Jeremy Sarber, Christian pastor


Honest With Me

The Evidence Against King James Onlyism

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

Okay, so you believe that there are other reliable English translations besides the KJV? Which ones in particular? There are a lot of disparities between versions, some taking out the lordship of Christ in places, some changing “virgin” to “young woman,” others that have a more Arminian slant to their portrayal of salvation. Do you think these changes are okay?

If there is no continuity in the Word of God, how can we be confident in what we are reading? If one year a version has a verse one way, and in the very next year they “revise” it again, what does that say about the reliability of the Word of God?

Make no mistake, words do matter, especially when we’re talking about the Bible. But different words don’t necessarily change the substance of a text. For example, compare Romans 9:27-28 with Isaiah 10:22-23. I’ll quote from the King James Version.

Romans 9 says, “Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved: For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth” (Ro 9:27-28). Paul, of course, was quoting Isaiah.

So now let me read the same statement in Isaiah: “For though thy people Israel be as the sand of the sea, yet a remnant of them shall return: the consumption decreed shall overflow with righteousness. For the Lord God of hosts shall make a consumption, even determined, in the midst of all the land” (Isa 10:22-23).

Do you see the difference? “A remnant shall be saved” versus “a remnant of them shall return.” And the latter parts of both passages are radically different. Isaiah says, “The consumption decreed shall overflow with righteousness. For the Lord God of hosts shall make a consumption, even determined.” But Paul says, “For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make.” Now either Paul was paraphrasing Isaiah or the wording is different because the New Testament quote of the Old Testament text went through an additional translation before reaching English.

Even though I’m going beyond the scope of my point, let me explain what I mean. The KJV Old Testament was translated from Hebrew. The KJV New Testament was translated from Greek. Paul, however, wasn’t quoting from a Hebrew version of the Old Testament; he was citing a Greek translation. So the text in Isaiah goes from Hebrew to English in the KJV while the text in Romans, a quote from Isaiah, goes from Hebrew to Greek and finally to English. So the Romans passage went through an extra layer of translation.

Keep in mind that every language is unique and sophisticated (some more so than others). It’s not as though every language matches word for word. If you don’t believe me, play around with Google Translate awhile. Type in an English phrase, translate it to another language and then translate it back. Chances are, it’ll come out different than the original.

But going back to my Romans-Isaiah example, it doesn’t matter whether Paul was paraphrasing or the wording is different because of an additional translation. The point is, even the KJV shows us that words can be different without changing the substance of the text. In fact, different wordings can actually help us to understand the text better. By comparing Romans 9 with Isaiah 10, we may very well come away with a much fuller understanding.

Even the King James translators understood this point. Originally—I assume you’ve seen a 1611 King James Bible—they offered alternative translations in their margin notes. They realized there was more than one way to translate the text.

Furthermore, their original preface clearly states, though in rather archaic English:

We affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession…containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. As the king’s speech, which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the king’s speech, though it is not interpreted by every translator with the like grace.

You know, we often have this idea that God inspired men to write the Bible, countless scribes then carefully and accurately copied the Bible without making a single mistake over hundreds of years, and the King James translators finally translated the Bible into English, again, perfectly. But the evidence doesn’t support that notion.

Today, we have access to approximately 5,700 manuscripts of the New Testament alone. Many of them are partial, so it’s hard to have an exact figure. But anyone who reads Greek can easily compare them and see that there are textual variants. Not every manuscript is identical. Amazingly, there are fewer variants than you would expect, but there are still differences. Over the years, scribes mistakenly added words, left out words, and sometimes copied the wrong words. So it’s the job of a translator to compare as many of the manuscripts as possible to get a sense of what the original, inspired writings actually said.

Think of it this way. Let’s say I give a roomful of people copies of Genesis. And I tell them, “Go home tonight and copy the entire book of Genesis by hand.” Then they bring back their copies the next day. Not surprisingly, I’m going to find several mistakes. But that’s okay because—and let’s assume the original gets destroyed—I can compare their copies to one another. If one person missed a word, chances are, everyone else copied that verse correctly. What are the chances that everyone made the exact same mistake? So by comparing as many copies as possible, I get that much closer to what the original text said.

Now the King James translators had a little help with this process. Before they came along, there was a man by the name of Erasmus. In a time when the Latin Vulgate was considered the Bible of the day, he set out to create a new Latin translation, a more accurate translation. The Vulgate had been hand-copied for years, so it contained the inevitable scribal errors.

Well, to make a long story short, he got his hands on maybe seven manuscripts and went to work. He compared, compiled, and wrote a new-and-improved version of the New Testament in Greek. He faced a couple of problems, though.

First, he only had a handful of manuscripts that weren’t complete. So as convoluted as it sounds, he was forced retranslate parts of the Latin Vulgate back into Greek to fill in the gaps. Second, he was in a hurry. There was another Catholic bishop attempting the same thing, and Erasmus wanted to be first. In fact, he described his first edition as being “hurried out headlong.” But he did finish first, and the Catholic Church essentially rejected it. To his surprise, they approved of him doing it, but they also wanted him to do a better job. So he went back to work, eventually creating five different versions before he died.

Now it was Erasmus’s third edition that eventually became the KJV’s New Testament. The translators used his third edition along with a few other manuscripts, all while comparing their work with the Bishop’s Bible at the request of King James himself. Of course, the translators discussed and debated their translation choices. And ultimately, the KJV went through numerous revisions before the Crown of England stopped authorizing changes in the 1760s.

As much as we’d all love for this issue to be black or white, it’s not. I mean, if you hold to a KJV-Only position on the basis that God’s Word is perfectly preserved down to the letter in the KJV, then you would have to believe that God re-inspired those translators if you will. Just compare the various editions of Erasmus’s work. I didn’t even mention the fact that his work underwent more changes at the hands of Stephanus and Theodore Beza. Compare the Byzantine manuscripts. Some people reject the earlier Alexandrian manuscripts for somewhat arbitrary reasons, but even the Byzantine manuscripts aren’t identical. (Erasmus and the KJV translators used later Byzantine manuscripts, by the way.)

My point is, the evidence doesn’t support the idea that the KJV can be the only accurate English translation of the Bible. Even the KJV translators would refute that notion. Just because modern translations contain different words does not mean they are inaccurate. In fact, they could be more accurate because translation committees today have access to even more manuscripts, thousands more. So these charts that compare modern translations to the KJV and say, “Look! They’re different. They must be wrong,” well, those charts are misleading, to say the least.

First of all, the KJV is not our standard unless it really was re-inspired by God; the original manuscripts are the standard. And since we don’t have the originals, we have to compare as many of the copies as possible.

Second, those charts love to cite examples where, as you said, the lordship of Christ is diminished, or the virgin birth is removed. Well, maybe so. But they’re not telling the whole story either. For example, maybe the title “Lord” is not found in a particular verse of earlier manuscripts. Or maybe it’s not found in the majority of manuscripts. Regardless, you will find the title “Lord” in other verses of modern translations. It’s not a grand conspiracy perpetrated by Satan to deny the lordship of Christ. I can defend Jesus’s lordship, the virgin birth, or any other biblical doctrine using a modern translation of the Bible.

Having said that, not all Bibles are equal. Some fall into the formal equivalency category while others are on the dynamic side of the scale. To be clear, there’s no such thing as a literal translation of the Bible into English. Again, languages don’t work that way. But some versions of the Bible are more literal than others, and I do prefer a word-for-word, formal equivalency translation over a phrase-for-phrase, dynamic equivalency translation. The KJV, for instance, is a word-for-word translation. The NIV is a phrase-for-phrase translation. Then, of course, there are paraphrased Bibles, but let’s leave them aside.

I believe you asked what version I prefer. I use a lot of different versions of the Bible when I study. Comparing translations gives me a better sense of what was meant in the original language, so I use several. But my daily go-to Bible has become the English Standard Version, the ESV. It’s also a word-for-word translation, but it has the benefit of better readability than the KJV. And in case you’re curious, the ESV translators relied on a vast pool of both early and late-Byzantine manuscripts as well as Alexandrian manuscripts.

Now, none of this information should hinder a person from trusting the Bible. Maybe God didn’t preserve his Word as some people think he did. But it’s even more amazing to consider that through every mistake made by every scribe, through every translation and re-translation, through multiple revisions by sinful men, God has preserved this book so that, against all the odds, it continues to reveal his power and transform lives. Honestly, the more I’ve learned about Bible history, the more I stand in awe at what it has accomplished.