I always hesitate before uttering a word against KJV Onlyism. More than a few people will likely interpret it as criticism of the King James Bible itself and, therefore, the inspired writings of God. I know because I used to be one of them.
For a reasonable chunk of my adult life, I believed the KJV was not only the best translation of Scripture in English, but also a perfect one. It must be since God went to all the trouble of inspiring the text in the first place. Surely, faithful scribes hand-copied the Bible generation after generation without making a single mistake. Eventually, at least one of those flawless copies made it into the hands of the KJV translators who, then, produced a flawless translation.
Maybe I’d still believe that, but I happen to be a guy who likes reading history, especially church history, and the facts poked more than a few holes in my former theory. If there ever existed a perfect line of Bible manuscripts, that is, handwritten copies in the original languages, the evidence is long gone.
Today, we have access to more than 5,700 manuscripts of the New Testament alone, making the Bible the best preserved work of ancient literature. Even so, these manuscripts contain textual variants. Differences exist from one to the next. When we compare the oldest to the newest, the text’s evolution—or is it devolution?—becomes apparent.
Perhaps God’s flawless family of manuscripts has since vanished. We may not have compelling evidence of its existence, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist at one time. Please welcome Erasmus onto the scene.
The Latin Vulgate, much like the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, was hand-copied by scribes for a thousand years before the printing press came along. Erasmus, a Catholic priest, knew it no longer accurately represented the original text of the Bible and sought to create a new Latin New Testament. Compiling a handful of late Greek manuscripts with the Latin Vulgate to fill in the gaps, he published his own New Testament, first, in Greek. Then, he revised it twice, making substantial changes to his first edition.
For example, he added what is now a well-known phrase to 1 John 5: “The Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost.” The Greek said, “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1Jn 5:7-8). After receiving sharp criticism for “removing” a vital text on the Trinity found in the Latin Vulgate, he ultimately conceded.
The changes didn’t end with Erasmus. Stephanus and Theodore Beza also revised Erasmus’s text multiple times before the KJV translators went to work. The translators themselves wrestled with alternate renderings and continued to make changes after the first edition of the KJV went to print. The 1611 KJV underwent more than 100,000 tweaks before arriving at the 1769 edition which most of us know and love today. In fact, the 1769 contains direct contradictions to the 1611.
If God didn’t perfectly preserve his word since the days of the apostles, then what? If the KJV, that is, the 1769 KJV, is flawless, we’d have to assume he re-inspired the text through a lengthy, rather convoluted process. While that is possible, what evidence do we have? And what about other languages? Do they also have re-inspired Bibles? What about the thousands of languages that still do not have Bibles?
Whenever I address KJV Onlyism, someone will ask, “Why cast doubt on the accuracy and reliability of Scripture?” Isn’t it better to hear these things from a fellow believer than a critic of the faith who only wants to destroy your confidence in God’s word?
I just want to encourage Christians to put more trust in God and his living and abiding word than a single translation (1Pe 1:23). I want them to understand the facts rather than rely on a simplistic, fairy-tale version of history. I hope they will prepare themselves to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you (1Pe 3:15).
Further study into the matter will not dismantle everything you know about God, the Bible, and theology. I promise you.