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A Brief History of the King James Bible

by D.M. Murdock/Acharya S

Excerpted and adapted from

Who Was Jesus? Fingerprints of The Christ

Who Was Jesus?How was the King James Bible created? Is the King James version of the Bible inspired and inerrant?

For the past several centuries since its creation in 1611, the King James Bible has been held up by devout Christians as an "inspired" and "inerrant" rendering into English, authorized by God himself. To this day, certain Fundamentalist Protestant Christians continue to believe this claim about the King James Version ("KJV"), regardless of the fact that the texts upon which it was based differ in many places from the earliest Greek manuscripts, which were not available during its translation.

In reality, the King James Bible was created using preceding English translations and Greek texts dating to the 12th to 15th centuries - the "Textus Receptus" - as well as "some influence from the Latin Vulgate," the edition by Catholic saint Jerome in the fourth century. The original Textus Receptus (TR) compiled by Dutch theologian Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536) was hurriedly put together and contained "thousands of typographical errors," as well as scribal commentary that was not in the original Greek. In 1550, the TR was eventually reissued by Parisian printer Robert Estienne, also known as Stephanus/Stefanus/Stephens, whose edition was the basis of the KJV, with a significant amount of the same problems intact. The fact that various versions of the Bible differ from each other is very significant and needs to be kept in mind, as does the realization of the flawed nature of the Textus Receptus, upon which the King James Bible is based.

The King James Version Errancy Debate

Four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and JohnIn "Discovering and Classifying New Testament Manuscripts," fundamentalist Christian writer James Arlandson discusses the orthodox Christian belief that the four canonical gospels were inerrant and divinely inspired:

"The original authors were inspired, but we do not have their very originals… The original New Testament documents were transmitted by scribes, who were not inspired."

This more recent claim regarding only the originals being inspired essentially overrides the centuries-old, widely held notion that English translations such as the King James Bible are inerrant; yet, there remain King James inerrantists.

Because such a position appears untenable, many Christian scholars and apologists today no longer adhere to the notion that translations themselves are inspired, claiming instead that only the "originals" are inspired, as noted. The rank-and-file believers, however, still frequently maintain - as they have been taught - that the King James translation, for one, is inerrant and its translators inspired. Regardless of whether or not trained apologists believe this claim anymore, the average Christian may not be aware of the debate regarding various translations and may indeed receive the impression that the Bible favored in his or her church is inerrant. In the words of evangelical Christian Gary Amirault:

"At an early point in my walk with Jesus, I was strongly under the influence of men and women who believed in the 'Inerrant Bible' doctrine. They believed the King James Bible was the only one Christians should use because it was inspired of God and without errors. They believed other translations were inspired of Satan, the "Alexandrian cult" and the Roman Catholic Church."[1] 

Image: Worldwide Mission Fellowship, www.wwmf.org/faith/The reality is that even today many pastors continue to promote the purported inerrancy of the King James Bible. In fact, there remain ministries fervently dedicated to "defending and promoting the KJV." Within these organizations, the King James Bible continues to be held up as "inerrant," despite the scholarship that has revealed the Textus Receptus at its basis to be flawed.

One fundamentalist KJV defender, Brandon Staggs, comments on the debate thus:

"Almost every "fundamental" statement of faith reads that God's word is perfect and inspired in the original autographs.

"But isn't that a statement of unbelief? What good is God's word if it only exists in manuscripts which no longer exist? Why would God inspire Scripture just to let it wither to dust?

"Many modern scholars believe that the real ending of the Gospel of Mark has been lost and that we can not be certain how Mark concluded his Gospel. And yet these same scholars will boldly declare belief in God's preservation of Scripture."[2] 

"It is my belief that the King James Bible is God's word in the English language without admixture of error."

Evangelicals like David Sorenson, in fact, go so far as to deem "apostates" those who follow the "critical text," such as the Revised Standard Version, as opposed to those who maintain the inerrancy of the "Received Text," i.e., the basis for the KJV.[3] Continuing with his apology for the KJV, Staggs states:

"It is my belief that the King James Bible, originally known as the Authorized Version, first published in the year 1611, is God's word in the English language without admixture of error."

Despite this indoctrination of inerrancy, an investigation of the translations of the New Testament into English reveals much, as to whether or not they could possibly be considered "inerrant" works by "infallibly" inspired scribes.

A Brief History of the Kings James Bible

King James BiblePrior to the discovery of the most complete, ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament - the Codices Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus and Vaticanus - we possessed only much later copies in Greek. One of the most important translations of the Bible, the King James Version, was based not on these earliest manuscripts but on the later Greek texts, as well as on the preceding English editions such as the Tyndale, Great, Geneva and Catholic Bibles, the latter of which was in turn founded upon Jerome's Latin Vulgate.

Claimed by many Christian fundamentalists to be the only inspired and inerrant translation of the Bible into English, the King James Version, also called the "Authorized Version," possesses an interesting history, in that it was composed over several years from 1604 to 1609 by six groups comprising upwards of 40 translators. Each translator's section was edited by the other members of the group, then passed around to the other groups, and so on, until a finalized version was accepted and was subsequently published in 1611.

"This complex history provokes several questions, including why the Holy Spirit needed so many minds and hands to work on God's Word."

This complex history provokes several questions, including why the Holy Spirit needed so many minds and hands to work on God's Word. Wouldn't it have been much faster and less fraught with the chance for error if only one person infallibly inspired by the Holy Spirit had translated the texts? Common sense indicates that only if the individuals involved were relying on their own intellectual faculties and erudition would there need to be a committee of the sort used in the translation of the King James Bible.

Concerning the KJV, New Testament scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman remarks:

"…The King James Version is filled with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived ultimately from Erasmus's edition, which was based on a single twelfth-century manuscript that is one of the worst of the manuscripts that we now have available to us!…

"…The King James was not given by God but was a translation by a group of scholars in the early seventeenth century who based their rendition on a faulty Greek text."[4] 

Centuries after the KJV became the "noblest monument of English prose," in fact, there arose a clear need for a new, updated translation. As the "Preface" to the Revised Standard Version ("RSV") relates:

"…the King James Version has grave defects. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the development of Biblical studies and the discovery of many manuscripts more ancient than those upon which the King James Version was based, made it manifest that these defects are so many and so serious as to call for revision of the English translation…."[5] 

Erasmus, by Holbein the Younger (1523)Hence, despite the esteem by evangelical Christians, it is understood by various scholars that the King James Bible was not "given by God" and possesses "grave defects." In fact, the Greek text that the KJV largely followed is now considered a seriously flawed composition, "hastily compiled" by Desiderius Erasmus, who pieced it together using a single Greek text from the 12th century and a few other manuscript portions, producing the "Textus Receptus" or "Received Text."

Not finding the last six verses of the New Testament, from the book of Revelation, Erasmus used the Latin Vulgate to translate the pertinent verses back into Greek. Thus, these particular scriptures were not rendered from the original or even early Greek texts but are the retranslations from a Latin translation of a Greek copy of the New Testament. It is upon this defective translation that the King James Bible is based in large part, further demonstrating the tenuousness and frailty of maintaining that the KJV was infallibly inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The Tyndale Translation

Moreover, the translation of the KJV was not confined to the Greek texts but also used previous English translations, including the Tyndale Bible. One of the earliest translators of the Bible into English, William Tyndale(d. 1536), was burned at the stake for "heresy." Yet, Tyndale's translation has been used in the creation of every significant English rendition of the Bible since his time, including the King James Version.[6] Was Tyndale inspired? If so, why would God let him be hideously killed? If he was not inspired, how can the English translations such as the KJV, based in considerable part on his work, themselves be considered inspired?

Need for Revision

Regarding the KJV, the RSV continues:

"The King James Version of the New Testament was based upon a Greek text that was marred by mistakes, containing the accumulated errors of fourteen centuries of manuscript copying. It was essentially the Greek text of the New Testament as edited by Beza, 1589, who closely followed that published by Erasmus, 1516-1535, which was based upon a few medieval manuscripts….

"We now possess many more ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, and are far better equipped to seek to recover the original wording of the Greek text…"[7] 

One result of this need for revision is the Revised Standard Version itself, which bases its translation upon the King James Bible and "the most ancient authorities," i.e., the Greek codices. Yet, how do we know which of the Greek texts is correct, as they differ significantly? If the Holy Spirit was inspiring the translators of the KJV, why weren't they shown the most ancient Greek manuscripts instead, if these are more correct and closer to the originals of God's Word? In fact, why would the Holy Spirit allow the originals or autographs to be destroyed in the first place? Why don't we possess the pristinely and miraculously preserved texts written by the very hands of the evangelists themselves?

"Why would the Holy Spirit allow the originals of the gospels to be destroyed in the first place?"

Moreover, the numerous Latin translations were so varied and unreliable that Jerome was commissioned to create an authoritative Latin text (Vulgate) from reputable Greek manuscripts.[8] Again, the KJV was also based in part on the Latin Vulgate, which few Christian evangelicals or fundamentalists would claim was inspired.

After scientifically analyzing the manuscript tradition and the creation of the King James Bible, it seems incredible and egregious that someone could maintain the following sentiment expressed by a KJV fundamentalist writer:

"The manuscripts represented by the King James Bible have texts of the highest quality. So we see that the best manuscripts are those used by the King James translators."[12] 

This position strikes one as obstinate, unscientific and unreasonable, but is little different from the maintenance by other fundamentalist Christians that the Bible as a whole is inerrant, that the gospel tale is 100% factually accurate, and that Christianity is the "only true religion."

In addition, the argument maintaining "inspired originals" is not very appealing, for the reason proffered by Ehrman that we do not possess the originals. Regarding the doctrine of "inspired originals," KJV fundamentalist and evangelical Christian Daryl Coats asks:

"If the Bible were inspired only in the original manuscripts, no one today has an inspired Bible. If that is true, what makes your religion any different from that of the Buddhist, or Hindu, or Moslem, or Mormon?"[13] 

Indeed, is it truly honest and righteous for any one culture to insist that its "holy book" alone is the "Word of God?" In reality, none of these texts can be scientifically proved to be the "inerrant Word of God."



[1] Amirault, "The King James Bible is 'Inerrant?'"
[2] Staggs, "King James Bible and other versions: why does it matter?"
[3] Sorenson, "Erasmus, King James, and His Translators."
[4] Ehrman, MJ, 209.
[5] RSV, iii.
[6] Tenney, 420.
[7] RSV, v.
[8] Tenney, 417.
[9] Gipp, Sam, The Answer Book, reproduced in Staggs's "Shouldn't we value the original autographs above any mere translation?"
[10] Staggs, "Aren't archaic words in the KJV in need of updating?"
[11] Gipp, The Answer Book, reproduced in Staggs's "If we have a perfect Bible in English, don't we need one in every other language?"
[12] Gipp, The Answer Book, reproduced in Staggs's "Aren't modern translations based on better manuscripts?"
[13] Coats, "The Two Lies."

Bibliography

Amirault, Gary. "The Gospels." www.tentmaker.org/Biblematters/KJV.htm 
Coats, Daryl. "The Two Lies." av1611.com/kjbp/articles/coats-twolies.html
Ehrman, Bart. Misquoting Jesus. San Francisco: Harper, 2005.
Gipp, Sam. The Answer Book, reproduced in Staggs's "Shouldn't we value the original autographs above any mere translation?" av1611.com/kjbp/faq/originals.html
Sorenson, David. "Erasmus, King James and His Translators." av1611.com/kjbp/articles/sorenson-ch10-1.html
Staggs, Brandon. "King James Bible and other versions: why does it matter?" av1611.com/kjbp/
--"Aren't archaic words in the KJV in need of updating?" av1611.com/kjbp/faq/archaic.html
Tenney, Merrill C. New Testament Survey. MI: Wm. B. Eerdsman Publishing Company, 1985.

For more information, see Who Was Jesus? Fingerprints of The Christ.

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