The King James Version of the Bible–Some Facts and Insights

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

The KJV Only issue is an emotionally volatile issue in some segments of Christianity.  It is almost a dead issue among the best and brightest evangelical scholars, but it is not a dead issue in our churches.  It is an issue I have done a bit of reading and studying about in the past and continue to think through today.  I am not, however, an expert in the field.  That is why I have asked my friend and pastoral intern here at Oak Park to write some thoughts about this particular topic. 

Chris Pope is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a pastoral intern, Sunday School Teacher, and friend.  Chris is fluent in both Hebrew and Greek and is currently working on his own translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew.  He is as qualified as any man I know to tackle this topic.  Enjoy his article!

 

This past Christmas, my grandmother gave me The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds on Prayer in “contemporary English.” The material was written between 1912 and 1931, and already someone felt the need to update the language. Today, many older works are available in modern versions. For my part, when it comes to classics like Shakespeare or The Pilgrim’s Progress, I prefer the original. Often the poetry, the nuances, and the exact choices made by the author just don’t carry over well in the updating process. And there’s always the chance that the bias of the editors has crept in and diminished the work. I believe this is one of the main reasons many people prefer the King James Version of the Bible.

I’m writing today to address a segment of American Christianity that not only prefers the King James, but insists that it is the only acceptable Bible for English-speaking churches. Like many Baptists, my first Bible was a King James, and I read it and memorized from it as a child. As England’s Prime Minister recently declared, the KJV is without question the most important work in English, the masterwork of literature in our language. From the late 1600s to the late 1800s, it was virtually the only English Bible in common use, and preaching from other versions was almost unheard of in Southern Baptist churches until the last thirty years or so. It is understandable that, in many people’s eyes, “modern” versions of the Bible just don’t measure up.

However, one key difference between the King James Bible and other classical literature is this: the KJV is not “the original.” The Bible was first written in Hebrew, Greek, and some Aramaic, and it is this material that was inspired and perfect. Very early on, the Bible was translated into Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Slavic and dozens of other languages. The King James is, in fact, an update of previous English translations of God’s Word, and the translators wrote an extensive introduction to defend their work against critics who preferred older versions or who questioned the legitimacy of translation altogether. In their introduction, the KJV translators affirm that “euen the meanest translation of the Bible in English…containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. As the Kings Speech which he vttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian and Latine, is still the Kings Speech, though it be not interpreted by euery Translator with like grace nor peraduenture so fitly for phrase, nor so expresly for sence, euery where” (the old English forms were retained in that paragraph).

It may help to know a little about how the King James Bible came to be. It all began with William Tyndale, who began translating the New Testament into English in 1525. As a result of corruption in the church at the time, translating the Bible or even possessing it in one’s own language was illegal. But Tyndale believed all Christians should have the right to read the Bible for themselves. Miles Coverdale added the Old Testament a few years later. Once Henry VIII legalized English Bibles, an official version was produced, based on Tyndale’s New Testament. Today a whole family of English translations has its roots in Tyndale’s work.

 

By 1604, England had two competing translations. The Bishops’ Bible was preferred by the clergy and used in the Book of Common Prayer, but many of the common people preferred the Geneva Bible, which was produced by Puritans and contained many interpretive notes like today’s study Bibles. (Both were based on Tyndale’s work.) Puritan John Reynolds proposed a compromise version, and King James commissioned the project. It would contain some concessions to Puritan sensibilities, as well as marginal notes on alternate translations and textual readings, but unlike the Geneva Bible, it would maintain Episcopal vocabulary (words such as baptism, bishop, and church) and have no interpretive notes.

About fifty Anglican scholars worked on the project in six committees. For the Old Testament, they relied on the traditional Rabbinic editions of the Hebrew Bible, with occasional alterations toward the Greek and Latin. Their Greek sources for the New Testament were chiefly the 1588/89 and 1598 editions of Theodore Beza’s work, with about 200 exceptions. The Apocrypha was also translated and included with most copies into the 1700s. The introduction, “The Translators to the Reader,” remains to this day an excellent treatise on the early history and theory of Bible translation.

In the final work, first printed in 1611, an estimated 80% of the words in the New Testament were still identical to Tyndale’s work from the 1520s. As a result, some of the language already sounded “old” when the KJV was first published. Nevertheless, the KJV was more technical, more dignified, and more fit for public reading than any of the previous editions. The spelling and grammar were updated and standardized in the 1760s; the introduction and marginal notes were also removed around this time.

During the late 1700s and 1800s, many older Greek manuscripts were discovered that favored a slightly shorter and simpler text for the New Testament. In 1885, the Revised Version was published, taking these discoveries into account. This project was a direct predecessor to the New American Standard, New Revised Standard, and English Standard versions in use today, and also gave rise to scores of independent Bible translations.

I don’t wish to discourage anyone from using the King James Version. It is one of the Bibles I consistently have on hand in my own study and translation work, and God has used it as mightily as any other English version. However, my firm conviction is that any translation is the word of God to the extent that it faithfully conveys what the authors originally wrote. The King James does this well, but other English versions today do this just as well and possibly even better. (There are a few versions today that are corrupt or of poor quality, and I believe it is best to avoid outright paraphrases, but that’s an article for another day.) Those for whom faith in the King James is equivalent to faith in the Bible itself will not be persuaded by a single blog article. But for the teachable, let me close with seven reasons to use contemporary Bibles alongside the King James:

1. Respect for the KJV Translators’ Intent. In creating “one principal good” English version, the translators did not intend theirs to be the final English Bible, nor did they claim that it was perfect. Their justification for updating well-respected versions of God’s Word also applies to updates to their own work. In fact, they argue on the basis of 1 Corinthians 14:6-12 that it would be negligent to leave God’s Word in a state where it cannot be clearly understood.

2. Changes in the English Language. One can argue whether English has gotten better or worse in the past 500 years, but it is unquestionably very different. In Tyndale’s English, “suffer” means to let or permit, “let” often means to prevent, and “prevent” means to precede. A couple dozen KJV words have fallen out of use entirely, and there are newer words and grammatical structures that allow us to more clearly convey the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek.

3. Advances in the Text. God has preserved the Scriptures not in a single enshrined source but in thousands of manuscript copies. As explained above, we have found copies of Scripture that are closer to the original in time and place than those the KJV translators had available. Most modern versions at least have footnotes to let the reader know when there is a difference in the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. There are some important differences, though they do not affect the doctrines of the faith. If every word of the Bible is inspired (and if anything added later by copyists is not), we should desire something as close to the original as possible.

4. Advances in Vocabulary. Through the study of ancient documents found in the past couple centuries, as well as greater contact with other cultures, we now understand many technical terms, such as words for plants and animals, that the KJV translators misunderstood or had to guess at. For example, the “dragons” of Psalm 44:19 should be jackals, and the “unicorn” of Numbers 23:22 should be the wild ox.

5. Resistance to Conspiracy Theories. Some “King James Only” teachers claim (without evidence) that all modern Bibles are part of an ancient conspiracy to deliberately corrupt the Bible, and that the manuscripts used by today’s translators were created and promoted by a Satanic or Gnostic cult. Conspiracy claims are tempting because they let us feel we are “in the know,” superior to the multitudes we think are deceived. However, it is just as naive to believe conspiracy claims as it is to believe the majority. The fact is that most popular English Bibles are put together by a wide variety of godly evangelical Christians who follow the same principles of study and translation as scholars in any other field.

6. Charity Toward Other Believers. Many Christians have come into the faith and grown as believers through modern versions of Scripture. They find these easier to understand and closer to the original. Many pastors and Sunday School teachers likewise find it best to teach from a contemporary rendering. I have seen “King James Only” Christians pass judgment on such people or treat them with suspicion. We should not disparage their devotion to the Bible on account of their translation preference.

7. Independent Study of God’s Word. You need a Bible you can understand for yourself and study with other Christians. If you need to rely wholly on your pastor, as is the case in many places where only the KJV is preached, or if you cannot study the Bible with other believers without paraphrasing and modernizing the language yourself, a contemporary version is in order. This is why the Bible is translated in the first place, so that we can see it for ourselves and have a way to determine whether the teaching of pastors and scholars is truly biblical.

For study of the Bible, I recommend essentially literal versions in contemporary English. For further study of this issue, I recommend One Bible Only? by Roy E. Beacham and Kevin T. Bauder, and How to Choose a Bible Version by Robert L. Thomas.

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