Jeremy Sarber, Christian pastor

 

Honest With Me

Bible Preservation Through Mass Production

If you haven’t already, please read this series’ introduction.

Do you think then that verses like Psalm 12—”The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever” (Ps 12:6-7)—have no real application to the preservation of the Word of God? Does this verse not counter what you said about it not being preserved to the letter throughout all history?

Who ends up being the final judge as to what is right and what is wrong? How do we decide that “predestinate” is right and “foreknew” isn’t supposed to be there instead? Or how do we have any confidence in the meaning of the text if “virgin” is replaced, implying that Mary could have not been a virgin? Do you not see how this could produce confusion?

Also, I think we see anecdotally that the KJV has stood the test of time, and has been the go-to Bible for many, many generations. Does this not testify to its supremacy? And if there isn’t anything wrong with how the KJV is translated, why are we re-translating?

Well, facts are facts. The Bible manuscripts contained textual variants. The words of Erasmus’s New Testament changed from his first edition to his third edition. He added entire verses. And after all of that, even the KJV text underwent several revisions, some during the translation process and others after it was published. So there’s no use denying the facts. Rather, we have to find a way to defend the Bible against its critics in light of the evidence.

You see, God preserved his Word not through a perfect line of manuscripts that human scribes copied over and over again without committing any errors before reaching the King James translators, but through mass production. As persecutors in the earliest centuries sought to destroy every copy of the Bible they could find, they discovered it was impossible. Why? Faithful, diligent men had already produced dozens and hundreds of copies which were scattered among Christians across the earth. Maybe not every copy was free from error, but God ensured that his Word would remain.

Think about it. God preserved his church the same way. If every Christian had stayed in Jerusalem, then it would have been relatively easy for their persecutors to eradicate the church once and for all. But God in his infinite wisdom scattered them throughout the world. When Jesus prophesied the coming destruction of Jerusalem, he told his disciples who remained in the city, “Let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Mt 24:16). Of course, not every local church remained pure in their doctrine, but the church survived nonetheless.

God preserved both his church and his Word through mass production and scattering.

Maybe the facts aren’t as romantic as the notion of a perfectly-preserved, word-for-word series of manuscripts, but I can’t defend that notion. I would love for Bible history to be less messy, but it’s not. Keep in mind, however, that the miraculous providence of God was still at work from beginning to end. Sinful men made thousands of copies of the Bible by hand with surprisingly few mistakes.

I mentioned the 5,700 or so New Testament manuscripts available today. Well, among those manuscripts, less than three percent of the text has variants from one manuscript to another. So when I talk about textual variants, and mistakes, and errors, let’s not blow that out of proportion. Yes, there are differences, but those differences are remarkably few in number. The same is true when we compare the KJV to a modern translation such as the ESV. And that can only be by God’s providential oversight.

As for the KJV, well, I believe the KJV came along at a time when the English-speaking world desperately needed it. There is no doubt in my mind that the King James Bible has been a significant part of God’s plan. I imagine the same was true for the Latin Vulgate at one time. In fact, many people once held a Vulgate-Only position. Ironically enough, Erasmus received a lot of criticism for attempting to create a new Latin Bible. And so did the King James translators. Much of the KJV’s original preface was devoted to answering the critics. People didn’t think another English version of the Bible was necessary. Some found it insulting, thinking, What’s wrong with the versions we already have?

Even so—and I do believe the KJV translators would agree—times have changed, and history continues to progress. As much as the world once needed the KJV—and I consider the King James Bible a literary masterpiece that should reside in every home in the country—the English language has changed significantly since the 18th century.

George Ladd once said:

The Holy Spirit chose as the language of the New Testament revelation the colloquial language [that is, the ordinary language] of everyday people, not an ancient classical idea. The modern insistence upon the supremacy of the King James Version of 1611 [of course, no one actually uses the 1611 anymore] represents a reversal of the action of the Holy Spirit by insisting that for us the best idiom for the word of God is not the modern colloquial idiom, but the ancient classical language of Shakespeare.

If a person is reading the KJV every day and growing in their faith as a result, then, by all means, he or she should keep reading the KJV. But most people struggle with it. Some will admit they struggle with it; others won’t, but they may or may not be reading it. As a pastor, I want believers to be immersing themselves in the Word of God. I want them to read it consistently, daily. And I want them to get as much out of it as possible. More than that, I want them to enjoy it.

But the King James Version creates unnecessary obstacles. It contains more than 400 antiquated words that either we don’t use anymore, or their meanings have changed. That number doesn’t even include words such as “thee” or “thou” or any of the words with a funny ending (“gavest,” for example). Many of the sentence structures are confusing. The punctuation is far removed from contemporary standards. The spelling of many words, of course, is different than modern English.

Come on, let’s be honest here. The KJV is not easy to read. Yes, you can get used to it. But when a 10-year-old child or a new adult believer says, “I want to read the Bible,” I’m not going to cast a stumbling block in their way by recommending the KJV. The Bible was not intended for the “wise according to worldly standards” (1Co 1:26). Paul said, “God chose what is foolish in the world” (1Co 1:27). Or, if you prefer, “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world.”

The Bible was written to simple, often uneducated people. The KJV was created not so English-speaking people could have a Bible, but so they could have a better translation of the Bible in an updated format that matched their contemporary language. And it was revised several times for the same reason.

So despite the KJV’s importance throughout history and its legacy, I believe we need modern-English versions of the Bible. Maybe we don’t need as many as currently exists, but we do need some. And that’s not to say we should scrap the KJV. Again, I think there should be a copy in every home, and we should read it. But there is no good reason to fear modern Bibles. Listen, heretics used the KJV for 400 years to teach false doctrine. And good men use modern versions to teach sound doctrine.

Are the words a little different? Of course. That’s the point. But a good translation into contemporary English doesn’t cause confusion; if anything, it provides clarity. Especially when a person compares, let’s say, the ESV to the KJV, you get a much better sense of what the original author was trying to convey.

Ultimately, though, we’re all putting some degree of trust in the experts. I don’t know Hebrew or Greek. I guess you don’t either. Obviously, King James enthusiasts put their trust in the King James translators, not to mention Erasmus and everyone else who had a hand in what eventually became the KJV. I put my trust in them too despite my disagreements with some of their theology. Erasmus and I may have had trouble coming to an agreement about pretty much anything. But that’s okay because I’m not really putting my trust in Erasmus. My faith is in God. And I firmly believe that God has blessed men since 1611 to reproduce the Bible into modern English with accuracy. If you don’t believe that, then your challenge is to explain why without ignoring the evidence.

As for Psalm 12, I agree with virtually every Bible commentary that has ever existed. According to the KJV, David wrote, “The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever” (Ps 12:6-7). Now if you read that passage without its context, it sounds as though God will keep and preserve his words. But I believe the Psalm is actually teaching that God will be faithful to his promise (his words are pure) that he will he keep and preserve his poor and oppressed people.

First of all, just take a moment to read the psalm in full. Second, the 1611 KJV includes an alternate translation of “them” (verse 7) in the margin notes. According to the translators, this verse could read, “Thou shalt keep him, O Lord, thou shalt preserve him from this generation for ever.” So God is certainly keeping his words in that he will uphold his promise, but verse 7 means he is keeping and protecting his people.

And the last point I’ll make is that every prominent Bible commentary affirms my interpretation. John Gill, when writing about verse 7, said, “‘Thou shalt preserve them’…or ‘thou shalt preserve him’; that is, everyone of the poor and needy, from the wicked generation of men.” Matthew Henry said, “Let God alone to maintain his own interest and to preserve his own people. He will keep them from this generation.” (These are men who used the KJV, by the way.) So while I wouldn’t argue against Bible preservation, I wouldn’t necessarily use Psalm 12 to make my case.

Well, there is probably more that could be said in rebuttal, but I’m going to have to stop there with this one point and just agree to disagree. I would like to hear more about your other points. Maybe we can revisit this again later.