A reader of Authorized wrote me:
I have found it interesting on the topic of italicized words in the KJV to notice the difference in the number of italicized words in the “original” 1611 KJV and the KJV of today. Using Mark 5 for instance, I believe the count is something like 20 in today’s KJV and 6 in the 1611 KJV (two of which are not even italicized in today’s KJV…“Talitha cumi”).
As far as italics go, I felt like I never heard anyone give the other side, the “cons” of italics. And I began to feel like none of the “pros” I always heard were really pros.
One of the most profound things any reader has said to me after reading my book was this: “If my over-arching goal is to understand what God said, it changes everything in the versions debate.”
Loyalty to italics privileges “accuracy”—as sort of a disembodied reality—over understanding.
I’ll add: for every claim I’ve heard that the italics (in any Bible translation, not just the KJV) are beneficial, I hear zero stories showing that they aid understanding. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be there; not at all. Because I read Greek and Hebrew, I find them beneficial every once in a while.
But what are the italics doing there if they’re only helping scholars, and only helping them every once in a while? What they seem to do is make some lay readers feel safer, more confident that the translators aren’t putting one over on them. And that’s a bad place to be when reading a Bible translation. Simply put, all Christians—even Bible translators—have to trust other Christians when they read the Bible in translation. No one is such an expert that he or she can do without any help from others. Even the people who can read Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic fluently rely on specialized studies from scholars who’ve studied individual words.
If the very nature of the Bible is such that almost all Christians have to read it in translation (because very few people are fluent in all the biblical languages), and if the Bible never warns us to watch out for “bad” translations, and if the KJV translators themselves draw attention to the poor quality of the Septuagint translation (and they do in their preface) and yet the NT authors used it, maybe we can all lighten up a bit and be open rather than skeptical when evangelicalism’s top experts make and endorse a Bible translation.
Indeed, we have good reasons to trust our Bible translators; they’re not trying to adulterate the Word. These are the same people who are teaching in our best seminaries, writing our best books, and offering the best defenses of sound doctrines like inerrancy.
One of the most important messages I can send out to the faithful Christians filling church pews is that all the major evangelical English Bible translations are trustworthy.* There is no conspiracy to mistranslate or remove or obfuscate God’s words. I can disagree with individual translation decisions in all of the existing English Bible translations and yet say with confidence that they are all trustworthy, and all excellent tools for understanding God’s words.
The balance is off when we care more about having the words of God than about understanding them—like a kid who doesn’t follow baseball but wants to collect every last card for the 2003 Mets roster.
*I have far less expertise in Catholic and mainline Protestant translations, but in my experience it’s hard to really mess up a Bible translation unless you do so on purpose (I’m looking at you, New World Translation). If all we had were the New American Bible (Catholic) or the Common English Bible (Mainline Protestant), I think we’d still have reason to be incredibly grateful.