King James Only

There is a significant proportion of American Christians who want to believe that the King James Bible (KJV) -- they usually insist on the "1611" edition, never mind that they've never seen that edition -- is the most accurate English language translation. This essay explores some of the issues surrounding that question.

My best guess is that the sonorous archaic Elizabethan language of the KJV gives people the warm fuzzies and makes them feel "spiritual". This should not be confused with pure religion, which involves personal commitment, helping widows and orphans, loving your enemies, messy and uncomfortable stuff like that. This is only a guess on my part, because people mostly won't admit to these feelings. Except I do notice that the non-Christians, when they want to pillory the Christians or religious feelings in general, switch to some faux-Elizabethan grammar. Oh yes, there also seems to be no statistically significant difference in behavior between the Christians and the pagans. But this is all supposition and ad hominem. Let's look instead at the objective data.

The KJV-only (KJVO) crowd has been defending their position long enough to have developed a fairly sophisticated scholarly defense. It is called the "majority text" and a neutral version of the argument goes something like this:

We do not have the original handwritten autographs that Paul and Peter and John and Luke and Moses and Isaiah and the others wrote, but only copies of copies of copies. The original texts have long since worn out and disappeared. They did not have printing presses and photography and xerox machines; everything was copied by hand. It was a long and tedious job, and occasionally small errors crept in. The errors were then copied into the next generation, along with new errors. The result is different manuscripts and manuscript families with different patterns of errors, all small and mostly insignificant, but quantifiable. Eventually the scribes realized what was happening and got very much more careful in their copying, so that the later copies introduced fewer new errors. The Hebrew scholars came to this realization much earlier, so that the oldest Hebrew manuscript prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls is virtually identical to the scrolls dated 1000 years earlier. They were already being careful in the first century. The Christians took a while to catch up, unfortunately somewhat after the originals had disappeared.

One or two copies of the whole Bible went to the academic community in Egypt, and we have a fairly early copy of it in Codex Alexandrinus. Another early copy was lost in a monastery on the Sinai peninsula, but recently found, almost complete; it's called by its Latin name Sinaiticus. Other copies went north and west. One early long lost copy was eventually found in the Vatican. Mostly the churches made their own copies from whatever they could find, much as the churches in China do today. After Islam took over the middle east and north Africa, the churches there went dormant and did not need new copies of the Bible, but the Catholic churches in Europe continued to wear out their Bibles and make new copies of their copies, and eventually settled on an approved redaction of the text thought to be accurate. Thereafter all the middle ages copies in Europe came from this tradition. We have thousands of these late European (Roman Catholic) copies, but they preserve the errors made in the early copies that went north and west toward Rome, without reference to the different errors that went east and south.

About a 150 years ago, scholars began comparing very old manuscripts recently found in these old middle east monasteries, to the western texts, and the science of textual criticism was developed to study the families of transcription errors. Out of this scientific study came what is called the "critical text" which carefully documents all the differences and identifies which early manuscripts show which variants.

Fortunately, we have significant changes over time in the style of writing Greek, so we can accurately date the manuscripts. In the first century Greek was written in all capitals with no word breaks. Later, as copyists were pressured to finish their copies faster, the letters began to get rounder and run-on, much like handwriting today. In the middle ages copyists started introducing abbreviations for common words and word endings. This continual and gradual change in writing style makes it possible to date manuscripts to within 50 or 100 years. We can confirm our dates by carbon-14 and by the fact that often old parchments were "erased" (most of the ink scraped off) and recycled; modern chemical and photographic tools enable us to recover the erased text, which is known to be older than what replaced it.

So now we have thousands of late medieval full-Bible manuscripts preserved by the Catholic church, and only hundreds of early fragments and full Bibles from various places scattered around the rest of the Roman Empire. The majority text argument calls for a vote, where each manuscript is given one vote, regardless of its age or tradition. The Roman Catholic text wins. Not coincidentally, that text is also the basis for Erasmus' Textus Receptus (TR), from which all European Bible translations were made before 1881, including the 1611 KJV and Luther's German Bible. The textual scholars prefer to assign weights to each existing manuscript by age and textual independence; their critical text has been the basis of virtually all modern translations -- except for the recent KJVO translations, which were begun after the majority text argument was formalized, and apparently to give substance to its claims.

Some less-scholarly KJVO proponents like to offer Biblical support to their claim that the majority text has God's protection, namely that God promised to preserve His word. However, there is no Scriptural reason to suppose that God's protection applies only to the KJV or TR, and not also to the critical text. Note (with one significant exception) everything in the TR is also in the critical text; nothing is missing, everything has been preserved.

Others argue that the critical text has "removed" parts of the Bible preserved in the majority text. This claim is actually inaccurate, because all the significant variants are included in the critical text apparatus, along with the reasons for the scholarly determinations. It could be argued on the basis of the early manuscript evidence and the nature of the differences that the western text variants are late additions, rather than that these words were deleted from the earlier texts. Most of the additional words in the western text are copies of parallel passages already elsewhere in the critical text without variant problems, suggesting that they were added by pious scribes seeing the parallelism. Indeed, in a few cases we have manuscript evidence of this kind of accretion: the earliest manuscripts are missing the words, then they show up in the margin of one later text, then are finally incorporated into the body of subsequent copies.

A notable example of this accretion is in 1Jn.5:7, where the KJV vigorously affirms the doctrine of the Trinity. The earliest Greek manuscript with this text is a 10th-century collection of epistles with the extra words added in the margin by a later hand. The only manuscripts with it in the body text can be reliably dated after Erasmus inserted it into the TR. The story I heard in seminary is that he had not included the words in his first edition of TR, and the Catholic scholars objected. "I cannot find it in any Greek texts," he responded. "Show me one Greek text with these words, and I'll put it in." They showed him one.

Then there are a few hypocritical ad hominem denunciations of the critical text based on the deviant theology of the early critical scholars Wescott and Hort. This is completely without merit, because the modern critical text is maintained by Christian scholars of the finest integrity and most orthodox theology; they have personally reviewed and corrected any errors that might have crept in because of individual nutty ideas on the part of Wescott and Hort. Furthermore -- this is the hypocritical part -- the proponents of this notion that bad personal theology invalidates a man's work are unwilling to apply the same reasoning to the makers of the automobiles they drive or the airplanes they fly or the food they eat. They only make this case when it serves their personal agenda, and not across the board.

I -- and I suspect most Bible translators, judging from the availability of critical text tools -- want to use the best resources available, with due consideration to all the arguments pro and con. We (or at least I) also take the position that comprehension far outweighs the literalness favored by the KJVO crowd, but I would rather see a believer struggling through a KJV Bible and understanding only half of it, than having the best text possible and not reading it at all. It's all God's Word, and God seems pleased to let people muddle along on half (or less) of the available horsepower.

I am particularly concerned over verifiability. I prefer to trust a modern evangelical scholar like Bruce Metzger, who meticulously documented his decisions so I can recheck his reasoning, over a Roman Catholic cleric from 500 years ago (Erasmus) who left no such audit trail, and who obviously capitulated at least once to ecclesiastical pressure from his fellow church authorities.

I do worry (a little) about the misinformation that gets passed around in favor of the KJV. The KJV Bible you get in American bookstores is not the 1611 version, it was revised several times, and the version generally available in bookstores today is the 1769 edition. Furthermore, over 4000 words have changed meaning in the last 400 years. It is a sorry state of affairs when people quote a verse where the significant words have changed meaning, so the sense gets misunderstood. Fortunately, even there God's Providence overrules human foolishness: every important doctrine is repeated often and using different words, so its meaning is hard to miss entirely.

Tom Pittman
rev. 2008 September 3