The debate between the KJV and Modern Versions

(If you’d like to read a slightly longer version of this article with more information click here)

The debate between the KJV and Modern Versions

You have no doubt run across websites, books or sincere people reciting this information who have vicious attacks on any Bible translation other than the KJV. Like many arguments, on the surface their reasoning can be quite convincing. And some translations are bad so this makes “KJV only” arguments more believable to sincere and serious Christians wanting to do the right thing. But as always it’s important to watch for errors in two extremes. So I wanted to give a summary of the debate and show how I think there are some good translations that are trustworthy. I have looked into many of the KJV only accusations and found them to be unwarranted and sometimes even deceitful (hiding information). 

Anyone learning a language and doing even simple translating work knows that you can easily get the thought across but sometimes getting the exact word for word meaning is difficult to portray due to language differences. E.g. You have to translate idioms differently. Translating “take a seat” means sit down, not take the chair. And some words can be translated slightly different ways and all are correct. So there is always a little room for variation in small details which leads some people to debate over Bible translations, which you’ll see is as old as the Bible’s very first translations.

The problem is that languages are always changing. But with something as important as God’s Word, people tend to get comfortable with what they have, thinking it is perfect, and resist any change. They place this precious life source on a holy and revered place in their lives – they venerate it which is very understandable. But it’s important to remember that it’s not physical items or those exact words of our favorite translation, but the thoughts that the original writers intended that’s important – God’s message to us. That way as languages change you are okay with changing the words. It is surprising that this veneration and reluctance to change has actually happened with each major translation of the Bible. There are certainly some bad Bible translations out there so we need to be careful to find a good one. But on the other hand we also need to be aware that we could have an unnecessary negative bias against any new translations. So my first caution is to be sure we’re not to be overly protective of the exact version we have, because that does happen. Let’s see how this has happened in history:

The first major translation was the Greek Septuagint of the Old Testament in the 2nd and 3rd century B.C. The people didn’t speak Hebrew anymore and needed a Greek version. This is so long ago that information is sketchy but a legend somehow developed that the 70 translators each did their own translation of the entire Old Testament alone and were surprised when they got together and found that each translation was all word for word exactly the same, a fantastic miracle. Right away this sounds odd because that’s not how a group of people do a translation. It is suspected that this is a legend propagated sometime after the translation was completed due to the veneration of it.  Different writing styles can be observed between different sections indicating that different people or groups of people translated the different sections.

The next major translation was in 400 A.D. when Jerome did his Latin Vulgate since the people by then spoke Latin. As a side note, Vulgate means in the common language just like the original Greek New Testament, which was written in the Koine Greek form, the Greek of the common people. And thereafter translators have always attempted to translate into an easy to understand language at the time. This is a very critical requirement for a translation that should never be undermined. But when people get to venerate a translation too much they don’t mind diminishing this key need for a translation in order preserve their venerated translation. They almost like it to sound ecclesiastical and holy even if it’s difficult to read. In fact we’ll see they can eventually remove the need to understand it at all as we see with this Latin Vulgate. The Latin Vulgate was to later become so venerated that people claimed it was the only true Bible and forbade any further translations in any language for almost 1000 years. So the Bible could not be read at all and caused the dark ages. But as honored as it came to be, even the Latin Vulgate started with contention. Jerome came across a difficult word to translate in the book of Jonah and the Christians almost rioted at his change in the word. (Interesting story, too long for this tract).

Then English was needed. Because of the veneration of the Latin Vulgate People were actually killed for just trying to learn any part of the Bible in English. As we know, Wycliffe suffered persecution for translating the Latin into English. Then later Tyndale was killed for translating it into English.

And now we find the same thing going on. That English version of Tyndale, which thru some changes eventually became the KJV, has been venerated itself today and all kinds of accusations are flying for anyone trying to translate it yet again into the modern language. Many sincere people are convinced by their arguments so I wanted to just point out the other side of things at a quick high level.

Some translations are dangerous so we do need to be careful. But some people are contentious about any new translation.  In fact one of the surest signs of this devotion to venerated tradition being the real root cause of people being contentious is their lack of desire to change the KJV in any way to make it easier for the modern reader to understand – not even updating certain old words.

I’ve seen outright deception being used by some KJV proponents. I’m not talking about the sincere people who recite these things but the people generating the data. They should know better and so it does seem to be deception. They say things like the XYZ version denies some major agreed doctrine, like the Virgin birth for example. And they give examples of the differences in the translations so it sounds pretty convincing. That is until you hear the other side and find that they are only talking about one verse and that the XYZ doesn’t deny it but only omits an extra word that the KJV has, and that in only one of the places where that topic is discussed. The XYZ version has it clear as day in other locations thru the Bible.

Some even go so far as to say the KJV is more correct than the original Greek manuscripts when it differs, called “advanced revelation” (a scary term often used by cults). They argue this using various historical or anecdotal arguments.

So let’s look at the areas of contention separately so we can understand it better. But again, keep in mind that the differences we are talking about are very minor and don’t by themselves change any doctrine in the Bible, though people try to make it sound like they do by exaggerating differences and presenting half-truths.

I.            Majority Text vs. Older Manuscripts.

After hundreds of years of dark ages and church corruption people were hungry for the reformation. But Greek manuscripts were somewhat rare in the middle ages. Wycliffe had to use the Latin Vulgate to translate his English Bible around 1380 AD.  Erasmus was a highly educated Catholic Priest and Scholar working with high government officials, and as such he had access to 9 Greek manuscripts that had been found by his time in the early 1500’s. He published a Greek/Latin New Testament and inadvertently gave the reformers the Greek to translate Bibles into their common languages, including Tyndale in 1526. Tyndale was later martyred for this translation and his dying prayer was “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” Three years later the decadent King Henry VIII miraculously authorized an English translation that was a mere revision of Tyndale’s, the Great Bible – the first “Authorized Version”. The Geneva Bible, used by the Puritans who called for reform in the Church, was also published and that with a couple more Bible translations all became involved in a political power struggle. Eventually King James commissioned a new Authorized Version for mainly political reasons. The powerful State Church, the Church of England, finished the KJV in 1611, using an additional 16 manuscripts. So it too had a very small window of Greek manuscripts compared to the 5700 they have now. Sometimes people mistakenly say the KJV uses the “majority text” method, meaning they use the text that agrees with the majority of manuscripts. But that’s not actually true. There are 2000 places where the KJV does not follow the majority text (in very minor ways). It just follows this handful of 25 manuscripts. And all but 3 of them where from after the 11th century from one location, the Byzantine Kingdome. (These 3 are probably what drove the KJV to add footnotes of alternate readings in their early editions and put an introductory note in the beginning of their translation expressing, among other things, their inability to always determine the exact original meaning.)

Greek began to phase out for the Roman Empire around the 4th century (changed to Latin). But the Byzantine Empire continued to use it up until the 15th century. So naturally as the centuries go on, more and more of the Greek manuscripts are Byzantine, up to the point where they vastly outnumber the other text types. So these easily make up the majority of the manuscripts (hence called “Majority Text”). They are especially common in the later centuries so they are what Erasmus and the KJV translators used. And as the Byzantine Empire and Christianity grew in prominence, the profession of copying manuscripts became more organized. So the later copies are more uniform (but not completely uniform). Remember manuscripts copied before 325 A.D. were illegal copies by laymen. This is what drives a lot of the debate. Since they are so numerous and more uniform, some hold that they are more trustworthy. But most modern scholars are uncomfortable looking at manuscripts from only one area and prefer to analyze all the manuscripts to determine the exact reading. And in doing so they find that the basic message is very very similar, which gives credibility to the copying process. However they do find more minor differences this way. When they compare manuscripts and quotes in documents that are found from around the world they can see that manuscripts from the Western part of the Roman Empire (Italy, Gual, North Africa) are particularly prone to add things. Often times the KJV doesn’t even include them. So if a variant comes from this area only and is absent from other early quotes and manuscripts from the rest of the world, scholars are prone to conclude it’s a localized addition and label it as questionable in a footnote even if has early sources. So they take this into account otherwise they think older manuscripts are more reliable for the exact original wording than the abundance of later-date manuscripts which make up the majority of total manuscripts found (“majority text”). The belief was that as copies upon copies were made, small mistakes were made and copied from then on. So older manuscripts had fewer mistakes. There is actually a lot of forensics and other factors that go into trying to find the original wording of the Bible as exact as possible: comparisons of all 5700 manuscripts, other ancient translations, ancient witness, etc. It’s quite involved.

The differences are usually noted in most Bibles but if you want a more detailed explanation of why the new Bibles chose a certain word or verse you can get this very comprehensive book: “A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament A Companion Volume to the UBS Greek New Testament” by Bruce M. Metzger. It has every important variant explained. You can also go to this website for the 16 complete verses which are omitted in the new versions, though it is not as exhaustive as the book.

The KJV didn’t even have a choice in the matter but just used the 25 manuscripts they could find. And since those manuscripts were mostly later manuscripts from the Byzantine area, which are numerous and all fairly similar, then much of the KJV does happen to follow the “majority text” most of the time. The KJV agrees even better with the “Textus Receptus” but it doesn’t actually follow it, because the TR is actually a Greek text that was formed later to match the KJV. So the TR actually came from the KJV, not the other way around.

Another thing to note is that the KJV committee were specifically instructed by Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London who oversaw the translation for King James, to use the Authorized Bible whenever possible to help keep the power of the Church. It’s also worth noting that Bancroft had a history of being against the Puritans, including their belief in the authority of scripture. [1] However they did stick to the Greek with only small word preference changes, so the KJV was an accurate translation. When translators are forced to stick to Greek they can’t really stray too far without being noticed so we can be comfortable with translations even under bad circumstances like this. And with the authority and backing of the Crown and the royal printing press along with a hungry public for the Bible, it spread it far and wide so it became the world’s best-selling book and brought an end to the dark ages. The Puritan’s kept with their Geneva Bible though and that was the Bible that they crossed over to the new land of America with. So I just wanted to point out that though it was a valid translation and clearly used by God, the KJV does not have a hallowed special origin that we should place the KJV in some special place and do to it like the Church did to the Latin vulgate and forbid any other translation. We should treat it like any other translation and determine its value by how well it translates the original Greek to the modern reader. I don’t want to demean the KJV but I see far too many people who have an over veneration of it that keeps them from accepting later translations or even allowing other people to do so. And there’s no reason for it. It keeps people from reading the Bible in modern language in a way they can fully understand it.

For you see, that fire for God’s word kept burning and people became very interested in the Bible and these Greek manuscripts. And as more and more manuscripts were found (5,700), they learned how to sort them by location and date and compare them with each other and ancient witnesses (early church fathers who quoted Bible verses). It became quite a collection and field of study to determine exactly what the original Bible said and what small changes were made over time. Meanwhile English continued to change. When a new version was needed to once again make the Bible in the common language, this time they used this vast library of manuscripts that was now readily available to them.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that no doctrine is added, changed or omitted because of these differences when you sincerely look at the teaching of the whole Bible. And many newer translations put the differences in footnotes so you can check them yourself. Some KJV proponents will try to make a big deal about various differences but it’s all their own exaggerated conjecture. If you sincerely look at the differences you’ll see they are overreacting, especially if you know your Bible and that other verses have the topic translated fine without any contention. And the truth is the very same type of exaggerated arguments could be made against the KJV with various other differences. But reasonable people try to follow Paul’s command (2 Tim 2:14) and not argue about words like this. Even this article isn’t an attack against the KJV, just against the idea that the KJV is a superior, or even the only allowed, English version.

One common difference is that g
enerally speaking, the older manuscripts tend to add words and phrases. They are the same words and phrases found elsewhere in the Bible so the only difference is how many times various terms occur in the Bible. For example “prayer and fasting” (both words together) is found 8 times in the KJV but only 3 times in the NIV. Prayer and fasting is obviously a valid concept but it is perfectly presented in the NIV. Dishonest KJV proponents will point out the verses where the NIV “tries to hide it” and not mention the verses where the NIV says it clearly.

There are various reasons why things can get added and here again there is a lot of study of various factors to try and determine how and why. As the copyist was copying, the extra words could have been copied from memory of a nearby verse or similar passage in another book which has the extra words or phrases. (e.g. Matthew, Mark and Luke have similar passage as do Ephesians and Colossians and others). Or it could have been added on purpose by an overzealous copyist at some point, who thought he was doing right because it was an undisputed concept and was clearly stated elsewhere (this is called harmonizing scriptures). Some may have felt more freedom to make these types of clarifications in the early centuries before the term canon was even heard of. Even today the Orthodox Church says they can change the Bible. They say “We wrote it so we can change it”. Or one translator might have added the extra words in the margin and later another translator saw the additional words to the side and thought it was a correction so he included it along with the translation. So there is a whole field of study for how these things happen. The nice thing is that we do have thousands of manuscripts (5,700) from many different geographic locations so we are able to detect these types of mistakes, even though they are only minor things. If the Christians had at one point decided to standardize on one original text and burn all the others, as the Muslims did, then we wouldn’t be able to do this.

However, since some very true statements are omitted from the new translations that use this method, this opens the door wide for attacks from the KJV-only proponents that these newer translations are purposely removing essential teachings. For example, “The NIV denies fasting!” (And denying the Virgin Mary, and even the divinity of Christ, etc). When stated like this it is outright dishonest. The newer translations only omit it in some places by the method of following the older texts. It’s still very clear in other places.

II.          Objections to using the Critical Text:

Here are some objections to using the Critical Text (older manuscripts). Again these differences between the Majority Text and Critical Text are minor and don’t make any doctrinal differences. It should be a trivial matter. They are typically only argued by the KJV-only proponents to show that their translation is the only accurate one and the others are evil.

A.  Personal attacks on individuals

Some accusations have been focused on the failings of two men who originally separated the older manuscripts from the newer ones: Westcott and Hort. However this is superfluous because they merely were the first to start looking for the older manuscripts. The process of analyzing the manuscripts has been redone over and over and continues independently of their work. And as I stated earlier Erasmus, King James and the KJV had plenty of bad influence too.

B.  Early Church writings reference the later manuscripts

I’ve heard it claimed that early early Church writings in the first centuries quote scripture references that match the later manuscripts, which would indicate that they were what these early church fathers used and so were around at that time after all, it’s just that none of them survived. This is obviously to discredit the whole field of study to group and classify manuscripts to find the most accurate translation. But I have checked into a few of these and found they are usually using mis-quotes like church fathers quoting other undisputed Bible passages with similar wording. There’s 4 or 5 that are questionable because they may have support from Western sources, which are known to add things. For much more information see the longer article.  

C.  Loss of meaning

I’ve heard people say the modern translations loose the strong meaning of certain words in the KJV, like “anathema” by translating them into modern words like “condemned”. They say the word anathema means “to be eternally condemned without hope of repentance”, not just simply condemned. But I’ve found that these extra meanings have been added well afterwards and they aren’t in the original Greek. So the original author just meant condemned and so that it what is translated. Another example is in Hebrews 12:1 when it says we are surrounded by such a great cloud of “witnesses”, the Greek word is actually martyrs. But back then martyrs meant witnesses. Only later did this word take on the meaning of one who dies for a cause. So both the KJV and all other translations translate it correctly as “witnesses”. 

III.        Translational Differences

These previous differences are called textual differences – there is a difference in the Greek text used. There are also actual differences in words used to translate the same Greek text. This is called a translational difference. They are also insignificant and they can easily be checked with the Greek and I almost always find the newer translations are more accurate. But both words are always correct when you compare with the whole teaching of the Bible. For example 2 Timothy 1:7 in the KJV has “sound mind” whereas other translations have “self-control”.

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. KJV

For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. ESV

Some KJV missionary sites make a big deal about this. But the Greek word sōphronismos (Strongs #4995) can mean either. The Strong’s definition is “discipline, i.e. self-control:—sound mind.” It comes from the word sōphronizō (Strongs #4994) which is “to make of sound mind, i.e. to discipline or correct: – teach to be sober”. It is used in Titus 2:4 for “teach the young women to be sober…” So there is an element of teaching or self-control and discipline involved. That’s why many translations have “self-control”. The exact translation of #4995 could be translated as “having been taught to be sober”. But again you can see that both common translations, “sound mind” and “self-control”, are Biblical traits. And when you look closely they are related and the Greek helps bring this out. So it is a sound mind but there is clearly an element of self-control to it that the newer translations bring out so they are actually a little more accurate. Many times you can look at the same word or a root word used in another passage and it becomes very clear that the modern translation uses is correctly, just like I’ve done with 2 Timothy 1:7.

IV.        Word for word or thought for thought

The next big debate is do you want the exact translated Greek words or do you want the translators to help you a little by translating the thought. Like the hypothetical modern example earlier of “take a chair”. Do you want them to translate the actual words, or the thought so you get the real idea of what the original author meant? If you translate “take a chair” word for word to another language you will get a totally different idea from what the author meant. So we certainly want thought for thought in those cases. And I’ve found that even the strict word for word translations like the KJV, NASB or ESV do translate the thought if translating the actual word for word would be completely misleading. But various versions do this to more or less extent and there are charts that tell you where the different translations fall. E.g. I’ve found the thought for thought translations that are close on this scale to the word for word translations are careful to translate the thoughts correctly and are still fairly easy to read. The looser translations are called paraphrases and they may diverge more from the intended thought in order for ease of reading. Then the loosest versions are sometimes called “re-telling” versions, like The Message which doesn’t even try to match the original much at all. These are like reading a newspaper but the original message can certainly be lost so you really aren’t actually reading the Bible. When you read these you can’t really trust you’re reading what God inspired.

On the other side of the spectrum, some translations, like the NASB (it’s the strictest word for word translation next to the interlinear), are not only strict at using word for word translations as much as possible but also want to keep the original layout and structure of the sentence. Greek tends to have things backwards many times so sentences in the NASB are sometimes a little more difficult to a modern reader. But some people feel more comfortable with this to avoid any room for translator bias. I am fortunate to have had a father that devoted many thousands of hours (easily could have been 10,000 hours) into mastering Greek and reading many of the versions and comparing them with the Greek. I totally respected the fruits of his life and he assured me that all the major translations (not the paraphrases) are accurate at presenting the original thoughts. I tend to be more technically minded and reading is my weak spot. So I choose the thought for thought translations so I can read it more easily and therefor read more of it. I just have to be careful to check it out with the Greek interlinear if I ever want to really emphasize some exact wording.

[1] 15 rules by Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London who oversaw the translation for King James.