How the Bible Was Canonized: Is the KJV the Best Translation?

Christian Life & Theology, Podcast Episodes

Is the King James Version the best or only version of the Bible we should use? It’s a question I’m sure we have all wondered as we discuss with KJV only friends. Or perhaps you’ve seen graphics going around Facebook saying certain bible versions are “missing” verses that the KJV includes.

In this episode of Verity, we talk all about the KJV: its history, how it developed, why its manuscripts were different, and more.


Pros of the KJV

  • Essentially literal/functional equivalent translation
  • Committee staffed; 47 scholars worked on it
  • It was not proposed by King James himself but by Puritan John Reynolds. Remember, there were already English translations of the Bible in existence, and the KJV came under significant fire just as new translations do today.

It achieved its goal of being “God’s book to God’s people in a tongue they understand” in the time it was needed.

Facts about the translators’ intent:

  • In the preface, the translators note that they are NOT the first bible translators, and commend the work of people like Jerome and their own English predecessors. 
    • “We are so far off from condemning any of their labors that travailed before us in this… recognizing that nothing is begun and perfected at the same time.” They made no claim to verbal inspiration of their own work.

Was the KJV changed since translation? YES! As early two years after initial print, in 1613, modifications were made – over four hundred to be exact! The Apocrypha was not omitted until 1629, but as you know from the episode on the Apochrypha, this was not consistent until the 1800s. Modificiations to copy errors, spelling, obsolete words, and flawed marginal notes were made consistently, through 1962. So when someone argues for the ORIGINAL KJV, you must ask – which one?

What about the Textus Receptus?

What is it: a compilation of seven different greek manuscripts, connoted by Erasmus.

The five primary manuscripts received as authoritative today were not available at that time – only one, Codex Bezae, was, and we are not confident it was used for this process. The scholars used the third edition of Erasmus’ Greek text as it had been revised by Stephanus in 1551 (he added verses and chapters). 

For the OT, available were the Complutensian Polyglot  (16th century OT in Hebrew, Latin and Greek) and the Antwerp Polyglot. Where these differ – says Lewis – the KJV agrees with one or the other except in about six places where it agrees with neither. 

Today we have access to approximately 5300 manuscripts. 

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Phylicia: Welcome back, friends. I am so excited to continue the Canon series today with our episode exclusively about the King James Version of the Bible. Before we begin, I want to make a very important caveat. I am not doing this episode to be against any specific version of the Bible, especially not the King James. But we do have many people in my audience who have family members or come from churches that believe that the King James Version is the only viable version of the Bible. In this episode, we will talk about why that argument really can’t be made from the history and the facts. This does not make the King James Version any less important, any less of a valuable translation, but we do need to be sure that we’re not adding on to the truth of Scripture in saying that this particular version is the only one that God endorses. So, I want to make sure that I set that out from the beginning that I am not anti-KJV, but I will not support the idea that it is the only version that God has endorsed. There is a difference between those two things. 

As we begin, we’re going to look at a little history of how the King James Version was first commissioned. To understand this, you need to understand what progress had already been made on the translations of the Bible, and that there were already five or six English translations that had been in existence before the King James Version was translated. So, if you have not listened to the previous episode on English translations, I would encourage you to do so before listening to this one, because we’re going to pick up where we left off in the history of the English Bible. After the Geneva Bible, the great Bible, Taverner’s, and Matthews had been created based on William Tyndale’s work. 

We’re going to start with a little story, history lesson. Queen Elizabeth has died. When Queen Elizabeth died, the Church of England was in a limbo, because while Elizabeth was Protestant, she did allow for the remnants of Catholicism that were still in the Church of England to remain. There were some theologians of the time, who felt she really wasn’t Protestant enough to be Protestant, and she also wasn’t Catholic enough to be Catholic, but she was a lot better than Mary, Queen of Scots, who was Catholic, and we have Elizabeth here who at least advocated for the Protestants, even if she wasn’t as Protestant as they would like. 

So, Elizabeth has passed away. In her stead, James of Scotland is being coronated as King. Where we’re starting in the story, he’s actually traveling south from Scotland to his coronation in London. As he is traveling south, he gets interrupted. A group of Puritans bring him a petition. Now, why would these Puritans bring James a petition on his way to be coronated? Well, James was inheriting a very divided church. The Church of England had many powerful bishops and the model was a hierarchical model, mimicking really the Catholic Church because they broke off from the Catholic Church.

The Puritans had a very different way of structuring the church and different views on worship and how the church should be run, and they were dissatisfied with how much Catholicism the church was still retaining. In their mind, certain things represented to Catholicism, and they did not want them as a part of the Church of England. As James is headed south, he’s interrupted by these Puritan clergy, who present him with something called the Millenary Petition. You can read this right online still. It had over 1000 signatures on it, which was about 10% of England’s clergy. That’s pretty significant. In this petition, they appeal to the king to pay attention to their case that addressed issues of church service, worship, livings of pastors, and church discipline. They objected very strongly to Catholicism. Things like the vestments of the clergy, wearing wedding rings and ceremonies, and even the sign of the cross. They asked for things like shorter services and changes to the worship music. They asked for honor for the Sabbath, a more specific honor on the Sabbath day for the canonical scriptures only to be read in the church. If you’re unsure what that means, go back to the Apocrypha episode because it likely had to do with the apocryphal books being read in services. 

Also, restrictions on when married couples could have sex. This is because the Catholic Church had certain festivals or holidays when they would say that couples should refrain from sexual intercourse, so the Puritans are asking to have that lifted. I did get a little bit of a kick out of that because we tend to see the Puritans as a little bit pinched and perhaps prudish, but for these clergy – it was on the priority list. These are a few examples of what the Millenary Petition was trying to do. They wanted to make significant changes to the Church of England and they wanted King James to do it. This petition led James to call the Hampton Court Conference, which included the king, a council of nine bishops and deans who would have been with the Church of England, and then four Puritan representatives. 

It’s important here to note, as far as the theological-political climate that’s going on here, the Church of England does not like the Puritans, and the Puritans are strongly objecting to the Church of England. A little more background is that James as a Scot was familiar with Presbyterianism. While he, as a brand-new leader was trying to negotiate between these two sides of the church, with one, the Church of England being much more powerful than the other, he was not a fan of Presbyterianism. In fact, this is evidenced in his response to one of the Puritan representatives, John Reynolds. Why would he not like this? Because of the threat to the absolute power of the King. This will come up when we’re talking about the commissioning of the KJV because at that point, the Geneva Bible, which you can still read today, I believe it’s even in your YouVersion app. The Geneva Bible was very popular with the Puritans primarily what they used, the Scottish Presbyterians. The Geneva Bibles notes were all written by John Calvin. 

Well, Calvin’s notes did not support the idea of the absolute power of the King. This bothered King James, for obvious reasons. He definitely did not like the Geneva Bible, and neither did the Anglican Church authorities. They openly opposed the Geneva Bible, even bought the Bibles and burned them. It was no longer printed in England after 1618. Clearly, there’s some drama surrounding this whole thing and there’s a political aspect here. King James, though, he definitely seems to have been a believer, definitely seems to have upheld inerrancy and important facts about Scripture, he did have his own best interests in mind in this regard, too. 

As they come to this council, Reynolds comes as a representative with his three other Puritan representatives, hoping to make some progress on church government, but he makes a big mistake, and he brings up the word ‘presbytery,’ saying, “Why shouldn’t the bishops of the Church of England governed jointly with the presbytery of their brethren, the pastors and the ministers of the church?” Seems like a fair request. He’s basically asking for an elder board instead of the hierarchy of the Church of England to keep them accountable. Well, King James being, again, not a fan of Presbyterianism responded, “If you aim at a Scot’s presbytery, it agreeth as well with monarchy as God and the Devil, then Jack and Tom and Will and Dick shall meet and censure me and my council, no Bishop, no King.” 

He’s basically made that his motto, no Bishop, no King. Unless they’re willing to give sway to the allegiance of the Church of England, they’re not going to have any say with the king. Reynolds didn’t get very far with the Puritan case as far as the structure of the church and reframing the Church of England, but he did do something very interesting. He secured a new translation of the Bible. The reasons for getting a new translation may have been very different. James very well may have had his own best interests in mind. He did not like the Geneva Bible. He would like it to be removed, and he would like to have none of Calvin’s notes about kingship anywhere near his written words. The Bible was ordered, and it had a particular note, again, supporting what we’re saying about King James here saying that no marginal notes at all were to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew and Greek words. So, no commentary. This is not a study Bible. 

Through this process, this council, the King James Version is commissioned. It was staffed by several committees including a committee, if you remember from the Apocrypha episode, that worked on the apocryphal books, and 47 scholars total were working on this. These scholars were a combination of theologians, clergymen, and academics who are working together to translate the text. 

Looking back to the episode on English translations, the King James Version was a functional equivalent translation, also called word for word, also called essentially literal. Wherever they could literally translate the word into English in a way that made sense, they would do it. But then, if they needed to paraphrase a word to make the sentence functional, they would do so. The goal of the King James Version was to be God’s book, to God’s people in a tongue they understand. In fact, it’s repeatedly said by the translators that the goal of this Bible was to be for the vulgar people, the people who weren’t as literate as the academics to be able to understand it, comprehend it, and use it.

A little more about the translator’s intent. In the preface, to the King James Version, which has since been removed and is no longer printed with the King James Bibles, the translators note that they are not the first Bible translators. In fact, they commend the work of people like Jerome, and their own English predecessors, the people who translated English Bibles before them. This is important for a couple reasons. First, it acknowledges the church history, the rich history behind canonization and translation of the Holy Words of God. But it also undermines a common argument from the King James’ only camp, that the King James was the original English version, or, like we joked about in the last episode, “If it was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me.” When in fact, we know that this was a series of English translations, and the King James was the final in that series prior to further revisions and further developments in translation, which we’ll talk about in a little bit here. 

The translators themselves acknowledged that they were not the first to translate the Word of God, and they commended other translators for doing so. In fact, they said, “We are so far off from condemning any of their labors that travailed before us in this, recognizing that nothing is begun and perfected at this same time.” They not only believed that the other translators had done good work that they were building on, but they also recognize that their work wasn’t perfect and would probably need continual revision. They’re not making any claim to the specific verbal inspiration of their work. 

When we’re talking with people who are King James only, this may be something to gently bring up because this preface can still be read. It’s just not published with King James Bible’s today, which is a shame if you ask me. I wanted to read a little bit more about this, from the book, The English Bible KJV to NIV by Jack Lewis, which talks a little bit more about the translators’ intent. He says, “The translators were aware that their translation would encounter strong opposition from Catholics and from nonconformists, that they themselves would be tossed upon tongues or gossiped about. To the anticipated critics, they said, ‘The very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession, containeth of the Word of God, nay is the word of God.’ They stated that the fear of weakening the authority of Scripture did not deter them from setting variant meanings in the margin. They said, ‘Doth not a margin do well to admonish the reader to seek further and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily.’ Unfortunately, these variant readings are often omitted in current printings of the KJV. The translators felt that a variety of translation is profitable for finding out the sense of the Scriptures. They recognize the necessity of some paraphrase. Uniformity and translation of phrases appear to them to seem more of curiosity than of wisdom. Therefore, they use the variety and renderings which in current opinion creates confusion for the reader. They claim to steer middle course between the practices of the Puritans who abandoned the old ecclesiastical words, and those of the Catholics who held to Latin phraseology.” 

I love this because thinking to modern English translation, they were really doing the exact same thing that we do today with all of the manuscripts we have available. They were trying to do their very best to strike that middle ground of translating the words accurately, but in a way that was understandable to the people without a specific bias toward Puritanism or towards the Catholic tradition. This is a huge job, you guys. It is so impressive that this is happening in 1603, which is when this was commissioned. I’m just blown away by how these scholars did the very best they could to handle this in a time when they did not have the technology that we have today. 

One question that comes up a lot about the King James Version is, has the King James changed since this initial translation? The answer is yes, many, many times, the King James has been changed and revised and edited. In the Apocrypha episode, we talked about how the apocryphal books were in the King James at least until the 1800s when they were finally removed but were for sure in it throughout the 1600s and then sporadically in the 1700 and 1800. That’s one revision that we know for sure. As early as two years after the initial print, in 1613, modifications were made. Over 400 modifications to be exact. The Apocrypha then as we just talked about was not admitted until 1629. Modifications to copy errors, spelling, obsolete words, and even flawed marginal notes were made consistently all the way up through 1962. Again, kindly and with respect, if someone is arguing for a “Original King James Version,” you have to ask, which one are you talking about because there have been modifications to this Bible, ever since its inception, ever since it was created, 400 years, just like we would do with any other translation in order to ensure the most accurate version possible. 

The next thing we need to discuss is something called the Textus Receptus. If you talk to anybody who’s King James only, this will be a phrase that you will hear. It’s important to know what it is, where it comes from, in order to have a productive discussion with our KJV-only friends. What is the Textus Receptus? This is a compilation of seven to eight, nine different Greek manuscripts. These were connoted by Erasmus. Remember him from last episode? He is the one who compiled these Greek manuscripts, he edited them. The first version was pretty flawed. The second was a little better, I believe Tyndale used that one. Then, the third edition is what the KJV scholars were working from. This version was revised by Stephanus in 1551. He is who added the verses and the chapters to the text. So, it was already in those verses and chapters when the King James scholars took it over. 

The interesting thing here is the five primary manuscripts we receive as authoritative today were not available to the King James scholars at that time. They were not discovered yet. Only one Codex Bezae was, and were not confident that it was used in this process. They were working from Erasmus’ texts, which were what was available at the time for the New Testament. For the Old Testament, what they had available was something called the Complutensian Polyglot. Yes, I think my intellect just went up a couple points saying that phrase. This is a 16th century-old testament in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Another one that was available is the Antwerp Polyglot. When they worked from these texts, specifically, the Old Testament ones, were these differ, there’s differences between the two, the King James Version agrees with one or the other, except in about six places where it agrees with neither one. They were working from some limited texts that were available at the time. Today, we have access to approximately 5300 manuscripts that can be cross-referenced and checked against each other to help us translate accurately. 

Now, I’m going to read an argument for the Textus Receptus. Then, I’m going to read you an argument against the Textus Receptus, because I think it’s good to hear both sides. Again, the difference here is for people who are KJV only, they believe that the Textus Receptus is more accurate or some believe it’s the original manuscript, which is not true, but they may believe that, and as such, it creates a more authoritative base for this Bible. They would say the KJV or the NKJV are the most accurate translations because they utilize this particular base text. This argument says the New Testament of the KJV as of the NKJV is based on the Textus Receptus, a variety of the Byzantine family of New Testament manuscripts. Many popular translations like the NASB, NIV, ESV, HCSB are based on the Nestle-Aland text, which is based on the Alexandrian family of manuscripts. Textus Receptus is Byzantine, Nestle-Aland is Alexandrian. 

Translations based on these Alexandrian readings, omit or cast doubt on many important words and verses. The Ending of Mark, The Story of the Adulteress, The Conclusion to the Lord’s Prayer, The Angel at the Pool, The Confession of the Ethiopian Eunuch, and others. It is generally accepted even by proponents of the Alexandrian texts that the Textus Receptus readings are doctrinally superior. 

Now, I’m not sure all of you are in my email list, but my email list, I sent out a newsletter a few weeks ago, talking specifically about The Conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer, and how the doxology which is “To the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen,” at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, is not original to the Greek manuscripts. In fact, doxologies were added on in both Hebrew prayers and in the early church. This was just an addition to the text by a scribe, that doesn’t change the overall meaning of the prayer, but was an addition. So, when we see things like this that say The Conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer was cut out in this other manuscript, it can feel like, “Oh, my gosh, they’re editing this, they’re changing things drastically,” when that’s truly not the case. This was an addition by a scriber copyist that doesn’t really change the meaning of things to the prayer, but facts are the Textus Receptus, we might be looking at other people saying, “Hey, you’re cutting verses out,” well, verses are being added in to the Textus Receptus. We’ve got to be fair here, we’ve got to look fairly. If you look in your Bible, if you have NIV or an ESV, and you’ve read John 8, you might notice that there will be a certain passage in brackets and it will say in the margin, or in the notes, this section not found in all manuscripts, they will make a note, certain parts of this book are not found in all manuscripts. That is how they compensate for differences in manuscripts.

I’m going to read you now the argument that’s not necessarily against the Textus Receptus, but it offers a different viewpoint. Here are some examples of changes to verses, added verses or removed verses that are caused by the Textus Receptus. “The phrase him that liveth forever and ever,” Revelation 5:14, has no known Greek manuscript support. Neither the phrase, “Of our Lord Jesus Christ,” in Ephesians 314, nor the phrase, “Who walked not after the flesh, but after the Spirit,” Romans 8:1 is in the better Greek text. In Luke 17:9 and answer, “I [unintelligible [00:25:03] is supplied.” In Matthew 6:13, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever,” is added. The words, “And he trembling and astonished, said, ‘Lord, what will thou have me to do?’ And the Lord said unto him,” Acts 9:6, occur in no known Greek manuscript. It came into the Textus Receptus when Erasmus translated the Vulgate in 1516. The added “if” of Second Corinthians 5:14, makes doubt of that which has no doubt for Paul, in Hebrews 11:13, and we’re persuaded of them is in addition. The word “not” Romans 4:19 missing in the better text makes in the KJV a negative of a positive statement. We love Him because He first loved us, 1 John 4:19 adds “Him,” and the addition changes the meaning of the statement. The so-called Comma Johanneum, 1 John 5:7, included in the third edition of the texts by Erasmus on a wager is now dropped from almost all texts without the courtesy of a footnote. No known Greek manuscript reads Book of Life in Revelation 22:19. The manuscripts have Tree of Life, Colossians 1:14, carried the phrase “Through his blood,” which is not supported by the manuscripts. 

The opposite side of the problem is that the text followed by the KJV revisers had lost certain phrases, which the discovery of earlier manuscripts has enabled scholars to restore to their rightful place. Examples of this are Matthew 24:36 that dropped, “Nor the sun,” Acts 4:25, lost the words “by the Holy Spirit.” Acts 16:7, lost the “Spirit of Jesus” and “nearly had the Spirit.” Romans 8:28, had lost God as the subject hence the KJV has, and know that all things work together for good to them that love God. 1 Peter 2:2, and the phrase “grew up into salvation,” “onto salvation” was dropped. This is just an example. This is again, from Jack Lewis, just an example of some of the changes that were made in the KJV due to the manuscripts used. This is not bashing the KJV, but we’ve got to be fair here. A lot of the accusations that are being made against modern translations by King James only churches sound very similar to what we’re seeing here. Jack Lewis has at least 5, 6, 7 pages of things like this that were in the KJV. 

With revisions, with updates, our modern KJVs, our modern NKJV especially, has been able to be more accurately presented. We have modern manuscripts that we can look at. But again, the NKJV is still working from the Textus Receptus. They’re just modifying those margins and modifying the verses to make sure that they are accurate.

Last couple things about this before we apply these facts. What about interpretation and paraphrase? The scholars who were interpreting this and doing this work, were they not doing any kind of liberty with the text, like people today are accused of? Translators today are often accused of taking too many liberties. Well, just modern translations, the KJV scholars had to do some interpretation to make sense of the Hebrew and Greek in English. There are multiple cases where they chose a word that made more sense for the sentence than the more literal translation, just as any hybrid functional dynamic translation would do. They were looking at the sentence and trying to bring it into the modern language of the time, understandable, not in Latin, while still staying true to what was being said. While it’s word for word, it’s functional equivalence, there’s still some paraphrase, if you will, having to be put into place in order to bring the Hebrew and Greek into the English language. It’s something to keep in mind when you are looking at translations, whether more modern or the King James Version, that all translators have to do this in order to communicate the truth of God effectively. 

Fortunately, most of the copy errors that we see in these manuscripts are very minor. They don’t alter the meaning of the text at all. They’re not changing the theology, but some of the errors like you saw with the Textus Receptus were changing, whether God was mentioned, whether the Spirit was mentioned specifics were needing to be clarified as opposed to the whole doctrine of Scripture itself. 

Hopefully, this gives you a little bit more to think about. I’m not here to convince you one way or the other, but I think that having the information about the entire story of the King James Version is very helpful when we’re having conversations with people. A lot of times in these conversations, people will throw out those big words and it’ll throw us off. If you say Textus Receptus at somebody, you immediately sound way smarter, and it’s intimidating, it’s like, “Well, I feel like I can’t have this conversation.” But if you know some facts about how translation works, and how the KJV itself was translated, you can feel more confident to have a gentle and respectful conversation with somebody who does believe that this is the only version. They never have to stop believing that, but they do have to understand, and you also, I think, should understand the facts about Bible translation, and the facts about why the King James was commissioned and what texts were used and how we have found older and many more texts that help us get the most accurate understanding of these beautiful words that we base our faith upon. 

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