The King James Version Only?

By James M. Rochford

King James BibleIs the King James Version (KJV) the only version that Christians should read today? Many Christians claim that it is, and it casts doubt on other believers who use more modern translations. Expert James White distinguishes five separate categories of KJV Only views:[1]

Group #1: “I Like the KJV Best.”

There is really no problem with this first group. If someone subjectively prefers the KJV, this is their prerogative. Many Christians grew up reading the KJV, and they enjoy the way it reads. There is really no problem with someone holding to this view. While we might debate the legitimacy of the KJV, there is really no significant problem if someone prefers to read this translation.

Group #2: “The Textual Argument.”

Scholars Zane Hodges and Arthur Farstad fall under this category.[2] This group believes that the KJV was translated from the most faithful Greek manuscripts (e.g. the Textus Receptus). White explains, “These individuals would not necessarily believe that those texts themselves are inspired, per se, but that they more accurately reflect the original writings of the prophets or the apostles.”[3] We believe this group is in error (as we’ll see), but they are not militant in any way—merely misguided. However, this is a question of intellectual debate.

Group #3: “Received Text Only.”

John Wycliffe translated the first English Bible from the Latin Vulgate in the 14th century, but it was Erasmus who published the first Greek Bible in 1516, which is called the Textus Receptus. To construct his translation, Erasmus had only 6 manuscripts at his disposal from the Byzantine text family (see below for an explanation of the textual families). D.A. Carson writes, “Erasmus utilized several Greek manuscripts, not one of which contained the entire New Testament. None of his manuscripts was earlier than the twelfth century.”[4] His publication served as the foundational text for the KJV in 1611. According to this group, Erasmus’ Textus Receptus (or “Received Text”) was sovereignly preserved or even inspired.

Group #4: “The Inspired KJV Group.”

According to this group, the KJV and the Textus Receptus are both inspired and without error. White writes, “Most King James Only advocates would fall into this group.”[5] Advocates of this group would include Peter Ruckman,[6] Samuel Gipp,[7] Gail Riplinger,[8] and D. A. Waite.[9]

Group #5: “The KJV as New Revelation.”

This group—certainly the most extreme of all views—holds that the KJV is actually a new revelation from God himself. White explains, “They believe God ‘re-inspired’ the Bible in 1611.”[10] Often, they argue that God waited for the English language to develop properly until it was solidified in the 17th century, and he re-inspired the Bible at this time. This group often appeals to blatant circular reasoning when debating other translations. For instance, if another translation reads differently than the KJV, advocates of this group will say, “Why are modern translations changing the Bible?” Of course, they are already assuming what they are setting out to prove: the KJV is the standard against which we measure all others.

Why explain all of these groups?

It is often helpful to articulate these five different groups in order to clarify one’s own view (or someone’s opposing view). If someone claims that they will only read the KJV, it is often helpful to ask which group they would adhere to: Is their view a subjective preference or an objective position? Do they personally enjoy how the KJV reads, or do they believe that it should be normative for all believers to read?

The Central Disagreement

KJV Only advocates often appeal to manuscript evidence: Which manuscripts should we use to translate our modern English Bibles? KJV Only advocates argue that we should only use the Byzantine Text to translate our modern versions, while others argue that we should utilize all existing Greek manuscripts. Let’s consider the four different manuscript families to fully grasp the debate.

Textual Families

text-typesWhen we compare all of the existing Greek texts from ancient times, we can classify them into groups of texts (or “families”) that are similar. Therefore, these textual families are groups of texts that all seem to come from the same source or scribal group. There are four major textual families that scholars use to create modern Bible translations:

1. Byzantine Text

The Byzantine Text “is made up of over 80 percent of all the MSS [i.e. manuscripts].”[11] Carson writes, “It was largely preserved in the Byzantine Empire, which continued to use Greek, unlike the (western) Roman Empire and its offshoots, for which Latin was the common language.”[12] In 1516, a man named Erasmus was the first to publish the NT in Greek. This text—called the Textus Receptus (or “Received Text”)—was the foundation for the KJV translation in 1611. Remember, the Textus Receptus is not the same as the Byzantine Text; Erasmus only had six manuscripts from this textual family when he published his Greek manuscript. Since then, the Byzantine Text has found thousands of more manuscripts in this family.

2. Western Text

Textual critics are not sure if a disciplined scribe (or scribes) were responsible for this textual family. This is called the Western Text “because variants peculiar to it are firmly established in texts found in North Africa (Tertullian, Cyprian, some OL), Italy (Novatian, some OL), and southern France (Irenaeus).”[13]

3. Alexandrian Text

The Alexandrian Text (also called the “Neutral Text”) is most likely the earliest group of manuscripts. Carson writes, “This text-type was probably prepared by trained scribes, most likely in Alexandria and its regions.”[14]

4. Caesarean Text

This textual family is a mixture of the Western and the Alexandrian. Some textual critics don’t even consider this a separate text at all. Textual critic Gordon Fee writes, “There is indeed some obvious textual relatedness among these witnesses (especially in Mark), but whether they constitute a separate text-type, rather than some unusual mixtures of the other three, remains doubtful.”[15] Carson writes, “The text-type probably originated in Egypt and may have been brought to Caesarea by Origen.”[16]

Should we only use the Byzantine textual family?

KJV Only advocates of various stripes claim that we should only draw from the Byzantine textual family. After all, the Byzantine textual family contains 80% of all manuscripts today, and it was the foundation of Erasmus’ Textus Receptus (TR).

Holbein-erasmus

Erasmus

However, modern textual critics disagree with this, believing that we should utilize all of the existing textual families. Starting in 1881, Cambridge scholars Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort argued that we should use alternate manuscripts from the fourth and fifth century (called Aleph, A, B, C, or D—especially favoring Aleph and B). Westcott and Hort based this view on two primary arguments that are still used today by textual critics:

First, the church fathers never quote the Byzantine before AD 325. Carson writes that church fathers before the fourth century “unambiguously cited every text-type except the Byzantine.”[17] He adds, “There is no unambiguous evidence that the Byzantine text-type was known before the middle of the fourth century.”[18] Likewise, White writes, “The Fathers who wrote during the early centuries give no evidence in their citations of a familiarity with the Byzantine text-type.”[19] Therefore, this textual family is later than the other families.

Second, the Byzantine Text harmonizes verses from the Alexandrian and Western text. Fee argues that the Alexandrian Text is earliest, because it “contains readings that are terse, somewhat rough, less harmonized, and generally ‘more difficult’ than those of other text-types, though on closer study they regularly commend themselves as original.”[20] He adds, “The Byzantine text contains some thirty-eight major harmonizations, as compared with one harmonization in the Alexandrian text.”[21] Scribes rarely make the text more difficult to read; instead, they typically smooth out difficult readings. Therefore, this group is most likely earlier than any other.

Problems with Viewing the KJV as Inspired or Inerrant

Beyond the textual argument listed above, there are additional other problems with accepting the inerrancy or infallibility of the KJV:

REASON #1: Erasmus—the writer of the Textus Receptus—didn’t believe his manuscript was inerrant or infallible.

The Textus Receptus was Erasmus’ Greek publication that was used for the KJV translation of 1611. However, Erasmus himself didn’t believe his manuscript (the TR) was inerrant. He writes, “You must distinguish between Scripture, the translation of Scripture, and the transmission of both. What will you do with the errors of the copyists?[22] Elsewhere, he writes, “Whenever a catalog of nouns occurs, whether you consult the Greek or Latin exemplars, there are differences. This is due to the forgetfulness of the scribes, for it is difficult to remember these kinds of things.”[23]

REASON #2: The original KJV translators in 1611 did not hold their translation as inerrant or inspired.

The Preface of the original KJV—entitled The Translators to the Reader—explains: “As Saint Augustine saith, that variety of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures.”[24] Moreover, the original version contained 6,637 marginal notes that explained a more literal rendering of the Greek or Hebrew.[25]

REASON #3: Not all King James Bibles are exactly the same with one another.

The KJV itself has undergone many changes since it was first printed in 1611. White writes, “Most people are not aware of the substantial use of textual notes and alternate readings in the original 1611 KJV—most modern editions do not contain these items. Finally, we will note that not all King James Bibles today have the same text; that is, printed editions of the KJV differ from one another, presenting additional difficulties for the most radical proponents of a human translation’s infallibility.”[26] He adds, “The KJV carried by the average KJV Only advocate today looks very different than the edition that came off Robert Barker’s press in 1611. Not only do many printings of today’s KJV lack the marginal notes and references, but the form and the wording of the text has undergone change over time.”[27]

One of the primary reasons for the changing of the KJV over the years is the disagreement in the Byzantine text. Carson writes, “No two manuscripts in the Byzantine tradition agree perfectly.”[28] For this reason, translators need to constantly revise and update their conclusions and interpretation, trying to constantly represent the original manuscripts of the apostle’s as faithfully as possible.

Of course, these variants are minimal. As we’ve argued elsewhere (see Chapter 11 of my new book), the textual variants in the NT are very minor, representing only one percent of the text. In fact, even biblical critic Bart Ehrman admits, “To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.”[29] Christian textual critics Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace write, “We noted the kinds of errors that are to be found in the copies. The vast majority of them are quite inconsequential. And less than 1 percent of all textual variants both affect the meaning of that verse (though none affects core doctrine) and have some plausibility of authenticity.”[30] Therefore, we shouldn’t think that the differences in manuscripts nullify our ability to know what the apostles wrote.

REASON #4: Since the KJV of 1611 was published, several thousand more Greek manuscripts have been found—even in the Byzantine family.

Erasmus published the TR with only six Greek manuscripts in 1516. Since then, thousands of Greek manuscripts have been found. Carson writes, “To keep a correct perspective it is important to note that the TR is not exactly the same as the Byzantine tradition. The Byzantine text-type is found in several thousand witnesses, while the TR did not refer to one hundredth of that evidence.”[31] The translators of the KJV did the best with the manuscript evidence that they originally had. However, thousands of manuscripts have been discovered since they made their translation! We should utilize all of these manuscript discoveries in order to better understand what the original autographs contained.

REASON #5: The apostles valued the MESSAGE of the Bible more than a specific TRANSLATION.

When the NT authors cite the OT, they use a variety of translations. They never cite the OT in its original Hebrew. Instead, they quote from a popular—though surely flawed—translation called the Septuagint (LXX). They also quote from other OT translations, so that they could write to their Greek speaking, contemporary audience. If the apostles didn’t believe in one dogmatic translation of the Bible, why should we?

We might also point out that the KJV is difficult to read for newer readers who haven’t grown up with it. More colloquial translations should be used for this reason alone, if it will make the message of God clearer (1 Cor. 9:20-22).

Common Arguments of the KJV Only Position

Before we conclude, let’s consider popular arguments of the KJV Only position:

ARGUMENT#1: The Byzantine text has far more manuscripts than other families.

CLAIM: KJV Only advocates argue that 80% of the manuscripts come from the Byzantine text. Why, they ask, would we not use the textual family that contains the main source of our manuscripts?

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:

First, textual scholars DO utilize the Byzantine family. Because the Byzantine family contains ancient manuscripts, textual critics of course utilize this group of manuscripts. However, they do not favor this family—as KJV Only advocates do—nor do they refuse to look at other families of manuscripts. Instead, textual scholars utilize all existing manuscripts.

Second, textual scholars often favor other textual families, because the Byzantine family was developed later in history. As we have already seen, the Byzantine family is later than the other manuscript families. Even if there are more Byzantine manuscripts, this doesn’t mean that these are more accurate to the original NT autographs. As one scholar argued, would you rather have one real hundred dollar bill or five fake ones? Since the other manuscript families were written earlier, we should consider these as more reliable.

Many wonder why there are more Byzantine manuscripts than any other. This is no doubt due to the fact of Christian persecution in the first three centuries of the church. Once Christianity became legal in the fourth century under Constantine, thousands of manuscripts were made. White writes, “After the faith became legal at the beginning of the fourth century, more accurate methods of copying and more professional copyists helped to ‘freeze’ the readings of the text, keeping variation due to unprofessional scribal work down to a minimum in the centuries that followed.”[32] However, if the manuscripts had been slightly corrupted before this time, then this could have produced various errant texts.

ARGUMENT#2: Modern translations remove the deity of Christ from the Bible.

CLAIM: KJV Only advocates often claim that modern translations corrupt essential Christian doctrines like the deity of Christ. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: Modern translations do disagree with certain passages—just as they disagree on other non-essential passages. However, modern translations like the NASB often contain strong translations on the deity of Christ that the KJV does not. Just compare these verses between the two translations:

Comparison of Deity Passages

NASB

KJV

(Jn. 1:18) No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

(Jn. 1:18) No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

(Titus 2:13) Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus.

(Titus 2:13) Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.

(2 Pet. 1:1) To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

(2 Pet. 1:1) Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.

When we compare these passages, we quickly see modern translations often teach the deity of Christ in passages where the KJV does not. Therefore, it is unfair to say that modern translations distort key doctrines like this.

ARGUMENT#3: Why would God allow the Byzantine text to be used for 1,500 years if it was flawed?

CLAIM: KJV Only advocates argue that the Byzantine text was the dominant text from the 8th century until the 19th century. Why would God work through this translation for so long, so successfully, if this wasn’t his preferred translation?

RESPONSE: The KJV isn’t the only translation that God has historically blessed throughout history. Before the KJV, God blessed the Septuagint as the primary translation used by the NT authors. Later, he used Jerome’s Vulgate. Recently, he has blessed modern translations like the NASB and the NIV. God historically has worked through various translations.

Moreover, this same argument was used against Erasmus—the publisher of the Textus Receptus—when he made his translation. White argues, “The very same argument was used against Erasmus long ago, except that time it was used to support the Vulgate.”[33] This has led White to wonder if perhaps there will be an “NIV ONLY” group in the distant future! It seems that new translations are historically opposed by the church.

Disputed Passages in the KJV

Mark 16:9-20 What happened to the ending of Mark?

John 7:53-8:11 Does this belong in the Bible?

Romans 8:1 Is there condemnation or not?

Colossians 1:14 Do modern translations want to take the blood of Christ from the Bible?

1 John 5:7-8 Do modern translations want to avoid the Trinity?

Further Reading

Carson, D. A. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.

-Carson is one of the leading NT scholars on Earth today. Therefore, his writing on this subject is top-notch scholarship. Personally, however, I preferred White’s book to Carson’s—even though Carson’s book is half of the length.

White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009.

-White’s book is 300+ pages on this subject, and it is the most comprehensive book on the subject. Parts of the book read like an encyclopedia, where he addresses various text issues. Other parts of the book detail the history of the KJV translation and the modern debates over this. White cites extensively on the arguments of the KJV authors.

Daniel Wallace’s four part lecture titled “The History of the English Bible” is free here. Wallace is one of the leading scholars in the Greek New Testament on Earth today.

Doug Kutilek’s (http://www.kjv-only.com/)


[1] See White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 23-29.

[2] Hodges, Zane Clark., and Arthur L. Farstad. The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1982. Hodges is a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary; although, this is not an official position of that seminary by any means. Moreover, Hodges doesn’t believe that the KJV is the only translation, but he believes the Byzantine family (i.e. the foundation for the Textus Receptus) is the preferred manuscript family to use.

[3] White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 24.

[4] Carson, D. A. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 34.

[5] White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 26.

[6] Ruckman, Peter S. The “Errors” in the King James Bible. Pensacola, FL: Bible Baptist tore, 1999.

[7] Gipp, Samuel C. Gipp’s Understandable History of the Bible. Northfield, OH: DayStar Pub., 2000.

[8] Riplinger, Gail. The Language of the King James Bible. Ararat, VA: A.V. Publications, 1998.

[9] Waite, D. A. Defending the King James Bible: A Four-fold Superiority : Texts, Translators, Technique, Theology. Collingswood, N.J., U.S.A.: Bible for Today, 1992.

[10] White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 27.

[11] Fee, Gordon. The Textual Criticism of the New Testament. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 1: Introductory Articles (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (424). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1979. 424.

[12] Carson, D. A. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 26.

[13] Fee, Gordon. The Textual Criticism of the New Testament. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 1: Introductory Articles (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (424). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1979. 423.

[14] Carson, D. A. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 27.

[15] Fee, Gordon. The Textual Criticism of the New Testament. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 1: Introductory Articles (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (424). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1979. 424.

[16] Carson, D. A. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 27.

[17] Carson, D. A. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 47.

[18] Carson, D. A. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 44.

[19] White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 197.

[20] Fee, Gordon. The Textual Criticism of the New Testament. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 1: Introductory Articles (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (424). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1979. 423.

[21] Carson, D. A. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 52.

[22] Emphasis mine. Roland Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969), 134. Cited in White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 39.

[23] Emphasis mine. Note 66 on Romans 1:29. Cited in White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 90.

[24] Cited in White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 122.

[25] White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 122.

[26] White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 90.

[27] White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 124.

[28] Carson, D. A. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 69.

[29] Emphasis mine. Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: the Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. 207.

[30] Emphasis mine. Bock, Darrell L., and Daniel B. Wallace. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007. 71.

[31] Carson, D. A. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 37.

[32] White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 195.

[33] White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009. 302.