LCN Article
Why the New King James Version?

July / August 2023

Wallace G. Smith

While no translation of the Bible is perfect, the main translation used by the Living Church of God has long been the New King James Version. If you’ve ever wondered why, here’s your answer!

One of the great privileges of being in God’s Church is our shared mission to preach the Kingdom of God to the world. And proving the truth of what we say by quoting God’s inspired word—the Bible—is a major facet of that mission.

But which Bible?

Careful readers may notice that while the Living Church of God uses many different Bible translations in its articles and publications, we most commonly use the New King James Version (NKJV). Occasionally we receive questions about why this is so and why we do not use other popular versions, such as the New International Version (NIV), beyond occasional references. 

A look into the history of Bible translations in English and the inherent challenges of translating the Bible from its original languages helps to illuminate the answer to those questions.

The Challenge of Translating the Bible

Jesus Christ explicitly promised that His words would not pass away (Matthew 24:35), and such promises apply to the entirety of God’s inspired word (Isaiah 40:8). So we in the Living Church of God believe that, in their original writing (often called the autograph) the words recorded by the biblical authors were perfect and inerrant—written under God’s inspiration through the Holy Spirit and completely true and reliable (2 Peter 1:20–21; Proverbs 30:5; 2 Timothy 3:16–17).

Yet studying that word in the modern day—many centuries after the original words were written—involves multiple challenges. One is the human chain of transmission; as copies multiplied over the centuries, errors and omissions crept in. A great deal of scholarship has been devoted to determining the true words among the different variations that have been passed on through the years. Thankfully, those “variations” change very little of the meaning—so the vast majority of the Bible’s message is utterly untouched by the small differences in the various copies. For more information on the faithfulness of the Bible’s transmission, see our booklet The Bible: Fact or Fiction?, by Dr. Douglas Winnail. God’s word has, indeed, been faithfully preserved.

Still, the small differences that do exist require translators to make certain decisions. For example, which collections of ancient texts should be preferred over others? Should the oldest known copies be trusted more, even though there may be very few such sources—sometimes only one? Or should the more common readings be trusted more, since the texts reflected in a small number of copies are more likely to have originated later in the history of copy-making? Or are the rare, older texts more likely to be correct in some cases, and the majority of texts more likely correct in others?

And then there is the problem of translation itself. Setting aside the fact that the Bible’s original languages—mostly Hebrew and Greek—have changed over the centuries, most of us read Bibles translated into our own languages: English, Spanish, French, German, and many others.

God does not promise anywhere that later translations of His inspired original words would be perfect—in fact, perfect translation is an impossible task. Languages are rich and complex, and it is generally impossible to translate perfectly all the words of one language into the words of another. And the different cultures behind the languages have great effect as well. A phrase that made perfect sense in first-century Judea may be utter nonsense in twenty-first-century Europe. (To see why, reverse the timing and consider how the modern English phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs,” or the modern Spanish idiom “Hablar sin pelos en la lengua”—“To speak without hairs on your tongue”—would seem to a first-century reader.) So, even when clear words can be found, translators must sometimes make judgment calls between communicating the words or the meaning of the original text.

The Benefits of the “Old” King James Version

Early in the modern era of God’s Work, the Church used the tried-and-true King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, sometimes called the “Authorized Version.” Completed in 1611 and revised in the 1700s, the KJV is still one of the most popular Bibles in the English-speaking world today. It is not perfect—indeed, as mentioned, no translation is—but it was a remarkable work for its time. Understanding a bit about the “old” King James Version will help illustrate some of the reasons why we tend to use the New King James Version.

Working more than 400 years ago, the researchers and translators of the King James Version took an admirable approach. First, they sought “formal equivalence” in their translation. That is, while some seek to paraphrase the ancient languages in a manner that seeks to communicate the meaning but greatly changes the words to do so, the KJV translators sought to create as close to a word-for-word translation as they could. While this might make some of the statements confusing in English, they valued the idea that God inspired the words He did for a reason, and that the reader is best served by a translation as close as possible to the original words, rather than the translator’s interpretation of the words’ meaning—though, of course, some level of interpretation is often unavoidable.

Second, the translators went back to the most authoritative and trustworthy copies of the original Greek and Hebrew resources they could reference: Erasmus’ sixteenth-century Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Masoretic Text of the Old Testament. While they often kept the language of older English versions (the Bishop’s Bible, the Geneva Bible, and others), they diligently compared those works to the Greek and Hebrew resources they had—as well as to their copies of the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, and their copies of the Latin Vulgate, a fourth-century translation of the Bible into Latin. Faithfulness to the original languages was a driving goal.

Finally, the translators also sought to create a beautiful work. They recognized that the words under their stewardship were God’s own words, so they strove to ensure that the English-language translation they were creating conveyed an appropriate majesty. The level of artistic craftsmanship the translators achieved is readily experienced in the psalms, where the poetic rendering of passages such as Psalm 23 stand as timeless expressions of praise, piety, and emotion, undiminished by the passage of centuries. Some have even suggested that Shakespeare was consulted in the translation of the psalms, though proof remains elusive.

While many believe that the thee’s, thou’s, and ye’s of the KJV are remnants from the days of its translation, those words were, in fact, already old and archaic by 1611. Yet, the translators saw not only that they added a sense of majesty and “high language” to the text, but also that they helped make a grammatical distinction no longer present in English. “You” in English can be singular or plural, unlike, say, in Greek, which uses different words for the singular and plural versions of “you.” But by using words such as “thee” for the singular and reserving “you” for the plural, the KJV translators craftily killed two birds with one stone: added elegance and increased grammatical clarity. (Read Luke 22:31–32 in the KJV to see the difference.)

This is why, in the early years of the Work, both its accuracy and its widespread availability made the KJV a wise choice for the Church.

Not Without Its Problems

Yet the KJV is not without its problems. There are some regrettable mistakes in its text that have confused many over the years. As just one example, it translates the Greek word for “Passover” as “Easter” in Acts 12:4—an error corrected in many later translations.

Other mistakes are not the fault of the translators and editors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and have only been revealed by later archaeological discoveries that have shed new light on the ancient languages. For example, 1 Kings 10:22 in the KJV mentions “peacocks,” translated from the Hebrew word tûkkı̂y. Since then, more has been learned about ancient Hebrew and other Semitic languages, and we now know that the word means “monkeys.” 

While the KJV translation was remarkable, and continues to be helpful to many today, we simply have the benefit of an additional 400 years of research and discovery that the translators in 1611, and later editors, did not have. Also, in those 400 years, the English language has changed in many ways, causing some words to disappear from usage, and—even more challenging—causing other words to change meaning.

Consider that you might pick up a KJV translation and read John 2:6, where you will see a reference to pots big enough to contain “two or three firkins” of water. But who today knows how large a “firkin” is? Similarly, 2 Chronicles 11:12 speaks of “every several city” and 2 Chronicles 26:21 says King Uzziah lives “in a several house.” But how many people today would know that these mean “every individual city” and “an isolated house”? And while the KJV may speak of “ouches of gold” (which sounds painful), a modern reader may not realize that it is speaking of “settings of gold.”

The more challenging case of words remaining in English but changing in meaning can be illustrated by 1 Thessalonians 4:15. There, in the KJV, we are told that those who are alive at Christ’s return shall not “prevent” those who are asleep from rising. Is Paul saying that the living won’t somehow “stop” the dead from being resurrected? No. The meaning of the word “prevent” has shifted in 400 years. In modern English, we would say that those are alive will not “precede” or “come before” them.

These are only a few examples, but they should be enough to illustrate that as remarkable as the “old” King James Version is, the passage of centuries meant it could benefit from an update.

Enter the New King James Version

The translators and editors of the New King James Version, published in full in 1982 with a handful of revisions in later years, sought to maintain the accuracy, beauty, and clarity of the “old” King James Version while updating it based on the latest scholarship and modern language usage.

As a result, readers familiar with the KJV will often recognize wording in the NKJV, yet they will also find the NKJV easier to read while also reflecting newer research and discoveries. And in their work to update the KJV text and take advantage of the best of modern scholarship, the translators and editors of the NKJV actively sought to avoid some of the mistaken philosophies that tend to cause issues in other modern translations, such as the New International Version.

For example, many modern translations tend to lean very heavily on ancient Greek texts often called the “Alexandrian texts,” such as the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. While these manuscripts—dating back to the fourth century—are among the oldest large collections of New Testament text, they are also problematic. They show signs of errors and editing, for example. The Codex Vaticanus even attests to the frustration some of its scribes felt toward their fellow workers who were apparently not following older texts, with a note in its margin next to Hebrews 1:3 in which a scribe admonishes one of his coworkers, “Fool and knave, leave the old reading and do not change it!”

Another example of the faulty nature of these texts is the complete omission of the ending of Mark in the Codex Vaticanus, which ends the gospel at Mark 16:8 and includes none of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Some modern scholars take this to mean that verses 9–20 of Mark 16 were not originally part of the Bible. Yet if one looks closely at the pages on which the Codex Vaticanus was written, one will see that there is a completely blank column where those verses are supposed to be—in fact, the only blank column in the entire codex—at a time when vellum, the material on which these ancient works were written, was expensive and never wasted. Many have concluded that the scribe intended to write the rest of Mark there, but never did.

Even so, while most of the more modern translations lean too heavily on Alexandrian texts, they are still significant texts. Sometimes they may get something right that the Textus Receptus or the Byzantine texts, which were the primary sources for the KJV, get wrong.

The NKJV considers this possibility by providing detailed notes on its pages, pointing out when different ancient texts give different readings. This helps to provide the Bible student with more information, not less.

And the NKJV also avoids the tendency of many modern translations to over-interpret the ancient text. Like the “old” KJV, the NKJV leans more toward a “word for word” approach instead of a “paraphrase” approach, which helps to protect against introducing translator bias into the translation.

Still, we must always remember that there is no perfect translation—not the KJV, and neither the NKJV. While the NKJV fixes some errors of the KJV, it retains others such as the Comma Johanneum, words inserted by ancient writers into 1 John 5:7–8 that are often used to support the Trinity heresy. Both the KJV and the NKJV continue to retain those uninspired words (though the NKJV, to its credit, footnotes them as problematic), while the New International Version, for instance, does not. And the NKJV introduces a few of its own new mistakes or confusions. For instance, Galatians 2:20 in the KJV plainly notes that it is “by the faith of the Son of God” that we live—that is, the very faith Christ had within Him—while the NKJV says it is “by faith in the Son of God.” A subtle but important difference!

One Inspired Word, Many Translations

As long as it is a solid translation, relying on one main version for our publications—whether the New King James Version in English, the Reina Valera in Spanish, or the Louis Segond Le Sainte Bible in French—helps to ensure that our teachings are consistently communicated, orderly, and easy for our readers to investigate and verify. And the New King James Version is certainly a solid translation in English: readable, highly accurate, based on sound translation principles and scholarship, and offering additional notes and comments to help students get the most out of their study.

Yet, because there is no perfect translation, the Church will occasionally quote from a different version that either translates the original language of a particular verse more accurately than the NKJV or better communicates the sense of a passage to make it clearer. In doing so, not only do we follow the pattern of Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong—who occasionally referred to translations such as Moffatt or Fenton to help make his points clear—but also the Apostles and other writers of the New Testament. Careful research shows that those writers, when quoting the Old Testament, would sometimes use Hebrew-language copies of their day, sometimes use the Greek Septuagint, and sometimes even paraphrase the Old Testament in their own way as they were led by the Holy Spirit.

Regardless of the translation we use in our materials—whether the NKJV or any other—our goal is always the same: to make the truth of God plainly understood.