Why the King James Bible?
The King James Version (KJV) is a non-partisan translation of the traditional text of the Bible. Its claim to preeminence is its foundational purpose to provide one Bible accepted by all, not aimed at advancing any group’s particular agenda, but at translating the universally accepted text of the Bible in a way that could not be reasonably objected to. The KJV is the common Bible, taken from the common source text, translated according to common translation principles.
The principles underlying the source text of the KJV also make it unique among modern Bibles. Before the printing press Bibles were copied by hand, so variations between copies were not unusual. Most differences between one Bible and the next were minor, however, so by comparison and carefulness, the general text of the Bible became rather uniform over the centuries. But several major variations persisted between the Greek and Latin Bibles, which had been copied separately for over a thousand years. These two traditions did not interfere much with each other until the the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1543, after which many Greek scholars settled in the western Latin areas. This caused a more frequent comparison of the two traditional texts, and sparked a desire for a reconciled Bible. And with the invention of printing, the desire increased to print a universally accepted source text for the Bible so it could be translated into common languages.
A consensus eventually developed in the Latin-dominant west among reformists that the Greek Vulgate was preferable to the Latin in most cases where they differed, because the Latin was originally translated from Greek copies, and because the Greek Vulgate came from the area where the New Testament had originated, and was more likely to have a better foundation. The Latin Vulgate was considered preferable in a handful of places however, where the Greek Vulgate had significant omissions and the Latin text was well established. Several editors set about to print a Greek edition of the familiar text, attempting to reconcile the Vulgates into a universally acceptable source Bible. These initial efforts were compared and revised many times subsequently (throughout the 1500s), with editors consulting hundreds of Latin and Greek Vulgate manuscripts, seeking the most common reading among them, and eventually a universal standard text of the New Testament emerged that was practically accepted by everyone as the source text for translations. This printed Greek New Testament came to be known as the Textus Receptus (TR), or the “text received by all.” The TR represents the printed standardization of all those Bible manuscripts available to believers for millennia.
The TR was the result of seeking the consensus reading of the manuscripts, and the KJV was the result of seeking a consensus translation of the TR. The objective was to offer the public a common Bible so well done that it would replace all the partisan translations that were circulating at the time. The KJV was financed by the King of England with the express mandate to take into consideration both Anglican and Puritan concerns in translation, and to eliminate doctrinal notes from the margin. By impartial translation and careful revision of existing English Bibles at the time, the KJV achieved its objective by earning broad acceptance and unrivaled authority among English speakers.
Why do modern scholars reject the KJV and the TR?
In the following centuries the principle behind the Textus Receptus began to be questioned by experts. Rather than accepting the common text of the Bible available to believers throughout the centuries, these experts assumed the common Vulgates had been corrupted, and so came to prefer forgotten and overlooked ancient fragments and textual traditions that had been discarded by the principal Bible publishers ages before. The idea was that a thousand year old manuscript that had not been copied much by scribes in the past, and therefore had unusual readings, was preferable to a five hundred year old manuscript that agreed with hundreds of others from all over. This is because the age of a manuscript came to be considered more important than even a staggering number of them. Yet a great number of manuscripts with the same reading is not a coincidence, but indicates an ancient standardization, and a clear preference by ancient scribes. The modern fascination with only the most ancient manuscripts, if their readings are unusual, is really a rejection of the systematic and careful work of nearly all scribes copying the Bible for a thousand years, who had many more ancient manuscripts to compare than we do today. It is also an assumption that the true text of Scripture was actually lost during that entire time.
The attempt to reconstruct original documents scientifically by evaluating the most ancient manuscripts available is called Textual Criticism. It is logical, of course, that all else being equal, earlier copies should be more correct than later copies. However it is not that simple. The very first manual reproduction of an original document can be very deficient and inaccurate, especially if done by an amateur, and any copies taken from it would be a multiplication of its errors. And in the first centuries the New Testament was copied widely by amateurs, resulting in a surprising amount of serious variation in our earliest surviving manuscripts. Therefore the extreme age of a manuscript is no guarantee of greater accuracy. Also, all of the earliest Greek manuscripts available to us survived to our day primarily because they are originally from the dry climate of Egypt. The dryness of a climate is also no indication of greater accuracy. Nevertheless, because of these circumstances, the recent obsession with only the earliest manuscripts makes modern Bibles overly dependent upon a local, and often incomplete, variation of the text of the Bible (the Egyptian), rather than the dominant textual tradition obviously preferred by ancient scribes.
Experts who are critical of the common Bible also attempt to correct it by hypothetical evaluations of the text itself, making assumptions as to which reading is more likely, according to a set of highly questionable rules that often produce conflicting results. For example, one of these rules prefers the “shorter reading” claiming ancient scribes were more likely to add an explanation than to omit a phrase. Another rule proclaims the “difficult reading” is best because reckless scribes tended to clarify the text, or improve its orthodoxy. Adoption of such far from obvious rules tends to cast doubt on any reading in the common Bible, if it appears too elaborate, too orthodox, or too clear, according to the whim of the current expert. This is especially so wherever the skeptical expert can find some unusual reading in a discarded fragment that is missing something, or is doctrinally misleading, or is more confusing. And though the inventors of these rules claim they are scientific, they have not caused greater confidence in the Bible they produce, because they depend upon arbitrary opinions, and many experts don’t agree, not even on the rules, much less on the conclusions. No modern Bible depending upon this “science” can achieve real consensus among us, because the original text of the Bible is assumed to have been contaminated or lost for most of our history, and anyone with an opinion can prefer a different solution today. This is the situation in many churches in our generation. Pastors and authors routinely use many different versions in the same sermon or book, or make up their own version on the fly when none available suits them. Every believer should understand why this attitude of constant skepticism toward the Bible is dangerous and unacceptable.
Why do we trust the KJV?
The Christian attitude that the Bible which believers have always used was not corrupt, but consistently preserved in use by God’s people, does produce confidence in the Bible, and faith in the Bible changes lives. While defending Protestant translations in 1583 William Fulke declared, “we never go from that text and ancient reading which all the fathers used, but we translate from that most usual text, which was first printed out of the most ancient copies that could be found,” and again, “we translate according to the most usual Greek copies.” [Fulke’s Defence p. 99 & 559.] Confidence in the accuracy of the common text or the “most usual” reading in the manuscripts was virtually universal for 15 centuries. The reformers agreed the common reading was correct, not because it was scientifically reconstructed, but because the work of standardization was done by experts in antiquity, and was not possible to improve upon by speculation in our day. Fulke and other reformers had ancient copies available to them but owing to this principle they rejected any “unusual readings” found in them. This is not an unscientific attitude – rather it grants the common reading of the Bible throughout history the significance it merits. The modern distrust of the standard traditional text is not a scientific position. It is a contagious biblical skepticism armed with a handful of ancient imperfect copies that have survived longer than others for reasons not relevant to their value.
Modern textual criticism cannot reach any indisputable conclusions due to its inherently speculative nature. And speculation cannot compare to genuine consensus among professional copyists lasting 15 centuries, and tracing a traditional text to the earliest era of New Testament publishing. Many modern experts express doubts about this or that passage in the Bible, but there is good reason for common-sense Bible believers to trust that the standard text of the New Testament, derived from the Latin and Greek Vulgates, and as found printed in the Textus Receptus, is an essentially flawless copy of the original documents, continuously available to Bible believers throughout the centuries. The King James Bible is the authentic historical reproduction of that text in English. This is the underlying reason we conservative Christians trust the King James Version of the Bible wherever modern Bibles stray from it.