My Journey in the King James Version Debate

I grew up reading and hearing the KJV, so I have an affinity for this old English version of the Bible.  I also grew up in a denomination that for the most part believed that using any other version, even 400 years later, is wrong, and I inherited this view and held it for many years. With many others, I believed that the KJV is the only English version of the Bible that we should read, study, memorize, and preach out of.  However, I have to say that I no longer hold that view.  In fact, I would argue that there are several modern English versions of the Bible that are far better translations than the KJV.  How does someone who was a stiff KJV-onlyer learn to embrace versions like the NASB or the ESV?  This is my story of how I moved from being KJV-only to appreciating and using modern versions like the ESV.

 What initially convinced me to really embrace the KJV-only position was the reading of books from that perspective that compared the KJV with other versions and then argued that the modern versions were "altering" God's word.  It's not just a change in language, from an ancient English idiom to a more modern idiom (like the NKJV, although most KJV-onlyers would also reject this version as well), but that there are real changes in sentences and paragraphs that actually change the meaning of the verse or verses.  More to the point, these fellows argued that modern translators were not only altering the Bible, the changes seemed to indicate unorthodox views on the part of these guys.  The classic text is 1 John 5:7, which in the KJV reads, "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one."  Almost every modern translation deletes this verse.  Heresy, right?  Also, most modern translations also either omit or place in brackets passages such as Mark 16:9-16 and John 8:1-11.  How could any real Bible do this?  Add to this the "evidence" in books such as New Age Bible Versions  by G.A. Riplinger, that actually argues that modern translations are secretly advocating a new age theology.  This was the first step in my journey.  I was a genuine KJV-onlyer.

However, this was not the only argument in their repertoire.  The next (and more fundamental) argument is that the manuscripts in the original languages that the modern translations are translated from are far inferior to the text that the KJV is based on.  The argument is basically this:  the manuscripts that support the KJV far outnumber the manuscript support for the modern versions (this is generally true, by the way).  The text that the KJV is based on is called the Majority Text (actually, this just refers to the NT Greek text, but the NT is were the action is mostly for this debate), whereas the modern versions are based on what is called the "Westcott-Hort" text, which in turn was based primarily on two manuscripts, known as the Vatican Manuscript (in textual criticism parlance this is denoted by B) and the Sinai Manuscript (denoted by the Hebrew letter, aleph).  The KJV-only guys make the following points:

1.  It just makes sense that if God is going to preserve his word, he would do it in the majority of manuscripts.  Just a note: again, when they refer to the Majority Text, this is the Greek NT text, not the OT text, which because of the practices of the Masoretic scribes, does not have a numerous progeny.

2.  The Westcott and Hort text (WHT) is based on two manuscripts which disagree with one another in numerous places.  Since they disagree so much, how can they be reliable witnesses to the original text?

3.  The WHT comes from a manuscript tradition known as the Alexandrian manuscript tradition.  That is to say, it had its locus in Alexandria, Egypt.  The problem is, this is where a lot of real heretics were located and taught, and it is hard not to hypothesize their probable influence in this textual tradition.  (This made sense to me at the time, primarily because I then knew so little church history.  Such a claim is laughable now, to say the least.  Yes, there were heretics there, but Alexandria was also the home to some of the greatest titans of the Christian faith.  For example, Athanasius!)

4.  The canons of modern textual criticism are simply wrong.  In fact, we don't need textual criticism which tries to tell among the variants which reading is best, because we already have an in-tact text that does not need such textual criticism to determine the text.

Another argument that is often used in the KJV debate is that God has blessed the KJV in ways he has not blessed modern versions.  Think of the Great Awakening, etc.  No such movement has been seen since.  C. H. Spurgeon not only used the KJV, he also preferred it to the RV that came out near the end of his ministry (although he did preach one sermon from the RV).  It just seems that God is behind the KJV, not only in its textual tradition, but in the blessing which has graced its use since the early 17th century.

These, at least, were the arguments that stuck in my mind, and they were convincing - at first.

But the argument came down like a house of cards.  Here's how it happened.

First, it occurred to me that the argument that modern versions are altering God's word is not an argument at all unless they are right about the manuscripts on which the various versions are based.  That is, it is not heretical to delete 1 Jn 5:7 if it wasn't in the original text in the first place.  The same goes for the other passages.  So the debate is either won or lost on the textual critical level.

So, is the text that the KJV based on superior to all others?  Again, for me the lightening rod for the whole debate was this passage in 1 John 5.  The Majority Text (MT) argument had made sense to me.  But then I found out that 1 John 5:7 is not even in the MT.  Actually, the New Testament Greek Text that the KJV is based on is the Textus Receptus (Received Text, RT).  This is not the same as the MT, although some writers for the KJV-only position do not make this clear.  In fact, 1 Jn 5:7 which is in the RT, is only found in a tiny number of Greek manuscripts (I think less than 10 out of the almost 6000 available Greek NT manuscripts out there), and all of these are of incredibly late date in terms of their composition.  In fact, it is found in no Greek text before the 10th century, and according to E. F. Hills, the very first time it is even recorded is in the writings of two Spanish bishops in the 4th century (some argue that Cyprian quoted this verse, but this is extremely debatable).  At this point, it became very hard for me to embrace 1 John 5:7 as being in the original text (though, by the way, I have never stopped believing in the Trinity).  I tried to find some literature that would be able to defend this verse, but alas not one single writer could make a convincing argument.  Even E.F. Hills, who writes probably the sanest defense of the KJV, could not help.  It was at this point that I came to realize that the KJV is not a perfect translation.

This was a watershed moment for me.  You see, one of the arguments for the KJV is that it represents a text that is free from textual variations and for which we can have no doubts about the text.  (Which, I think, is psychologically the reason why those who embrace the position do so - and it saves them from having to think too hard about textual issues!)  The same, we are told, cannot be said of modern translations, which are full of alternate readings, etc., and whose very existence cast doubt upon the authenticity of God's word.  I had found out the KJV is wrong in at least one reading, and that there are variants from the KJV text that are in fact better.  I then found out that the RT itself has gone through many editions, that among the class of texts known under the rubric of the RT there are variants.  And then to top it off, I found out that the KJV itself has gone through several editions and that the text most think of as the 1611 KJV is actually a later edition (the last was in the middle of the 18th century) and that there are real changes between the different editions.

At this point, I had to admit that the RT did not have a very sound foundation in terms of evidence.  However, the RT is very close to the MT, and the KJV represents the MT more faithfully than any other modern version (with the exception of the NKJV).  In other words, though I could no longer say that the KJV did not have any objectionable readings in it, I could still support it over most modern versions because I still found it plausible that the MT represented the original text.  So I had moved from a RT-KJV-only position to a moderated MT position.  And I now embraced not only the KJV but also the NKJV.  The primary text that motivated and informed this position was Gordon Clark's book, Logical Criticisms of Textual Criticism.

I stayed here for a long time, until I read Bruce Metzger's The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.  I won't go into all the details, but suffice it to say that I found this book very enlightening as an introduction to textual criticism.  In particular, I realized that the fact the the MT represents a majority of manuscript evidence is simply due, not to a conscious faithfulness on the part of most scribes to the original text, but rather to the historical division of the church into east and west.  (The fact that the Majority (or Byzantine) text represents the majority of Greek texts is due to the fact that the Western church stopped producing Greek manuscripts in favor of the Latin.  But the Latin text represents a different textual tradition.  It is also important to note that the Byzantine text is fairly late: most of the manuscripts belonging to this tradition are tenth century or later.)  Further, modern translations are not based solely on the WH text (as KJV-only guys would have you to believe) but rather upon an eclectic text that takes into consideration all available evidence, and which is determined as objectively as possible through the science of textual criticism (which, by the way, should not be confused with historical criticism or a critical attitude towards the Bible as God's word!).

Finally, modern translators behind versions such as the NIV, NASB, ESV, etc. are not - as commonly claimed among the KJV-only crowd - a bunch of heretics.  They all had to sign documents saying that they were committed believers in the inerrancy of the original autographs.  These men are very scholarly, very knowledgeable, and committed Christians.  They have an abundance of textual manuscript evidence that the KJV translators did not have, and, I believe, a better understanding of the original languages.  Today I still read the KJV, but I have also read the Bible through in the NASB, NKJV, and ESV.  Though I prefer versions that are more literal (like the NASB) over those that are based on the principle of dynamic equivalence (like the NIV), most modern versions are preferable to the KJV in terms of accuracy of translation and approximation to the original text.  And this is where I think I'll stay.


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