The King James Bible: Is it THE Bible?
A Plea to Advocates that the King James Translation of the Bible is the Only Inspired Translation, to Advocates that the King James Translation of the Bible is the Only Translation To Be Read “In the Pulpit”, and to Advocates that the King James Translation of the Bible is Merely the Best Translation to Use
Folks, we know the Bible is God’s good word. And in God’s good word we are told to avoid stupid arguments over things like endless genealogies and ‘old tales’, things like that. One of these stupid arguments is over what is “THE right Bible translation”.
I must begin by affirming that the “King James” Bible is a beautiful rendition of scripture that has been the delivery of God’s word to generations and generations around the world. My intention here is not to slam the KJV, decry the KJV, forbid the KJV, or mock the KJV. God’s word is holy, but we must distinguish between his word and the tradition of rendering his word. We must not mistake one for the other. Yes, the KJV has left a profound impact on the English language and religious culture around the world, a translation which resides in the homes of peoples the world over, a translation through which many received scripture.
The one scholar I will refer to the most in this series is Jack P. Lewis, who taught at Harding Grad for many years. His book, The English Bible from KJV to NIV: A History and Evaluation (2nd edition), will be my major source (and I recommend it for any who wish to study the history and comparison of Bible translations up until the 1990s, as I am much indebted to it). As with Lewis’s goal in his book, my goal in this series is to honor the Word and the efforts of English translators to render it, to “prove all things” and “hold fast to that which is good”, as the scriptures say.
I’ve heard from some people that the King James Authorized Version of the Bible is the only one we should use because, among a number of other purported reasons, a) it’s the one we’ve been using for a long time in churches and is really old b) Is written in “Bible English” c) is “authorized”. What’s interesting is that this movement was really unheard of before the 1930s, and since then it has become more and more extreme and absurd as it battles new translations.
Let us immediately point out the silliness of such points:
a ) Time is only a test of how long something lasts, not whether it is right, or the best. (Remember the practice of bloodletting?)
b) There is no such thing as “Bible English”, because not a single word of the Bible was originally written in English.
c) The 1611 translation to which people refer was an edition APPOINTED by King James of England (hence the name, folks), and, on top of that, King James himself never even “authorized” it ceremonially. In fact, “authorized” wasn’t even considered part of the title for 200 years.
- Some churches are very loud and proud about their favorite translation.
The KJV has “stood the test of time” because it was the premier (though not the first in English), widespread (thanks to the printing press), standardized (by political forces) English translation of scripture, coinciding with the rise of the printing press and dominating most of Europe and the Americas for about 250 years. In other words, technology and politics had more to do with its prominence than textual perfection or exclusive inspiration. This so-called “test of time” is silent from the writing of scripture until 1611. Where was the “only acceptable English Bible” for those first 1600 years? What did English Christians do? Sometimes we forget that the Way of Christ exists outside of our country and family tree. The KJV has existed for a long time, and in countless places, but that does not prove it is the most faithful translation, the best translation, or the safest translation. It has suited many people very well, but it does not and cannot serve as a litmus test for faithful translations, or faithful Christians.
James White (1) outlined five different kinds of KJV activists. I’ve clarified the terms he uses based on my understanding of the distinctions he draws:
- “KJV is my favorite” proclaimers—merely includes people who like using the KJV the most.
- “Textualists”—those who argue that of the translations they accept, KJV has the best rendering of the ancient manuscripts.
- “Recieved Textualists”—those who believe that the KJV (and maybe some other translations, to a degree) are supernaturally preserving the original manuscripts to the fullest.
- “Exclusive Inspirationalists”—Believe the KJV itself is unique in that is the fully divinely inspired version; other English translations do not share this privilege, though they may carry “segments of inspiration”.
- “Ultimate Revelationists”—Believe the KJV is most definitely the only English Bible that ever was or will be inspired, and that this Bible is the ultimate revelation for English speaking peoples. In fact, it is the final authority for disputes about the Bible (making it better than the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts), and all other translations are abominations. The infamous false teacher, conspiracy theorist, abuser of women and racist bully Peter Ruckman is among these adherents. So yes, men like this exist.
There is certainly overlap in this spectrum, which pretty much covers the “conservative” wing of American Evangelical thought. On the other end of the wing would be types of “liberals” who do not believe in the inspiration of scripture at all, or only believe portions they admire are. Between these wings would be people who have a more realistic, and faithful, understanding of textual criticism. Along this scale I will go ahead and say that I am not worried about group 1 (general enthusiasts) at all. It is groups 4 and 5 (extreme exclusivists) I am primarily interested in exposing and shaming as we continue the series.
Some KJV enthusiasts may happen to, like myself, be members of Churches of Christ who have strong ties to the Restoration Movement in 1800s America. It may be of interest of them to know that Alexander Campbell, an influential leader of the beginning movement, believed that changes in the English language and Greek manuscript findings had made the KJV obselete to Americans. He developed a translation known as The Oracles of God. One of the things that stood out in his translation is that words like “church”, “angel”, and “baptize” became “congregation”, “messenger” and “immerse”, respectively. Some say his translation pioneered much of the new English translation work done today. But enough history for now.
Let us take a breath and continue in our next post by delving more into the history of the KJV, asking why and how it was produced “under the authority of King James”.
Part 2: A History of a Politically Charged Translation
1 White, James (1995). The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Minneapolis: Bethany House. pp. 1–4.