This article is about Bible translation, specifically the New King James Version.

Source: Clarion, 1995. 4 pages.

For whom is the New King James Version?

The NKJV has been produced with a specific target group in mind. In the promotional literature for the NKJV, one will read several times that the KJV remains the most widely read version of the Scriptures in the English speaking world. 1 Of late, this claim can no longer be made, but at the outset of the NKJV project, this was certainly the case.

Despite the fact that many translations sought to be the successor to the King James legacy, beginning with the English Revised Version in 1881/85, the American Standard Version 1901, the Revised Standard Version in 1946/52 and finally the New American Standard Bible in 1963/71, the fact is, none succeeded. Most Christians still preferred the old KJV. By "old KJV" is not meant the version as it was originally published in 1611, but the revision of 1769.

Why did people stick to this version instead of accepting any of the newer versions after 1769? The reason seems to be that beginning with the English Revised Version in 1881 a different text base for the New Testament was used based on the advances in the field of Textual Criticism, especially as they had been published by Westcott and Hort. The English Revised Version is exceptional since according to its rules for revision, they were to make as few alterations as possible, and those which were accepted were "to be in the style of the King James Version; no change was to be made unless the evidence was 'decidedly prepondering'."2 However, the ASV, RSV and NASB departed from the text of the KJV much more freely as the translators felt the original text demanded and as the editors felt the changing diction and syntax of the English language required.

Many people who cherished the old KJV were offended at the changes which were introduced to the text. Consequently, they clung to their beloved King James. The New King James Version wishes to avoid causing offense as much as possible. It attempts to be more sensitive to the attachment which people still today have to the KJV. It seeks, above all, to lay claim to the legacy of the KJV which none have successfully been able to do since the revision of 1769.

The manner in which the NKJV attempts to do this can be gathered from a few different sources. In a promotional brochure from Thomas Nelson Publishers, called Statement of Purpose, one learns about the NKJV that "the purpose of this project is to preserve the original intended purity of the King James Version." it identifies the NKJV as "this edition of the King James Version."

Further:

This edition shall not add to, nor take from, nor alter the communication that was the intent of the original translators of the King James Version. (…) This edition shall not corrupt nor diminish the original translation … so that a reader of this edition may follow without confusion a reading of the original edition from the pulpit.

This last quotation is important for understanding whom the NKJV is especially intended for. It is expressly intended to claim the allegiance of those who cling to the 1769 KJV, such as the 1881 and subsequent versions have failed to do.

In his book, The New King James Version: in the Great Tradition, Arthur Farstad, who served as executive editor of the New King James Version, passes on the guidelines for the editors and translators. It begins:

The purpose of this project is to produce an updated English version that follows the sentence structure of the 1611 Authorized Version as closely as possible. (…) The intention is not to take from or alter the basic communication of the 1611 edition but to transfer the Elizabethan word forms into twentieth-century English. The traditional texts of the Greek and Hebrew will be used rather than modern critical texts based on the Westcott and Hort theory.3

Then Farstad supplies a 16 point set of guidelines from which a few relevant points are here quoted:

  • Correct all departures from the Textus Receptus.

  • Words that have changed their meaning since 1611 should be replaced by their modern equivalents.

  • Archaic idioms should be replaced by modern equivalents.

  • Change all Elizabethan pronouns, verb forms and other archaic words to their current equivalent.

  • Attempt to keep King James word order. However, when comprehension or readability is affected transpose or revise sentence structure.4

  • It is interesting to note that in the first edition of the NKJV – NT in 1979, there were no italics, but "the King James tradition of italicizing supplied words was restored by popular demand of the readers."5

Most readers of the KJV will admit that the language needs to be updated. In this regard, the NKJV has gone very far, updating all verb forms, even the second person singular form in those texts which address God (there is no longer a separate verbal form in addressing God, with "thee" and "thou").

Of special interest is that the NKJV corrects all departures from the Textus Receptus. This has reference only to the NT since the Old Testament is based on the Hebrew Masoretic Text and this has remained relatively unchanged since the 1600's (Dead Seas Scrolls notwithstanding). But the position of the NKJV in regard to the NT is extraordinary. What has become known as the Textus Receptus was published in 1624/33. The KJV was published in 1611 and therefore used several NT Greek texts which were the basis for the Textus Receptus, but not identical to it (compare the third guideline for the NKJV translators and editors, quoted above). The publisher of the NKJV wanted to have an objective standard for the NT text. Since an objective text did not yet fully exist at the time which the KJV was published, and since the Textus Receptus is the closest to the underlying text to the KJV New Testament, it forms the basis for the NKJV. This is especially interesting since Farstad himself would prefer what is called the Majority Text, however, the Majority Text would bring the NKJV farther away from the KJV, therefore, the Textus Receptus was selected. Farstad justifies this compromise by asserting that the Textus Receptus and the Majority Text are virtually identical; however, this is a compromise, one which is very difficult to defend. 6

It is clear that the controlling motivation for producing the NKJV was to serve those who still adhere to the KJV. Since there are many who, despite the presence of a multitude of other translations, still use the KJV in worship services, the NKJV has a valid place in the market today.

But for several reasons, it is unsuited to become the translation of the Canadian Reformed Churches.

First, we have no special attachment to the KJV. For more than 20 years, most of our churches have not been using the KJV so that not only is there a loss of attachment to the KJV, but there is now a whole generation which is unacquainted with it.

Secondly the NKJV is not a fresh translation but a revision. There are several negative consequences of this.

  • The first consequence is that on occasion, the NKJV will follow the KJV rather than the original text. D.M. Howard observes,
Incredibly, the old KJV can occasionally take precedence over the MT and DSS (at Isaiah 10:16 [cf. v. 33!] and 38:14, for example).7
  • A second consequence is that the new version is too limited in the extent of its changes. The common complaint about the NKJV is that it did not go far enough; it maintained antiquated terms which the translators and editors would surely have removed or changed if it had not been for their devotion to the KJV. After observing that antiquated expressions are left intact, S.K. Soderlund comments that,
This translation enterprise is inspired by a degree of respect of the original translation of 1611 which effectively limits the range of revision possibilities.8

Hebert F. Peacock says,

This is not a modern translation. To quote the King James Version, The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau (Genesis 27:22).9

Peacock is quite correct in stating that this is not a modern translation, for on account of the translators' and editors' deference to the KJV, the NKJV does not fully enter the category of a modern translation.

There are some who go too far in their criticisms. W.W. Wessel criticizes the goals of the NKJV, saying,

The KJV was truly a great achievement – probably the greatest translation the English language will ever see. But it is well over 350 years old. It is not possible to make it into an adequate translation for our time without destroying its unique characteristics. So why not allow it to die an honourable death? It served its day well.10

The NKJV is designed for those who want the KJV to continue to serve the churches, but in an updated edition; therefore, what Wessel says is not for us to judge. That is up to those who adhere to the KJV.

  • The third reason why this is not suited for our churches is that the text which underlies the NKJV New Testament, although reasonable for the audience which Thomas Nelson has, is not suitable for us. While we may agree that both the Majority Text and the Eclectic Text are reliable, nobody will argue that we should adhere to the Textus Receptus, particularly with its problems in the Book of Revelation and in other significant passages in the New Testament.

While we may respect the goals of the NKJV (with some reservation concerning the choice of NT text), we would not recommend this translation for our churches. Since the King James Version is not the primary Bible translation in our homes, churches or schools, we need a more thoroughgoing modern translation than the New King James Version.

Endnotes🔗

  1. ^ Walter A. Elwell states that "34.8 percent of American homes still use the KJV as the primary Bible" Christianity Today, November 2, 1979, p. 48 (1481).
  2. ^ A Concise History of the English Bible, The American Bible Society: New York (n. d.), 32-33.
  3. ^ The New King James Version: In the Great Tradition, Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, 1993,33.
  4. ^ Ibid, 34.
  5. ^ Ibid, 35.
  6. ^ Farstad notes that the Textus Receptus and the Majority Text are different especially in the Book of Revelation, ibid, 109. Farstad writes in typical fashion, "In three fine schools I strongly taught the critical theory, and only after graduating from seminary did I come to study textual criticism for myself. The culmination of all this was my conversion to the majority text position and later to being asked to co-edit a Greek New Testa­ment," ibid, 117 n 15. Arthur L. Farstad co-edited with Zane C. Hodges The Greek New Testament according to the Majority Text (Thomas Nelson, 1 982). Dr. J. van Bruggen served as consulting editor along with Alfred Martin, Wilbur N. Pickering, and Harry A. Sturz.
  7. ^ David M. Howard in journal of Evangelical Theological Studies, vol. 26 no. 3 (Septem­ber 1983), 370. "MT" stands for Masoretic Text and "DSS" stands for Dead Sea Scrolls.
  8. ^ Crux, vol. 16, no. 2 (June 1980), 31.
  9. ^ Bible Translator, vol. 31 no. 3 (July 1980), 339.
  10. ^ Journal of Evangelical Theological Studies 23, 1980,348.

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