Friday, May 20, 2011

The King James Version: 400 Years of Celebration and Controversy

I was a bit surprised to find NPR and so many other news outlets reporting on the birthday of the KJV. Born at a time when the reformation was spreading across Europe, King James ordered what has arguably become the most beloved English translation of the Bible. Incidentally, there is no evidence that he actually gave it his final approval, although it has come to be called the “Authorized Version.” Nevertheless, there are those who attack it on account of King James I being suspected of homosexuality, although he was not involved in the translation process (I'm sure that if it was under the direction of his father it would have been otherwise). Others hold the translation as being directly overseen by God to guarantee against all human error, as called the King James Only camp.

The Authorized King James Version was based on a Greek New Testament by the Catholic scholar Erasmus in 1516, known as the Textus Receptus (received text), which William Tyndale and Martin Luther also used for their translations. According to a computer analysis approximately eighty-five percent of the words of the KJV originated with Tyndale,1 who was rewarded by being burned at the stake for his work. While I do not claim to be a scholar or an expert on the subject of translations—although I do know a little Greek, he owns a restaurant down the road, but he's really not very little (lol)—most Christian scholars consider the original text to have been inspired and inerrant, rather than the translations.2 Contrary to Islamic tradition, in which adherents are expected to learn Arabic to have the pure form of the Qur'an, for Christians this has never been an issue, at least that is, not until the late 1900s.3 This recent debate has probably stemmed in part from certain fundamentalists which insisted on literal interpretations,4 along with the on-going discovery of earlier manuscripts.

To be precise, it is the Alexandrian manuscript that has actually spurred so much of the contention. As noted in my previous blog, the long ending in the Gospel of Mark as well as other passages are not included in earlier manuscripts. Although they do not change any doctrines, they have been referenced in support of certain doctrines.

As posted on Wikipedia, James White breaks the movement down to five primary categories:5

  • "I Like the KJV Best" - Though White lists this group as a division of the King James Only group, this division does not believe that the KJV is the only acceptable version, thus disqualifying them from being "King James Only". This group simply prefers the KJV over other translations because their church uses it, because they have always used it, or because they like its style.6
  • "The Textual Argument" - This group believes that the KJV's Hebrew and Greek textual bases are the most accurate. These conclude that the KJV is based on better manuscripts. Many in this group may accept a modern version based on the same manuscripts as the KJV. White claims Zane C. Hodges is a good example of this group.7 However, Hodges would consider that the Majority Text "corrects" the Received Text as seen e.g., in the Majority Text textual apparatus of the New King James Version. The Trinitarian Bible Society would fit in this division; however, "the Trinitarian Bible Society does not believe the Authorized Version to be a perfect translation, only that it is the best available translation in the English language",8 and "the Society believes this text is superior to the texts used by the United Bible Societies and other Bible publishers, which texts have as their basis a relatively few seriously defective manuscripts from the 4th century and which have been compiled using 20th century rationalistic principles of scholarship."9
  • "Received Text Only" - Here, the traditional Hebrew and Greek texts are believed to be supernaturally preserved. The KJV is believed to be an exemplary translation, but it is also believed that other translations based on these texts have the potential to be equally good. Donald Waite would fall into this category.
  • "The Inspired KJV Group" - This faction believe that the KJV itself was divinely inspired. They see the translation to be preserved by God and as accurate as the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts found in its underlying texts. Sometimes this group will even exclude other language versions based on the same manuscripts claiming the KJV to be the only Bible.
  • "The KJV As New Revelation" - This group claims that the KJV is a "new revelation" or "advanced revelation" from God, and it should be the standard from which all other translations originate. Adherents to this belief may also believe that the original-language Hebrew and Greek can be corrected by the KJV. This view is often called "Ruckmanism" after Peter Ruckman, a staunch advocate of this view.

Another argument that has been leveled at modern versions is the issue of copyrights. I've heard it argued that nobody can place a copyright on the word of God, thus the KJV wins by default. Of course, with all the expenses involved in research and translation work, who can blame publishers from wanting to stay in the black. Yes, there is profit to be had in any case. But, the original manuscripts are the real conflict and they are not copyrighted.

As someone who grew up on the KJV, I am one of the few who still enjoy reading the old Elizabethan English. I no longer subscribe to the KJV as the only viable translation (when I was young I actually condemned all alternative versions to our basement). There's one thing I've found true and I think Mark Twain said it best, “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” I think the same can be said for the various modern Bible translations. In celebration of the KJV and its predecessors, I am happy to enjoy both the freedom of access and the availability of such a rich storehouse of treasures.

Hebrews 4:12

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. NIV201010

For the word of God [is] quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and [is] a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. KJV11

1 The Bible in English, David Daniell, cited in From Tyndale to Madison, Michael Farris
2 Dr. Norman Geisler, Dr. William Lane Craig,
3 Chick Publications helped circulate this position in their materials. They also promoted Gail Riplinger's New Age Bible Versions which has been totally refuted by Dr. James White in their debate as well as his book, The King James Only Controversy. According to Wikipedia, the controversy dates to at least 1987:
4 A good method of interpreting Scripture is to recognize that only those things that were intended to be taken literally should be interpreted literally. i.e. Revelation depicts Jesus with a sword coming out of his mouth; it is understood to be symbolic, not literal. This may be an extreme example, one that is not actually disputed (except by atheists), but it serves to illustrate the point.
6 The Breath and Heartbeat of God, Gail Riplinger; In Awe of Thy Word,
7 The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations?, James White
9 The Text of the Bible used by the Trinitarian Bible Society,

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