God will preserve his Word: The KJV Only controversy

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 1996

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. [James 3:17 NASB]

biblemtn.jpg (8742 bytes)A new translation of the Bible was published. It strove to make God’s word clearer using the best available ancient texts rendered in modern language. Nevertheless, it was met with a storm of opposition from those that claimed that it “changed God’s Word.” That new translation was what we call today the King James Version. The translators of this new Bible translation penned these words:

Whosoever attempteth anything for the public (especially if it pertain to Religion, and to the opening and clearing of the word of God) the same setteth himself upon a stage to be gloated upon by every evil eye, yea, he casteth himself headlong upon pikes, to be gored by every sharp tongue. For he that medleth with men’s Religion in any part, medleth with their custom, nay, with their freehold; and though they find no content in that which they have, yet they cannot abide to hear of altering.

From The Translator to the Reader in the 1611 edition of the Authorized King James Version.

Now, over 400 years later, the same attacks that were brought against the King James version have been marshaled against the translations of today.

One might think that the choice of a Bible translation was a personal thing. No one can fault those that choose the King James Version, whether for the beauty of its language or for the love of the words through which they first heard the Gospel of Christ. But the King James Only movement is more than a preference for a translation; it has become almost a religion in itself. The picture above, showing the Bible enthroned as king (instead of Christ) is from one of their web sites. Here are points where the King James Only movement has departed from what is acceptable Christian behavior:

  • The movement slanders the good names of dedicated scholars and Christians who work as textual critics and Bible translators.
  • The movement uses the techniques of propaganda to manipulate others through emotion rather than reason.
  • The movement spreads falsehoods about the available Greek texts of the New Testament.
  • The movement spreads falsehoods about modern Bible translations.
  • The movement fosters division between Christians over the choice of translation.
  • The movement fosters division between Christians through anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Indeed, there are many books on this issue written by people with “Dr.” in front of their names, which if one were to read only them, might reasonably conclude that the King James was the only defense against the mass of “Liberal”, “New Age” attacks on the Word of God. But the conclusion would be false, because the books misrepresent the facts.

This web page is not a comprehensive refutation of the King James Only movement. It only provides a little information and makes a few basic arguments. The interested reader at this point is advised to get one of the standard works on the New Testament such as The Text of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger. I have also written an article on problems in the King James translation.

Apart from issues of fact and scholarly judgment, there is another argument made in the discussion about the value of various modern Bible translations in comparison to the Authorized Version (King James Version) of 1611. That argument appears not only in the discussion of Bible translations, but also in the discussion of Apostolic Tradition and in the historical validity of the Bible accounts.

The argument begins with the basic premise: God will preserve his Word.

As a Christian and a member of the Christian church, I believe that this premise is true, but I also think that the premise has no application to arguments in favor of one Bible translation over the other, because the premise gives us no information as to how and where God preserves his word.

The King James Version arrived amid controversy because it was in its time a new translation. “Our Old Bibles are good enough!” argued the supporters for its predecessor, the Geneva Bible. Since the KJV makes changes to the Geneva Bible, the “Word preservation” argument can be used against the KJV as well as against its successors. (Some KJV-Only supporters mistakenly think that the KJV was the first English translation of the Bible, or they think that it is the first English translation of the complete Bible. Neither is the case.) Indeed, the King James Bible was not a “new translation” but a revision of what had gone before. Compare the KJV with this text from the 1534 Tyndale translation (with modern spelling) of John 1:1-2.

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God: and the word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.

And Tyndale’s John 1:15-18

John bare witness of him and cried saying: This was he of whom I spake, he that cometh after me, was before me, because was ere than I. And of his fulness have all we received, even grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man hath seen God at any time. The only begotten son, which is the bosom of the father, he hath declared him.

Sound familiar?

Perhaps God’s preservation of his word is found in widespread usage over a long period of time? If this is true, then we should be looking to the Latin Vulgate translation which was in wider use and for more than twice as long as the King James. And as for widespread use, one should keep in mind that most Christians are Roman Catholic, and they did not use the King James version. That is, the King James has never been a majority version.

Another branch of this argument says that the Greek New Testament text that underlies the King James version represents the vast majority of Greek manuscripts and so it must be the right one (because God will preserve His word). It is true that the “Western Text” as textual scholars call this family of New Testament text variations does represent the majority of manuscripts, but it does not represent the majority of very early manuscripts. And it is not true that all of these Western manuscripts agree with each other.

Remember the party game where one person is given the text of a story, who then tells it to someone, who in turn tells it to someone else and so on. The “fun” is comparing the story at the end of the line with the original. The final rumor is usually the most corrupt and less accurate version. The same is reasonably assumed for Bible manuscripts. The earliest are the best. Indeed, textual critics have carefully and painstakingly tracked variations in order to arrive at the best possible Greek text of the New Testament. The King James relies on a Greek text largely derived from 12th century manuscripts [see below] with no consideration for older texts.

The argument is made that these early texts are defective and that’s why they weren’t copied and why the correct Western “majority” text won out. So in this scenario God preserves his word more often than God fails to preserve his word (God wins on points). However, this argument fails to recognize the fact that the Greek text that underlies the KJV is not identical to any extant Greek manuscript. So if the KJV is 100% accurate, then God was 100% unable to preserve a single correct Greek manuscript of the Greek New Testament. I think this pretty much does away with the idea that God preserves His word through unerringly copied manuscripts.

Will God preserve his word only through one particular tradition and one particular Bible translation? Does God work through translators in 1611 but not today? Does God not work through reason (study, scholarship)?

At the fundamental level, arguments based on the premise “God will preserve His Word” boil down to the claim: “God preserves his word through my church, my tradition, and my Bible version, but not in yours.”

Further Notes

I have had occasion to discuss the King James Version with some of its supporters and I found something rather surprising–that these particular KJV supporters lack knowledge about certain important facts about the version and in some cases, have outright misinformation.

The first shocking fact to some KJV supporters is that the 1611 edition of the Authorized Version contains the (Catholic) Apocrypha. That is, there are more than the 66 books found in modern KJV editions. It was not until 1644 (because of the objections of the Puritans) that an edition omitting the Apocrypha was issued and not until the 19th century that the British Bible Society stopped publishing editions containing the Apocrypha. Note: copies of the 1611 edition are widely available from sources such as Christian Book Distributors, lest anyone doubt the truthfulness of these statements. Nevertheless, the King James Only supporters criticize certain modern translations because they publish editions with the Apocrypha.

The other surprise is that the text of today’s KJV is really not that of the 1611 edition. Here is a selection from a real 1611 edition (Isaiah 27:3-4)

(3) I the Lord doe keepe it; I will water it euery moment: lest any hurt it, I will keepe it night and day. (4) Furie is not in mee : who would set the briars and thornes against me in battell? I would goe through them, I would burne them together.

Perhaps that citation gives a better look at how distant the KJV translation really is from modern English. Today’s KJV editions smooth over the difficulties by modernizing the spelling. It leaves the reader unwary to the changes in word meaning between 1611 and now.

What is much more disturbing to me personally is the misinformation which deals with the Greek New Testament published by Erasmus which provided the basis for the Textus Receptus (Received Text), the Greek text used by the King James translators. The misinformation paints Erasmus as a monk who spent his whole life among New Testament manuscripts (5,309 of them in particular) who painstakingly reviewed and collated these texts to make his Edition. Erasmus is painted in almost super-human terms and his accomplishment an unequaled intellectual achievement.

But the facts of the matter are that Erasmus left the monastery as soon as he had the opportunity, that he didn’t learn the Greek language until the year 1500, that he spent only 6 months producing his Greek New Testament, and consulted only 4 rather late (12th century) manuscripts in the process and in the rush to publish produced one of the most error-ridden books ever printed. Indeed, for the first edition, Erasmus had no Greek Text for some verses in Revelation, so he made some up (by translating the Latin Vulgate into Greek). During his lifetime Erasmus produced 5 editions of the his Greek New Testament to correct the original and at the end he still had only consulted 7 manuscripts.

If my Internet correspondents are to be believed, this blatantly false misinformation is being published in a number of “Christian” books which fuel the King James Only movement, books which not only inflate hugely the number of texts considered by Erasmus, but equally deflate the number of texts used by modern translations (which they label with the derogatory term “new age translations”).

While the work of Erasmus was very significant in his own time, I would no more rely on his Greek New Testament than I would rely on a 16th century dentist to have my teeth drilled.

In preparing this article I read two encyclopedia articles on Erasmus (including the Britannica which I recommend to the interested reader), both books on Erasmus at the local library, a Bible commentary and Metzger’s book on the text of the New Testament. For the interested reader, then, I present excerpts from some of these sources.

Roland Bainton, perhaps best known for his standard biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand, states in his biography of Erasmus:

Far more significant than the editing of Jerome was the printing for the first time of the New Testament in Greek. This was a landmark in the history of Biblical scholarship. The achievement has been disparaged because the work was hastily done, “precipitated rather than edited,” 10 as Erasmus himself said. He hurried, presumably under pressure from [the publisher] Froben , … Erasmus was disappointed by the paucity and late date of the manuscripts available to him at Basel, only four for his first edition and nothing earlier than the eleventh century. The great Vaticanus was unfortunately at Rome. With what he had, Erasmus worked furiously for six months, but in that time could not expend the same care which he had devoted to his Jerome on which he had worked for fifteen years. … Erasmus was far from satisfied with the entire production and devoted the remainder of his life among other labors to the improvement of this edition. Before his death there were in all five editions, in 1516, 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535. For the fourth he was able to collate seven manuscripts in all and to take advantage of better readings in the Complutensian Polyglot, especially for the Book of Revelation. The editing of this book was the most unsatisfactory of the entire production. Erasmus had but one manuscript with interlinear comments in Greek. The text had, therefore, to be extracted and copied freshly for the printer. Erasmus committed this task to an assistant, who made errors in transcription, which Erasmus did not take time to check for the first edition, nor adequately at any time. The manuscript lacked the last five verses of Revelation which Erasmus himself translated from the Latin back into Greek.12 He was promptly and properly criticized for this procedure.

Despite all of the defects the magnitude of his achievement is not to he depreciated. The mere fact alone that the New Testament in Greek was available in book form, whatever the text, was of immense significance, because thereby the task of collation was expedited. Manuscripts could not be transported from country to country without grave risk. Printed copies could be sent to the manuscripts and variant readings recorded in the margins. ….[1]

Regarding the number of sources consulted by Erasmus, we have this citation from a standard Bible commentary:

Erasmus, most renowned Greek scholar of the day, had been persuaded by the Basel printer Froben, who held exclusive rights from the pope to publish the Greek NT for 4 years, to rush through the Greek NT of 1516. He consulted only 6 late minuscules, and at times sent one of these directly to the printer to be set in type. When he found Rev. 22:16-21 missing from all his exemplars he boldly translated from Latin back into Greek himself. Opponents were outraged that the dominant Latin was now challenged by the Greek. Stunica, one of the Polyglot editors, attacked the omission of the vs. about the Trinity in I John 5:7 (KJV)-missing even in the late Greek MSS consulted by Erasmus. …Erasmus put the spurious vs. into his 3rd ed. of 1522, whence it entered subsequent Greek NT’s and the KJV. It is a Latin gloss, found in no MS before the 12th cent.

Erasmus’ text went through many reprintings, often blended with the Complutensian NT. The 1550 ed. by Stephanui–a learned printer who in 1551 first added numbered vs. divisions to the ch. divisions which Stephen Langton had introduced into the Vulg. in the 13th cent. –became standard in Great Britain and provided the basic Greek text for the NT of the KJV of 1611. The similar Elzevir edition of 1633 in Holland became standard on the Continent and came to be called the Textus Receptus (TR) from a blurb in the preface describing it as the “text received by everyone.” The Greek NT was now being circulated widely in print, but in a form based on only ca. 25 late MSS.

The Collection of Evidence. In 1628, 17 years after the KJV was published, Codex Alexandrinus … arrived in England. The readings of this 5th-cent. MS suggested that the accepted text contained many errors. In Paris ca. 1700 a palimptest was discovered containing, under a commentary by the Syrian theologian Ephraem copied in the 12th cent., a 5th-cent. Greek Bible, which was accordingly named Ephraemi Rescriptut (see Table II). Other MSS, previously known but unused, were now examined, including 2 bilinguals (Greek-Latin) from the 6th cent. (see Table II). Evidence from the Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Persian versions was also studied.

During the 17th and 18th cents. progress on the Hebrew OT was slow, but for the NT variants piled up increasingly. John Fell of Oxford in 1675 listed readings from ca. 100 Greek MSS plus the Coptic and Gothic. By 1707 John Mill, also of Oxford, listed 30,000 variants in his Greek NT. But when he dared to correct the TR 31 times great controversy arose; his work was deemed a menace to Christianity.[2]

Another biographer of Erasmus said:

Erasmus claimed on the title page of the [Greek New Testament], again in a declaration at the end, and more fully and confidently still in a dedicatory letter to Leo X, that he had used many old and correct manuscripts of the Greek text as well as citations of the Testament text made by the Greek Fathers. This is disingenuous. He could claim from the generously disposed that he meant he had consulted some old manuscripts when he had been preparing his notes, but the implications of the language he used in the passages mentioned was that he had edited the printed Greek text by the careful collation of a number of ancient manuscripts–and this was not true, or at best it was no more than a half-truth. In the short time he allowed himself for the preparation of the whole work for the printers, together with his seeing through the press his Jerome and other writings, he had little opportunity to collate and refine. He did no more than to deliver in the first place to the printers two manuscripts, one of the gospels and one of the epistles, which he found to his hand at Basel, and which are still preserved in that city. The general consensus of scholars has considered these to be of late origin possibly as late as the fifteenth century. He himself recognized that they were defective in textual value, and complained to Budé that he had had to make corrections in them before sending them to Froben’s compositors after a hasty comparison with a few other manuscripts at Basel. Since the book of Revelation was lacking in the second manuscript he gave to the printers, he used another manuscript lent to him by Reuchlin, which also still survives. Because the Biblical text was connected with a commentary in Greek in this manuscript, Erasmus had to make a copy himself of the actual text of Revelation contained in the manuscript, but he did not do this with the necessary care since he failed to correct some false readings. Further the manuscript lacked the last five verses of Revelation and he translated these verses into his own Greek from the Vulgate text (he also added at Acts 8:37 and Acts 9:5-6 Greek not to be found in the manuscripts). He admitted this in the Annotations but, again disingenuously or possibly ignorantly, suggested that he is translating some words which do not appear in the Greek. Also in the Annotations he cited readings from manuscripts he had consulted in different cities in the years in which he had been preparing his Latin version. Since a few of these readings have not been found in any manuscripts since, it may be possible that he made some independent readings of his own, or else he was relying on defective memory.

Not only was the text hastily prepared but also the printers were careless in their work. That twelve pages, a ternion, were printed daily shows the haste of the compositors, and the pressure on the proof-readers, Nicholas Gerbel and Oecolampadius, whom Erasmus blamed in the following year somewhat ungenerously since both were competent in Greek and zealous for the good of the work.34 Printing had begun in October 1515 and the whole work was completed and published in March 1516. But this important and influential edition was half-hidden under a cloud of typographical and other errors: 501 itacisms have been counted which were taken over from the manuscripts into the printed text. The perfectionism of later textual criticism looked on this Greek text–which formed part of the foundation of the ‘Textus Receptus’ for four centuries–with dubiety. And Scrivener wrote of its typographical errors, ‘the first edition is the most faulty book I know’. 35 This is applying too harshly later standards of typographical and scholarly precision to the early sixteenth century, but Erasmus was also challenged for his casualness in to his own time. Erasmus was not exaggerating when he admitted that this work, which was to have so great an influence on his time, nevertheless, ‘praecipitatum est vcrius quam aeditum’; but he could also write to a friend ‘Aeditum est pro temporis angustia satis accurate’,36 which does not suggest that he was much perturbed by its precipitate appearance.[3]

Finally, in his book on the text of the New Testament, Bruce Metzger (editor of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible), wrote:

The printing began on 2 October 1515, and in a remarkably short time (1 March 1516) the entire edition was finished, a large folio volume of about 1,000 pages which, as Erasmus himself declared later, was ‘precipitated rather than edited’ (praecipitatum verius quam editum). Owing to the haste in production, the volume contains hundreds of typographical errors; in fact, Scrivener once declared, ‘[It] is in that respect the most faulty book I know.” Since Erasmus could not find a manuscript which contained the entire Greek Testament, he utilized several for various parts of the New Testament. For most of the text he relied on two rather inferior manuscripts from a monastic library at Basle, one of the Gospels … and one of the Acts and Epistles, both dating from about the twelfth century.2 Erasmus compared them with two or three others of the same books and entered occasional corrections for the printer in the margins or between the lines of the Greek script.3 For the Book of Revelation he had but one manuscript, dating from the twelfth century, which he had borrowed from his friend Reuchlin. Unfortunately, this manuscript lacked the final leaf, which had contained the last six verses of the book. For these verses, as well as a few other passages throughout the book where the Greek text of the Apocalypse and the ad-joining Greek commentary with which the manuscript was supplied are so mixed up as to be almost indistinguishable, Erasmus depended upon the Latin Vulgate, translating this text into Greek. As would be expected from such a procedure, here and there in Erasmus’ self-made Greek text are readings which have never been found in any known Greek manuscript-but which are still perpetuated today in printings of the so-called Textus Receptus of the Greek New Testament.’

Even in other parts of the New Testament Erasmus occasionally introduced into his Greek text material taken from the Latin Vulgate. Thus in Acts ix. 6, the question which Paul asks at the time of his conversion on the Damascus road, ‘And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?’, was frankly interpolated by Erasmus from the Latin Vulgate. This addition, which is found in no Greek manuscript at this passage (though it appears in the parallel account of Acts xxii. 10), became part of the Textus Receptus, from which the King James version was made in 1611.

The reception accorded Erasmus’ edition, the first published Greek New Testament, was mixed. On the one hand, it found many purchasers throughout Europe. Within three years a second edition was called for, and the total number of copies of the 1516 and 1519 editions amounted to 3,300. The second edition became the basis of Luther’s German translation.1 On the other hand, in certain circles Erasmus’ work was received with suspicion and even outright hostility. His elegant Latin translation, differing in many respects from the wording of Jerome’s Vulgate, was regarded as a presumptuous innovation. Particularly objectionable were the brief annotations in which Erasmus sought to justify his translation. He included among the philological notes not a few caustic comments aimed at the corrupt lives of many of the priests. In the words of. A. Froude, ‘The clergy’s skins were tender from long impunity. They shrieked from pulpit and platform, and made Europe ring with their clamour.’ As a result, ‘universities, Cambridge and Oxford among them, forbade students to read Erasmus’s writings or booksellers to sell them’.2

Among the criticisms leveled at Erasmus one of the most serious appeared to be the charge of Stunica, one of the editors of Ximenes’ Complutensian Polyglot, that his text lacked part of the final chapter of I John, namely the Trinitarian statement concerning ‘the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth’ (i John v. 7, King James version). Erasmus replied that he had not found any Greek manuscript containing these words, though he had in the meanwhile examined several others besides those on which he relied when first preparing his text. …Erasmus … inserted the passage in his third edition (1522), …Among the thousands of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament examined since the time of Erasmus, only three others are known to contain this spurious passage. They are Greg. 88, a twelfth-century manuscript which has the Comma written in the margin in a seventeenth-century hand; Tisch. w 110, which is, a sixteenth-century manuscript copy of the Complutensian Polyglot Greek text; and Greg. 629, dating from the fourteenth or, as Riggenbach has argued, from the latter half of the sixteenth century.1

Thus the text of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament rests upon a half-dozen miniscule [script] manuscripts. The oldest and best these manuscripts (codex I, a miniscule of the tenth century, which agrees often with the earlier uncial text) he used least, because he was afraid of its supposedly erratic text! Erasmus’ text is inferior in critical value to the Complutensian, yet because it was the first on the market and was available in a cheaper and more convenient form, it attained a far greater influence than its rival, which had been in preparation from 1502 to 1514…

Subsequent editors, though making a number of alterations to Erasmus’ text, essentially reproduced this debased form of the Greek Testament. Having secured an undeserved pre-eminence, what came to be called the Textus Receptus of the New Testament resisted for 400 years all scholarly efforts to displace it in favor of an earlier and more accurate text.[4]


There is another curious argument which I saw in defense of the KJV which roughly goes: Modern Translations disagree among themselves; therefore they are wrong (because “God is not the author of confusion” [1 Cor. 14:33]). This is a variant of “God will preserve his Word.” Putting aside the fact that this scripture is taken out of context (it actually refers to orderly worship meetings), this particular argument carries no logical force. It picks the KJV and compares it to nothing, and declares it “invariant” and then picks several other versions and compares them to each other and declares them “variant.” But that way of comparing begs the question and presumes arbitrarily the Authorized Version as the standard. We might just as well assume the New Revised Standard Version as the default version and then make a list of other versions including the Authorized Version and show that they all disagree at some point; therefore, the NRSV is the only true version. The same argument works just as well in favor of *any* translation.

Another facet of this argument, which I did not comprehend at the beginning, is that “the 5,200 Greek New Testament manuscripts all agree with each other and with the Greek text used by the King James translators, but differ from the two texts used by the modern translations.” I did not realize that this argument was being made because the particulars of it are so outlandishly false as not to be considered. This uniformity in Greek texts does not exist and modern editions of the Greek New Testament rely on literally hundreds of manuscripts. Some manuscripts, through painstaking study, have been shown to be more reliable than others.

It is always sad, and unfortunate, when disagreements over Bible interpretation (or translation) turn into personal disputes, and it is always unfortunate when Christians identify their brothers as “enemies” and start using words like “apostate” and “heretic” on each other. Nevertheless, this has been our history and our present. However, “God will preserve his Word” and will do so without us slandering each other.


Itacism. “In Koine Greek [certain vowels and dipthongs] came to be pronounced all alike, all of the them sounding like ee in English ‘feet’. It is not surprising that one of the commonest kinds of scribal confusion involves the substitution of these seven vowels and dipthongs for one another. This kind of error, which is commonly called itacism, accounts for several extremely odd mistakes present in otherwise good manuscripts. [5]


[1] Bainton, Roland H., Erasmus of Christendom, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1982, p 133-134.

[2] Laymon, Charles, Ed, The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Abingdon-Nashville, 1980, p 1232-1233.

[3] Hall, B, Erasmus: Biblical Scholar and Reformer, p. 67-97.

[4] Metzger, Bruce M., The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 3rd Ed., Oxford University Press, 1992. p. 100-102.

[5] Ibid. p 191.

This entry was posted in Bible, Controversy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to God will preserve his Word: The KJV Only controversy

  1. Joe says:

    Jesus wasn’t a liberal. Liberals kill babies and support gay marriage and the legalization of drugs. Ect ect ect… Jesus was NO liberal !!!!

  2. Kevin says:

    Joe, I think you would be best served to try to argue the other side. It might help you to get beyond stereotypes and into a deeper understanding of Jesus.

    That’s why this website exists.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.