The King James and English Standard Bible versions compared
On The Bible Readers Podcast—yes, the first episode is available—my sword of choice is the English Standard Version (ESV), but I know many of you follow along in the King James Version (KJV). Since Bible translation is a topic of interest as well as pleasure for me, I want to help you understand the differences between them which you are likely to notice.
Apparent disparities between the KJV and ESV are the result of (1) variants between the sources from which they were translated and (2) word choices made by the translators. I’ll briefly explain both and provide examples.
Textual variants in the Greek sources
The KJV’s New Testament is a translation of the Textus Receptus, a compilation of six 12th-century Greek manuscripts, two 15th-century Greek manuscripts, and parts of the Latin Vulgate. The ESV’s New Testament is a translation of Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece, a compilation of many more Greek manuscripts dating as far back as the 2nd century.
Here’s one example where the KJV and ESV are different because their sources contain variants:
And who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good? (1 Peter 3:13, KJV)
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? (1 Peter 3:13, ESV)
The KJV uses the word “followers” because the Textus Receptus says mimētēs (an imitator). The ESV uses the word “zealous” because the Nestle-Aland text says zēlōtēs (one with zeal).
In case you want to learn more about the textual variants in ancient Bible manuscripts, I recommend my two-sermon series, “Preservation of the Bible, textual criticism, and some KJV history”. You might also enjoy The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? by Dr. James White.
Alternate translation choices
There can also be more than one way to render a word or phrase from the New Testament’s Greek. Even the King James committee supplied alternate readings in their original margin notes. This facet of translating the Bible accounts for the vast majority of differences between the KJV and ESV.
Here’s an example:
And they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts. And when he was come into the ship, he that had been possessed with the devil prayed him that he might be with him. (Mark 5:17-18, KJV)
And they began to beg him to depart from their region. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. (Mark 5:17-18, ESV)
Some of these variations are caused by changes to the English language over the last 400 years. “Beg,” for instance, fits our modern vernacular better than “pray.” Other differences are the result of translators choosing between literal and figurative meanings or selecting words best suited for the context and flow of the sentence.
To learn more about the styles of English in our Bibles, read Mark Ward’s Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. I’m currently reading The ESV and the English Bible Legacy by Leland Ryken. (Westminster Bookstore has it marked down to $4.50 while supplies last.) Ryken covers the history of English Bibles, claiming the ESV is the rightful heir to the Wycliffe-KJV throne, so to speak. He addresses the common translation methods of contemporary Bibles (i.e., word-for-word versus thought-for-thought).
A brief disclaimer
I am not an expert in textual criticism, Greek, or Bible translation. While I love these subjects and spend much of my time studying them, my analysis of any passage relies heavily on textbooks, lexicons, dictionaries, and the commentary of those who are experts. I welcome feedback because I always have more to learn.
My goal is not to persuade you to exchange your KJV for an ESV or any other version of the Bible. If anything, I hope to demystify their differences. I believe there is tremendous value in reading more than one translation.
Bible versions compared at Luke 1:1-4
On the debut episode of the podcast, “The Gospel of Luke was written to whom? Why Theophilus?” I considered Luke 1:1-4, so let’s compare these verses in the ESV and KJV.
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile  a narrative of the things  that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also,  having followed all things closely  for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (ESV)
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order  a declaration of those things  which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; It seemed good to me also,  having had perfect understanding of all things  from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed. (KJV)
1) diēgesis (narrative/declaration): This word can refer to a written or oral account. The verb epicheireō (undertaken/taken in hand) implies a written account since it means “to put the hand to.” While both translations could be considered too specific and possibly misleading, neither is inaccurate. Luke probably read written narratives of Christ’s life and ministry as well as heard declarations made verbally.
2) plērophoreō (accomplished/most surely believed): “Accomplished” (ESV) may be a weak choice if the intention of Luke and his predecessors was to chronicle Christ’s fulfillment of “everything written about [him] in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Lk 24:44). The word means “to carry out fully,” suggesting the evidence is readily available and capable of persuading a person. Perhaps fulfilled would be best here. “Most surely believed” (KJV) better describes the implication of plērophoreō than it strictly translates the word.
3) parakoloutheō (followed/perfect understanding): The ESV translates this word literally while the KJV uses one of its figurative meanings, “to fully know or understand.” The KJV does, however, render its literal sense elsewhere (see Mk 16:17).
4) anōthen (some time past/the very first): This word can mean “from above” or “from the beginning” (e.g., “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top [anōthen] to bottom). The KJV chooses the most literal translation while the ESV assumes Luke’s language is somewhat hyperbolic.
There aren’t any textual variants between the Textus Receptus and Novum Testamentum Graece in this passage.