of Tyre (referenced elsewhere), The Assyrian, The man of lawlessness, The boastful Horn, The Beast, the Antichrist.

    This verse is one of the things that opened my eyes to the “real” identity of Allah and the forces behind Islam.

  45. ZZMike Says:

    The original KJV is poetic:

    The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

    Look at the parallel structure of the next line:

    He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
    he leadeth me beside the still waters

    When I read “through the valley of death”, I think of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”:

    Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.

    There does seem to be a bit of a difference between translations. One example:

    Matt 5:22:
    KJV: “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”

    NIV: “whoever is angry with his brother is in danger
    of judgment.”

    Stephen’s Textus Receptus shows the word for “without a cause” in the verse.

  46. SARAH Says:


  47. vanderleun Says:

    The King James Bible….. It has that HOLY GHOST POWER!

    I got it, the Holy Ghost power.
    Do you want it, the Holy Ghost power.
    I need it, the Holy Ghost power.
    Go back to the altar,
    Down on your knees,
    Stay there ‘til you get the Holy Ghost power.

  48. AbigailAdams Says:

    Thanks for the analysis, Neo. So many thoughtful responses, too.

    It really says something about the Bible that people are still interested in comparing the different versions’ styles. I often read the same scripture from several versions for comparison when I’m studying. Often I will be surprised and gain new insight to a passage this way. The Message Bible, for example is a parallel Bible that compares the text of the NIV against something more like The Living Bible. Both very different than KJV. Some words are best understood in their original Aramaic and/or Hebrew, although some scholars argue that Paul wrote in Greek. In any event, the Holy Spirit does guide Christians in their study and reveals the text in ways that are vital to our wisdom. I know some have said that modern language versions are a “dumbing down” of the Bible, but I think it can be a good way for new Christians to understand basic Biblical concepts. And that is the intent of contemporary word choice. It often lacks the same depth and richness of meaning, but it is also understood that new Christians are on a diet of baby’s milk before they advance to solid spiritual food.

  49. AesopFan Says:

    Thanks for linking back to this post.
    I also (like Timotheus) will read new translations for content when the KJV is hopelessly obscure, but never for style.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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