KJV Onlyism: A Travesty of Bible Understanding

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In 2016, a family friend and I went to the church bookshop. He wanted to buy two Bibles for his children. He scanned through the Bible shelf and picked out a King James Bible. “Why? But they are still children,” I protested.

He didn’t seem to get it, he apparently felt the KJV should be the default version for everyone because of its regular usage by the church’s general overseer.

“These children won’t understand the old English of the KJV. It should be bought for adults,” I opined. “Children need a Bible that they can fluently read and understand as much as what they read in school. If the Bible is too complicated for them in their young ages, they will grow up not studying and understanding it.”

He listened on, so I selected the Contemporary English Version and gave it to him. He’s not a native English speaker, but after reading a few lines from it, he smiled in excitement saying, “Its English is so clear; it’s like the sermon of a modern European evangelist!”

We both laughed and he purchased the Bibles.

It later dawned on me that this man had hitherto not been exposed to reading any English translation except the KJV. He had been locked in the KJV from the start and this has blunted his personal study and knowledge of Scripture.

The fact is: the language of the KJV can make the Bible complicated to a modern reader.

This has to be demonstrated, not merely claimed. But before I get to this, I want to first point one of the dubious arguments that led me to into KJV Onlyism 12 years ago. Here it is:

“It is all a question of authority! If we say that God wrote only one Bible, and for us today it is the Authorized Version – 1611, King James Version, then our problem is solved. But if we say this version is nice, and that version is nice, and it is a matter of preference, then the authority becomes human opinion” (William Schnoebelen, Blood on the Doorposts, Chick Publications, 1994, p. 211).

This is a mendacious rhetoric that illustrates the cognitive dissonance of the KJO belief. Its major flaw is how the writer places Bible authority on a certain translation whereas the Bible’s authority rests on its inspiration – not its translation.

The Bible’s original languages were Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. These are the inspired and authoritative languages. English is merely one of the translations of the originals. God didn’t write the KJV, and history reveals that the roots of fundamentalism rest in the authority of the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible, not in any English translation.

Second, the idea of God writing “only one Bible” occurs only in the bubble universe of the KJOs. They peddle their beliefs by collapsing Bible inspiration into transmission and translation. God inspired the original autographs but many copies and translations were made from them.

All through history, there have been different translations of the Bible. People who believe that only the KJV should be used, fail to recognize that men like Peter, Paul, and Jesus Himself didn’t always use the same version!

Just a few of many examples from the KJV confirm this point:

When Isaiah 53:7 is quoted in Acts, it says: “…as a sheep before her shearers is dumb” (Acts 8:32). But when we turn to Isaiah 53:7 it says, “…like a lamb dumb before his shearer.” One says her, the other says his.

When the writer of Hebrews refers to Genesis 47:31, he says that as Jacob died, he “worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff” (Heb. 11:21). But when we turn to Genesis 47:31, it says he “bowed himself upon the bed’s head.”

When Paul quoted Isaiah 28:16, he wrote: “Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed” (Rom.10:11). But when we turn to Isaiah 28:16, it says: “He that believeth shall not make haste.”

What is clear here is that New Testament writers did not always use the same version. This is beyond dispute. In these examples, they quoted from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) whereas the Masoretic text was used for the King James translation of the Old Testament.

I have no problem with people using or loving the KJV, but I have a problem with persons insisting that we must use only the KJV if we are to be in a right standing with God, and then employ all kinds of manipulation, bullying and ad hominem to validate that sectarian position.

When a teacher disseminates wild conspiracy theories and obvious falsehoods all in a bid to bind Christians under a tradition – such as sole usage of a certain bible version – it’s cultic indoctrination and it should be thoroughly rejected.

A KJV Onlyite wrote rather facetiously:

“Readability statistics generated from Grammatik and Word for Windows show why the KJV is 5th grade reading level, while the NKJV and NASB are 6th grade, and the NIV is 8th grade reading level! … According to readability statistics generated by Pro-Scribe, the KJV is easier to read than USA Today, People Magazine and most children’s books.” (Gail RiplingerThe Language of the King James Bible, AV Publications 1998 p. 159 emphasis hers).

Below are examples in the KJV refuting her assertions:

In the KJV, it is stated that Ruth went out to glean in the fields, “ears of corn” (Ruth 2:2). A 21st century reader would have maize corn in mind, but the Hebrew word there is se’orah which means “grain” or “ears of grain.” In ancient Israel, it was popular to grow wheat and barley, but not maize corn (Zea mays).

Also, in Mark 2:23 we read that Jesus “went through the corn fields on the sabbath day.” The image conjured up is of Jesus walking through maize fields, but maize was wholly unknown in the Old World, including Palestine until A.D. 1492.

The Greek word there refers to “fields of grain/wheat.” In old English, the word “corn” was generally used to refer to grains, wheat or barley as well as maize. But English language has changed since then.

In the KJV, we read about a person coming into a church wearing “gay clothing” (James 2:3). The Greek word translated “gay” is lampros which (like “lamp”) simply meant bright. In old English, “gay” in this context meant bright or attractive clothing, but today it means a homosexual. A modern reader can end up with a confused interpretation of that text.

In Acts 28:13, Paul and others were on a ship, when the KJV says “they fetched a compass.” Reading this, you would think they used an instrument with a little needle pointing to the cardinal points. But what we call a “compass” had not even been invented at that time! This expression simply meant to circle  around (see Josh. 6:4; 2 Sam. 5:23).

In the KJV we read: “…thou knowest all the travel that has befallen us” (Num. 20:14; cf. Lam. 3:5). The “travel” in the text was an old English word which meant travail or hardship. We use the word differently today.

In the KJV, we read: “Be strong, and quit yourselves like men” (1 Sam. 4:9). An almost identical wording is found in Paul’s admonition of the Corinthian Church: “Stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong” (1Cor. 16:13). The word “quit,” as used here, is obsolete. In modern English we would say: “Conduct yourselves like men” or “be brave like men.”

The Song of Solomon 2:11, 12 in the KJV reads: “The winter is past, the rain is over and done; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

Reading this text, one would immediately think of a turtle, a slow-moving reptile with a hard shell. But how does it have a voice, you’d wonder. In the age of the KJV translation, the word turtle meant a turtledove which is known to make a soft purring sound.

In the KJV, we read: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit…” (Col. 2:8). The word “spoil” here evokes images of decay and putrefaction, but the underlying Greek word means “to plunder” or “take as plunder.” To a 17th century English reader, “spoil” or “despoil” conveys that meaning, but not in the 21st century.

In the KJV we read that a delegation of Jewish leaders was sent to prophetess Hulda, who lived “in Jerusalem in the college” (2 Kgs. 22:14). In Elizabethan English, the word college had a different meaning than today.

The Hebrew word so translated means second. That’s why newer versions, including the NKJV, translated it “second quarter” or “second district” of Jerusalem. A modern reader who reads the KJV text would think Hulda was living in a college dorm!

1 Cor. 16:15 “they have addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints.” The word “addicted” is now used with negative connotation, like someone addicted to nicotine or drugs. Modern translations have correctly rendered the text as, “devoted themselves” to the ministry of the saints.

In 1 Thess. 4:15 Paul says “by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.” In 1611, the word “prevent” doesn’t mean what we today mean by that word, namely, “to stop or hinder.”

That word as used back then meant “to precede” and the reader in 1611 wouldn’t have stumbled over its meaning, but a contemporary reader would stumble. A modern rendering would be, “we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep” (NIV).

Similarly, Psalm 119:147 says “I prevented the dawning of the morning.” In today’s English, the word “prevent” means “precede.” The Psalmist was simply saying he rose before dawn!

Paul wrote, “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: He who now letteth will let…” (2 Thess. 2:7). When the KJV was translated, “let” meant to hinder as Paul told the Romans, he had intended to come to them “but was let hitherto” (Rom. 1:13). He was hindered in coming to them. But today, the word “let” is used in an opposite sense. It implies allowing a person to do a thing, not hindering him from it!

In the KJV, we read that when Paul came to Jerusalem “he assayed to join himself to the apostles” (Acts 9:26). The word “assay” in modern English means substances being tested in the lab, but here it means Paul attempted to join the apostles.

Rom. 1:28 “…God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient.

Some ungodly things people do are actually convenient. In 14th century English, “convenient” was used to refer to what is proper and appropriate. So the text is referring to things that are indecent.

How does a contemporary reader without the Greek text, a foreign version or a modern translation understand 2 Cor. 6:11-13?

“O ye Corinthians, our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged. Ye are not straitened in us but ye are straitened in your own bowels. Now for a recompense (I speak as unto my children), be ye also enlarged.”

Now compare this with the NIV:

“We have spoken freely to you, O Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts. We are not withholding our affections from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange–I speak as to my children–open wide your hearts also.”

In the light of these examples, no one with a modicum of fairness and honesty would argue that the language of the KJV is clearer than USA Today, People Magazine and most children’s books.

Obsolete Words

Isa. 8:21, “And they shall pass through it, hardly bestead and hungry.” Today we would say hard-pressed or greatly distressed.

Isa. 14:23 “…I will sweep it with the besom of destruction.” We now call it broom.

1 Cor. 12:13 “but by the Holy Ghost.” Due to different translation companies, there were inconsistencies in the KJV renderings of the Hebrew word “ruach” and Greek word “pneuma” in reference to the Holy Spirit. Some resorted to the old English use of “ghost” for all spirits. (Same for “Sodoma” in Rom. 9:29 instead of “Sodom”).

John 2:6 “…after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece.” Today we would say three gallons.

Isa. 3:22 “The changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins.” In today’s expressions, the items listed are fine robes, capes, cloaks and purses!

Gen. 8:1 after the flood “the waters assuaged.” In modern expression, we would say, “the waters subsided.”

Isa. 19:8 “all they that cast angle into the brooks.” Now we call them “hooks” instead of angles.

Job 41:18 “By his neesings a light doth shine.” This is an obsolete word that puzzles a contemporary reader. The right word is sneezing.

Jer. 4:22 “For my people is foolish … they are sottish children.” Now we say stupid or senseless children.

There’s no child in the 5th grade or primary school that would have a grasp of the KJV than the NIV.

Grammatical inaccuracies

English, like most other languages, has evolved over a period of 400 years, therefore, many words in the KJV that were grammatically correct in 1611, are now awkward and flat out wrong today:

Phil. 1:23 “betwist” [between]
1 Thess. 1:8 “God-ward” [toward God]
Matt. 25:44 “athirst” [thirsty]
John 21:3 “I go a fishing” [I am going fishing]
Matt. 25:35 “for I was an hungred” [for I was hungry]
Gen.26:31 “betimes” [early]
Ruth 4:4 “to advertise thee” [to advise you]
James 1:25 “whoso” [whosoever]
1Cor. 7:28 “but and if thou marry” [but if you marry]
Matt. 13:21 “dureth” [endure].

Embarrassing/Vulgar words

The socio-cultural expression of 17th century England is not the same as today. There are some words that were acceptable back then that would be outright rude, embarrassing and even vulgar by modern standards. Here are some examples:

1 Kings 21:21 “him that pisseth against the wall.” Instead of using such an embarrassing description, newer translations use an euphemistic term: “male.”

Song of Solomon 5:4 “My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.”

An American lady once quoted this in a forum some years ago and wrote, “See, there’s fisting (a sexually perverse act) in the Bible.” If she had read this verse in any newer version, she would have been cleared of her ignorance that bowels was used of the heart in old English.

Gen. 12:16 “and he asses … and she asses.” If you read this out to a teenage or youth group, it will be met with snickers due to the urban usage of “asses.” Newer translations render it as male and female donkeys.

Hebrew 12:8 “then are ye bastards…” This is a strong word. So for proper decorum, “illegitimate” is used in modern translations.

2 Peter 2:16 “the dumb ass speaking with man’s voice.” This is also a strong word which for the avoidance of unnecessary distraction is now rendered as “mute donkey.”

Scholars in linguistics and philosophy of language would agree that language has the dual roles of communication and representation. It is a receptacle of human thoughts and the medium through which we give expression to our subjectivities.

Thus, the central purpose for having a Bible translation is to convey the meaning of words (in the Hebrew and Greek originals) to people in such a way that they can understand it as clear as tomorrow’s newspaper.

The KJV may have served this purpose over 400 years ago, but by modern English and translational standards, it can at best, puzzle and at worst, mislead many a reader.

The rigid insistence that Christians must stick to a less clear, obsolete and rather complex translation – which is difficult for common people to grasp – is similar to the dogma of Rome that made the Latin Vulgate the only “authorized text” in Europe, leading to the dark ages of ignorance and deception.

The Word of God is meant to be lucid even to a child, otherwise it would be a travesty of the Gospel that is being preached from it which should give light to everyone.