King James Only?
An Analysis of a Divisive Issue
Part of my M.Div. course-requirements at Columbia Evangelical Seminary included the preparation of a short paper on the subject of the King James Only dispute. Specifically, my assignment was to interact with the works of James White (The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations?) and D. A. Carson (The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism). Many thanks to my mentor, and C.E.S. President, Dr. Rick Walston, for encouraging me to complete this project.
Christians have long maintained that the Bible is the Word of God. Thus an acquaintance with the Bible's contents is integral to knowing and serving Him. This being the case, it is surely a blessing that the Scriptures are (in the Western world, at least) so easily accessible. In fact, numerous versions of the Bible are available, from quite literal translations to looser paraphrases.
Thankfully, the vast majority of English translations fairly represent the Greek and Hebrew (and a small number of Aramaic) manuscripts from which they are derived. Indeed, textual criticism has gone a long way in providing trustworthy modern translations.
Unfortunately, though, the sheer number of Bible versions has stirred a measure of controversy. The debate centers on the precise location of God's Word. If God has spoken, it seems impossible to accept translations that are something less than identical. Some would argue, therefore, that it makes sense for God to have preserved a single deposit of inspired truth. Such are the sentiments of a group of individuals that can be broadly labeled King James Only advocates.
Though a number of people hold to some form of King James Onlyism, many evangelicals strongly disagree with the King James Only position. Indeed, a number of biblical scholars and apologists have taken this view to task. Among these are James White and D. A. Carson. This paper will briefly interact with the thoughts of these (and, to a lesser extent, other) men as propounded in their respective works. As a result, a number of broad principles will be brought to bear on this sometimes divisive issue.
The Origin and Preservation of the Bible
While the Scriptures were inspired by God, those who eventually copied them were not. Early on, mistakes crept into the NT text. Occasionally these were deliberate. Most often they were the result of human error. As time went by, more and more copies of manuscripts were made. Soon we had copies of copies and so forth. Eventually, manuscripts could be broadly grouped according to textual types or families. "Basically, a text-type or text-family refers to a grouping of manuscripts that share common readings or characteristics that distinguish them from other text types." Though the peculiarities of a given text are not always easy to classify, these categories are somewhat helpful in sorting through the many NT manuscripts.
Of course, all of this talk about textual variants raises questions about the manner in which God has preserved His Word. King James advocates believe preservation comes via the King James Bible. After all, one would expect God to preserve one version, not many. This view is hardly tenable, however, for the plain fact remains that God has preserved a variety of texts. Thus the divine message is embedded within the many manuscripts.
While identifying the best manuscripts is no simple task, it is helpful (and encouraging) to consider that manuscript variants do not normally disappear. In other words, the original readings of the NT are likely to have been preserved, for once a variant reading appears in a manuscript, it doesn't simply go away. It gets copied and ends up in other manuscripts. . . . The tenacity of the New Testament, while forcing us to deal with textual variants, also provides us with the assurance that our work is not in vain. One of those variant readings is the original. We are called to invest our energies in discovering which one it is.
Determining God's Words: Textual Criticism
The study and analysis of ancient manuscripts is called textual criticism. This can be further divided into two types, lower criticism and higher criticism. Lower criticism involves the study of manuscripts of the Bible, those written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, as well as ancient translations into other languages like Latin, Sahidic or Coptic. Its goal is to reproduce the original text of the Bible from this vast wealth of information.
Higher criticism, however, is less concerned about the manuscripts than the process by which the Bible came into its present form. Because it is highly subjective, higher criticism is prone to speculation and the whims of the interpreter. Lower criticism, on the other hand, is a valid instrument for determining the biblical text.
Ironically, Erasmus, who gave us the Greek text (later known as the Textus Receptus) which undergirds the King James Bible, "used the very same methods of textual-critical study that modern scholars use." Yet many King James only advocates decry similar methodology among those responsible for the newer translations.
The Genesis of the King James Bible
The King James Bible did not appear one day from heaven.Rather it was the culmination of a series of important historical events. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there was an interest in returning to the ancient writings. In fact a popular motto among thinkers of that day was the Latin phrase ad fontes, meaning "To the source!" "These men did not want to hear about the opinions of men passed down through the centuries. They wanted to go directly to the sources, directly to the ancient documents, so that they could learn for themselves."
For centuries, the Latin Bible, i.e., the Vulgate, was the accepted translation of the Church. But now there was a concern to examine the original languages. This eventually led the humanist-scholar, Erasmus, to publish the entire Greek New Testament (A.D. 1516).
It was Erasmus, and later Stephanus and Beza, who was responsible for the Greek text utilized by the King James translators in 1611. Years after the publication of the King James Bible, the preface of the Elzevir brother's second Greek edition contained the words, "the received text," hence the term Textus Receptus.
Noteworthy to this discussion is the fact that the King James Version and the Greek texts from which it was derived admit discrepancies. That is, there is no perfect Greek text, nor an infallible translation. In every case, scholars seek to piece together the original (i.e., by means of textual criticism) from the available manuscripts.
The King James Version is a monument to those who labored to bring it into existence. Of this there can be no question. But as we have seen, it was a human process, and as in all human life and endeavor, it did not partake of infallibility.
Types of King James Advocates
Due to the popularity of the King James Bible, it is not surprising that some have become staunch advocates of this tried and true translation. Still, it is not always easy to characterize the King James advocate. Some prefer the King James Bible for stylistic reasons alone. Others of a more radical bent claim inspiration for the Received Text or the King James Version itself. Unfortunately, some of those who hold such views have made these matters a cause for disunity among brothers. As White laments, "That sharing in the gospel of Christ can be disrupted by such an issue should cause anyone a moment's reflection, and more than passing concern."
King James Only Arguments
A number of arguments have been put forth in defense of King James Onlyism. Among these are the following: (1) Modern translations make compromises when it comes to doctrinal matters. (2) The Greek text underlying the King James Version (i.e., the Textus Receptus) is superior. (3) We can't be certain of what God says unless we possess a single translation (and/or Greek text); that is, discrepancies among versions prove that one is correct and the others false. These can be briefly examined in order.
First, the accusation that modern versions compromise the truth is clearly fallacious. If the modern translations were part of some grand conspiracy to excise biblical doctrine, it is strange that these give full support to orthodox beliefs. Indeed, comments White, "Some KJV advocates are surprised to note that the KJV does not do as well as some modern versions when it comes to providing clear, understandable translations of the key, central passages in the New Testament that testify to the full deity of Jesus Christ."
The argument for the Textus Receptus is a bit more complex. Let it suffice to say that most conservative scholars prefer an "eclectic" approach to the manuscripts, "in that each reading is examined on its own merits and no absolutely overriding rule is used to artificially decide each variant."
Furthermore, the Byzantine text-type, which formed the basis for the King James Version, is lacking in the earliest manuscripts. Instead, the Bible of the early centuries of the Church resembled a more ancient, that is an Alexandrian text-type. This doesn't mean that textual critics automatically favor older readings. But such manuscripts certainly ought to be given due consideration in the quest to uncover the original.
Finally, the desire for absolute certainty when it comes to textual matters, while understandable, is not realistic. History has left us with numerous extant manuscripts. These not only differ from each other, but none are flawless representations of the autographs. Even the King James is not without imperfection. For example, "a dozen or so readings in the KJV find no support in any Greek manuscript whatsoever."
Problems with the King James and King James Onlyism
King James defenders are often critical of those who choose other Bible translations. Yet the King James Bible itself is fraught with a number of difficulties. For one, the King James Version is not as uniform and simplified a translation as its more radical adherents would like to believe. Indeed the Textus Receptus—a Byzantine type text that is often given high priority by King James defenders—is a collation of various textual readings.[21 Therefore, "to claim a particular text-type is inerrant is meaningless because a text-type is established by comparing manuscripts, grouping those with most features in common, and accepting the most probable readings."
Next, the King James Bible is based on a number of relatively late manuscripts, none earlier than the tenth century. To arbitrarily assert that older texts (e.g., Alexandrian) are inferior surely begs the question. A more balanced approach would be to give appropriate weight to a variety of manuscript families and to then decide (based on internal and external criteria) which best reflects the original. As mentioned above, this allows for both confidence and progress. Confidence results from a realization of the overall continuity between the many variants when it comes to major doctrine, while progress (and humility) is facilitated through diligent research. At any rate, the King James Only mentality only works to impede spiritual and intellectual integrity.
Finally, there is something to be said concerning the archaic language of the King James Bible. At times, its antiquated terminology has been a stumbling block to modern readers/hearers. Not only are certain words outdated (e.g., thou, ye), but some terms actually mean something entirely different today than they did when originally penned (e.g., prevent in 1 Thessalonians 4:15). Indeed, if one sure sign of a good translation is that it successfully relates the ancient text to contemporary people, the King James Version is swiftly becoming an inadequate vehicle of communication.
Throughout their respective works, James White and D. A. Carson do a masterful job addressing the King James Only topic. In the end, they leave the reader with a basic understanding of the textual issues, a clear response to the faulty logic of King James Onlyism, and a sound defense of the Bible's reliability.
Of course, some might be tempted to make the relative complexity of the textual critic's work a reason for skepticism. But Carson notes:
There is no need for such rigorous pessimism. The vast majority of the manuscript errors have to do with details of orthography, word order, and the like. Moreover, many of the theologically significant variants can be sorted out quite easily by comparing manuscript with manuscript. The result . . . is a certain word from God.
Not skirting the issues, both writers build assurance in the biblical text, while simultaneously challenging the reader to employ sound textual ritical methods.
1. For a fairly recent review of some of the more popular translations, see Lewis Foster, Selecting a Translation of the Bible (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing, 1978, 1983).
2. James White, The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1995); D. A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979).
3. Though much could be said about Old Testament textual matters, here the primary emphasis will be upon the New Testament.
4. Carson, 21-24.
5. See F. F. Bruce, "Transmission and Translation of the Bible" in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), 39-57.
6. White, 42.
7. Ibid., 48. This isn't meant to imply that every copy of a manuscript contains all the words of that manuscript. The point, rather, is that when multiple copies are made of a given text, somewhere within the copies is found the words of the original. Textual criticism seeks to extract the original by sifting through these copies.
8. Ibid., 27-28
9. For a nice review of textual variants and some of the principles by which manuscripts are evaluated, see Arthur G. Patzia, The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text and Canon (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 137-149.
10. White, 58.
11. Carson, 33-37.
12. White, 13-14.
13. It is worth mentioning that the King James Bible has undergone numerous revisions (e.g., 1612, 1613, 1616, 1629, 1638, 1769), with most modern versions following the 1769 edition. Ibid., 77-82.
14. See Allan A. MacRae and Robert C. Newman, Facts on The Textus Receptus and The King James Version (Anaheim, CA: Foundation Press, 1975).
15. White, 82.
16. Ibid., 5.
17. Ibid., 196.
18. Ibid., 151.
19. Ibid., 152-154.
20. Carson, 69.
21. "To keep a correct perspective it is important to note that the TR is not exactly the same as the Byzantine tradition. The Byzantine text-type is found in several thousand witnesses, while the TR did not refer to one hundredth of that evidence." ibid., 37.
22. Ibid., 72.
23. For an excellent overview of textual principles, see David Alan Black, New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 32-36.
24. Carson, 24.
King James Only?: An Analysis of a Divisive Issue
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