How was the Bible preserved? Why are there many Bible versions? Do we really need them? Which Bible is God’s Word? Have these versions removed verses from the Bible? These questions have formed a crescendo in the church and have been fueled, in part, by a fringe movement known as “the King James Onlyism” (KJO).
The KJO crowd believe that “God wrote only one Bible, and for us today it is the Authorized Version-1611, King James Version.” They are aggressive and dogmatic about their claims and often appeal to wild conspiracy theories as support (I should know, I used to be one). Gail Riplinger’s dishonest and slanderous book, New Age Bible Versions readily comes to mind.
Another KJ onlyist, Steve Anderson and his friends, produced a New World Order Bible Versions movie, which repeats the same slippery-slope, conspiracy-driven, “the-sky-is-falling” arguments against Bible versions except the KJV – a tirade not easily dismissive as a laughable hogwash. Someone reviewed the movie noting that it “seems to be a direct plagiarism of the book New Age Bible Versions by Gail Riplinger…. [It] is nothing but a tiny, unprofessional version of [her book].”
This divisive controversy calls for presenting facts about Bible translations. When Christians are well informed in this area, they can easily make up their minds and not get caught up in fanatical conundrums.
Autographs and Manuscripts
The Bible was given by divine inspiration (2Tim. 3:16). “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake [as they were] moved by the Holy Ghost” (2Pet. 1:21). The prophets and apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write what they wrote. The OT was written in Hebrew, the book of Daniel, in Aramaic and the NT in Koine Greek. The original writings, which have not been discovered, are called “autographs.”
The first time a person writes something, it’s called an original autograph. After then, it is a copy. For instance, there are no autographs of the 10 commandments, since Moses destroyed it (Ex. 32:19). But God gave him a copy of the exact words (Ex 34:1). This is the principle behind Biblical preservation – making exact copies of original writings. Scribes carefully copied the books of the Bible from the autographs into scrolls and preserved them.
These copies gave rise to use of manuscripts (meaning “hand copy”) which was necessary to spread God’s Word across the globe and reach people of different languages. Some manuscripts were materials like papyrus and leather which decayed quickly in damp climates, so original writings were recopied many times even within the Biblical period. Because of the climate, papyrus documents from this period were mostly preserved in a dry desert, cave or shelter.
In the first few centuries after Christ, the prevalent style of NT Greek was the uncial text. In later centuries, the form of writing Greek was the minuscule or Byzantine text. Because there are more Byzantine-style texts (dated to 8th-10th centuries) discovered than others, the Byzantine texts are also called “the Majority Text.”
While copying texts, scribes sometimes had difficulties writing their copies perfectly, thus, there were some textual variations in manuscripts – mostly spelling or numerical errors – which affected no doctrine. Bible scholars who made translations had to critically examine the manuscripts and get the earliest Hebrew or Greek copies available. The closer the text was to the time of the apostles, the more important. The number of manuscripts containing a verse was also considered. Through this manuscript tradition, translators could reconstruct the original readings and give a more accurate rendering.
The remarkable preservation of the Bible is a fulfillment of God’s promises: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Mt. 24:35). “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand forever” (Is. 40:8). These promises stands true for the Word of God in every language or translation. It is the height of irrationality to limit these Bible promises to a 17th century Bible version.
Erasmus and The Textus Receptus
All through church history, people have always had affinities for particular Bible translations. The first Old Testament translation into Greek – the Septuagint (shortened as LXX) – was made in 280 BC. It was used extensively in the time of Christ and the apostles by Greek-speaking Jews. Some people debated its use in the early church but it was later accepted.
When Jerome translated the LXX into the Latin Vulgate in 405 A.D, it sparked a controversy as the people preferred the LXX translation. This brought Jerome into disagreements with Augustine of Hippo. Later, the Latin Vulgate became “the only Bible known and read in Western Europe” for 1000 years! (David Schaff, Our Father’s Faith and Ours, 1929, 172).
The rationale behind Godly translations is to put God’s Word in a language or form that can be widely understood by people. The language we read the Bible is not important; what matters is that we read its inspired message in a form that we can understand and respond to. Moreover, since the Gospel is to be preached “to every creature” and “among all nations” (Mk. 16:15, Lk. 24:47), everyone can learn God’s Word in their own language without having to learn another language. Erasmus had this intention.
Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) was a Catholic priest and scholar who had a different outlook. He said: “I vehemently dissent from those who would not have private persons read the Holy Scriptures nor have them translated into the vulgar [common] tongues…” (Preserved Smith, Erasmus: A Study of His Life, Ideals and Place in History, 1962, 184). He decided to produce a Greek translation of the Bible. He had 10 manuscripts: 4 from England, 5 from Basle and one borrowed from his friend, John Reuchlin.
These texts weren’t ancient (they were largely Byzantine texts). Reuchlin’s manuscript, the oldest, dates to 10th-12th century (Mangan, Life, Vol 1:374-375). When the work was completed, Erasmus dedicated it to Pope Leo X. Inspite of being based on ten not very ancient miniscule texts, his Greek text was later regarded as “Textus Receptus” (the Received Text) from which the King James Bible was translated.
Erasmus’ Greek text was criticized because the people were used to the Latin Vulgate. However, there were some problems with his work. In a bid to quickly complete his work, he added some margin notes from the manuscripts into the text of some verses (which eventually found their way into the KJV). The Reuchlin manuscript he used didn’t have the last 6 verses in Revelation 22, so Erasmus had to translate them from the Catholic Vulgate to fill the gap, and noted this in a footnote. This is how a blunder crept into the KJV wherein the “book of life” appears in Rev. 22:19 whereas, every extant Greek manuscript has “tree of life.”
First John 5:7 (Johanneum Comma) was also missing from every Greek text he had, so he omitted the verse. When his work was published, this omission sparked an outrage and charges of heresy were about to be levied on him. After some effort, he found the verse in a 16th century Greek minuscle 61 text (which he suspected was doctored) and eventually introduced it so “that there be no calumny” (Erasmus, 166). The Textus Receptus (TR) was later edited by Robert Stephanus and Theodore Beza.
Perfect Version Anyone?
Before the KJV, there were other English versions: the Tyndale (1525), Coverdale (1535), Matthew (1537), Great (1539) and Geneva Bible (1560). When King James I ascended the throne in 1603, the Geneva Bible was the people’s favourite.
In 1606, King James approved an English translation to be used in all the churches of England, which was easily understood by the people. The KJV was translated by 54 scholars and completed in 1611. In the preface, they wrote:
“But how shall they understand that which is kept close [veiled] in an unknown tongue?…indeed without translation into the vulgar [common] tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) without a bucket or something to draw with…” (The Translators to the Readers, 4).
This proves that the KJV translators would not object to modern translations if they were intended to present the Scriptures in a language understandable to everyone. The KJV translators never claimed to have produced the only true Bible version, but rather stated that “a variety of translation is profitable for finding out the sense of the Scriptures.” They admit to consulting other “translators and commentaries” to improve on their work. Yet KJ onlyists attack those who use other translations!
The KJV was criticized in its time too. In fact, it took 40 years before it replaced the Geneva Bible which the people loved. The translators stated that “the very worst translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession … is the word of God.” Nowhere does the Bible teach that God will preserve His word only in form of a 17th century English translation. If the Geneva or Coverdale Bibles were not God’s Word, neither is the King James Bible. The KJV owes much to these earlier translations.
If the KJV alone was God’s preserved Word, then the great Reformation (1517-1603) took place without God’s Word and the KJOs can as well swim to Rome. This would also imply that German, Chinese or Twi Bibles are not Bibles, since the whole world must learn 17th century English and read the 1611 KJV if they would have God’s Word.
The KJV 1611 wasn’t perfect or inerrant since it “rapidly went through several editions, nearly all of which had changes in the text. The edition of 1614, for example, differs from the original in over 400 places” (The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993, 730). The 1611 edition had the apocrypha books which were later removed. The 1613 edition (called the “Wicked Bible”) left the word “not” out of the 7th commandment, thus endorsing adultery.
For the KJV to be perfect in every word, the translators must have the same infallible inspiration of the Holy Spirit in their translating as the writers of Scripture, but the translators never claimed inspiration or perfection for their work. They wrote alternate meanings “in the margins, where the text is not so clear.” There are over 8,000 alternate English renderings in the margins of the KJV. Why? Because the translators were not inspired to know the exact meaning.
For example: the KJV didn’t distinguish between the Devil (Gr: diabolos) in Matt. 4:1 and demons (Gr: daimonizomai) in John. 13:2. It also fails to distinguish between hell (hades) in Lk. 16:23 and the lake of fire (gehenna) in Mt. 5:22. It uses the pronoun “it” for the Holy Spirit in John 1:32, Rom. 8:16, 26 and 1 Peter 1:11. It renders the Greek word hierosulous in Acts 19:27 as “robber of churches” whereas it should have been “robber of temples.” Yet KJOs insist the KJV is more accurate than the Greek or Hebrew manuscripts!
The KJV’s obsolete English obscures the meaning of passages like 2Cor. 6:11-13, 1Thess 4:15, SoS 5:4 etc. It uses the word “unicorn” for wild ox, “satyr” for wild goat, “cockatrice” for common viper, “apothecary” for perfumer, “dragon” for monster and “shambles” for meat market. This was why newer English translations was necessary.
R. A Torrey sums up the Christian position on Bible versions: “No one, as far as I know, holds the English translation of the Bible as absolutely infallible and inerrant. The doctrine held by many is that the Scriptures as originally given were absolutely infallible and inerrant, and that our English translation is a substantially accurate rendering of the Scriptures as originally given.” (Difficulties in the Bible, 1907, 17)
The Modern Versions
In the 19th and 20th centuries, more Bible manuscripts were discovered: codex Sinaiticus (c. 350 AD), the Bodmer 14, 15 (c175 AD), Ryland 547 (c 125), and Magdalen (c.70-80). Thousands of pieces of manuscripts older than the Byzantine texts (which the TR relied on) have been discovered. These earlier texts became the foundation for modern Bible versions.
The main difference between the KJV and modern translations (like the NIV, RSV, NASB) is that the latter are based on more ancient manuscripts. Manuscript textual variation is another reason. These variants resulted from:
1. Copyist error – papyrus is not as clear as white paper, so a little imperfection on it can be mistaken for a letter.
2. Expansion of piety – a scribe, in attributing honour to the Lord may write “the Lord Jesus Christ” or “Jesus Christ” instead of Jesus.
3. Marginal notes – these were sometimes written to explain the text because one Greek word can have different English meanings. For example, John 3:36 (KJV): “He that believeth not the Son shall not see life.” The NASB reads: “He who does not obey the Son shall not see life.” The Greek word apeithco has a primary meaning (disobedience) and secondary meaning (unbelief). The NASB chose the primary meaning, while the KJV chose the secondary. Both are correct because faith in Christ naturally results in obedience to Him.
4. Parallel influence – a scribe copying the epistles can come across a sentence in Colossians that looks like Ephesians. Though the passages do not read the same, he may be tempted to render them as same. For instance, Col. 1:14 and Eph. 1:17 read the same in the TR, but in earlier texts only Eph. 1:17 has the phrase “through his blood.” And KJOs still run around like chickens with their heads cut off, screaming “its a conspiracy to remove the blood!”
Translational differences also occur when there are no textual variations, but differences in sentence structure, grammar or influences of culture-centric words. The KJV used dynamic equivalents like in Rom. 3:4 which reads “…God forbid” (There is no “God” in the TR). The term “God forbid” was common in 17th century England. The NIV reads it as: “may it not be.”
Let’s examine some verses KJOs use to peddle their “sword-turned-butter-knife” rhetoric.
(a) KJV: “And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.” (Lk 2:33)
NIV: “The child’s father and mother…”
Is this denying the Virgin Birth?
No. In Luke. 2:48 KJV, Mary refers to Joseph as Jesus’ father. In John. 6:42, Jesus is called the “son of Joseph.” In Lk 2:27 and 2:41, the KJV talks of Jesus’ parents. If KJOs are consistent, they must also attack the KJV. That Joseph was called Jesus’ “father” is not a denial of the Virgin Birth. What do you think Jesus called Joseph?
b) KJV: “…Lo, I see four men walking loose…and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” (Dan 3:25)
NIV- “…like a son of the gods.”
Is this denying Christ’s pre-existence?
No. Nebuchadnezzar speaking here was a pagan who believed in many gods, so in context, “a son of the gods” is correct. While the pre-existence of Christ is well supported by the NIV, this verse is a wrong one to use as support. The fourth man in the fire was an angel of God.
c) KJV: “And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts 8:37)
NIV: Verse missing.
Is the NIV denying faith in Christ as a condition for baptism?
No. This verse is not in the NIV and others because only a very few Greek manuscripts have it- none earlier than the 6th century. Erasmus inserted it into the TR due to its presence in the Catholic Vulgate and the margin of one manuscript he had. Its also possible the text having it is lost.
d) KJV: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life…” (Mt 7:14)
NKJV: “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life…”
Is the NJKV the devil’s bible for rendering this “difficult”?
No. The Greek word here is thlibo (Strong #2346). Out of the 10 times it occurs in the NT, the KJV renders it as “narrow” only here. Elsewhere: throng (Mk. 3:9), afflicted (2Cor. 1:6, 1Tim. 1:10, Heb. 11:37), troubled (2Cor. 4:8; 7:5, 2Thess. 1:7), suffer tribulation (1Th. 3:4) and trouble (2Th. 1:6). The term “difficult” is closer in meaning than “narrow.” The KJO argument is quite unfortunate.
e) KJV: “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus…” (Acts 4:27)
NIV: “…against your holy Servant Jesus…”
Is the NIV denying the Sonship of Jesus?
No. The Greek word there is pai (Strong #3816) and it means a male child, boy, a male servant, especially as a title of the Messiah. The “servant” rendering would be more correct since in context, Jesus ascended as a Man (not a boy), and the apostles were presenting Him as Israel’s Messiah (“whom thou hast anointed”). Both the Sonship and servanthood of Christ are taught in the KJV and NIV.
f) NIV: “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement.” (Mt 5:22)
NIV: Jesus “looked around in anger…” (Mk 3:5).
The KJV adds “angry without cause” to Matt. 5:22, while modern versions make Jesus out as a sinner under judgement. Modern versions have the word “without cause” (Gr: eivkh) in their footnotes since its found in a wide number of manuscripts. It seems it was deleted due to the seeming contradiction. However, if one reads Matthew 5:22 in context, its clear that Jesus was speaking of sinful anger or calling one’s brother a “fool.” He wasn’t speaking of righteous anger like His anger at the rebellious Pharisees.
In a bid to poison the well, KJO folks fault the NIV claiming Virginia Mollencott, a lesbian, was a part of its translators. Nice try. She was only a literary (stylistic) committee – not a translator – for a few months; and she resigned when her sexual view was exposed. Until the gay lifestyle of King James I invalidates the KJV, this moot point doesn’t merit a response (see King James and Letters of Homoerotic Desire by David M. Bergeron).
The KJV (which I love and use) is a good version. In areas where it differ from modern versions like the RSV, NKJV or NIV, no doctrine is affected (except in cases of New World, Joseph Smith’s Inspired Version etc). They all present the gospel and the cardinal doctrines of the Bible – if one reads the entire text and doesn’t take an isolated verse here or there to prove a point.
A position maintaining that the KJV is God’s Word while others are not, is dishonest, incoherent and intellectual suicide. To tell millions of Christians saved and nurtured in the faith by the NIV or NKJV that they use the devil’s bibles, is harmful to the body of Christ. KJO advocates should stop making an idol out of the KJV and start studying its message, praying and living a Christ-centered life. This is more profitable than unnecessary divisions, accusations and foolish contentions (1Tim. 2:23-24).