Four hundred years ago, 54 scholars put the finishing touches on seven years of work spent creating the King James Version of the Bible.
There have been subsequent discoveries of new texts and a profusion of alternate translations, but the KJV is still the English Bible of choice for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Despite all the years behind it, the King James Version has "a certain kind of an aesthetic quality," says Victor Ludlow, a professor of religion at BYU and the author of several books on the Old Testament.
“The King James has a cadence to it. It has a beauty to it, a flow to it,” Ludlow said.
That quality — H.L Mencken called it “probably the most beautiful piece of writing in all the literature of the world” — could have something to do with its continued use. But the matter probably boils down to much more prosaic terms: The King James was the English translation of the Bible available to Joseph Smith; its words were the model of scriptural language and grammar that are thus found in the rest of the church's standard works; and subsequent prophets have voiced a preference for the KJV over newer, easier-to-read versions on the grounds of doctrinal matters.
The King James Version was the subject of a First Presidency letter issued on May 22, 1992, instruction that can also be found in the new Church Handbook 2, 21.1.7.
"Many versions of the Bible are available today. ... ," the letter reads. "The most reliable way to measure the accuracy of any biblical passage is not by comparing different texts, but by comparison with the Book of Mormon and modern-day revelations. While other Bible versions may be easier to read than the King James Version, in doctrinal matters latter-day revelation supports the King James Version in preference to other English translations."
In an April 2007 session of general conference, Elder M. Russell Ballard spoke of his love for and the importance of the Bible in an address titled "The Miracle of the Holy Bible."
"Righteous individuals were prompted by the Spirit to record both the sacred things they saw and the inspired words they heard and spoke," Elder Ballard said. "Other devoted people were prompted to protect and preserve these records. Men like John Wycliffe, the courageous William Tyndale and Johannes Gutenberg were prompted against much opposition to translate the Bible into language people could understand and to publish it in books people could read. I believe even the scholars of King James had spiritual promptings in their translation work."
As quoted in the “Encyclopedia of Mormonism,” J. Reuben Clark said the KJV “clearly portrayed Jesus as the promised Messiah and as the son of God,” and proclaims the reality of miracles where some modern translations “promote naturalistic explanations for divine action.”
None of which, though, is meant to say that the KJV is regarded as a flawless document. After all, the eighth article of faith reads, "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly."
“Joseph Smith never considered the King James to be the only translation,” Ludlow said. “He didn't regard it as being perfect."
The version of the King James Bible that members of the church know today — complete with cross-references to latter-day scripture, footnotes and indices referencing Joseph Smith's translation of the Bible, a topical guide and a Bible dictionary — was published in 1979. While some might find the archaic language and grammar of the KJV difficult to process and fully understand, Ludlow said these study aids and other resources are there to help.
“There are a variety of tools that one could use to help understand it,” he said. “You have to do a little more homework, a little more effort with it, but it's not like you're on a raft in the middle of an ocean with no way of figuring out where you are or how to get anywhere. The resources are there; it's just a matter of using them.”Comment on this story
All that said, given that the Bible is composed of records that are, in some cases, at least 3,000 years old, any translation done today could be old tomorrow.
“So aren't we glad we've got what we've got?" Ludlow said.
Ultimately, Ludlow said, readers need to rely on the Holy Ghost.
"I have to trust on the promptings of the Spirit to really understand what it means," he said. "That's probably the better way to learn the real meaning of it anyway.”