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Where did our Bible Come from? Part 2: The KJV only position and its problems

Disclaimer: This post is slightly more negative than I generally like. However, this group is so vocal and so antithetical to the entire process of historical investigation that is required for the present investigation that their position needs to be addressed. Also, in addressing some of the problems with the position a few ideas can be introduced about textual criticism that can then be developed later on. I apologize for singling out a single group like this, but it seems appropriate at the time.

The Different Options

On Friday of last week, I gave a really brief introduction to what would be the next several posts. Today I’m going to try to tackle a few of the different options for which bible is which. I’m actually going to reserve my comments on the “Protestant Bible” until the end because that is the version that I accept and will be the assumed version for the posts that follow. Still, as promised, I’m first going to look at the King James Only group, including its problems. Tomorrow I’ll look at a few of the other groups. (I’m spending so much time on this first group because they tend to be very vocal and much more firmly committed to their position than others).

King James Bible Only

According to most advocates of this school of thought, God preserved the majority of manuscripts in Greek to be used as the basis for translation into the height of the English Language (King James English). They continue to argue that the English language has steadily been moving towards the lingua franca (common language) of the world and will eventually be spoken by almost everyone. Further, they tend to implicitly or explicitly argue that not only is the divine text inspired, but the translation work was as well. Therefore, advocates of the “King James only” approach suggest that the translators made no errors, the texts they translated from were perfectly preserved and that the King James Bible is now the only valid bible (the Greek and Hebrew are no longer acceptable either). Further they tend to argue that only the 1611 version of the KJV is acceptable, which simply follows the logic that they had previously argued from. This does have the advantage of not focusing on the “autographs,” the original manuscripts that we not only don’t have, but will likely never have, and avoiding dealing with a different language (for English speakers anyway). Of the minority within the KJV-only group who do allow for examination of the Greek, only the “textus receptus” (Latin for “received text”) is acceptable since that was the version the 1611 translators were working from. We’ll talk about that term “textus receptus ” tomorrow. Before that, I’m going to address why this group has some insurmountable problems that mean it should be rejected despite the advantages it may offer. I’m not saying the King James Bible is not a good version. I am, however, saying that they have no right to claim it is the only acceptable version, nor do I think they are right to say it is even the best available version (Sidenote: I don’t think any version can really claim to be the “best” in the sense that the KJV-only people would use the term. Every version has its strengths and weaknesses and some may be better along one criterion, but another better along a different criterion).

The claim that the translators of the King James Bible were inspired by God in the same way the authors of Scripture were is problematic for a few reasons. First, this claim contrasts with the history of the events between the creation of the bible and the KJV translation. The human authors of the bible experienced God’s presence in a radical and profound way. Whether that was through the observation of his direct interaction with the world through his mighty historical acts (as was the case with the Old Testament), or through direct conversation with God incarnate in Christ and as a result of his Resurrection (as was the case with the New Testament), the biblical writers had met God and seen his power. As a result of this, they could not help but write some of it down and what this interaction meant. This writing process was, according to more conservative (like my own) views, attended by the Holy Spirit who “inspired” the human writer and worked in partnership with the author to create a divine-human text. The translators of the King James Bible had no analogous situation. They did not experience the profound presence of God in the same way and the catalyst for their translation was not this encounter. Instead it was an order of a human king, who paid them to have it translated. This does not mean that the KJV was not important nor that this translation was not a remarkable feat (it was both important and remarkable). It does, however, mean that this was not a response to God’s direct intervention in history, but a response to a king. Now, it may have been a divinely ordained response, or even sacred in its practice, but it did not have the character of direct divine intervention that the creation of the bible did. We need to be clear not to conflate human effort with divine providence.

Second, the claim of KJV-only people that the bible is free from error in translation is simply untrue. The most glaring example is the translation of the divine name. While “Jehovah” had been standard accepted practice for the divine name, and has some relation to the Latin usage of the divine name, “Jehovah” actually comes from a gross misunderstanding of the Hebrew text. The initial Hebrew of the bible was written (mostly) without the vowels present. As time went on, though, certain Jewish groups wanted to ensure that when the bible was read aloud, it was pronounced correctly, even by those who were still fairly young (since bar-mitzvahs (and much later bat-mitzvahs occur around 13, even though often formal education was not yet complete) who read it. Thus, the Masorites (who had been preserving the text), sought to add vowel points to the Hebrew bible. Since the lines themselves were considered sacred, the vowel points were added above and below the text itself. The divine name, YHWH, was not pronounced (and still isn’t) in Jewish circles, and instead the substitute word for “lord” was pronounced upon arriving at it “adonai” (if the text referred to Lord YHWH, the word “elohim” was used). Thus the vowel points were put in for “adonai” around the word YHWH. Thus even though the divine name was likely pronounced Yahweh, a non-Jew who had a basic understanding of Hebrew would read it Yahovah (or Jehovah). This is a fairly minor error, but is one so prevalent (and only one example) that it is difficult to maintain both the inerrancy of the text and the inspiration of the translators in the sense that KJV-only advocates want to take it.

Third, KJV-only advocates assume that the majority, or “received” text, is the only correct text of the Greek. This simply ignores the history of the text. While this jumps ahead a little to talk about textual criticism, it’s important for understanding the problems with the KJV-only position. According to the logic of KJV-only advocates, God would have preserved his divine text through the majority of manuscripts so that they were correctly translated. Otherwise, it could have been “meddled” in some way. Textual criticism, though, runs completely counter to this view. New Testament textual criticism notes that historically, as time went on the Christian religion grew less persecuted and gained in popularity. As it gained in popularity, it would have been more likely that copies of the New Testament could be made in mass quantities. Since this was prior to the introduction of the printing press to the West, this copying was done by hand. Also as time went on, the older manuscripts were more likely to be lost or to degrade in some way. The result is that 1) the majority of the manuscripts available were relatively recent and not from the first few centuries of the church. 2) The majority of the manuscripts also differed from the older manuscripts in a few (largely minor) areas. This latter point is likely because scribes (being human) had a tendency over time to mishear things (if copying from a reader), misread things (especially since the older scripts had no punctuation or spacing), tended to try to clear up discrepancies (either thinking they were benefiting the reader, or on the assumption that the text had already been poorly copied), and tended to add comments which would often, inadvertently, find their ways into the text. Bruce Metzger (who I mentioned last time), astutely notes that once one of these errors occurred, it was incredibly unlikely that a later copyist would change it. Therefore, the later manuscripts (which are the majority) are actually more likely to be different from the original than the earlier manuscripts (which makes sense, since there is a smaller gap of time, errors would be less likely to occur).

Incidentally, this difference in text is the source of the KJV-only crowds strongest objection to other versions of the bible. Please note, the overwhelming majority of these differences are so minor as to be trivial, but to most KJV-only advocates I’ve encountered, they are anything but minor. After having preaching out of an NIV bible (at the pastor’s suggestion) in a rural church, I was confronted once by a group of KJV-only advocates. I was newly married and my wife and I were having lunch with members of the church (most of whom were extremely positive) when they sprung it on me. They pulled out a sheet of “omissions” that non-KJV versions had. Some of these seemed ridiculous, like the difference between “He went” and “And he arose and went,” but to this small group, they were incredibly serious. I want to assure the non-KJV only readers that what they consider serious is actually not. There are no doctrinal points found in any of these supposed “omissions” that should in any way impact one’s faith in any major way that are not found (often more clearly) elsewhere in the bible. I suppose that this is a large part of the reason why I am spending so much time on this group.

Fourth, many KJV-only advocates also claim this is the first English Bible. That’s simply untrue. There were many versions of the bible in English prior to the KJV. The two most popular were the Wycliffe Bible and the Tyndale Bible. While the Wycliffe Bible was an English translation from the Latin, and due to its popularity, along with the (then) rebellious nature of Wycliffe and his followers resulted in a ban on English language bibles. Nevertheless, William Tyndale undertook what is likely the first English translation of the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew, having been influenced by Erasmus, the pioneer in both Greek-Hebrew studies and textual criticism (more on him tomorrow). In many ways, Tyndale’s version (which was likely done in collaboration with others) is superior to the KJV version, if a bit crude at other times. The popularity of the KJV version is due less to divine providence, and more to its endorsement by the King as the first “authorized version” of the English bible, thus relegating Tyndale’s translation to obscurity.

Now, I’ve gone on a bit too long again to talk about the other options, but I have, I hope, shown the problems with a KJV-only approach and why most Christians reject that approach. I have also given only the briefest introduction to biblical criticism, which I may try to extend at some point in this series. Tomorrow I’ll talk about some of the other options for which version of the bible we use.

Question: Have you ever had any experiences with KJV-only advocates? What were your thoughts? Is there something I’ve addressed incorrectly? Are there other questions you’d like to see addressed in this blog?

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9 thoughts on “Where did our Bible Come from? Part 2: The KJV only position and its problems

  1. Mike May on said:

    I met a few in my day. Like most groups, they are maddening in the way they simply can’t see how ridiculous they sound. Kind of like the tax protesters I sometimes deal with now

  2. I went to an independent Baptist boarding school for one year of high school. They were KJV-only advocates and we actually had a class that lasted about 2 months going over why the KJV was the only acceptable version. While I don’t remember many of the specifics of the class (it was over 10 years ago), I do recall that no where during the study did the material we were learning from ever say that the translators were inspired, only that God had led King James to decree a translation of the entire Bible into English (not quite the same as being inspired by God the way the authors were. Proverbs even says that the King’s heart is in the hand of Lord (21:1)) Much of the class material centered around the fact that many of the manuscripts used in the translation of later versions, especially the NIV, were corrupted in some way…as in, they were very old practice manuscripts that had been tucked away in a corner of some church for hundreds of years, only to be discovered, thrown out, found in the trash and used by a translator in making new translations. True? Who knows. We also studied the list of verses that had been altered or left out and the only one that really struck me as odd was a verse from Acts 8. Open an NIV and look for verse 37. It’s simply been left out. I find that the most odd part about that is not that it was left out but that it is basically the most important take-away verse from the passage. Peter is telling the Eunuch that he can be baptized “If though believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”. My current NIV Bible does make a note of it in the footnotes, but I’m sure most people would never notice that when casually reading unless they were looking for the missing verse! Sorry this has been so lengthy but I found it to be an interesting post. I had not thought about the “KJV only” class in years!

    • Well I probably should’ve been more clear. Not all KJV-only people say the translators were inspired, but a good number do (mostly those who are “missionary baptist”). As far as the base used for modern translations (which is pretty much the same base for all modern translations, not just the NIV), these older manuscripts were not “practice.” While they were not “illuminated” in the same way the more recent ones were (that were the basis for the KJV), they were nevertheless carefully written down. I don’t think this is the place to talk about textual criticism, but suffice it to say, it is a pretty clear cut case that the basis for modern translations (except the NKJV which uses the KJV base) is much closer to the original Greek than the KJV. These extra passages were just that, later additions (unfortunately the same goes for a lengthy verse in 1 John, and the endings of Mark). However, these aren’t the main doctrinal points of those passages. For instance, the episode in Acts 8 is not about (fundamentally) what sort of profession counts as salvation, it is more about the expansion of the Gospel beyond Israel and to previously though “unclean” people groups. The passage the Eunuch is reading in Isaiah is just before the passage when the Eunuch is addressed directly and is told that he will be restored in the new covenant, the new covenant found in Christ. That is the take away. For the early church, baptism and conversion were synonymous (not in the sense that baptism saved you, but in the sense that a baptism always/only followed a clear conversion). Thus, while something like the profession likely occurred, the primary point of the passage is not the Eunuch’s profession, it is that the gentile Eunuch can be included in God’s people for the first time.

  3. Pingback: Where did our Bible come from? Part 5: Settling on the Old Testament Canon « whytheology

  4. Pingback: Where did our Bible Come from? Part 7: Marcion « whytheology

  5. Pingback: Where did our Bible come from? Part 8: The Diatessaron « whytheology

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  7. Pingback: Where did our Bible come from? Part 11: Inspiration of Scripture « whytheology

  8. Pingback: Summary of the series: Where did our Bible come from? (part 13) « whytheology

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