Thoughts about the Use of the King James Version

Thoughts about the Use of the King James Version

Daniel L. Segraves

Many English translations of the Holy Bible have been produced since the Authorized Version of 1611, and it is not unusual for readers to choose favorites.[1] From time to time, people ask for my opinion.

This paper is not a thorough, scholarly work on the translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages. It is simply some observations to be considered by those who think the KJV is the only trustworthy English translation and that it is wrong to use others.

I do not intend to belittle the KJV. It is a beautiful and classic literary work that has endured more than four centuries for a reason. Its phrases continue to influence the English language to this day. It is not unusual to hear them in secular literature and popular expressions.

I hold a conservative view of Scripture. As an instructor in schools endorsed by the United Pentecostal Church International, I have for decades affirmed in writing each year that I “believe in the divine inspiration of the whole Bible, the infallibility of the original writings and that the Bible is truth without any error and is inspired even to the very words and is therefore the in scripted Word of God.” This statement does not address any specific English translation; it affirms the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture as originally written (i.e., the autographs).

The Original “King James Version” 

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland ascended to the throne of England as James I. He was presented with a petition signed by clergymen, including Puritans, requesting that steps be taken to “purify” the Church of England from vestiges of Roman Catholic influence. John Reynolds, a Puritan leader and president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, requested the king to authorize a new, more accurate translation. Since the Bishop’s Bible, a 1568 revision of the Great Bible, had not succeeded in replacing the people’s love for the Geneva Bible and since James disapproved of the marginal notes in the Geneva Bible, he approved the translation.

More than fifty scholars trained in Hebrew and Greek began the work of translation in 1607. They were instructed to follow the Bishop’s Bible as long as it was faithful to the original text and to consult the translations of Tyndale, Matthew, Coverdale, the Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible.

In 1611, the KJV was finished. Corrected editions began to be released almost immediately. Two editions were published in 1611, with one correcting several printer’s errors in the other. In 1612, another reprint corrected mistakes in the second 1611 edition. In 1613, another revision was released correcting still more mistakes in the 1611 edition. Considerable revision was done in a 1616 reprint and fewer corrections in a 1617 edition.

The greatest revision of the KJV to that time occurred in 1629 when the first edition without the Apocrypha was released. This was the first time the KJV was published by someone other than the king’s printers. Thomas and John Buck, Cambridge University printers, released the 1629 edition, and Thomas Buck and Roger Daniel published another edition in 1638. These two revisions of the KJV involved revision of the text, of the use of italics, and of marginal notes. In the meantime, other editions were being released by the king’s printers in 1630 and 1634.

In 1640, the king’s printers released an edition of the KJV which came to be known as the “Wicked Bible” because it inadvertently left out the word “not” in the seventh of the Ten Commandments. The printer was given a substantial fine. Other editions were released in 1653, 1655, 1656, and 1657.

The first edition of the KJV to contain dates in the margin was published in 1701 in three volumes.

Thomas and Robert Baskett released two editions in 1744 and 1756 which were known for their beautiful typography and comparative freedom from misprints.

In 1762, Dr. Paris of Trinity College, Cambridge, released a substantially revised edition of the KJV. His work was followed by Dr. Blayney’s revision of 1769. The KJV in use today is largely the edition that resulted from the efforts of these two scholars in revising the text, the italics, and the marginal notes.[2]

I have on my computer a PDF copy of the first edition of the 1611 KJV. On my desk before me, I have a hardback reprint of the first edition, printed in 1982 by Thomas Nelson Publishers. The first thing to strike the eye of the reader is the sixteenth-century type font. Next is what is to us the unusual spelling of many words. For instance, what I would call the title page reads,

“The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Teftament, and the new: Newly Tranflated out of the Originall tongues: & with the former Tranflations diligently compared and reuifed, by his Maiesties fpeciall Comandement. Appointed to be read in Churches. Imprinted at London by Robert Barker, Printer to the Kings moft Excellent Maiestie. Anno Dom. 1611.[3]

            On the next pages begins the dedication to King James I. The heading reads,

“to the most high and mightie prince, Iames by the grace of God King of Great Britaine, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, &c. the translators of the bible, wifh Grace, Mercie, and Peace, through Iesvs[4] Christ our Lord.”

After the two and one-half page dedication comes an eleven page section titled “The translators to the reader.” Here the translators explain the reason for their work and respond to their critics. This section is dense and difficult to read. It is not usually found in American printings of the KJV. This is to be regretted because this section answers questions often asked and corrects assumptions made by American readers.

The “Vulgar” Tongue

One of the things noted in “To the Reader” is the necessity of the translation being rendered in the “vulgar tongue”:

“Indeede without tranflation [translation] into the vulgar tongue, the vnlearned [unlearned] are but like children at Iacobs (Jacob’s) well (which was deepe) without a bucket or fome [some] thing to draw with.”

In 1611, the word “vulgar” meant “common.” The point here is that the translators recognized the necessity of translating into the common language of those who spoke English at that time. This has been the undergirding idea of most translations into any language, and it is a challenge to those who assume the language spoken four centuries ago is clearly understood by those who read and speak English in the twenty-first century.

The translators of the KJV returned to this idea repeatedly. For instance:

“But how fhall [shall] men meditate in that, which they cannot vnderfstand [understand]? How fhall [shall] they vnderftand [understand] that which is kept clofe [close] in an vnknowen [unknown] tongue? . . . all of vs [us] in thofe [those] tongues which wee [we] doe [do] not vnderftand [understand], are plainely [plainly] deafe [deaf].”

That today’s English calls for today’s translation is demonstrated by The King James Bible Word Book, “A contemporary dictionary of curious and archaic words found in the King James Version of the Bible.” Before we assume the words in the KJV simply mean what they say and say what they mean, we should note that even this resource of 422 pages does not exhaust the need to define words whose definitions have changed since 1611. For instance, the word “vulgar” does not appear in the list of words needing redefinition.[5]

The word “vulgar” is not the only term used by the translators to express the necessity of translating into the common language. For instance,

“Now what can bee [be] more auaileable [available] thereto, then [than] to deliuer [deliver] Gods [God’s] booke [book] vnto [unto] Gods [God’s] people in a tongue which they vnderftand [understand]?”

An amusing analogy explains the translators’ desire to improve previous English translations:

A man had rather be with his dog then [than] with a ftranger [stranger] (whofe [whose] tongue is ftrange [strange] vnto [unto] him.) Yet for all that, as nothing is begun and perfited [perfected] at the fame [same] time, and the later thoughts are thought to be the wifer [wiser]: fo [so], if we building vpon [upon] their foundation that went before vs [us], and being holpen [helped] by their labours, doe [do] endeuour [endeavor] to make that better which they left fo [so] good; no man, we are fure [sure], hath caufe [cause] to miflike [mislike] vs [us]; they, we perfwade [persuade] our felues [selves], if they were aliue [alive], would thanke [thank] vs [us].”

The translators did not see themselves as making new translation. They did not see themselves even as making a bad translation into a good one.

Truly (good Chriftian [Christian] Reader) wee [we] neuer [never] thought from the beginning, that we fhould [should] need to make a new Tranflation [Translation], nor yet to make of a bad one a good one. . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principall [principal] good one, not iuftly [justly] to be excepted againft [against]; that hath bene [been] our indeauour [endeavor], that our marke [mark].

Missing Books

Perhaps one of the most surprising things to be discovered by those who think we must read the KJV only is that the current printings of the KJV lack fourteen books that were included in the 1611 edition. These books are known as the Apocrypha. When they were deleted in 1629, the text of the Bible was shortened by 212 pages.

This is not to say the Apocrypha should have been retained. Perhaps it would be better to ask why it was included in the first place.

Missing Verses? 

Are verses missing from today’s Bible translations? This notion is often raised as a point of concern by those who believe the KJV is the only reliable translation. There are, indeed, verses found in the KJV that are not included in more recent translations. Is this a violation of the warning in Revelation 22:19: “If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” Does this mean salvation depends on reading the KJV only?

Those who think this way are apparently not aware that the reason for variants in the biblical text is that there are variants among the more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts upon which our New Testaments are based. This need not strike a note of fear that we do not have a trustworthy New Testament. What is amazing is not that there are a few textual variants among the manuscripts. The thing that is amazing is that there are so few, since all the manuscripts were copied by hand until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. There are questions concerning only about two percent of the New Testament. The variants are usually matters of spelling, arrangement of words, words or verses copied twice, and such like. No biblical doctrine is compromised by the miniscule number of variants; no doctrine rests on a single testimony only.

But there are cases where verses found in some manuscripts are simply not present in others. This gives rise textual criticism. This is not a negative term. In this case, the word “criticism” simply refers to analysis. Textual criticism is the practice of comparing manuscripts to determine the reading of the original text.

The two most commonly used theories of textual criticism are these: (1) The oldest (i.e., earliest) manuscripts are most likely to represent the original text; (2) the largest number of manuscripts (i.e., the majority) are more likely to represent the original text.

Here is an interesting example: In the KJV, I John 5:7-8 reads: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”

In the English Standard Version, these verses read: “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.”

The reason for this variant is that the earliest (i.e., oldest) Greek manuscript that includes in its text the reading found in the KJV is from the twelfth century, some 1100 years after the writing of the New Testament.

There are various nuances in the practice of textual criticism, but they need not concern us here. Textual variants are not a sign of some dangerous conspiracy to corrupt the Holy Bible.

Those who reject today’s English translations because of the warning of Revelation 22:19 should also note the warning of Revelation 22:18: “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.” Both of these warnings are valid, but they are not about text criticism with its attempt to construct as closely as possible the original text of the New Testament.

Go into all the World 

When Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15, NKJV), it was a command to translate the gospel into every language of the world. Translations into English are part of the fulfillment of that command, but the KJV exists in English only. Missionaries preaching among those who do not speak English must use a translation into the language of their hearers.

For those who wish to use the KJV, they may want to use the latest revision of this revered work, The New King James Version. I have been preaching and teaching from the NKJV for the entire twenty-first century. This is not due to a conviction that it is the only reliable English translation. It is because I recognize that most of the people I address still use the KJV, and they will have little problem following the reading of the NKJV.

I do not hesitate to consult the Hebrew and Greek texts when I feel a need to do so. I will say, however, something I have often told my college and seminary students: If you have not studied the original languages in classes taught by academically qualified instructors, stay away from them. Otherwise, you will no doubt misinterpret Scripture and perhaps convince yourself of some spiritually dangerous error.

I want to be clear on this point. Even Strong’s Concordance, with its number system and minimal definitions, will mislead those who have no skill in Hebrew and Greek grammar and syntax. I have often used an analogy to make this point: If you gave me a Bible in the Japanese language along with a Japanese-English dictionary and asked me to use the dictionary to understand the Bible, I would be unable to do so, for I have no skill in the Japanese language.[6]

[1] In the United States of America, the so-called “Authorized Version” of England is widely known as the King James Version (KJV). This translation was never actually officially authorized.

[2] The information under the heading “The Original ‘King James Version’” is drawn from Daniel L. Segraves, You Can Understand the Bible (NP; np, 11th printing, 2011), Kindle edition.

[3] I am unable to reproduce accurately all of the letters, but notice the spelling of the word “containing” [Conteyning], the frequent use of what looks to us like an “f” to represent “s,” the “i” to represent “j,” and the “u” to represent “v.”

[4] It will be noted here that “Jesus” is represented by “Iesvs.” Later, in the section titled “The Translators To the Reader,” the name “Jesus” is represented by “Iefus.”

[5] Ronald Bridges and Luther A Weigle, The King James Bible Word Book (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994).

[6] For those who would like to further explore the history and today’s use of the King James Version, I recommend the following books: D. A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979) and Mark Ward, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), Kindle edition.