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KJV to ESV: Why I Made the Switch

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

At the first of this year I made a change that will cause me a great deal of difficulty for the next several months, maybe years. I took my copy of the English Standard Version of the Bible from its place among the works of reference on my desk and switched it with the reliable King James that usually rested next to my notepad and pen. Now I am using the English Standard for all my preaching and teaching, instead of the King James.

I’ve been using the ESV in Bible classes since it was first published in 2001. This way, I could get familiar with the text to see if I really wanted to use it in the pulpit. It was a way of testing the waters before making the plunge. In the meantime I continued to preach from the King James. I had been doing memory work in that translation for several years and was comfortably quoting from it every Sunday.

The problem was, I was constantly stopping in the middle of citing the KJV to say, “That word has changed in English usage. For a better translation, see the ESV.” I was constantly explaining that “conversation” no longer means what it did in 1611, or avoiding the “superfluity of naughtiness” in James 1:21. I had a hard time discussing the afterlife, since the KJV substituted “hell” for “Hades.” A number of other problems confronted me, all of them familiar to anyone who has preached from the KJV for a period of time. I could have put up with them and stayed in my comfort zone, but I was having a hard time justifying this when the ESV came on the scene.

The ESV is not perfect, but in the context of today’s English it is superior to the KJV. Not only does it strive for a word-for-word translation, it also employs beautiful, dignified English in its phrasing and delivery. Also, it is based on the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, the United Bible Society’s fourth edition of the Greek New Testament, and to the twenty-seventh edition of Nestle and Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece. These benefit from earlier manuscripts than were available to the KJV translators, who relied upon the Textus Receptus.

The hardest part of making this switch is trying to quote from memory passages that I have cited from the KJV through all my years of preaching. Hopefully, my mind is making an “ESV” file for new quotations, while keeping the old “KJV” file with the memory work I’ve done in the past. With extensive work in two major translations, I should have a better grasp of the text, as I will be able to compare these two translations in my mind while studying.

Elders, ministers, editors, and lectureship directors should consider revising their translation guidelines to include the ESV. The translation has been on the market for six years now and has proven to be as reliable as any other, not to mention that when it comes to beauty and style, it has no rival. Some years ago I wrote a 67 page booklet for an organization using the ESV. Not long afterwards I received a call from the director, saying I would have to rewrite my work. He didn’t feel comfortable with the translation I was using. In another case, I received a letter concerning a speaking appointment. Within the letter was the following guideline: “Use the King James Version, New King James Version, or the American Standard Version for your text.” I don’t want to judge motives, but I wonder how many church leaders have given the ESV a chance. If they did, they would welcome it in their pulpits and classes.

While we may get sentimental about certain versions of the Bible, sentimentality is not the preacher’s job. A preacher’s job is to explain God’s will to the world and persuade people to follow it. By this rationale, the ESV is one of the best translations on the market.