The King James Only Controversy: Can I Trust Modern Bible Translations?

Last week the King James Version of the Bible celebrated its 400th birthday.  At the time of its publishing, the KJV was the summum bonum of Bible translations in the English language.  Its style and scholarship stood above other translations and would stand for centuries as the standard translation used by English speakers all over the globe.  From time to time, I am asked about what is known as the “King James Only” controversy.  In short, there are some who believe that the only credible (some would say the only inspired) translation of the Bible is the KJV.  They claim that all modern English translations of the Bible, such as the NIV, NASB, etc. have been intentionally altered by the translators/editors to lead people away from true Christian faith and doctrine.

Space and time are limited for me to go very deep into these accusations, but suffice it to say they are arguments made without any objective study of the scholarship and textual scrutinization behind modern translations.  In addition, “KJV Only” proponents build their case on very broad based misunderstandings.  “They” is used to refer to all modern biblical scholars and translators who do not hold to their view and are thus attempting to delude readers.  There are certainly some translations of the Bible that do this- namely those produced by popular cults.  However, not “all” scholars and in turn not all translations are trying to deceive or be anything but faithful to the biblical text.

Let me take a moment and attempt to explain why I think modern English translations are credible, important, and necessary.  To do so, one must highlight the advantages of modern translations over the KJV.  Thus I want to make the caveat that I deeply respect the KJV and believe it to be a very fine translation.

In the last half of the sixteenth century in Great Britain, there had been no fewer than seven English translations made.  These included excellent works of scholarship by men such as Tyndale, Coverdale, and Whittingham.  By 1600, it was confusing as to which of these translations was the best one to use.  In 1604, King James I commissioned a committee of 50 scholars to translate the Bible from the original languages and to serve as the standard bearer for English translations.  The first edition was printed in 1611.

One of the editorial objectives listed by the translators in the preface of the KJV was to give a great variety of language usage in English.  This would turn out to be one of the “weaknesses” of the KJV.  Recall that these were the days of Shakespeare and a flourishing of English language and drama.  The KJV was not only an opportunity to create the benchmark of English translations; it was also the chance to put the eloquence and richness of the English language on display.  What this meant was that the KJV translators used a variety of different English words to translate the same Greek word even when it appeared in similar context.

For example, the Greek word “katargeo,” (generally translated “to destroy”) occurs 27 times in the N.T. However, it is rendered 18 different ways in the KJV: e.g. abolish, cease, cumber, deliver, destroy, do away, become of no effect, fail, loose, bring to naught, put away, vanish away, make void.  The opposite of this practice is also present in the KJV.  There are instances when different Greek words are translated with the same English word.  For example, the English word “trouble” is used to translate twelve different Greek words.  The English word “bring” is used to represent 39 different Hebrew words.

When I get into debates with KJV Only proponents, I am often told their Bible is uncorrupted because it is the original 1611 edition that hasn’t been touched by future editions or works of scholars.  However, that is false.  The history of the printing of the KJV is very interesting.  In 1611, there were two (some argue three) folio editions with 200 variations in the text.  One is the “He” edition and the other is the “She” edition involving the text of Ruth 3:15 that renders “he went into the city” and “she went into the city” respectively.  In 1611, English spelling had not been standardized (e.g. “speake” instead of “speak”) and thus numerous corrective editions were made.  Some changes were made in 1613.  The Cambridge versions of 1629 and 1638 tried to clear up a number of discrepancies.  By the mid eighteenth century, so many misprints and reprints of the KJV had been made it became something of a scandal in Britain.  Francis Sawyer Parris, a Cambridge scholar, issued a revision in 1760.  It is interesting to note the changes of his edition and the original in 1611.  For example, 1 Cor. 13:1-3 in the 1760 version has eleven changes of spelling, nine changes of typesetting, three changes of punctuation, and one variant text- the 1611 renders “not charity” in v.2 and is replaced with “no charity,” in the mistaken belief that the original reading was a misprint.

Finally in 1769, Oxford scholar Richard Blayney produced an edition that has rarely been changed to this day.  This edition serves as the text for most present day printings of the KJV.  Thus, if someone is holding a KJV Bible and claim it to be a 1611 edition, they are in all likelihood incorrect. The movement in contemporary versions started in 1885 with the printing of the Revised Version in England.  Its counterpart was the American Standard Version printed in 1901.

The importance of modern English translations compared to the KJV can be seen in the following areas:

New discoveries in biblical manuscripts

The manuscripts used by the KJV scholars were, in general, more than a thousand years removed from the originals.  What they were using had accumulated centuries of scribal error, though none of these errors were significant in terms of doctrine.  Today we have complete copies of the N.T. approximately 600 years older and fragments 900 years older than those possessed by KJV scholars.  In addition, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were not discovered until 1947, are over a thousand years older than O.T. manuscripts used by KJV translators.  In essence, we have a significantly greater quantity of ancient texts (many place the number of texts available to KJV scholars around 500 compared to over 5,000 today) that are much older than those available to the KJV scholars.  Furthermore, the Greek version of the N.T. used in translating the KJV was by Erasmus (also known as the Textus Receptus, or Received Text), which the vast majority of scholars now believe to be corrupt and was a Byzantine text type, rather than Alexandrian, meaning it is not as old.

Improvements in scholarship

The last one hundred years alone has seen developments in understanding the language and grammar of the original languages.  This is due in part to the discovery of older manuscripts (mentioned above) and findings in archaeology.

Here is a good example of this point: 1 Sam. 8:16 in the KJV reads, “And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to work.”  In the NIV, the phrase “goodliest young men” is changed to the word “cattle.”  Why did the NIV translation team make this change?  The KJV team was using a newer Hebrew text while the NIV team was using an older Greek text of the O.T. (the Septuagint or LXX).  In Hebrew, the word translated “young men” is bhrykm.  The word translated “cattle” is bqrykm.  The difference in the words is very slight and is understandable for a scribe to make the error.  The older LXX renders the word for “cattle,” not “young men.”  Additionally, notice the couplets in 1 Sam. 8:16- menservants and maidservants; young men/cattle and asses.  “Cattle” obviously fits the couplet better than “young men” and so the NIV translators made the change.

Findings in Archaeology

Science today is unearthing records from long ago which continue to open windows in understanding the biblical text.  One example of this is found in Prov. 26:23.  The KJV renders this verse as, “Burning lips and a wicked heart are like a potsherd covered with silver dross.”  It seems odd that clay pottery would be covered with silver.  The phrase “silver dross” in Hebrew is kesef sigim. A discovery in modern times found a Ugaritic text containing the phrase kesef sigim with the usage “like glaze.”  Glaze, rather than silver, better fits the context of a coating for pottery.  Modern English translations translate the phrase “glaze.”

Changes in the English Language

The changes that have occurred in the English language from the time of 1611 to the present day are a significant reason for the importance of modern English translations.  The very heart of the Bible is revelation- to communicate to people God’s truth.  However, communication is hindered if the language is difficult to comprehend.   Simply stated, the English spoken in 1611 and the English spoken today (particularly in terms of vocabulary) are quite different.  For example: Ps. 119:147 in the KJV says that God “prevented the dawn of the morning.”  Is this like the miracle of nature when the sun stopped in Josh.10?  No, in 1611 the word “prevent” meant “precede.”

Some words and phrases in the KJV are obsolete and unintelligible to modern English speakers such as:

  • “And of the rest durst…”- Acts 5:13
  • “Churl”- Isa. 32:7
  • “Cieled”- Hag. 1:4
  • “Clouted upon their feet”- Josh. 9:5
  • “Collops”- Job. 15:27
  • “Wimples”- Isa. 3:22
  • “Sackbut”- Dan. 3:5
  • “Fanners”- Jer. 51:2
  • “Implead”- Acts 19:38
  • “Glistering”- Luke 9:29

Another problem of seventeenth century English is that same words or expressions can have completely different meanings.  For example, in Luke 19:3, the KJV says that Zaccheaus climbed into the tree to see Jesus because of “the press.”  Modern English speakers would read that as Zaccheaus having some problem with the news media and reporters that were on the scene.  However, the word in the day of the KJV meant “crowd.”  The KJV will also often use the word “charity” for “love” and “ghost” for “spirit.”

There can also be confusion in understanding English grammar and structure compared with today.  One almost humorous example is the KJV rendering of 1 Kings 13:27- “And he spake unto his sons, saying ‘Saddle me the ass. And they saddled him.”  One might be confused on exactly who was saddled.  The NASB renders the same verse as, “Then he spoke to his sons saying, ‘Saddle the donkey for me.’ And they saddled it.”

In conclusion, KJV Only proponents claim that modern English translations are man-made attempts at corrupting the true biblical text and promulgating false doctrine.  Many of the arguments made go so far as denigrating or even denying the existence of many of the ancient texts used to translate modern translations.  It is ironic that the preface to the original 1611 KJV written by the translators actually denies a great number of the things many KJV Only proponents affirm, namely:

  • The authority of Scripture is in the original autographs, not the KJV
  • The biblical authors were inspired, not the translators of the KJV
  • They did not condemn other translations and affirmed the value of Greek and Hebrew texts
  • They did not believe varying translations affected doctrine
  • They were not opposed to the future changing and editing of a translation

Yes, not all modern translations are helpful or accurate, and some are not even translations at all, such as paraphrases like The Living Bible.  But overall, modern English translations are a helpful tool for today’s disciple to read, study, and apply the Word of God.

If you are interested in further study, James White has written an excellent book about the topic of this post titled, “The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations?”  You can see it here:

King James Only Controversy

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