Is the King James Version Perfect?
by Michael J. Penfold
The King James Version of the Bible still excels as a translation. However, in recent years, thousands of Christians have come to hold an extreme and illogical view: that the KJV represents not just a very good, or even the best translation in the English language, but that it is absolutely perfect and without blemish. They believe that the Lord infallibly guided its translators to always choose exactly the right wording, punctuation and italicisation in every single case.
Many have been forced to take up a ‘KJV only’ position by the following persuasive, but fatally flawed line of questioning: ‘‘Do you believe the Bible is the infallible word of God? ’’ If you answer ‘‘Yes’’, the follow up question is: ‘‘Which Bible? ’’ Unless you can then specify a Bible that you believe to be 100% perfect, infallible and inerrant, your questioner has just caught you ‘lying’ and proved that you are a Christian without a final and absolute authority. Pressing further he may demand, ‘‘How can you stand in the pulpit when you have nothing to preach?’’ So, pinned up against the wall with these questions, many have felt compelled to confer infallibility on one particular Bible translation — the King James Version.
Since no two Greek or Hebrew manuscripts are exactly the same, and none contain, in a single publicly accessible place, all the words of the original New Testament and only those words, KJV-only advocates do not claim to have the perfect word of God in the original languages. Yet they claim they have it in English! How so? Ultimately it is by faith. By faith they ‘believe’ that God supernaturally guided the KJV translators to pick the right Greek and Hebrew words and translate them perfectly every single time, despite often having several options from which to choose.
Is it logical?
Consider this: if one must have all the words of the original and only the words of the original, in one book, to be able to call that book the word of God, what shall we say of the fact that not only do no two Greek or Hebrew manuscripts agree with each other 100% (including no two editions of the Textus Receptus), no two editions of the King James Version agree perfectly either? The first KJV appeared in 1611. However, the KJV used widely today is the 1769 Benjamin Blayney revision. The fact is, unless your KJV contains the Apocrypha and spells Jew as ‘Iewe’ and cattle as ‘cattell’, you do not have a 1611 KJV. As for the italics, in Matthew’s Gospel alone, the 1769 KJV has 315 more uses of italics than the 1611 edition. Did you know that the 1769 KJV differs from the 1611 edition in a total of 75,000 details, 421 of which are noticeable to the ear when read aloud? It is true that most of these involve adjustments to archaic spelling, the correction of printing errors and the more regular use of italics, and that about 72% of the noticeable textual changes had been made by 1638, only 27 years after the KJV was first published. Nevertheless, the following examples are corrections that were not made until 1762, over 150 years after the KJV was first published. These do not involve corrections of spelling or printing errors:
1611 KJV: ‘‘Thou art Christ.’’
Current KJV: ‘‘Thou are the Christ.’’
1611 KJV: ‘‘Andrew and Philip told Jesus.’’
Current KJV: ‘‘Andrew and Philip tell Jesus.’’
1611 KJV: ‘‘the redemption that is in Jesus Christ’’
Current KJV: ‘‘the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’’
(For a full list see Dr. F. Scrivener’s, The Authorized Edition of the English Bible, 1884, Appendix A).
It is acknowledged that these revisions are slight and do not affect any fundamental doctrine. However, they are real revisions; in light of which we ask, was the 1611 KJV really the infallible, inerrant and perfect word of God? If so, the modern KJV is ‘corrupt’. However, if the modern KJV is the perfect word of God, the 1611 edition was ‘corrupt’. Which is it? This argument alone spells the end of the myth of a ‘perfectly preserved imperfection free KJV’. The next time someone tells you the KJV is the ‘mistake free, error free, completely perfect translation’, ask him which edition he is referring to. If he says 1769 ask him where the ‘perfect word of God’ was in 1768. Ask him if every preacher who held up the KJV in 1611 and said ‘‘This book is the word of God ’’ was a liar. Now you can see the humour of ‘1611 AV’ defenders, who are actually defending the ‘1769 AV’!
Let’s examine this further. ‘KJV only’ advocates state categorically that God must have kept a perfect Bible somewhere – otherwise His promises to preserve His word are worthless – yet many of them teach that no language in the world has a perfect Bible except English, and that no Englishman saw a perfect Bible until at least 1611. However, if, prior to 1611, no perfect book existed (in any language) which one could call the infallible word of God, there are only two options open to us – either God had failed for over 1,500 years to keep His promise, or the KJV only advocates have misinterpreted that promise. Clearly, the latter is the case.
How to answer a KJV Only advocate
When a KJV-onlyite asks ‘‘Where is God’s word today?’’ simply reply as follows: ‘‘Where was God’s word in 1610?’’ If he replies ‘‘I’m not interested in 1610 – I’m interested in where the word of God is now’’, you know you have a sophist on your hands who is not prepared to discuss the issue sanely and sensibly. However, if the reply comes back ‘‘The word of God was represented in the Bibles translated by the Waldensians, Wycliffe, Tyndale and Coverdale’’, ask if these Bibles were 100% perfect. If ‘‘Yes’’, there is a problem, for all these Bibles differ from the KJV 1611 (incidentally, the Waldensian Bible and Wycliffe’s Bible came from the Latin Vulgate, not the original Greek and Hebrew). However, if the answer is ‘‘No’’, ask again, ‘‘Where was the perfect inerrant preserved word of God in 1610?’’ This is a reasonable question which is not at all hypothetical. If the answer comes back that the word of God was “represented in the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament and the Textus Receptus of the New Testament”, ask which edition of the Textus Receptus is being referred to. From 1516 (Erasmus’ 1st edition) to 1650 (Elziver’s 3rd) more than 25 editions of the Textus Receptus were produced. Which one was the perfect word of God? If none, had God failed in His promise to preserve the word of God at that stage? If the ‘KJV-onlyite’ says the word of God was preserved, prior to the KJV, not in one but in various manuscripts (thus the ‘originals’ do exist after all); however now, by a divine work of God in grace and providence, all the words of God have been put into a single book (the KJV 1769 in English), he has just defeated his own argument. He has admitted that prior to 1769, every translation and text was corrupt – while God’s word was still being preserved across a variety of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts – thus the people of God had no one book they could call the ‘word of God’ and we are back to square one – God’s promise, as interpreted by the KJVO advocates, wasn’t worth the paper it was written on prior to 1611.
The KJV translators suggest thousands of corrections
Now let us examine an original 1611 KJV. Upon opening it you are immediately struck by the fact that, whatever the ‘KJV only’ people think, its actual translators did not believe they had picked exactly the right translation in every case. They included the following in the margin: 4,223 more literal meanings, 2,738 alternative translations and 104 variant readings (and, as an aside, 113 references to the Apocrypha). Yet many ‘KJV 1611’ folk become agitated as soon as you suggest an alternative translation even of the same Greek or Hebrew word that lies behind the KJV. Also, in the 1611 edition, there are marginal notes referring to additions and subtractions in Greek manuscripts. Next to Luke 10:22 the margin says: ‘‘Many ancient copies adde these words, And turning to his Disciples he said.’’ Next to Luke 17:36 we read: ‘‘This 36. Verse is wanting [lacking] in most of the Greek copies.’’
Imperfections in the KJV
While it is possible to put up an ‘argument’ in favour of every single reading in the KJV (even those that lack any manuscript backing whatsoever), the attempt puts the ‘KJV-only’ defender through some incredible gymnastics. By contrast, the honest fair-minded student of scripture will quickly recognise the real problems presented by the following brief list of imperfections, mistakes and erroneous translations in the KJV:
- Calling the Holy Spirit ‘it’ in John 1:32, Rom 8:16/26 and 1 Peter 1:11.
The Holy Spirit is a person and should never be called ‘it’. The neuter nouns and pronouns in these verses do not demand the use of ‘it’ in English. Of Bibles in wide circulation today, only the KJV and the Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation call the Holy Spirit an ‘it’.
- Translating the Greek word paska as ‘Easter’ in Acts 12:4.
All 28 other times the KJV translates this word correctly as ‘Passover’. The attempt by ‘KJV only’ teachers to defend the ‘Easter’ reading by saying that the feast of unleavened bread had commenced, so the Passover must have already come and gone, is refuted by Luke 22:1: ‘‘Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover.’’
- Paraphrasing the Greek words mee ginomai as ‘‘God forbid’’.
The word ‘God’ is not a translation of any Greek word in this case. Thus it is not a ‘perfect’ translation. Even if one feels it expresses the ‘meaning’ of the Greek in an imaginative way, it is simply not a perfect translation (“May it not be” is a literal translation). Defending it by saying that the word ‘God’ is in italics is not the point. That just raises a further question – is this particular italicised word a perfect, infallible choice? If not, the KJV is not perfect. Note also that in the OT the KJV often uses the paraphrase ‘‘Would God’’ (e.g. Exod 16:30, where again, there is no word for God in the Hebrew).
- Missing the deity of Christ in Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1.
Through ignorance of the ‘Granville Sharp Rule’, which was not defined until the late 1700’s, the KJV reads, ‘‘God and our Saviour Jesus Christ’’, rather than the correct ‘‘our God and Saviour Jesus Christ.’’
- Deliberately introducing specifically ecclesiastical terms for the purpose of making the KJV more ‘episcopal’.
The historian, Paine, wrote that it was Archbishop Richard Bancroft who insisted on using ‘‘the glorious word bishopric even for Judas, in Acts 1:20’’ and noted that Miles Smith, the final editor of the KJV 1611 with Thomas Bilson ‘‘protested that after he and Bilson has finished, Bishop Bancroft made 14 more changes’’ (The Men Behind The KJV, p. 128). Another historian, McClure, noted: ‘‘Bancroft, that he might stick the name [church] to a building, would have it applied, in the 19th chapter of Acts, to the idols’ temples!’’ (KJV Translators Revived, p. 221). Bancroft was not only the general overseer of the KJV translation project, but as Archbishop of Canterbury, was also the ruling spirit in the High Commission Court, a kind of British Inquisition, which sought to enforce the State Church episcopacy and suppress the civil and religious liberties of non-conformists such as Puritans and Anabaptists. The obviously wrong actions of this prejudiced man have to be construed, by ‘KJV only’ perpetrators, as the intervention of the over-ruling providential hand of God. Without the insertion of these episcopally biased words, the Word of God, the ‘KJV 1611’, would not have been perfect!
Added to these errors are passages that are almost impossible to understand without a study aid of some kind. What use is a ‘perfect’ translation if you can’t understand its obscure language? Take for instance 2 Cor 6:11-13. What does this mean: ‘‘our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged. Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels. Now for a recompense in the same (I speak as unto my children) be ye also enlarged ’’? Quite a number of passages in Job are practically unintelligible in the KJV without external help (e.g. Job 28:1-10).
So what is the Word of God today?
If God, prior to the invention of printing, kept His promise of preservation by letting the word of God exist as a complete entity across thousands of manuscripts, but not in any single perfect manuscript, there is no need, nor is it possible, to confer infallibility on one English translation today. The word of God exists wherever a faithful translation is made of what was originally written. To a high degree, that is what the KJV is. However, no single book, even in Greek and Hebrew, has ever existed that had every single letter and word of the entire Bible in place – in the right place. Dean Burgon, one of the KJV’s greatest defenders, wrote: ‘‘…That by a perpetual miracle, sacred manuscripts would be protected all down the ages against depraving influences of whatever sort, was not to have been expected; certainly, was never promised.’’ (The Revision Revised, p. 335).
Michael J. Penfold (email@example.com)