Many people contend that the King James Version is the only legitimate Bible translation. I hear it all the time—“All modern translations have taken verses out of the Bible. The King James Bible is the only one that preserves all the Scripture. The KJV is the only true Bible. Don’t use any other.” Congregations split over this. Followers of Jesus break fellowship over this controversy. What should we think of the King James Version?
The KJV was a great English translation into the common English spoken in 17th century England. It also used the best biblical manuscripts available at that time. We should all be grateful for this beautiful and accurate translation. But here are two cautions about the King James Version.
The first has to do with the translation itself. In the last 400 years, the English language has changed dramatically, making it hard to understand the many archaic usages found in the King James Version. For example, the KJV uses the word “conversation” when it actually means “conduct” or “lifestyle.” Another example is that the KJV uses the word “suffer” when it really means “permit.” So in Matthew 19:14, the King James reads, “Suffer the little children to come to me.” No one wants little children to suffer. It should be translated “Allow the little children to come to me.” Many have recognized the problem with the KJV using archaic language and therefore, the New King James Version was translated. It’s an excellent modern translation.
Besides the problem of archaic language, which the New KJV fixed, there’s a second, more serious problem with the King James Version. This issue is true of the both the original KJV and the New KJV and it has to do with the manuscript source of the translation, especially the New Testament. The New Testament of the KJV is based on the Greek text of the New Testament produced by Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536). He used several Greek manuscripts, none of which contained the entire New Testament or were earlier than the twelfth century. Moreover, they were all from one text type, all from the same geographical area. Today, we know so much more about the original manuscripts of Scripture than was known in 1611. Many of the manuscripts available today were not even known when King James sat on the throne of England. Since then, many more Greek manuscripts have been found going back to a much earlier date, including some papyri dating from as early as AD 2nd century, from a variety of geographical locations. Although none of the textual differences found in the KJV affect any doctrinal or ethical teaching of Scripture, it’s best to use a Greek text of the New Testament that makes use of the earliest and best Greek text types.
The problem becomes evident when we see that the King James Version actually adds verses of Scripture, not in the original texts of the Bible. Sometimes it might a doctrinal clarification that some copyist wrote in a late text of the New Testament that got added to the King James. An example of this 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.” Obviously, some monk wanted to make the Trinity a bit clearer and added these words. But the earliest and best manuscripts read, “There are three that testify.” Those three are then identified in the next verse as the Spirit, the water and the blood. The verse has nothing to do with the Trinity but the King James Version added a true thought to Scripture. Yet, it is an addition to Scripture nonetheless. Not only are we not supposed to take away from the Bible—we shouldn’t add to it either.
As for the Old Testament, the KJV is based on the Masoretic Text (the traditional text of Rabbinic Judaism) which is certainly the best available. However, in 1896 many Hebrew texts were found in the Cairo Genizah (a burial or storage place for Scripture in an ancient Egyptian synagogue). Also, the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, biblical texts and fragments found at a place called Qumran in the Judean wilderness, has provided a deeper understanding of the original Hebrew text. These Hebrew fragments and texts date from 150 BC to AD 70 and contain at least parts of every Old Testament book but Esther. One scroll of the complete book of Isaiah is from the 1st century BC and is virtually identical to the Masoretic text that is dated one thousand years later. Although modern Bible translations still rely on the Masoretic Text, the more recent discoveries of these ancient scrolls and fragments in Egypt and Israel refine our understanding of the original Hebrew Bible. Unfortunately, when the KJV was produced, the translators did not have access to these finds.
Here’s what we need to remember. Modern translations are based on the earliest and best manuscripts of the Bible and use understandable contemporary language. Most importantly, they do not add to the Bible as the King James Version does on occasion. The King James Version is a beautiful and a good translation and feel free to read it with these cautions. But be careful not to become convinced that it’s the best and only true translation.