IS THE KING JAMES BIBLE THE BEST ENGLISH TRANSLATION?
No one can doubt the incredible impact of the King James Version of the Bible. It is a beautiful translation—I grew up memorizing the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible—and I especially love John 3:16 in the KJV. But today, I preach from the New International Version (NIV) and not the KJV. Why is this?
I recall a young lady from our second church who asked me why I didn’t use the King James Version of the Bible (she was very emotional as she asked me this). The answer to this question requires a short, and interesting, story. My goal with this blog is to be brief, accurate and helpful in thinking about this issue—so grab a cup of coffee and enjoy! Read slowly…as you’ll likely be a little more informed about Bible translations in general. (BTW, in this blog I’m only going to address the Greek text underlying the KJV, and not the separate issue of modern English vs 17th century English.)
Here goes. Every English translation is made from an underlying Greek text. The KJV was largely translated from a Greek text called the Textus Receptus (TR), Latin for the “received text.” But the TR was not an official designation by any authorized Church body.
So, what is the TR? It is not a single handwritten Greek manuscript, but rather an early printed text (meaning a collection of a number of handwritten manuscripts) of the New Testament. It was first published by Erasmus in 1516 and was used as the basis for Bible translations such as: Luther’s German Bible, William Tyndale’s English translation, as well as the KJV.
NOW…here’s the big question: Is the TR a reliable Greek text of the New Testament? The answer is sure, sort of. But there are better Greek texts that are now available. Here’s the scoop: the TR is based on a very limited number of manuscripts, all of them dating to around the 12th century, which is very late in terms of manuscripts. Why so late? Because when Erasmus pulled together the TR, he was in a hurry—a big hurry! He was trying to rush a Greek text to print, as there had never been one in print before. And now with the printing press available, big bucks were on the line.
The problem is that Erasmus had limited access to European Greek manuscripts, mostly at the University of Basel. So, he pulled together what he could and did his best to edit them hastily. He didn’t even transcribe the manuscripts, he merely made notes on the manuscripts themselves and sent them to the printers. Numerous editions were printed, with corrections being made with each new edition. Hence, the TR was an evolving project at best. It was valuable for the time, but today we have much better resources.
The bottom line is that the TR would serve as the standard Greek text for the New Testament for the next 300 years— it served the Church well and we should all be thankful for the TR. But by the 1800s, the discovery of many additional early copies of Greek manuscripts led to new editions of the Greek New Testament. Some of the new discoveries included Greek manuscripts far older than anything available to Erasmus in 1516. Today, there are nearly 6,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament available to scholars, many of which date back to the early centuries of the Church.
The result is that we now have a purer Greek text—an eclectic text or critical text—that is closer to “the original” New Testament. The current Greek text used by most New Testament scholars is called the Nestle/Aland text. It is in fact shorter than the TR by approximately 2,800 Greek words. Why is this? Some KJV advocates see a “sinister plot” in all of this. They show comparison charts, designed to “reveal” how modern English translations have “cut out” words that are included in the KJV. But the reality is quite different. As monks hand copied Greek manuscripts over the centuries, they occasionally made mistakes. When later monks copied these manuscripts further, they tended to combine readings, when in doubt over the accuracy of multiple manuscripts. This is commonly called “expansions of piety.”
For example, a monk working from three manuscripts with three different readings of one verse (e.g., “Jesus,” Jesus Christ,” The Lord Jesus Christ”), would often adopt the longest reading just to “make sure”, even if the shorter version was older and more reliable. In other words, Greek texts tend to grow over time in terms of word count. This was very common. Thus, the shorter reading is often, but not always, more likely to be closer to the original. This is a standard principle in textual criticism accepted by both liberal and conservative Bible scholars.
The NIV, ESV and NASB are translated from the Nestle/Aland text. This Greek text has robust support from the oldest Greek manuscripts, plus the earliest versions of the Bible, as well as the early Christian writers of the 2nd through 4th centuries. The age of manuscripts is probably the most objective factor in the process of textual criticism. This is why I generally prefer the NIV or ESV over the KJV.
The bottom line is I’ve barely skimmed the surface of this topic in this short article, but it is enough to show you why I believe that newer English translations are on more reliable grounds when it comes to the underlying Greek text. If you want to read further, I would highly recommend a small book by New Testament scholar D.A. Carson entitled, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Baker Books)—it’s simple to read and an excellent introduction to the issues at hand.