Building on the King James tradition Print
Written by Deonne Lindsey   
Tuesday, 10 June 2014 08:41 AM America/New_York


ESVStudyBibleNewer Scripture translations in the spirit of the venerable version have significant appeal—and sales

More than 1 billion copies of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible have been published. Having celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2011, the KJV remains one of the oldest English editions still in continuous use and much beloved, in part because of its majestic, Shakespearean-era English.

But while the King James is held in high honor, age and veneration can be a double-edged sword in a Scripture translation. Because of this, a subset of more modern translations have risen within the KJV family, including Crossway’s English Standard Version (ESV) and Charisma Media’s new translation, the Modern English Version (MEV, 

MEV-Bible---with-large-logoIN THE LEAD

NKJVStudyBible-ColorThe KJV continues to consistently rank among the top Scripture translations in usage and sales. The American Bible Society notes in its 2014 State of the Bible survey that the KJV has a healthy lead at 34%, compared to the New International Version (NIV) at 13% and the New King James Version at 10%. CBA and Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) best-seller lists also consistently rank the KJV among the top three best-selling translations and the NKJV in the top five translations in both dollar sales and unit sales.

Barbour Publishing has seen great success with the KJV, having sold nearly 8 million copies. Tens of thousands of readers have purchased the company’s KJV Study Bible since its release for the version’s 400th anniversary.

While it’s true to say that the KJV remains among the top translations, LifeWay Christian Stores buyer Michael Robbins is quick to point out that all the factors he used to think he could count on being true about how translations sell are shown inaccurate when the facts are broken down.

For example, of the chain’s five locations in the Nashville area, the KJV ranks at No. 1 and No. 4 at different stores. The same disparity is true in other areas of the country where stores may be just 10 miles apart. Robbins also said that it surprised him to find that the KJV was a top seller for some LifeWay stores in California.

“I used to think that there were at least certain denominations that trended more heavily toward the KJV in sales, but the more that I analyze the data, the more I realize that doesn’t hold true,” he said. “The only difference to me still worth noting is that people in their mid-60s and above who have always used the KJV are less likely to switch to a new translation. That market segment at least has a higher degree of commitment to the KJV.”

Overall, Robbins said that the KJV ranks second in sales at the 180-store chain with the NKJV following at third. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), published in full in 2004 by B&H Publishing Group, and the English Standard Version vie for rankings in fifth, sixth or seventh place.

Other Christian retailers agree with Robbins that differences tend to be highly localized and dependent on what pastors are using in their congregations and what Christian schools are using in the classroom.

For Ken Flanders at The Olive Branch in Dublin, Georgia, none of the stereotypes hold regarding the KJV moving better in Bible belt stores; instead, the KJV and NIV together represent 30% of his store’s Bible sales.

In another part of the country, Debbie Woodard, owner of Bethany Book and Gift in Baxter, Minnesota, said that many of the churches in her area have switched to ESV in the last few years, leading the Crossway publication to become Bethany’s top-selling translation. KJV and NKJV remain consistent sellers for Bethany, however, because of the local Christian schools’ choices.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Louis McBride, Bible buyer for Baker Book House, reported that the top five-selling translations in the longstanding store are the NIV, ESV, KJV, NLT and NKJV, in that order.


Jason McMullen, publishing director for the Modern English Version, said in early 2000 there began to be a sentiment among several Bible scholars that the KJV needed to be updated. The translation committee’s goal for the MEV was to update the KJV with a “more modern vernacular” of the English language, while creating a readable but accurate translation that preserves “as much of the original wording, rhythm and flow of the KJV as possible.”

McMullen observed that the KJV “has been such a large part of culture that the translators really wanted to find a way to preserve it for a new generation.”

James F. Linzey, chief editor of the MEV and chairman of the translation committee, is a retired U.S. Army National Guard chaplain and graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. The MEV is a modern formal-equivalent translation. The New Testament was completed in 2011 for the 400th anniversary of the KJV and the Old Testament in 2013.

Like the KJV, the MEV uses the Jacob Ben Chayyim edition of the Masoretic Text for the Old Testament and bases the New Testament work on the Textus Receptus.

The MEV also aims to maintain reverence. One way that this is shown is by capitalizing names and pronouns referring to God such as He and Him. Some more modern translations such as the ESV and NIV have parted from this KJV style.

Steve Strang, publisher of Christian Retailing and owner of Charisma Media, found it interesting to learn that he is a descendant of John Rogers, who was burned at the stake and whose end in 1555 is recorded in Fox’s Book of Martyrs.

“His crime was translating the Bible,” Strang said. “He had worked with William Tyndale, who is much more famous. Together they used the pseudonym ‘Thomas Matthew.’ The Bible is called the Thomas Matthew Bible or sometimes the Matthew-Tyndale Bible.”

Strang was able to verify that he is a descendant of John Rogers the martyr.

“Rogers gave his life to translate the Bible, and now all these years later, I have the opportunity to publish the Modern English Version,” Strang said. “Somehow I feel a connection to this great man, and maybe I am, in some way, continuing his work.”

Launching the MEV in September under the Passio imprint of Charisma House Book Group, the company is reaching out to a wide range of influencers. The  version’s 47 translators also hail from every Christian faith tradition, bringing balance to the work.

“It’s really important to us that the MEV is seen as a Bible for all Christians,” McMullen said. “The MEV’s marketing team will be reaching out to pastors and lay leaders through a number of denominational conferences, as well as conferences without denominational ties like Catalyst and Exponential.”

Stanley M. Horton, senior editorial adviser for the MEV, believes the new translation is necessary for this generation.

“Not only is the English language changing, the culture is changing, and we need a translation that the ordinary person on the street will understand,” Horton said. “The Bible doesn’t intend that you have to be a Ph.D. in order to understand the Bible. It was intended for the ordinary person, so as the culture changes and as the language changes, you’ll find even the updates like the New King James Bible is already out of date even in 30 years or so, so that we do need to have translations that are suited to the people that we’re trying to reach and minister to, and that is one of the reasons why I wanted to be involved.”

The New King James Version (NKJV) was published in 1982 by Thomas Nelson and is the only translation to bear a similar name to the KJV. The NKJV updated the KJV language to more current usage, eliminating touchstone words like ye and thou in favor of you, while still maintaining an affinity for the 1611 work. But the essentially literal translation has undergone few updates, only brief revisions in 1984.

Now part of HarperCollins Christian Publishers, Thomas Nelson is still seeing sales success with the NKJV. More than 60 million copies have sold and over 1.3 million of the NKJV Study Bible, which is now available in full color.

“The New King James Translation continues to grow and have positive impact in people’s lives,” said Blake Aldridge, senior director of marketing, Bible group. “With more than 70 million NKJV Bibles distributed around the world, it remains a constant resource for anyone wanting to bring God’s Word to life.”

In 2001, another version with similarities to the King James was published. Crossway’s English Standard Version (ESV) traces its lineage from Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament through the KJV and the 1885 English Revised Version. The preface to the ESV states, “The words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale-King James legacy, and most recently out of the RSV, with the 1971 RSV text providing the starting point for our work.” Minor revisions to the ESV text took place in 2007 and 2011.”

Significant digital marketing efforts and other methods of promotion have led to growing acceptance of the ESV. A number of Christian retailers indicated seeing some conservative Bible buyers favor the ESV’s literal approach as debates sparked over gender-inclusive language controversy introduced by the updated NIV.

Crossway’s Anthony Gosling, vice president, sales, indicated that the ESV is seeing sales success.

“Sales of the ESV continue to grow rapidly,” Gosling told Christian Retailing. “Since its launch in 2001, more than 100 million copies have been distributed or accessed in digital format. In addition, this year the ESV Study Bible reached 1 million copies sold and this year alone saw total ESV sales increase by 15%. Whilst we are thankful for this growth, we are even more thankful that God’s Word is being so widely distributed. Our prayer is it will be read and change lives.”


Will a long lineage and poetic language be enough to keep one of the world’s most-recognized translation selling well? And what about related translations? Is there room for all?

The 2014 American Bible Society’s State of the Bible survey noted that since the survey began tracking preferred Bible versions in 2011, the KJV has seen a nine-point decrease in the percentage of people who read it most often (45% in 2011 to 34% in 2014). The result is just one sign that despite a reputation for having supporters every bit as ardent as Apple computer fans, many King James Bible readers are indeed open to new translations. Not surprisingly, at least a portion of those readers prefer to stay with translations that remain in the King James family, but are updated.

That was the case when The Gideons International changed its modern English offering from the NKJV to the ESV in 2013. An article about the change in the June/July 2013 issue of The Gideon stated: “The International Cabinet decided the time had come to review the modern English version of the Scriptures, and the question before the Cabinet was, ‘Is there a better modern English version that we could share which would better reach today’s generation?’ The English Standard Version was carefully and prayerfully evaluated and then approved as the modern English version of Scripture for use worldwide.”

While the organization continues to make the KJV available, the article went on to say that The Gideons worked with Crossway to produce an ESV edition specially produced with extra content.

Some, like McMullen of Charisma Media, believe that such changes simply reflect the natural flow of being engaged with the Scriptures.

“Part of what we need to embrace as Christians is that updating the language of the Bible should be normative for us,” he said. “While it’s not like an oil change, happening at set intervals, it is our responsibility as believers to those who come behind to update language so that spiritual formation can continue to happen. Some people wonder why we need another translation when there are already so many, but from a missional standpoint, it’s vital. It’s our time now and it will be their time to do the same thing later.”

While it’s difficult to tell if or to what degree readership of the KJV may erode as more modern versions become available, Donald L. Brake, author of A Visual History of the English Bible (Baker Books/Baker Publishing Group), is convinced that the progression with those versions represents advancement for the church.

“Some see any move away from the original KJV as Satan constantly attacking through man changing the text in any way, but I don’t feel that way,” he said.

Brake said he watched his father take his Bible to church and not touch it the rest of the week. Years later, his father showed him a copy of the Good News Bible he’d gotten and was excited because he realized for the first time that it was meant to be read and understood.

With all of the translations available, Bible publishers must do their best to ensure that the Scripture version that gets into Christian retail customers’ hands is one that will be read.


Translation comparison

2 Chronicles 7:14

KJV: If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.

NKJV: If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

NIV: If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turnfrom their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

ESV: If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

MEV: If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.


KJV: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

NKJV: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

NIV: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

ESV: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

MEV: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.