The aim of its translators was to update the vocabulary and grammar of the King James Version, while preserving the classic style and beauty of the 1611 version. Although it uses substantially the same Hebrew and Greek texts as the original KJV, it indicates where other manuscripts differ. In 1984 the NKJV was slightly revised by a committee of reviewers chaired by Arthur Farstad. This is the reason that you can find two different NKJVs that have a difference in translation.
The New King James Version is a revision of the King James Version that does not make any alterations on the basis of the Greek New Testament or Hebrew Old Testament texts established by modern scholarship, but adheres to the readings presumed to underlie the King James Version. The revisers have also sought to follow the principles of translation used in the original King James Version, which the NKJV revisers call “complete equivalence” in contrast to “dynamic equivalence.”
The task of updating the English of the KJV involved significant changes in word order, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling. One of the most significant features of the NKJV was its abandonment of the second person pronouns “thou,” “ye,” “thy,” and “thine.” Verb forms were also modernized in the NKJV (for example, “speaks” rather than “speaketh”).
SOME STRENGTHS OF THE NKJV
#1 — Literalness. I personally find it humorous that the NASB has been called the most literal translation available. However, there are many places where the NKJV exceeds the NASB in literalism. Most of these occurrences are due to the fact that the NKJV often retains the Hebrew and Greek idioms (like the KJV) but the NASB sometimes renders these phrases in more idiomatic English. A comparison of Romans 6:22 will show this distinction:
NASB: But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.
NKJV: But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.
The literal Greek meaning of the word is “fruit” not “benefit.”
#2 — Word Usage. Many of the versions have done away with difficult and archaic words. On the whole, I think this is a good thing since many words of those words can be translated with different words today and maintain faithfulness to the original Greek or Hebrew meaning. However, not all words can make such a transition. The NKJV keeps the words “propitiation,” “justification,” and “sanctification” throughout its pages. While these are difficult words to comprehend, there are no modern English equivalents. In Romans 3:25 the NKJV keeps the word “propitiation” while the NIV and NRSV substitute the phrase “sacrifice of atonement.” One can pick up a lexicon and see that “sacrifice of atonement” is only one meaning of the many implications of the word “propitiation.” By translating “propitiation” as “sacrifice of atonement,” the concept of mercy can be forgotten. The point is that these words have deep theological significance that cannot be readily translated into a word or two.
#3 — Archaic Words Removed. While trying to keep the flow and frame of the King James Version, the NKJV did remove much of the Elizabethan language. Where the KJV translated “loveth,” the NKJV simply renders the word as “love.” Much of the grammatical forms of the seventeenth century have been altered, but form of the text has not been changed.
#4 — Trustworthy. The NKJV has great value as a study Bible since it attempts to maintain the original meaning of the Greek and Hebrew words. One can give a NKJV to someone and have the confidence that there will not be the interpretations of the translator to interfere with the word of God.
A WEAKNESS OF THE NKJV
Update, Not An Revision. A second major criticism involves the fact that it is based solely upon the ancient texts available during the time of King James and not on earlier manuscripts and documents which have since been discovered. We have found thousands more manuscripts since the King James Version was translated. Unfortunately, its seems that the NKJV intended to match the form of the KJV and merely update the language, rather than fix some notable problems that have been discovered due to the finding of more manuscripts. The NKJV does carry alternative readings based on other manuscripts as footnotes.
The most notable incident of this is the retaining of 1 John 5:7: “For there are three who bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.” This text is commonly called the Comma Johanneum. The text of 1 John 5:7 is not found in any of the Greek manuscripts, but is found in the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the scriptures). Desiderius Erasmus was the first to produce a Greek translation of the New Testament (1516). He rightly left out the Comma Johanneum because it was not in any of the Greek manuscripts he consulted in preparing his translation. Erasmus came under severe attack for omitting this verse in both his first and second publications, since this verse was found in the highly used Vulgate. Finally, under great pressure and duress, Erasmus included this text in the third printing. We still do not have a trustworthy Greek manuscript that contains this text. However, Erasmus work was the beginning of what eventually became known as the Textus Receptus, which was the manuscript basis for the King James Version. Rather than take out this text which has no Greek manuscript evidence, the NKJV retained the text to match the form of the KJV.
Now, I recognize that there is no error taught in 1 John 5:7. It is certainly contains a truthful statement. Whether it belongs in the scriptures or not is not of great consequence, since what 1 John 5:7 teaches is certainly found in many other passages in the Scriptures. I use this example simply to validate my argument that the NKJV did not make revisions based upon the latest knowledge from archaeology and from linguists, but merely updated the language of the KJV.
Another example of the NKJV continuing to match the form of the KJV rather than make a change for the better is in Isaiah 14:12. “How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, you who weakened the nations!” The term “Lucifer” came into biblical tradition from Jeromes Latin translation of the Bible called the Vulgate. “Lucifer” does not appear in the original language of the scriptures. Shamefully, the New King James Version maintains “Lucifier” in its modern update of the KJV. Most versions translate this passage, “How you have falled from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn.” Unfortunately, one can see where the false concept came from concerning Satans name being Lucifer who fell from heaven. Lucifer is not a biblical name for Satan. Reading the context of Isaiah 14 one will see that Isaiah is prophesying against the king of Babylon and is not at all referencing the Devil.
It is evident that the translators of the NKJV wanted acceptance by those who used the KJV rather than make necessary changes based upon manuscript evidence. Even further, it is clear that the NKJV attempts to read in such a way that people could read the KJV and NKJV simultaneously (for example, in worship) and easily follow along because the structure and the words remain the same. Someone used to the KJV could begin using the NKJV and not notice a difference any greater than the removal of the Elizabethan language.
I grew up using the NKJV and have always been very fond of it for its trustworthiness and its literalness. It is disappointing to me that the NKJV could have easily eliminating the only weakness I find in the version by allowing the NKJV to be more a revision of the King James Version rather than a language update. Why keep “Lucifer” in Isaiah 14:12 when this is a misleading translation? As much as this may be personally frustrating, this weakness should not keep anyone from using the NKJV with confidence. The NKJV is an excellent translation that can be highly recommended to anyone who desires to study the Bible.