September 30, 2011

What about the King James Version?

Once we have settled the question of what kind of translation we want to use, we still have a question to answer. Which specific one? When thinking about word-for-word translations, we English speakers have four or five marvelous options (KJV, NKJV, ESV, NASB, and HCSB to name the ones that immediately come to mind). But which one shall we use? Most Christians are content with any or all of the above. But there is a minority who prefer the King James above all others, and who insist on using it alone. Some would even go so far as to argue that it is uniquely inspired. We have already shown that to be a misguided assumption.

‘But what about all the differences between the KJV and the modern translations?’ it is sometimes argued. ‘Is it not obvious that modern translations have left certain things out of the Bible?’ These are questions you may have been asked by a KJV-only proponent. At their best, these questions are well-meaning, but uninformed.

Did modern translators really leave things out of the Bible? And would they have done so, as some KJV-only proponents argue, as a grand conspiracy to change Bible doctrine, lessen our appreciation for the deity of Jesus, etc.? No, and no. So then why do the modern translations (especially in the New Testament) not include certain sentences, words, and sometimes whole verses or passages that appear in the KJV?

Well, remember that the New Testament came to us in Greek, not in Elizabethan English. Understand, also, that no one possesses the original copies of Luke in Luke’s own hand-writing, or of Galatians in Paul’s own script. All of the Greek manuscripts that exist today are handwritten copies of the various books of the Bible, produced from the first century AD and onwards. And, as we said about Bible translators before, so we now say of Bible copyists – they are not infallible. Sometimes, when we compare a handful of copies of the gospel of Matthew, for instance, it becomes obvious that one of the copyists inadvertently skipped a word or two. Other times it would appear that an overzealous copyist added a few of his own explanatory notes to the biblical text – notes which were sometimes thought by later copyists to have been part of the original text, and were therefore copied down as though they were!

What this means is that Bible scholars and translation teams have to sift through all the thousands of ancient Greek Bible manuscripts, comparing these aberrations, ‘typos’, and so on … and by careful consideration, come to studied conclusions about which manuscripts contain the most accurate copies of the infallible originals. There are men and women who have given their whole lives to this pursuit, gathering together the thousands of ancient Bible manuscripts available to us, and piecing them together into the most accurate final product possible.  Thank God for them!

And, as in any scientific study, the larger the sample size these men and women have to work with, the more accurate the results. The more manuscripts the Greek scholars have, the easier it is for them to piece the New Testament together accurately.

What does this have to do with the KJV? Well, as you may know, the KJV was produced in 1611 – four hundred years ago this year! But at that date, the men who had pieced together the New Testament had only six or seven ancient Greek manuscripts to work with. And so they took the handful manuscripts they possessed and put them together into a Greek New Testament – from which Luther’s German Bible, the KJV, and several other versions were translated. And let me say, with everyone else who has ever known anything about this subject … they did a masterful job! The King James is a marvelous English Bible translation! And it is highly accurate to the Greek manuscripts its translators had to work with.

But that last sentence is key. The King James is accurate to the Greek manuscripts its translators had to work with – six or seven Greek manuscripts, all copied several centuries after the events of the New Testament. But, praise God, in the four hundred years since, over five thousand more New Testament manuscripts have turned up – many of them much, much older than the ones available to the KJV committee in 1611! So modern Greek scholars, in putting together the most accurate Greek New Testament possible, have about 900 times more data to work with. And, as they have studied that data, it has become fairly evident that some of the very ‘typos’ and overzealous notes that I mentioned already were prevalent in the manuscripts that the KJV translation team had to work with.

Put simply, we can now look back and realize that the KJV translators didn’t have as accurate a copy of the Greek New Testament as modern translators have at their disposal. That is no slight on the KJV committee, any more than we fault ophthalmologists from a century ago for not being able to offer contact lenses or laser surgery. As with the eye-doctors, the KJV translators were simply doing their best with the tools they had been given … and working masterfully, as I said. But if God has uncovered more and more data for us to work with, should we not use it … and piece together the best Greek New Testament possible? And, once that work has been done in the Greek (as it has), doesn’t it behoove us to use those better Greek Testaments as the basis for our modern English translations? Surely it does! Thus the existence of the ESV, the NASB, and so on … with their occasional variations from the KJV.

There is no conspiracy to take ‘the real English Bible’ out of people’s hands … but rather an earnest attempt to place the best English Bible into people’s hands, by basing it on the best Greek New Testament. Good, word-for-word, modern Bible translations are simply building upon the exact theories and disciplines employed by their forbears on the KJV committee … only with the kind of data to work with that would have made the men of 1611 salivate. We should be thankful for them. I have a feeling the KJV committee members would be!

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