The King James Version of the Bible

A visitor to my web site wrote: “I believe the King James Version is God’s Word perfected in English.”

This page discusses why I would take exception to the word “perfected”.

What if there were no King James Version? Let’s say all we had was the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Now think of someone producing the exact KJV that we have now and trying to publish it. Would anybody buy such a thing or take it seriously? The answer is “no”. People would immediately note that the language is obsolete, the text was confusing in places, there were errors in the translation and the Greek text underlying the New Testament was faulty. The unanimous view would be that this was a poor Bible version and that it had no place in study or worship.

The reason the King James Version continues to be published is simply tradition. A local preacher told a story of a man who got saved and went to the store to buy a Bible, asking the clerk “what do you recommend”? The new convert knew nothing of the Bible except what he had heard as a child at his grandmother’s knee. The clerk brought a Bible, but the man read it and knew it wasn’t what he wanted. Finally (to make a long story shorter), the clerk brought a KJV and the man said “this is the Bible”. Now my friend on the radio told the story to make the point that in one’s heart, one knows that the KJV is the Word of God. But I read the story to make the point, that the only reason the fellow picked the KJV was because that was what he was “used to”. There was no special virtue in the translation except that it reminded him of his grandmother. Now I have nothing against familiarity, tradition or grandmothers, but these have no bearing on the perfection of the translation.

Obsolete language

I was at the doctor’s office last week. Wednesday night Bible study was coming up in a few hours and I wanted to review the chapters we had for the evening. It was cold and raining and I didn’t want to go back out to my auto to get a Bible, so I used the one at hand, a Gideon Bible in the King James translation. I turned to the 10th chapter of Mark and read:

(Mark 10:1 KJV) And he arose from thence, and cometh into the coasts of Judaea by the farther side of Jordan: and the people resort unto him again; and, as he was wont, he taught them again.

I see three obsolete words, “thence”, “cometh” and “wont”. I pretty much know what they mean, but only because I was raised on the KJV. I don’t mean to suggest that all of the King James Version is “fulleth” of obsolete language, but much of it is. “Resort” is an uncommon (but technically correct) usage.

Other words mean something different today than they once did. An example is “Lucifer” in Isaiah 14:12. In the 17th century, Lucifer was the name of the morning star (Venus), but today it has lost that meaning and so the passage is uniformly misunderstood by KJV readers as a reference to Satan. A simpler example is the word “suffer” in Matthew 19:14. Jesus is not saying that children should suffer, but that they be not hindered.

(Mat 19:14 KJV) But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Other obsolete words include: chambering, champaign, churl, cieled, clouted, cockatrice, collops, cotes, daysman, goodlier, firstlings, damsel, wimples, wrought, wot, wist, froward, brigadine, amerce, blains, crookbact, descry, fanners, glede, habergeon, implead, neesing, nitre, rereward, tabret, tabering and wen.

Professor Lightfoot observed: “…words are used which have drastically changed their meanings. In the seventeenth century ‘allege’ was used for ‘prove,’ ‘communicate’ for ‘share,’ ‘suffer’ for ‘allow,’ ‘allow’ for ‘approve,’ ‘let’ for ‘hinder,’ ‘prevent’ for ‘precede,’ ‘conversation’ for ‘conduct,’…” 1

Clarity

Take a look at this one:

(Rom 3:5-8 KJV) {5} But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man) {6} God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world? {7} For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner? {8} And not rather, (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say,) Let us do evil, that good may come? whose damnation is just.

Huh? A critic of Christianity once cited that verse to me as evidence that St. Paul taught that lying was ok if it increased God’s glory (an impossible conclusion based on the larger context). After looking at the following modern translation, it becomes obvious what St. Paul is saying:

(Rom 3:5-8 Gaus) But then if our wrongdoing only shows all the more the just nature of God, what shall we conclude? That God has no right to react with anger (as I imagine people saying)? No, never! How would God ever judge the world on that basis? “But,” you say, “if by my lying the truth of God is increased, to his greater glory, how can I still be condemned as an evildoer?” Isn’t that like what people insultingly say of us and some people (who deserve to be condemned for it) even claim that we say ourselves: “Let’s do evil so good will come of it?”

Poor Translation

While I have a great admiration and regard for the KJV translators, the state of Hebrew and Greek scholarship in the 17th century was primitive. Sometimes the translations are poor. One of the areas of concern is rendering the same word different ways, or different words the same way. For example, the prophet Jeremiah is named “Jeremiah” (Matthew 27:9), “Jeremias” (Matthew 16:14) and “Jeremy” (Matthew 2:17). Matthew uses only 2 different spellings rather than three. On the other hand, three distinct words, “Gehenna”, “Hades” and “Tartaroo” are all translated as “hell”. Gehenna was a particular geographic location near Jerusalem; calling it “hell” covers the allegorical nature of what Jesus meant.

Mark 6:20 in the KJV says Herod put John the Baptist in prison and “observed him” but a more correct translation is “protected him”.

The KJV also uses formal and churchy words in place of the commonplace words used in the original texts. Examples include “baptize” for “wash” and “church” for “the called”. In some places, the KJV is a bit too literal, with a silly result like: (1 Sam 9:2 KJV) “And he had a son, whose name was Saul, a choice young man, and a goodly: and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people.” A better translation is (1 Sam 9:2 NRSV) “He had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.”

Text

I’ve written elsewhere about the poor Greek text of the New Testament that underlies the KJV. It was hastily assembled from late and incomplete Greek manuscripts. A number of things in the KJV are actually interpolations (text that was added to the manuscripts) and some came through the Latin Vulgate translation. The theological smoking gun is the celebrated “Johnine Comma” where some Trinitarian language that appeared around 600AD in the Vulgate was forced into the Greek of the Textus Receptus and from there to the King James. The King James says:

(1 John 5:6-8 KJV) This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. {7} For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. {8} And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

where all ancient Greek manuscripts only say:

(1 John 5:6-8 NASB) This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. {7} And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is the truth. {8} For there are three that bear witness, the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

There is even one sentence in the KJV that exists in no Greek manuscript, whether ancient or not. That sentence is from Acts 9:6:

(Acts 9:6 KJV) And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? …

You can’t simply add a sentence that we know the Evangelist didn’t write and call it “perfected”.

Conclusion

The King James Version has some problems:

  • It relies on faulty texts of the original languages particularly the Greek
  • It adds words and phrases not in the original languages
  • It mistranslates some words due to the primitive state of Hebrew and Greek scholarship in the 17th century.
  • It uses obsolete English words
  • It uses words whose meaning has changed since the 17th century
  • It’s muddled in places
  • It doesn’t take advantage of recent archeological and manuscript discoveries
  • The grammar and phrasing do not conform to modern style standards
  • It’s plain hard to read (12th grade reading level)
  • It uses “churchy” words that obscure the commonplace ideas in the original text.

Is it “bad”? No, but it’s not “perfected” either.

This entry was posted in Bible. Bookmark the permalink.

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.