March 21, 2001
Preface: This is the third part of a four-part lecture that was delivered at Lancaster Bible College in March, 2001, for the Staley Bible Lectureship. We are hoping to get permission to post all of the lectures as an audio tape on the Biblical Studies Foundation website. Here are some audio of a Textual Criticism series Dr. Wallace has done. Dr. Wallace is available as a conference speaker on “The History of the English Bible.”
Although some folks think that the KJV had no rivals until 1881, this is not exactly true. After 1611, Bible translation continued to be quite vigorous.
“It is impossible,” Alford declared, “that one man’s work can ever fulfill the requisites for an accepted Version of the Scriptures.”
Alford in fact expressed hope that a Royal Commission would be appointed to revise the AV. Only a year after his translation appeared, the Convocation of Canterbury decided to start the ball rolling on a thorough revision of the KJV. Alford was a prophet! He was right on target on a short-range prophecy—so he passed the first test; let’s see how he did on a long-range prophecy…
Alford was not only concerned over the language of the KJV; he was also troubled by its inadequate textual base. He knew that the Greek text that stood behind the KJ was thoroughly inadequate (and we’ll talk about that later this hour). In anticipation of criticisms that would come from KJ advocates, he noted that many of these criticisms would be borne out of ignorance—from a failure to recognize that such changes were made “simply as an act of honest obedience to truth of testimony, or truth of rendering.”1 Alford argued that “a translator of Holy Scripture must be… ready to sacrifice the choicest text, and the plainest proof of doctrine, if the words are not those of what he is constrained in his conscience to receive as God’s testimony.”
In this statement, Alford anticipated and answered the criticisms of King James Only folks for the next 130 years! I guess he really was a prophet!
But apart from revisions and translations done by individuals, no other English Bible appeared between 1611 and 1881. This raises a question: How did the King James stay on the throne for 270 years?
There are basically eight reasons why the AV (or Authorized Version, as it is called in England) went unchallenged so long.
Essentially, the KJV stayed in power because of the mixture of political clout, religious compromise, and literary power. And that’s a threefold cord that’s not easily broken.
All this contributed to the longevity of the AV. But even with all this, it could not sit on the throne forever.
Two fundamental problems with the King James Bible began to surface in the decades following its publication—problems of text and problems of translation. And there is a third problem, not really related to the King James directly, but rather related to the perception of the King James Bible by its advocates—the problem of tradition.
First, problems with the text.
The Greek text used by these editors was vastly inferior to that of modern translations. It was principally the Stephanus text of 1550 (third edition), which, in turn, relied essentially on Erasmus’ third edition of 1522. The Stephanus text was modified slightly by Theodore Beza who took the text through eleven editions.3 Beza’s 9th edition was used in preparation for the KJV. This Greek text, later known as the Textus Receptus (TR), misses the wording of the original New Testament in about 5000 places. Most of these places cannot be translated, but a few of them are fairly substantial. Once again, all of these Greek texts—from Erasmus to Beza—are essentially the same. They are all essentially the third edition of Erasmus.
To understand the history of the English Bible you have to know a little about the Greek text that stands behind it. Here are some of the facts about Erasmus’ Greek text.
Sidenote: I know we are studying the English Bible and how important it is for our faith. But I want to turn right now and speak to the future pastors, the future Bible translators, the future theologians and apologists in this room. For you, the Greek NT and Hebrew OT are even more important than the English Bible. All of the Reformers—from Luther to Calvin, from Zwingli to Melanchthon—insisted on two fundamentals for any who would become pastors. First, they had to hold to the right doctrines—sola scriptura, sola fidei, sola gratia. But second, they had to learn Greek and Hebrew. This was not an option for any ministers of the Word.
The battle cry of the Reformation was ad fontes—“back to the sources!” This meant back to the original text. For too long the Church had been enslaved to tradition and to biblical interpretation that was given to it by others. The only way to get past tradition, and to test anyone’s interpretation of the Bible was to know the original languages.
Today, the learning of Greek and Hebrew are often regarded as non-essentials for Christian ministers. “It’s too hard.” “Just use the commentaries.” “Ministry is about people, not about the text.” I’ve heard all these excuses for years. It’s nothing new. The same excuses were used in the sixteenth century.
Luther went into a strong diatribe against those pastors-in-training who resisted learning the biblical languages. And characteristically, he didn’t mince words. What he had to say then is still valid today. Listen to Luther:
In proportion as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the [biblical] languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others.
If through our neglect we let the languages go (God forbid!), we shall lose the gospel too. It is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish.
When our faith is held up to ridicule, where does the fault lie? It lies in our ignorance of the languages; and there is no way out than to learn the languages. It is also a stupid undertaking to attempt to gain an understanding of Scripture by laboring through the commentaries of the fathers and a multitude of books and glosses. Instead of this, men should have devoted themselves to the languages.
Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study [the biblical] languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. How sternly God will judge our lethargy and ingratitude [if we do not learn Greek and Hebrew]!
It’s almost as if Luther had been sitting in on faculty discussions at half of our seminaries in this country! If you plan to go into the pastorate, I urge you to consider a seminary that has an unswerving commitment to the biblical languages. It is not all you need, but it is something that you cannot do without. One of the significant and terribly sad historical notes here is this: virtually every evangelical seminary that abandoned the study of the original languages has become unorthodox within fifty years.
Back to Erasmus:
But Erasmus’ text had ‘book’ instead of ‘tree’ because the Latin had ‘book’ here: “God will take away from him his share in the book of life.” Erasmus’ text was thus quite defective here. The reason that some Latin MSS had ‘book’ here was no doubt due to the fact that the Latin scribes saw ‘book’ twice in this verse and they accidentally replaced ‘tree’ with ‘book’ in the middle of the verse. This could easily happen in Latin because the words were similar (unlike Greek, which has ξύλον for ‘tree’ and βιβλίον for ‘book’): the Latin word for tree is ligno and the word for book is libro. Thus, a two letter difference between these two words. The KJV repeated this error, giving rise to the possibility that the Bible teaches that one can lose his salvation (since removal from the book of life would be tantamount to loss of salvation).
Erasmus’ text read as follows: “There are three who bear witness—the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree.”
Latin Vulgate (late copies): For there are three who bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three who bear witness on earth—the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree.”
But these words of the Latin Vulgate were not found in any Greek MS until one was ‘made to order’ for Erasmus (who implied that he would not publish a NT with such words unless he could find them in a Greek text) in 1520 by a scribe named Roy, working in Oxford. It somehow was ‘discovered’ before Erasmus published his third edition.5
I would love for this verse to be in the original! But the doctrine of the Trinity does not live or die with 1 John 5.7! You recall that I quoted from Henry Alford earlier about his obedience to the truth of the evidence for the sake of Christ. He said: “a translator of Holy Scripture must be… ready to sacrifice the choicest text, and the plainest proof of doctrine, if the words are not those of what he is constrained in his conscience to receive as God’s testimony.” Alford was speaking of 1 John 5.7. He believed very strongly in the Trinity, but knew that the Trinitarian statement in the KJV here was added later. (The fact that these words were never used in argument with Arians in the early centuries of the Greek church shows that they must surely have been added later, and from the Latin tradition.)
Summary: This is Erasmus’ text: Half a dozen MSS, sloppily edited, six verses back-translated from Latin with no Greek support, and some verses added because of pressure from the Catholic church. It misses the original wording in about 5000 places. This is the Greek text of Erasmus; this is the Greek text that the KJ NT is based on.
There has been much emotional baggage attached to the verses in the KJV, both because of the cadence and lyrical quality of some of those verses (though often at the expense of an accurate translation7) and because of later additions made to the text as it was transmitted in the Greek and Latin traditions. Ultimately, what is needed of all Christians is a hunger for the truth. It is not that we have too little of the Bible (as KJ advocates argue), but that they have too much. Their Bible is 110% of the Word of God! Modern translations are often condemned for taking away from the words of Scripture, when in reality the KJV falls under the flip-side criticism of adding to the words of Scripture. Our goal should be to burn off the dross to get to the gold.
There were also problems in translation.
The 47 scholars who worked on the KJV knew Latin better than they knew Greek or Hebrew. Hence, it should not surprise us that they committed hundreds of errors in translation, especially in relation to the definite article (since Latin does not have one and Greek does). For example:
John 4.27 (“Jesus was speaking with the woman”). The point of the text is not that Jesus was speaking with the woman, but that he was speaking with a woman. First century Jewish law forbade a rabbi from speaking to a woman in public; he would even have to refrain from speaking to his own mother in public! Jesus, of course, did not follow such arbitrary rules, but his new disciples were unaware of this fact. The whole point of the narrative at this stage is not the kind of woman that Jesus was speaking to, but simply that he was speaking to a woman. Her nature as the “town naughty lady” would soon enough be revealed to the disciples.
1 Tim 2.12 (“I do not permit a woman to usurp authority over a man”). Many a woman preacher has said, “I am not usurping any man’s authority; the authority to preach to you today has been granted to me by the elders of this church.” That is an understanding of 1 Tim 2.12 that is based on the KJV, not modern translations. Where did the KJV get that notion? Not from Tyndale, since he translated this verse as follows: “I suffer not a woman to teach, neither to have authority over a man: but for [her] to be in silence.” The KJV here has “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” The key difference is in the translation of αὐθεντεῖν. Tyndale renders it “have authority,” while the KJV renders it “usurp authority.” From what I can gather, the verb did not bear the force of “usurp” until Chrysostom (fourth century AD) gave it that spin in his comments on this text. Further, “usurp” was not the predominant meaning of αὐθεντέω until the ninth century A.D. But since the word occurs less than 125 times in all of Greek literature (according to a search of the TLG database of 64 million words from Homer to A.D. 1453), the KJV translators were at a loss. Hence, they relied on Erasmus’ Latin (which, you may recall, he put forth as a correction of Jerome’s) of usurpare. Now the Oxford Latin Dictionary gives as the first definition of this term, “To take possession of (property) on one’s own initiative (and without strict legal claim).” Jerome’s translation, incidentally, was dominare (OLD gives as its first definition of this verb, “To exercise sovereignty, act as a despot, rule”). Thus, Tyndale’s translation was more accurate to the Greek than either Jerome’s or Erasmus’ (though Jerome’s was fairly literal, since there is no verb in Latin that is a cognate to either potestas or auctoris. Thus, if a verb has to be used, dominare is the most neutral term available and therefore the most accurate.) But the KJV translators knew Latin better than they knew Greek, so when it came to this verb they relied on Erasmus’ erroneous Latin translation rather than the true meaning of the Greek, thereby spawning generations of faulty interpretations on the role of women in ministry. And where did Erasmus get this notion? He was a Roman Catholic priest: he read the patristic writers. In fact, he knew them as well as he knew the scriptures.
It is a remarkable thing that many today read this text as though the KJV was the accurate rendering. But most modern translations render the term neutrally (cf., e.g., RSV, NKJV, NIV [“have authority”], RV, ASV [“have dominion”], NASB [“exercise authority”], etc. Remarkably, even the NRSV, with its strong bent toward inclusive language and egalitarianism [as in 1 Tim 3:2: “married only once” for “husband of one wife”] here reads “have authority”).
Titus 2.13: KJV reads: “the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour, Jesus Christ.” But this text employs a construction that can only mean that “God” and “Savior” refer to one person; it is one of the clearest texts in the NT affirming the deity of Christ. The KJV does not affirm this here. In 1798 the lay scholar Granville Sharp wrote a treatise in which he advocated a new translation of the Bible since the “common version” (the KJV) had incorrectly rendered the Greek here, as well as in 2 Peter 1.1. The point we wish to make here is not that the KJV is unorthodox on the deity of Christ! Rather, it is that in many places it misses the point of the Greek text because the translators were more at home in Latin than in Greek. Although some KJV Only advocates have quite unfairly charged modern translations with denying the deity of Christ because in a few verses such is not clearly affirmed (e.g., 1 Tim 3.16), frequency of prooftexts is not the same as affirmation vs. denial of doctrine. If one translation affirms the deity of Christ 300 times and another only 295 times, there can be no real charge of unorthodoxy in either case. Further, several studies have shown that modern translations have more evidence of the deity of Christ than the KJV does—yet no one is charging the KJV translators with unorthodoxy on this matter, nor should they. No cardinal doctrine depends on a single or even a few verses.
Not only are there hundreds of mistranslations, but also hundreds of archaisms or antiquated expressions in the AV. Many words were already archaic when the KJV came out. But by 1881, over 300 words in the AV had changed their meaning. “Suffer the little children to come unto me” does not mean “beat your kids so that they’ll go to church”!
I often ask KJ advocates which dictionary they use to help them understand the Bible. If they use a modern dictionary to understand 1611 English, it simply won’t do. More sophisticated KJV advocates say, “The 1828 Webster.” That’s better, but still not good enough. 1828 is still closer to 2001 than it is to 1611.
Frankly, there is only one dictionary that you really can use to understand every word in the KJV: the 13-volume unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. For each entry, it traces the history of the word’s usage. 8 To take but one example: 2 Tim 2.15:
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (KJV)
All modern translations have something like “Be eager to show yourself approved” or “Be diligent to show yourself approved” rather than “Study to show yourself approved.”
This is not a mistake by the KJ translators. They translated this correctly, because in 1611 English “study” meant “be eager,” or “be diligent.” But who would know today that ‘study’ in 1611 meant ‘be diligent’ unless they consulted the Oxford English Dictionary? My recommendation to KJV users—to better understand their preferred Bible—is to do two things: (1) Use the OED liberally as they study their Bible, and (2) get a New King James Bible to help them in the hard places. Nevertheless, one has to understand that the great value of the KJV today is the heritage of the English language and the beauty of this Bible. But as a study Bible, or one that is as accurate as can be, the King James comes up short.
Finally, there is the problem of the perception of the KJB by its advocates. They often believe that it is perfect, and the only Bible that can properly be called ‘the Holy Bible.’
In this section, I will actually be defending the KJV against its modern-day proponents. It is not a member of the Trinity! The danger one has in putting it on a pedestal is that for many people, once it gets knocked off that pedestal, it is viewed less positively than it should be. We should have a very positive assessment of the KJV without elevating it to inspired status.
Sometimes this KJ Only attitude goes beyond all logic and dabbles in the realm of the absurd. In 1995 I was on the John Ankerberg show called, “What’s the Best Bible Translation?” There were three KJV advocates. Early on in the eight-part program (that was filmed all in one day) John Ankerberg asked them, “If a person in Russia becomes a Christian, are you saying that he would need to learn English in order to read the only true Holy Bible?” After a brief pause, the lead KJV advocate said, “Yes!” I wondered why I had been asked to be on the show after hearing that response…
Not all KJV advocates employ such illogic however. Here are some of the basic arguments that KJV advocates use for this Bible’s status as the only Holy Bible, with a brief response:
But the real language of the Bible was of a different sort. It was the conversational Greek of the day—the Greek that men on the streets of Athens and Antioch, Jerusalem and Corinth, spoke. In fact, it was known as the ‘common Greek,’ and it was a big step down from the golden age of Greek literature, the classical Greek era that ended 400 years earlier. And although there were artificial and pompous attempts in the first century AD to revive this classical Greek, none of the NT writers got sucked into this mode of writing. Their writing was clear, and simple, and connected to real people—not artificial and pompous.
And the KJ translators explicitly tried to capture that. Their goal, in fact, was to make the text as plain and simple to understand as possible. They said (in the original preface):
[The Catholics have] the purpose to darken the sense, that [although] they must needs translate the Bible, yet by the language thereof it may be kept from being understood. But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself … that it may be understood even [by] the very vulgar.”
It is a great irony that today part of the reason the KJB is so revered is because it sounds so archaic, so other-worldly. It is the Bible that speaks in a stained-glass voice. But this is precisely what the KJ translators condemned in a translation! Their intention—which they accomplished for their day 400 years ago—was to make the Bible clear, simple, easy to understand.
All of these arguments have nothing to do with our Protestant heritage. Instead, KJ Only advocates unwittingly look more like Roman Catholics than Protestants. (And Roman Catholics of yesteryear, for nowadays many Catholics are embracing the need to learn the Bible, and the study the original languages.)
As you recall, Protestantism was begun when the Word of God became accessible to the people. Now, the KJV has become to today’s layman what the Latin Vulgate was to yesterday’s layman. Further, since people cling to it because it is traditional, they unwittingly embrace another Roman Catholic notion (tradition over Scripture). Thus, in two major respects (clarity vs. obscurity in understanding, and Scripture vs. tradition), those who cling to the KJV resemble (older) Roman Catholicism against the rest of Protestantism!
To sum up: There are two attitudes to avoid in dealing with the KJB. (1) We must not be so reactionary to KJ Only advocates that we despise the KJB! From time to time, I put an essay or two on the internet. Sometimes I discuss Bible translations. Inevitably, I tick someone off, usually someone from the KJ Only crowd. In fact, I average one or two emails a month in which I am condemned to hell! This happens to every Bible translator. Dr. Bruce Metzger got a letter one time from a New York cab driver which said, “I hate what you have done to the Bible! If you ever come to NYC, I will run you over with my cab, and then I will back up and do it again.” The letter ended with, “In Christian love” followed by the man’s name!
This kind of attitude still does not give me the right to become sour on the KJB.
If you’ve got family or friends who are rabidly loyal to the KJV, the danger you have is arrogance and apathy. You might be thinking, “Aha! Now, I’ve got some arguments to use against my uncle Howard! Let’s see what he says to this!” But I urge you: don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater! If the AV is not all it’s cracked up to be, that doesn’t give you the right to neglect the Scriptures. And even though the Bible is not a member of the Trinity, the only way we can know God is by knowing his Word.
What is it that finally overthrew the reign of the King James? It was essentially the discovery of new MSS. The KJ was based on half a dozen Greek MSS, no earlier than the tenth century AD. Today, we know of 5,600 Greek MSS—and some of them are as early as the second century AD.
I won’t rehearse the details of these discoveries with you, because we’re out of time. But by 1881 the English-speaking world was ready for a new translation, one that was based on the oldest possible MSS. In that year, the Revised Version was born.
The Revised Version was a revision of the KJV. It was consciously intended to be in line with the KJV—that is, a major revision, but based on the best and earliest MSS. It was thus the fifth major revision of the AV.
This new translation was heralded as a very accurate translation. It was a good translation in representing the meaning of the original. But it was often too stilted; not the best English. Produced in England, though with significant input from American scholars. However, many of the Americans’ suggestions went unheeded.
You’ve all heard the old line, “Something is lost in the translation.” That is always the case. There is never exact correspondence in wording, structure, literary power, cadence, and emotive impact between two languages. What the KJV sacrificed was accuracy; what the RV sacrificed was beauty.
The problem is, even if a translation is accurate, if it doesn’t get read it won’t have an impact on people’s lives. An old Italian proverb suggests the more beautiful the translation, the less faithful; the uglier the translation, the more faithful it must be.
The KJV is the beautiful and graceful matron of the family who gave birth to a homely daughter that kept pointing out her mother’s faults! And even though the RV launched a new era—the era of accuracy—the RV was a dismal failure. No one wanted to read it. The KJ was still safe on the throne for another 20 years, but the seeds of revolt had been planted. We can be grateful to God that we live at a time when there is an abundance of excellent translations. We don’t have to choose between an elegant translation that misses the mark and an accurate one that’s ugly. Tomorrow, we will see what our choices really are.
Enable us, Father, to love this book, to study this book, to read it, search it, embrace it. Forgive us for our apathy and our laziness. Give us a passion to know your Word, Lord, that we might know you.
1 As quoted in Bruce, History, 131.
2 This is analogous to what is often done in scholarship. Once a large group of scholars produces a work, competing texts lose ground simply because they are perceived to have been in a less careful manner. Robert Funk, the chairman of the Jesus Seminar (an 84-member team of mostly liberal scholars which produced The Five Gospels [a work in which the words of Jesus are color-coded as to their authenticity—e.g., red means that he really said it, black means that he really did not, etc.]) once told me that he likes big productions of this sort because opponents cannot easily come up with the resources to produce a counter-view with a great number of scholars on their side. The issue was more logistical than scholarly, but there is an illusion of legitimacy simply by the sheer numbers.
3 Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, says that Beza had ten editions. But I have personally seen one that is dated before his alleged first one (1564 was the year of the latter, if I recall).
4 It is sometimes asserted that Erasmus rashly promised that if a Greek MS were found that had this text in it, he would publish the wording in his Greek NT. But that is an overstatement. Erasmus only made the negative statement that he did not put it in because it was not found in any Greek MSS. One may well detect a veiled promise in this statement, but it is not explicit.
5 This MS is the famous Codex 61, and is now housed in Dublin, Ireland. The Comma Johanneum has been consulted so frequently that the book almost of its own falls open to this page!
6 Although the MSS which have this marginal reading date from as early as the 12th century, the marginal reading in each case can not be dated any earlier than the 15th or 16th century.
7 The beauty of the KJV is addressed in lecture two in this series. It should be mentioned here that, contrary to what many have said, I strongly advocate the KJV and recommend it to every native English speaker. Every native English-speaking Christian should own a KJV as well as two or three other Bibles.
8 There is available also a very helpful book that gives a glossary of all the unintelligible terms in the KJV: Melvin E. Elliott, The Language of the King James Bible: A Glossary Explaining its Words and Expressions (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967). This book has nearly 2000 entries. Such common words as study, prove, steel, song, substance, translate, yield, liquor, superstitious, and traffic meant something quite different in 1611 English than they do today. Even a, the, and of did not always carry the same meaning as today! This book, along with the Oxford English Dictionary, are indispensable tools for studying the KJV.