Monday, May 18, 2009

The King James Version Debate

The King James Version of the Bible is one of the most beloved translations in the English language. The language contained therein is beautifully poetic. The translation is remarkable in its form as well as in its historical significance.

I recently taught a “history of the biblical canon” series to our adult Sunday School class and I finished the series up with a section on the history of the English Bible up to the King James Version. I intentionally stopped there out of deference to the many folks in this particular assembly who hold to an extreme position regarding the King James translation. I don’t mean that to sound harsh, as I have no ill will to those who hold to the KJV as THE Bible in the English language. I certainly object to the unorthodox and sometimes heretical views that would claim some sort of a process of “secondary inspiration” in regards to the KJV, but I have no issue with folks using the KJV exclusively and attending only churches that do the same.

I personally admire the King James and its place in the history of the English bible; however, (as I’ve noted in more than one instance) it ranks 3rd or 4th on my list of preferred English translations available to us today. The ESV and NKJV both surpass the King James in quality, accuracy, and fidelity to the original texts, as well as in readability. But I’m not really writing this article to explore that particular portion of this subject so much as I am wishing to examine some of the history surrounding the King James translation.

The paragraphs below are somewhat of a summary of some of my studies on this subject over the last 5 or 10 years. I’m certain that bits and pieces here and there can be found to be “cut and paste” excerpts from somebody else’s work. As I’m studying something I will often take a note or copy a paragraph for later study. I suppose I should begin to do so with some reference to the original author! All that said, this information is available in any number of places to anyone who wishes to take the time to dig it up for themselves.

The King James Version of the Bible was originally developed to address several pressing concerns of the day….at least pressing as far as the King of England was concerned. First of all, there was an increasing amount of “disharmony” (for lack of a better word) in the Church of England. There were multiple Bible Versions in use in the early 1600’s: Tyndale’s Bible, Coveredale’s Bible, and of course, The Great Bible and the Bishop’s Bible (those two were “authorized” by the Crown). However, the Geneva Bible was, far and away, the most popular one in use. The Puritans had been using it for half a century (and would continue to do so for more than 30 years after the 1611 KJV was introduced) and many of the local “reformation-minded” churches were also using it. This was obviously a problem for both the King of England and for the Church of England given the nature of the marginal notes in the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible was the most scholarly translation of both Testaments and the Apocrypha that had been produced in the Anglo-Saxon tongue up to that point in history. The marginal notes, eloquent in their expression of the views of John Calvin and the Reformation, had much to say about the papacy (for instance, one marginal note in Revelation 11:7 reads: "The beast that cometh out of the bottomless pit is the Pope, which hath his power out of hell and cometh thence.") and the Christian response to corrupt Kings (a marginal note for Exodus 1:9 indicated that the Hebrew midwives were correct in disobeying the Egyptian king's orders, and a note for 2 Chronicles 15:16 said that King Asa should have had his mother executed and not merely deposed for the crime of worshipping an idol). These overt doctrinal statements were not exactly popular sentiments as far as the King of England was concerned!

The Geneva Bible, in addition to being the most scholarly work available, was also the most “current”. Where the Geneva had been revised as late as 1599, the Tyndale, Coverdale, Great, and Bishop’s Bibles had not been revised or reprinted for more than a generation. The King of England (King James I) desired a new translation. And not merely a new translation…but one without notes.

Back to the reasons for the new translation....most would say that there were three major reasons that James wanted a new translation made. First of all, the Reformation had spawned in the hearts of God’s people a desire to get back to the true meaning of scripture. While James was, by most historical accounts, a very wicked man, he did have a desire as king to find some common ground with his subjects. A translation of the Scriptures that was a more scholarly work than what was currently available would certainly accomplish that.

Secondly, and closely related to this first reason, was a renewed interest in scholarship in general. With the Renaissance Age there was a greater desire for true scholarship than had been around for some time. During the period leading up to James’ reign, there had been some groundbreaking work done to this end. For instance, both Hebrew and Greek had begun to be publicly studied in universities. Hebrew and Greek grammars and lexica were now readily available. Erasmus had published a very important work in his Greek New Testament in the early 1500’s. As a King reigning during a time of great advancements in scholarship, James was somewhat obligated to encourage and even commission more scholarly work.
A third reason, and I mentioned this several paragraphs ago, was the fact that James (somewhat understandably) hated the current bible…the Geneva translation. During a discussion leading up to the decision to formally commence with a new translation, James said, "I profess, I could never yet see a Bible well translated in English; but I think that, of all, that of Geneva is the worst."

The king's opinion notwithstanding, the Geneva Bible was extremely popular. It was much smaller than previous works (even with all the marginal notes), and, with the advent of the printing press coupled with cheap paper, it was relatively affordable. As a result it was the first translation that found its way into most homes. As a matter of fact, for nearly 50 years after the King James Version was first released in 1611, the Geneva Bible continued to be “the Bible of the home”. As I stated previously, the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible reflected the views of the Reformation…including extensive diatribes against corrupt kings. James, by all accounts, was extremely corrupt morally. Therefore, this translation didn’t really appeal to him!

Dr. John Reynolds made the initial formal proposal for a new translation to King James. James liked the idea and got many of the top scholars of the day involved. There were 54 translators involved in the process....these were men who were skilled in the Hebrew and Greek languages. They were dived into six groups – 2 at Cambridge, 2 at Oxford, and 2 at Westminster. Three of these groups worked solely on the Old Testament; two on the New Testament; and one on the Apocrypha. As small sections were completed by each group, they were then carefully reviewed by the other five groups. In this way, it was truly a collaborative effort of the scholars and not the work of a single man or group. An interesting aside is that 80% of Tyndale’s translation, which was done completely by him except for the last portion of the Old Testament, passed on into the 1611 KJV word for word. I find this interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that William Tyndale is a personal heroe of mine.

Now while it is true that the 54 men on this panel of translators were reputable scholars, their hands were somewhat tied. Aside from there just not being the manuscript evidence available to them in the 1600’s that we have available to us today, the instructions they were given had them truly offering up a scholarly “revision” of the Bishop’s Bible. Nearly 80% of the Bishop’s Bible passed on into the KJV. This was by design as the translating committee was instructed to follow the Bishop’s insofar as it was faithful to the original texts. As a result, the KJV was not actually a literal translation from the Hebrew and Greek. If you were to compare word for word the 1611 KJV to the complete English works that preceded it, you would find that it was somewhat of a “cut and paste” effort throughout.

There was a tremendous amount of resistance to the King James Bible early on. Many of the more preeminent scholars of the day had some strongly worded objections to it. One of the most well-known (and somewhat humorous) of these responses was by Dr. Hugh Boughton – a Puritan scholar – who wrote, “The late Bible...was sent to me to censure: which bred in me a sadness that will grieve me while I breathe, it is ill done. Tell His Majesty that I had rather be rent in pieces with wild horses, than any such translation by my consent should be urged upon poor churches...The new edition crosseth me. I require it to be burnt." So, far from being openly embraced and accepted, the KJV met with a good amount of criticism from some of the more prominent Bible scholars of the day.

Over the years the KJV has gone through many changes and some major revisions. There have been many thousands of changes from the 1611 KJV to the 1769 KJV that we have today. These thousands of changes have been primarily to update spelling, some grammar, punctuation, and chapter headings. The most major of the content changes has obviously been the removal of the Apocrypha in 1638 as well as the subsequent removal of all cross reference notes linking back to passages in the Apocrypha.

With the abundance of manuscript evidence discovered in the 400 years since the work on the KJV first began, there has been a renewed effort to lend more “precision” to the texts. While the KJV is a wonderful translation and, as I’ve already stated, one of my favorites, it does have some weaknesses. For instance, Erasmus’ Textus Receptus serves as the underlying Greek text for the New Testament. While Erasmus was a brilliant scholar, he had very few Greek manuscripts available to him in the early 1500’s when he was producing his text. His Textus Receptus was based on the Byzantine text which represents a revision of the New Testament made in the 4th century A.D. and later. The Johannine Comma in 1 John 5:7-8 as well as the addition of passages like Mark 16:9-20 are great examples of some of the major errors in the Textus Receptus that passed on to the KJV. While many of my friends will say that they are not KJVO, but "Byzantine text only", the increasing scholarship and advancements in textual criticism are proving that the Byzantine text family is inferior when compared to the discoveries of the last several hundred years.

In addition to a questionable approach to translation and the use of an inferior text family, there are also other issues with the KJV – issues such as some translation errors and the cumbersome nature of using a language that has changed so significantly over the last 4 centuries are a couple that come to mind. However, I want to be clear that these things do not make the KJV a poor translation! It has been stated that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 variants when comparing all the extant texts of the New Testament. However, the vast majority of these variants are very minor and affect, in only a very few cases, the meaning of a text. None of the variants have an impact on any major doctrine of Scripture. I’ll quote an article by Mike Vlach in discussing what several scholars have to say about these variants.

"Westcott and Hort: These excellent textual critics believed that only one-sixtieth of the variants in the New Testament rise above the level of “trivialities,” or could be called “substantial variations.” Even before the recent manuscript findings this would amount to a text that is 98.33 percent pure.

"Ezra Abbott: According to his estimates the text is 99.75 percent pure.

"A. T. Robertson: He believed that only a “thousandth part of the entire text” was of any real concern. That would make the New Testament 99.9 percent free from real concern for the textual critic.

"Sir Frederic Kenyon: “The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.'"

All that to say this…while you might often see the terms like “inferior text family”, this is not really cause for alarm! On the contrary, the advances in textual criticism and the increase in manuscript evidence over the years have enabled Bible scholars to offer more pure readings of troubling passages; it has allowed for a more clear understanding of the text; and it has caused us to have a greater appreciation for the lifelong, rigorous, and meticulous work of men like William Tyndale.

Now I want to make one more clarifying statement regarding my use of the term “weaker text families”. It should be noted that even these newer, perhaps less reliable texts display a high level of accuracy. As testament to the fidelity of even the “weaker” text families, consider the testimony of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Discovered in the late 1940’s, the Dead Sea Scrolls offered a glimpse of Old Testament manuscripts that were more than a millennium closer to the original manuscripts than anything else in existence (i.e., the O.T. Massoretic texts – the work of the Massoretes, btw, is an incredible study if you have the time). Many critics of the Bible assumed that this important discovery would ultimately serve to completely undermine the integrity of the Bible as a whole. At last the world would see just how far off the Scriptures were when compared with much older manuscripts. These critics were wrong....the Dead Sea Scrolls offered near word-for-word matchups to the other extant texts in 98% of their contents. Again, there was no major doctrine affected by the few minor inconsistencies.

I will say once again that I admire the KJV and I am profoundly appreciative of its place in history. I use it often and have never attempted to discourage others from using it. If it is your Bible of choice, I wish to encourage you to continue to use it…..often! Just please don’t attempt to convince me of some form of "secondary inspiration" that requires some ridiculous leaps of logic to buy into. Don’t refer to it as “God’s Word for the English speaking people” either, as those sorts of statements smack, not only of ignorance, but of bibliolatry.

As for me, I will continue to use the KJV as a companion Bible to the other translations that I prefer. I will continue to preach and teach from it primarily, unless I am in a church that uses multiple Bibles from their pulpit. The purpose of this little blog post is not to dissuade those who read the KJV from using it, but rather to show that, even in imperfection, we have in our English translations something that effectively communicates the will of God to us while maintaining true fidelity to the originals. I can say with a grateful heart that I am truly thankful for the men over the years who have labored tirelessly and oft-times risked their lives for the purpose of getting God’s Word into the hands of God’s people in their native tongues.

Today we are reaping, as never before in history, the benefits of those great men of the last 2000 years. There is no shortage of quality translations available to all in their own tongue. I am grateful that, in America, we are able to have a debate as to which of the plethora translations most accurately reflects the underlying texts…what a wonderful debate to be able to have!

1 comment:

James E. Snapp, Jr. said...

Just chiming in about your casual dismissal of Mark 16:9-20 -- there is a lot of misinformation about that passage floating around in commentaries. I welcome you to re-examine the issue: at
I offer a summarized presentation on the subject, and an extensive research paper is also available.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.