It's the Bible God Wrote ...
... replied the Rev. Dr. William Johnson when I asked my pastor why one of the two Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols services of worship used the King James Version. He was being wry, admitting to the cultural power and popularity of the then 373-year-old translation of the Bible.
The King James is 400 years old this year. To call it a best seller is an understatement at over five billion copies. Only in our generation has the KJV finally been displaced by the New International Version as the most popular English translation of Scripture.
I've been a Bible-reader all my life, even during almost a decade of unchurched agnosticism. For 20 years my Scripture reading was exclusively in the KJV, but I finally shifted to a modern translation. However, when I was lay person teaching Sunday school I used to keep my well-marked and familiar KJV close at hand just in case something came up that I couldn't handle out of my newfangled Bible.
As far as translations go, the KJV isn't bad. What can lead to misunderstanding the text is the increasingly archaic English. Like any ancient text, the Bible has to be re-translated every 50 years or so to keep up with the evolution of modern languages. But if you're an English major who has no difficulty with Shakespeare, you can get along in the KJV. You still have to exercise some care because about 50 English words in the KJV have literally reversed to opposite meaning. And then there's the occasional issue like the prohibition in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 to not eat ossifrage. OK, that's good by me. Besides, I can't find a recipe for buzzard tetrazzini in my cookbooks.
The good old King James Version has been especially useful on occasion. When I was a young fella, I was cursed with an ecclesiastical leader who was the worst "Pius Pete" I'd ever seen. He tried to fire up a class one day by exhorting us to "share a verse" of Scripture that inspired us to be the best we could be.
Everybody was bored and irritated so when my turn came I solemnly described how my life had been transformed by one special verse of the Bible. I then intoned a passage from 1st Chronicles: "At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar." That cracked the group up and crystallized the leader's antipathy toward me. The translators of the KJV transliterated Hebrew word "parbar" because they didn't know it was an architectural specification for a colonnade.
There's a few spots where the KJV is actually the most literal and accurate translation. For example, a formulaic saying in the Middle East for dynastic homicide is to "kill all who can urinate against a wall." The typical bowdlerization these days is just to render the text "kill all the men." But true to the Hebrew the KJV will provide the correct and earthy reading. Is that an important distinction? Well, that formula for dynastic homicide occurs in 1 Samuel 25 and there's a series of droll word plays in the Hebrew that require a literal translation to illuminate them.
Like all translations, the KJV is imbedded in the culture that produced it. For example, 400 years ago English speakers routinely used familiar pronouns, the "thee" and "thy" and "thou" words. Well, neither of the biblical languages, Hebrew nor Greek, have familiar pronouns. But thanks to the ongoing influence of the KJV my congregation still inaccurately prays "Thy will be done" every Sunday.
If the KJV has a scholarly problem, it's the selection ancient biblical manuscripts on which the translation was based. That "received text" was established by Erasmus of Rotterdam. To be blunt, Erasmus was a brilliant scholar, but the textus receptus wasn't his best work.
Moreover, literally thousands of additional ancient biblical manuscripts and fragments have been uncovered since Erasmus' time, particularly in the 19th century.
All modern English translations have benefited from the increased body of "witnesses," as they are called.
In my religious tradition, clergy are required to operate in the original languages of the Bible. We're even subjected to professional exams. When my test day came I scanned through the Hebrew and I was pleased when I spotted the masculine singular participial verb: "mash-tin" -- which only the King James correctly translates as "pisseth."