Creationism and the KJV

One of the ways I use to check material that is written outside of my own field of expertise is to look at how the author(s) handle material that is within my field. This can come dangerously close to ad hominem, but I believe it is a valid approach used carefully. If an author misuses sources, evidence, and logic in an area with which I’m familiar, how much should I trust that author in areas in which I am looking for learning?

I was looking through some young earth creationist (YEC) web sites over the last few days, and noted some comments favoring the KJV. I found a defense of the KJV on the Institute for Creation Reasearch (ICR) web site in which Dr. Henry Morris defends his use of the KJV. This article was written some time ago, and the topic is not new. Dr. Morris also notes that he doesn’t want to argue this with anyone, as he is not an expert. I believe, however, that it is valid to examine his basic approach.

That basic approach is very similar to the YEC approach in general: Reason from desired conclusion back to evidence, rather than from evidence to conclusion. Morris knows that evolutionists of all stripes are bad, so Bible versions in which they are involved must also be bad. The KJV translators, he asserts, were all believers in the literal truth of the Bible (whatever “literal” may mean in that context) and specifically in the literal truth of Genesis (literal here probably means “understanding it as historical narrative), and thus their version is more to be trusted. Many early manuscripts were discovered in Egypt, and there was questionable theology coming out of Egypt, so those manuscripts must be bad. Even when most of the translation committee would agree theologically with Morris, as in the case of the NKJV, he can’t quite bring himself to accept the improvement.

(I would argue that the NKJV is easily the worst of the major modern translations, and precisely because it slavishly followed the same text as the KJV in the face of mountains of evidence that a more modern, eclectic text is better.)

Another set of arguments that I hear commonly and that are repeated in Morris’s defense of the KJV is that people can’t read in unison any more, and that Bible memorization is becoming a lost art. I would be quite surprised if this deterioration of Bible memorization is any more than a “good old days” nostalgic memory–everything was better when I was a child! But this argument is one of the oddest ones. Churches very commonly now have pew Bibles. If you want people to read in unison, you can use the pew Bibles. If you want to memorize, you can pick a translation. I know people who memorize from the CEV, the NIV, and the NRSV.

I’m going to skip over a detailed examination of all of these issues, because I have written about them before. Let me recommend briefly the following: Bible Version Selection Tool, Translations FAQ, and What’s in a Version? (tract).

But there is one issue I want to look at, because I hear it from both sides: Is there a major problem with the translation of the texts related to creation in the Bible?

People who are not involved in translation have tremendous expectations of what a new translation will accomplish. One time I was in an online conference. One user on hearing that I could read Hebrew said, “Tell me what Genesis 1 really means!” He was disappointed that I said he could more or less read any modern English version and get the story. It’s unrealistic to expect one person, on the spot, to produce a better translation of a passage than a team of experts who have as much time as they need to accomplish the same task. I always cringe when I hear a pastor say in a sermon, “What this text really means in Greek (or Hebrew) is . . .” Normally, that’s a preface to some misinformation.

Now I don’t mean that there is nothing to be gained from knowing the original languages. There are certainly details that you will miss in any translation. There are points of disagreement that you will need the source languages to disentangle. For example, one cannot recognize the linguistic relationships between the Genesis story in Genesis and other ancient near easter materials without some knowledge of the languages. There are two major approaches in translating the first two verses of Genesis 1 (see Genesis Creation Stories – Form, Structure, and Relationship). There are some details that can only be evaluated by someone who actually knows the languages in question.

But these are not the real issue for young earth creationists. Their problem is with the literary study of the text. Their claim is that the one type of literature we may see in Genesis is narrative history. Regardless of how the details are translated, this difference is going to remain. On all the questions of translation in Genesis 1 & 2 one can accept either reading, and nonetheless accept the result as narrative history, or perhaps instead as some form of theology or myth.

Creationists who hold onto the King James Version aren’t really doing so because it supports their position better. It doesn’t. They aren’t doing so because of sound arguments. There are none. They are doing so because it is their habit to cling to safety and certainty. Fundamentally, that is what all this is about.

But I have something to say to those who are liberal or skeptical as well. The translation changes will not prove that Genesis is not historical narrative either. There is no “aha!” point in the text when you can say, because of a modification of the translation, that this must have been intended as some form of figurative speech. There is no manuscript with a missing line that says, “Here is the Hebrew myth of origins.” Those are all decisions that a student or reader has to make, based on literary criteria.

(For more information on Bible translations, see the links above, and also my book, What’s in a Version?.)

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