Friday, May 30, 2008

Why The King James Version of the Bible is an Inferior English Translation

The King James Version of the Bible (dubbed the Authorized Version by the Church of England) has without question been the most read, quoted, and recognized English-language version of the Bible since its creation in the first decade of the 17th century.

The KJV was first commissioned by James I of the England in order to create a universal English-language text of the Bible that would conform to the doctrines and theologies of the Church of England. James intended to create a translation that would not only “compete” with the Latin versions used by the Roman Catholic Church, but which would also pay homage, theologically, to the concerns of new Protestants in England, most notably the Puritans. James wanted a completely “de-catholicized” version of the Bible. The work was begun in 1604 and was completed in 1611.

Because of its widespread popularity, which lasted well into the 20th century, the KJV is the most “comfortable” translation for many Christians. Phrases, verses, and passages that have fallen into the general Christian lexicon are almost universally KJV in origin, and simply do not “sound right” when read from any other translation.

For this reason, many modern Christians are still partial to the KJV, and many Protestant churches – mostly evangelical and Pentecostal – still insist that the KJV is the only translation that should be read. I am reminded of Kiefer Sutherland’s fundamentalist Christian character in the film “A Few Good Men.” When questioned about “proper authorities”, he responds: “I have two books at my bedside, Lieutenant, the Marine Corps Code of Conduct and the King James Bible. The only proper authorities I am aware of are my commanding officer Colonel Nathan R. Jessup and the Lord our God.” Even among more moderate denominations, the KJV is routinely used and quoted from.

Recently, a KJV supporter said the following to me:

“…the KJV…is the direct translation from the original Greek and Hebrew texts. The Greek and Hebrew texts from the first century were copied word for word from generation to generation. To them, it was the Word of God and very precious, so no words were changed for all of those centuries…It’s the truest version from the original tongue.”

Unfortunately, while this person seems clearly to believe what he says, he has either been sorely misled, or simply does not know the facts of the matter. Since I think his perspective is somewhat common – especially among conservative Christians – I would like to attempt to clear this matter up once and for all.

It is true that the KJV was translated from a Greek and Hebrew text. This is true also for every other major modern English translation. The KJV does not hold any special place among English versions of the Bible for having been translated from the original Greek and Hebrew.

Unfortunately, with regards to the KJV, the texts used by the translators are known – and have been known almost since the time of the translation – to have been inferior and full of errors.

The KJV translators relied solely on one Greek manuscript for the New Testament. This manuscript is known as the Textus Receptus. It was put together in the early 1500’s by a Dutch scholar named Erasmus. In putting together the Textus Receptus, Erasmus used only a handful of sources, and all of these sources date from the 12th century or later. Furthermore, only one of his sources came outside what is called the “Byzantine” texts, which were a group of texts all copied in and around a specific geographic region (i.e., Byzantium). Scholars recognize that the Byzantine texts are full of scribal errors and do not conform to other earlier textual groupings, such as the Alexandrian texts.

Bart Ehrman, a textual scholar, who studied under the most pre-eminent textual scholar in the world – Bruce Metzger – has said that Erasmus’ text was based on “one of the worst…manuscripts that we now have available to us.”

So the Textus Receptus was the only source used by the KJV translators, and this source was itself based on only a few sources, all of which came from the Middle Ages or later, the majority of which came from only one geographic region, and all of which are known to be inconsistent with earlier texts and textual groupings.

What this means is that the New Testament in the KJV is based on very late manuscripts, which are known to be full of textual errors and wild variations.

Moving on to the assertion that the earliest texts were all copied perfectly, this is demonstrably untrue. In fact, among the thousands of ancient manuscripts and partial manuscripts in existence, hardly any of them coincide 100% with each other. In fact, among all our handwritten manuscripts (which is all of the manuscripts up until the printing press was invented in the 1400’s), there are something like 200,000 different variations among the numerous texts. And this is a conservative estimate. Some textual scholars say there might be as many as 400,000 variations. Either way, the variations are so numerous, that even in this age of computers, scholars have yet to catalogue all of them.

The earliest copyists were not professional scribes – copying the sacred texts was generally pawned off on whoever in the community happened to be able to read and write (which, during the earliest centuries, was very few). Thus, they were not professionals, and were prone not only to dramatic mistakes and errors, but also to changing texts intentionally based on whatever particular doctrine or “school” of Christianity they happened to come from. These sorts of theologically-motivated changes are numerous, and can be demonstrated among the earliest texts.

Furthermore, in those early days, Greek was not written like modern languages are written. Everything was in capitals, there was no punctuation, there were no spaces between sentences, and there were not even necessarily any spaces between words.


One can imagine, then, just how tedious a task it would have been to make handwritten copies of a text written like that, with thousands and thousands of lines. Not only would it have been physically tedious, but it would be easy to misread lines, without spaces between words. An English language example was put forth by Bart Ehrman:


Does this say you looked at a table and saw a lot of food, or does it say you saw a piece of bread get up and start dancing?

Add all this to the fact that the earliest copyists were not professional scribes to begin with, and it is not difficult to imagine that countless errors, omissions, and changes were made, usually unintentionally, but often intentionally.

So now we have the KJV New Testament, based on only one text – a text that was itself based on just a handful of late, error-ridden texts – thus leading to numerous variations in the KJV from the words that the original New Testament documents most certainly contained.

Add now to this the fact that the KJV is literally fraught, almost from beginning to end, with Puritan doctrinal and theological bias. I will provide a few examples that I have discovered in my own research.

1. The use of “hell” in the Old Testament. Hell was not a concept in ancient Hebrew culture. It did not begin to develop until late antiquity, in the decades before Jesus’ birth. It did not become a central aspect of Christianity until many centuries after Jesus lived. There is certainly not a single mention of “hell,” or any place like hell, in the Old Testament. Yet, if you look in the KJV, you will see “hell” repeated numerous times in the Old Testament.

The Hebrew word for “grave” or “underworld” or “pit” was Sheol. This is how ancient Jews viewed life after death. There was no heaven (at least, not for human beings other than a few special prophets, like Elijah), and there was no hell. There was simply death – the grave, the pit, the dark, dank underworld. This is where all humans went, good and bad, Jew and Gentile, after they died. Yet, in the KJV, any time that the death of a good person, or a Jew, is being discussed, and Sheol appears in the Hebrew text, the translators accurately translate it as “grave” or “pit.” However, when Sheol is used in the context of the death of a bad person, or an enemy of the Jews, the KJV translators called it “hell.” This is simply Puritan bias, taking the meaning of the text far away from its authors’ clear original intent. The Puritans were the ones with a highly-developed concept of hell – not the ancient writers of the Old Testament.

2. The use of the phrase “born again,” in the Gospel of John. The idea of being born again is a long-standing tradition within Protestant Christianity. It is symbolized in most Protestant churches by baptism. The phrase “born again” only appears three times in the New Testament: once in 1 Peter, and twice in a teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The problem is, in the passage in John, the phrase does not actually say “born again.” Instead, Jesus asserts that in order to take part in the kingdom of God, one must be “born from above.”

The Greek word used is anothen, and this word means “above,” “top,” or “beginning.” In every other place in the KJV when anothen is encountered, it is translated correctly. However, in this passage, the translators’ bias crept in, because they clearly wanted to see Jesus asserting the Puritan “born again” principle; thus, they had Jesus utter the now famous phrase: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Translating it correctly (“born from above”) opens the door to many problems. Is Jesus saying that only a select few can enter heaven – those who are somehow “born from above,” or born with heavenly approval? Is Jesus saying only the most holy and pious will ever make it to heaven? The KJV translators could not have such theological problems confronting their congregations, so they simply cleared it up by inserting their particular Puritan viewpoint. You must be born again – that is, baptized following a profession of faith – if you want to get to heaven.

3. Also in John, there is a famous utterance of Jesus where he proclaims: “In my father’s house are many mansions…” The Greek word used there, translated by the KJV translators as “mansions,” does not mean mansions at all, but simply “rooms” or “dwelling places.” The Puritan bias in this passage came from the well-entrenched, though not otherwise Biblical, idea that heaven would be a place where everyone would live in grand glory, like the king himself. It was easy, then, for the translators to call this word “mansions,” to fit with the notion of heaven as a place of palatial glory, even though that is not what Jesus was saying. He was simply saying there is room for everyone in the kingdom of God – he was not promising that we would all live like Hollywood socialites.

These are just three examples that I have discovered on my own. There are countless others, which have been catalogued and displayed by textual scholars over the years. Furthermore, as I have already alluded to, it is an established fact that when James I commissioned the translation, he specifically ordered his translators to ensure that the new English text conformed directly and specifically with Anglican doctrine and theology. This was done to ensure that this English translation supported the Church of England, and not the Church of Rome. So it was known from the very start that the text was theologically- and doctrinally-biased. They did not even try to hide this fact.

To recap, here is what we have with the KJV:

1. The New Testament of the KJV was based on only one source (as opposed to modern translations which use hundreds of sources). This one source was itself based on only a few very late sources, which are known to be error-ridden and full of scribal variations.

2. The KJV was specifically commissioned to conform to Anglican theology, Puritan interests, and to be the Bible for the Church of England, specifically against the Church of Rome. As such, it was openly theologically-biased, and this can be demonstrated in countless places in the text itself, where words, phrases, and passages were translated inaccurately in order to conform to specific Church doctrines and beliefs.

These things are more than enough, by themselves, to cause anyone to shy away from using the King James Version for studying the Bible. However, there is yet a third issue, one that is probably the most obvious: the King James Version was written in Shakespearean English. Since we no longer speak this kind of English, it makes the KJV very difficult to follow and understand for modern readers. For example, Galatians 4:9 in the KJV: “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?” What exactly is being said here? Of course, if one is reasonably intelligent and educated, one can read it over several times and figure out what the point is, but studying the Bible is difficult enough without also having to dig one’s way through highfalutin 17th century English. And when one considers that many folks in small, rural Pentecostal and evangelical churches are not typically well-educated or well-read, the problem multiplies tenfold.

Newer translations, like the New Revised Standard Version, are based on hundreds and hundreds of the most reliable early manuscripts and they also take into account a lot of new knowledge that modern scholars have about ancient Hebrew and Greek – knowledge that folks like Erasmus and the translators of the KJV did not have. Furthermore, we have far more early manuscripts available to us now than the earlier translators had – this allows us to get a better idea of how the original texts probably read. Finally, versions like the New Revised Standard – in addition to being highly accurate and true to the original words – are also written in plain, modern English. These reasons are why scholars – both conservative and liberal alike – tend to recommend the New Revised Standard Version for English readers of the Bible. The KJV is probably the last version any modern English speaker needs to read, unless they are simply reading it for the beauty of the words and the literary quality of the prose.

As a Christian, should one want to read what is comfortable and most familiar, or should one want to read what is accurate and most clear?

I would most certainly choose the latter.


Laura said...

This was a very enlightening post. Thanks for clarifying how the King James Version of the Bible came to be, and how inaccurate it is.

Scott said...

Thanks for continuing to read, Laura. Comments on my blog have been few and far between lately; I think you may be the only person who still reads on any sort of regular basis. My non-Christian readers are sick of all my theology topics, and my Christian readers have moved on to less challenging pastures, I believe.

Anonymous said...

Intriguing analysis of the weaknesses of the KJV translation. While I am tending towards agreeing with you, I would love to see a post with a listing of a least your major textual sources, so I can verify myself. I find the NASB my translation of choice....Peace

Scott said...

Thanks for commenting, Anonymous. As for my textual sources, Bart Ehrman's book "Misquoting Jesus" was particularly enlightening. The title is misleading because it's not just about quotes attributed to Jesus, but rather the Bible as a whole.

Also, I have studied the KJV quite a bit on my own, comparing and contrasting the KJV to other translations, and researching the original Greek and Hebrew words used, etc. "Strong's Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Lexicon" is particularly useful for this.

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