This month, the King James Version turns 400. I thought I would take the opportunity to pay tribute to the King James and also say why I think it is time to move on.
One of the things I gained an appreciation for when I studied Greek was the accuracy and beauty of the King James Version. There is a reason why it has been the version of choice of the last 400 years. It is a great translation.
By the way, it is not the bestselling translation any more. That distinction has been held the last several years by the NIV:
2010 – Based on Dollar Sales
1. New International Version
2. King James Version
3. New King James Version
4. New Living Translation
5. English Standard Version
6. Holman Christian Standard Bible
7. The Message
8. New American Standard Bible (updated)
9. New International Readers Version
10. Reina Valera 1960 (Spanish)
To be fair, if you added the New King James and the old King James, that might be the winner. But then, if you added the NIV the NIVr and the TNIV that might be the winner too.
Because I have some background in Greek, I am occasionally asked what I think the best, or most accurate translation is. My answer: all of them. We are greatly blessed to have the multitude of fine translations available to us.
One of the things that made the King James such a great translation is that the translators did not start with a blank piece of paper. They depended heavily on translations that were in use in the day and corrected them as necessary.
Bible translation is a bit like writing software code. Version 2.0 is generally quite a bit better than 1.0 of anything, and 2.2 is even better. Once a translation is out, it is easier to start with that translation and fix any problems or updating than it is to start with a blank piece of paper. Robert Thomas writes in How to Choose a Bible Version:
Aside from direct dependence of the project on the Bishop’s Bible and its frequent reference to the Great Bible and Geneva Bible, the influence of the Rheims New Testament was also strong in the translation of the King James Version.
Many new translations have followed same pattern, including the ASV, the NASB, the RSV, and the ESV. They are translated, in a sense, with one eye on the Greek and Hebrew text and one eye on this previous stream of translations that goes back to Tyndale and Coverdale and the Great Bible and so forth.
Versions like the NIV, NLT, the HCSB and the soon to be released ISV all take a different approach and start with a blank piece of paper. There are strengths and weaknesses in both approaches.
So, why do I say I am a fan of newer translations?
The King James is hard to understand
Defenders of the King James often push back and say, “I can understand it just fine.” I am beginning to understand sections of the Greek New Testament pretty well, but that doesn’t mean Greek is easy to understand. Imagine someone reading some of the words below for the first time.
· “chambering” (Romans 13:13);
· “cieled” (Haggai 1:4);
· “clouted upon their feet” (Joshua 9:5);
· “cotes” (2 Chronicles 32:28);
· “suretiship” (Proverbs 11:15);
· “sackbut” (Daniel 3:5);
· “scall” (Leviticus 13:30);
· “brigandines” (Jeremiah 46:4);
· “amerce” (Deuteronomy 22:19);
· “crookbackt” (Leviticus 21:20);
· “glede” (Deuteronomy 14:13);
· “wen” (Leviticus 22:22);
· “nitre” (Proverbs 25:20);
· “tabret” (Genesis 31:27).
(Facts on King James Only Debate by John Ankerberg, John Weldon)
This is not a theoretical issue of me. I think of a man I know that I have encouraged reading his Bible on a daily basis. He describes himself as struggling to find the discipline to do this. He reads from the King James. How do I say this? I don’t think he reads all that well. I can’t help but think his Bible reading and his walk with God would go better if he read from a newer translation.
The Kings James is not based on the best manuscripts
I want to use the phrase, “from what I have been told” after just about every sentence in this section. I also want to say that many of the people I have heard talk on these subject. . . I really think they are only parroting what they have been told. Can we all be humble enough to admit that the study of the comparing of various Greek texts to discern which ones are closest to the originals is way over most of our heads? It is the one class in Greek I did not take in seminary because I feared I would get lost. It is a very heady discipline.
The good news is this. All of our Greek Manuscripts agree in about 99% of the cases. (By the way, I say Greek because Hebrew is even better. This is why if you compare the Old Testament to the New in terms of the number textual footnotes (footnotes that have to do with “this manuscript says this and that one says that”) you will notice the New has whole lot more than the Old. Still, the New Testament has comparatively few.
Compared to any other comparable literature in its day, the Bible is far better attested by better, old, more complete manuscripts of its time. I was in Orlando recently. They have a museum there with actual pieces of the New Testament that date back to the 2nd century. No other document of the period comes close. Lee Strobel quotes a conversation he had with Bruce Metzger:
“The quantity of New Testament material is almost embarrassing in comparison with other works of antiquity,” he said. “Next to the New Testament, the greatest amount of manuscript testimony is of Homer’s Iliad, which was the bible of the ancient Greeks. There are fewer than 650 Greek manuscripts of it today. Some are quite fragmentary. They come down to us from the second and third century A.D. and following. When you consider that Homer composed his epic about 800 B.C., you can see there’s a very lengthy gap.”
“Very lengthy” was an understatement; it was a thousand years! There was in fact no comparison: the manuscript evidence for the New Testament was overwhelming when juxtaposed against other revered writings of antiquity—works that modern scholars have absolutely no reluctance treating as authentic.
My curiosity about the New Testament manuscripts having been piqued, I asked Metzger to describe some of them for me.
“The earliest are fragments of papyrus, which was a writing material made from the papyrus plant that grew in the marshes of the Nile Delta in Egypt,” he said. “There are now ninety-nine fragmentary pieces of papyrus that contain one or more passages or books of the New Testament.
“The most significant to come to light are the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, discovered about 1930. Of these, Beatty Biblical Papyrus number one contains portions of the four gospels and the book of Acts, and it dates from the third century. Papyrus number two contains large portions of eight letters of Paul, plus portions of Hebrews, dating to about the year 200. Papyrus number three has a sizable section of the book of Revelation, dating from the third century.
“Another group of important papyrus manuscripts was purchased by a Swiss bibliophile, M. Martin Bodmer. The earliest of these, dating from about 200, contains about two-thirds of the gospel of John. Another papyrus, containing portions of the gospels of Luke and John, dates from the third century.”
At this point the gap between the writing of the biographies of Jesus and the earliest manuscripts was extremely small. But what is the oldest manuscript we possess? How close in time, I wondered, can we get to the original writings, which experts call “autographs”?
THE SCRAP THAT CHANGED HISTORY
“Of the entire New Testament,” I said, “what is the earliest portion that we possess today?”
Metzger didn’t have to ponder the answer. “That would be a fragment of the gospel of John, containing material from chapter eighteen. It has five verses—three on one side, two on the other—and it measures about two and a half by three and a half inches,” he said.
“How was it discovered?”
“It was purchased in Egypt as early as 1920, but it sat unnoticed for years among similar fragments of papyri. Then in 1934 C. H. Roberts of Saint John’s College, Oxford, was sorting through the papyri at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. He immediately recognized this as preserving a portion of John’s gospel. He was able to date it from the style of the script.”
“And what was his conclusion?” I asked. “How far back does it go?”
“He concluded it originated between A.D. 100 to 150. Lots of other prominent paleographers, like Sir Frederic Kenyon, Sir Harold Bell, Adolf Deissmann, W. H. P. Hatch, Ulrich Wilcken, and others, have agreed with his assessment. Deissmann was convinced that it goes back at least to the reign of Emperor Hadrian, which was A.D. 117–138, or even Emperor Trajan, which was A.D. 98–117.”
That was a stunning discovery. The reason: skeptical German theologians in the last century argued strenuously that the fourth gospel was not even composed until at least the year 160—too distant from the events of Jesus’ life to be of much historical use. They were able to influence generations. —Lee Strobel Case for Christ
Trust me, you can trust your Bible, whatever Bible you use. Still, this is the Bible and if we can move from really good to really, really good, it is wise to do so.
The situation is this: there have been a whole lot of manuscripts found in the last 400 years. We have far better textual evidence to support modern translations than we did 400 years ago.
Admittedly, most of this doesn’t make too much difference, but just a case in point. Why did John write 1 John? Whose joy is he trying to make full? Look at this in a few translations:
· 1 John 1:4 (NIV) We write this to make our joy complete.
· 1 John 1:4 (ESV) And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
· 1 John 1:4 (NASB) These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.
· 1 John 1:4 (HCSB) We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
· 1 John 1:4 (KJV) And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.
· 1 John 1:4 (NKJV) And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.
Every translation except the King James has our joy. KJ has your joy. The best evidence we have based on the newer-found oldest manuscripts, the word should be our joy.
Your joy, my joy, what difference does it make really? In most cases, textual issues are just like this—they don’t matter too much theologically. I know of one exception, and that is the ending of Mark.
Consider these two verses from the New King James:
Mark 16:17-18 (NKJV) And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Notice it doesn’t say they might speak in tongues and pick up snakes, or some will and some won’t. It is quite emphatic and clear. As surely as night follows day, believers will speak in tongues, they will pick up snakes and so forth. How do you deal with that?
Well, if you use any new translation, it is pretty easy. The NIV says: The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses. The New American Commentary says about this passage: “It is virtually certain that Mark wrote nothing after v. 8, i.e., he did not write the long ending (vv. 9–20) or the short ending.” So, if we believe it is what is written at the hand of Mark that is actually the Bible, we just say we don’t have the part of the Bible anymore and the ending we do have was added by someone else and should not be considered part of the Bible.
I emphasize the point that these kinds of things are very rare. Still, it makes sense to me to use the best manuscripts we have to translate the Bible from. Parts of the Textus Receptus (the text behind the KJV) was actually translated back into Greek from the Latin because, at the time, they didn’t have any actual Greek texts of those sections. Before we leave this point, consider this quote from Ankerberg and his quote of Metzger:
Some of the problems which Erasmus bypassed in his hasty work have been summarized by noted Princeton scholar Bruce M. Metzger:
For most of the text he relied on two rather inferior manuscripts in the university library at Basle, one of the Gospels and one of the Acts and Epistles, both dating from about the twelfth century…. [Because of back translation from Latin into Greek in a manuscript of Revelation] here and there… are readings which have never been found in any known Greek manuscript but which are still perpetuated today in printings of the so-called Textus Receptus of the Greek New Testament.
Evidence like this demonstrates that Erasmus’ text, which evolved and became the basis for the Textus Receptus, “…was not based on early manuscripts, not reliably edited, and consequently not trustworthy. — Facts on King James Only Debate by John Ankerberg, John Weldon
The King James is a great translation that has served the church well for 400 years. For two reasons, I think it is time to move on:
· Being 400 years old, the King James is hard to understand
· We have better manuscripts now than they did when they translated the KJV