A Question about the New King James Version

A friend wrote me (and I have his permission to post this):

I have a serious interest in using the NKJV as the ministry Bible of choice for our congregation. It corresponds to my textual preference for TR/MT/Byzantine tradition (though I appreciate good CT translations on a scale). And it provides a more relevant form of English expression, which motivates me greatly (which gains your empathy, I am sure!). Furthermore, the vast majority of our congregation would support such a change (a major plus).

He did, however, have a gracious objection from a member of his congregation who is not KJV-Only but who felt he had reason to consider the KJV the most accurate translation of the Hebrew. It doesn’t matter what his reason was; I believe he was sincere. Everyone who objects to moving away from the KJV will have a reason—of course they will. And a pastor is called to patiently instruct them.

This was my reply to my respected friend…

Part One

You have more than my empathy—you have my very great excitement! You’re the very first person I’ve ever met or heard of who has made this very good, very logical move. Let me trace that logic if I can:

  1. The TR is the best Greek text.
  2. The KJV and NKJV are the only believable contenders for the title of “well-known, respected, English translation based on the TR which has multiple editions available even in local bookstores.”
  3. Our Reformation heritage (and, more importantly, the Bible itself) makes vernacular translation an essential tool for the church’s work of growing people into maturity and stability (Eph 4).
  4. The KJV is difficult for people to read today because English has changed; it is no longer a vernacular translation.
  5. So let’s use the NKJV.

Can you tell me if you know anyone else who has not only followed this logic but carried through and done something about it? I would love to see tons of people doing this. The fact that no one but you is doing it is what has always led me to doubt that the TR defenders actually care about the TR rather than preserving the KJV. When I have asked leading TR defenders why they don’t use the NKJV, they typically shrug their shoulders and say, “I’ve never really looked into it.”* That means they’re denying points 3 and/or 4 above. And that’s why my upcoming book is focused on point 4; I fear that, like a much younger me, people have persuaded themselves that they can understand the KJV but don’t know how much they’re missing.

Part Two

This situation is delicate, and you’re the pastor—you know how to deal with people, and you know this brother whom I don’t know. But I’ve got three major thoughts:

1) The translators of the NKJV OT include a number of major OT scholars who have written significant exegetical commentaries on major OT books: Smith in the NAC on Isaiah, Hamilton in the NICOT on Genesis, Ross, Beitzel, Van Gemeren, Merrill. He needs to recognize that you are in the spot of either trusting his judgment or that of multiple respected people with similar gifts and specialized training.

It’s a question of epistemology: how do you achieve justified, true belief (i.e., knowledge) with regard to a question about the quality of a huge Bible translation encoding tens of thousands of individual decisions? I wrote a post about this: you have to know Greek/Hebrew, you have to know English, and you have to be able to generalize from those thousands of decisions.

Assuming someone knows (OT) Hebrew and English really well, the only way you can possibly adjudicate your different positions is to look at tons of examples together. So I wonder if the way forward is asking him to get together thirty examples from across the corpus, and asking him if you can then send that on to an expert. I’d be very happy to take a look, or you might try James Price, who worked on the NKJV and I believe is now retired.

I suspect that, in the end, about 10 of his examples will be persuasive, 10 will be contestable, and 10 will be wrong or misunderstandings. And give James Price the time and he’ll come up with his own list of 30 going the other direction.

And that’s just thirty examples on one side and thirty on the other. There are, again, thousands of relevant examples. I have not used the NKJV extensively, but my impression over time has been that it is not clearly better or worse than the KJV. It is extremely similar.

Even if you’re not confident in Hebrew, what you do know is English, and so the question becomes this: are the (contestable) “inaccuracies” in the NKJV OT really of sufficient weight to overcome the problem that the KJV is no longer a vernacular translation? Sure, the KJV may be more accurate (again, that’s contestable), but if so it’s an accurate translation into a language no one speaks anymore. If accuracy is the main thing you’re going for, the Hebrew is the most accurate; why don’t people just read that?

2) My understanding is that the NKJV was designed to be as little different from the KJV as possible. I checked the preface again, and this is what their stated goal was:

A special feature of the New King James Version is its conformity to the thought flow of the 1611 Bible. The reader discovers that the sequence and selection of words, phrases, and clauses of the new edition, while much clearer, are so close to the traditional that there is remarkable ease in listening to the reading of either edition while following with the other.

If anything, the criticism people (or people like me) tend to give of the NKJV today is that it wasn’t bold enough in straying from the KJV. One very gifted TR-only friend of mine, even though he uses the KJV, has told me that he finds criticisms of the NKJV from the KJV camp to be very weak, grasping at straws. I agree. When I read KJVO reviews of the NKJV I think, Nothing will ever please these people. Nothing.

3) There are other translations of the MT/TR: the MEV, the KJVer, and I’m sure some others that are more obscure (Darby is one I know of).

***

I am praying right now that the Lord would smooth your way with this man and with the congregation. Thanks for sending me this interesting question.

mlwj

*My friend told me he’s heard four objections to the NKJV:

  • I know some good men who have concerns about the NKJV, but I haven’t asked them for more information.
  • The footnotes refer to other manuscripts, which raises reader concern about manuscript reliability or undermines their faith. This could be harmful.
  • It’s a good translation, but it would be too hard to make a change. Good co-laborers would misunderstand.
  • It would be great if we could come up with a new translation that avoids the pitfalls of the NKJV (whatever they are), updates the KJV understandability, and we all (fundamental Baptists) could agree on!

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

3 thoughts on “A Question about the New King James Version”

  1. The church I currently attend switched to the NKJV shortly after I arrived in 2011. This change came about using logic very similar to what you outline in Part One here. Our pastor at the time certainly would have affirmed everything you say in #2, #3, and I heard him say #4. He would have He would refer specifically to the “average welders and plumbers” in Edmonton who find the KJV opaque.

    A significant difference, though, was that our pastor then would have stated #1 this way: “The Majority Text is my preferred Greek text.” I don’t think he placed any special value on the TR.

    The church voted to amend the constitution to say that the “KJV/NKJV” would be the official teaching version of the church (with the ambiguity there implying that anyone could still teach from the KJV if they wished, but I’m not sure that anyone does). I don’t foresee that changing anytime in the near future.

    I’m with you that the NKJV doesn’t go far enough, but I’ve found it generally tolerable for a teaching text in the years since then. I don’t have to waste time explaining obsolete words, but I do occasionally have to point out places where I prefer the Critical Text reading over the Majority Text, or just quietly de-emphasize a phrase that the Majority Text adds incorrectly.

  2. To the pastor who is considering making a change, I agree with the approach you outline in general, although I don’t know that you need to go so far as to take the disputed passages to a Hebrew expert. I think that those making such objections are often only parroting what they heard somewhere, they don’t actually know any (or many) disputed passages.

    However, I think you should take the objector seriously, spend time with them on the issues they point out. Ask them to note down those places where the objections lie, then carefully go through the passages with tools readily available locally, i.e., commentaries and other translations, to weigh the seriousness of the difficulty. I am sure that there are passages where the KJV probably chose a better word than the more modern versions (of all sorts). Yet how serious is the difference? Does it seriously make a doctrinal issue?

    If the objector is willing to go through that process, you can probably “gain a brother” and help satisfy the concerns. If, however, he is unwilling, or becomes intransigent through the process, you will discover that there is another issue at work and it is probably more serious than a versions question. At that point you will have to decide what to do. Perhaps making the change in any case would then be the best case scenario for all concerned. Intransigents may leave, but the church would be unified.

    By the way, the careful individual study of those passages could be done church-wide in the Adult Sunday School hour so that everyone can see the objections are considered seriously and answered fairly.

    There may be other approaches also, but I think that the objections should be heard, and addressed. Otherwise you end up with a situation where one person (or a small group) dominates the whole and the pastor is constantly catering to the demands to conformity to their views.

  3. Another example.
    The church I pastored in small town west Wisconsin switched to NKJV around 2003 for reasons similar to those you listed. My process was (1) teach a series on translations in general; (2) include in that a strong study of inspiration, preservation, bibliology in general; (3) include a survey of leading translations, evaluating strengths, weaknesses, lots of examples; finally, (4) make my case for NKJV as the pulpit Bible.
    The congregation was already multitranslational, some using NKJV, some NIV, some NASB, many KJV. I only know of a handful who switched. But part of the logic of NKJV–and I believe I pointed this out in my case–was that it’s easy to stick with your KJV and still follow along with a preacher using NKJV.
    There was no fight over it. The transition went so smoothly I wondered later if maybe I should have gone for ESV. But it seemed too big of a change at the time.

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