Why I am Not King James Only (but still love the King James)


Throughout my life, I have used and loved the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. It is the Bible of my childhood, my conversion, my spiritual growth, my meditation, and my ongoing public ministry. I have memorized hundreds of verses in it (thanks AWANA!) that will stick with me through life. I have preached it all over the world and continue to have a deep affection for its beauty, cadence, grandeur, and memorability.

However, there is a difference between appreciating or using the King James Version and exclusively holding to the King James Version as the only acceptable or accurate translation of the Bible in English. For sake of clarity, I am using the label “King James Only” to refer to the range of views that lead someone to exclusive use of the King James Version based on a belief in the its superiority to every other English translation. These reasons run the gamut from the more reasonable to the radical, from thoughtful concerns about Greek texts to conspiratorial beliefs about a nefarious cabal of Bible corrupters.

I believe that the time has come to reject King James Only-ism and embrace the use of multiple responsible translations for both private, personal, and public ministry. The reasons are quite simple. First, the KJV is becoming less and less intelligible to modern readers. Second, the KJV is based on a narrower range of Greek manuscripts. Third, requiring the exclusive use of the KJV, while not commanded in Scripture, often brings division in Christ’s body. Sadly, an extra-biblical practice (the required exclusive use of the KJV) results in disobeying direct biblical commands, such as preserving the unity of the body in the bond of peace. 

Intelligibility: Outdated English  

The KJV, through no fault of its own, is becoming less and less intelligible to the world we are called to reach. Since the earliest days of Christianity, Christians have rightly understood the Great Commission’s call to include translating the Scriptures into the languages of the nations. Early manuscript evidence shows versions in the Italic, Syriac, Bohairic Coptic, and others. Why? Because Matthew 28:18-20 calls Christians to make disciples of all nations, a task that requires putting the Scriptures into the languages of those nations. Christians have always believed that God's Word should be available and intelligible to the nations of the world. 

Further, I Corinthians 14 argues from the principle that edification requires intelligibility. While the passage is dealing with the particular issue of speaking in tongues, it appeals to this foundational principle. If an individual speaks in an unknown language, unless it gets translated so the audience can comprehend it, no one is edified. Without comprehending the divine message, you cannot be instructed, edified, encouraged, or convicted. 

God gave us the Bible, not to obscure His truth, but to reveal it. And when He did so, He used human writers who spoke and used language readily intelligible to their audiences. The Koine Greek of the New Testament is (with few exceptions) the ordinary Greek of the marketplace, not the lofty Greek of academia. It was not Greek in its highest form, much less some kind of "Holy Spirit Greek." The New Testament writers spoke and wrote in the idiom of their day, aiming to use language that was basically accessible to an audience that included average people. Likewise, when the Bible began to be translated into English, the plea was for the Bible to be intelligible to the “plow boy,” that is, the least educated and least cultured.

So how does the King James Version line up with this standard? Simply, a 400-year-old translation cannot be expected to communicate with the same clarity in 2024 as it did in 1611. The English of today’s average speaker in Mobile, AL, is not remotely close to the English of the KJV. That’s not to say that it is completely unintelligible, but that is to say that it is sufficiently unintelligible to erect unnecessary barriers between God’s Word and the people we are called to reach. In the year 2024, we no longer use or understand the nuanced differences of “thee, thou, ye.” And the syntax of the KJV, while readily intelligible to someone in 1611, is unnecessarily complicated to someone in 2024. The KJV includes archaic words, words that we no longer know, like “besom.” To make matters more complicated, the KJV has dozens of “false friends,” words we think we understand, but whose meanings has changed significantly. We think we know what halt means, but it didn’t mean in 1611 what we think it means in 2024. The same goes for “let,” “offend,” “occupy,” and dozens more.

For example, “occupy till I come” does not mean “sit inside until I come,” but “be engaged in business until I come.” The KJV translators did not make a mistake; rather, the language has changed. James 3’s “we offend all” does not mean that Christian teachers just go around offending and angering audiences. Instead, this means, “We all stumble.” Once again, this is not a mistake in the KJV. Rather, the meaning of “offend” has changed, and our expectation that objects rather than subjects follow verbs has become entrenched. I could multiply examples of linguistic difficulty in the KJV, and my friend Mark Ward has done outstanding work in pointing them out. I commend his work to you. 

I have listened in Bible studies, classrooms, and small groups as perfectly intelligent, Christ-loving saints have stumbled through the KJV, evidencing the fact that they don’t quite grasp what they are reading. And yet, I have likewise seen saints read the same passages in a translation like the ESV without difficulty. I have heard believers admit that they had read the KJV their whole lives because they were supposed to, who have found joy and freedom in reading a different translation, and are now devouring the Bible because they understand it. 

Objection: Educate people up. Don’t dumb the Bible down. 

While some would say that the KJV’s beauty and loftiness of language is a positive and that we should educate up rather than translate down, this attitude runs afoul of the very impetus behind rendering the Bible into English in the first place. And contrary to the rhetoric of some, most modern translations do not “dumb down” the message of the Bible, they simply convey God's eternal words into the language of today. That is, after all, exactly what the King James translators were doing for their generation. Why would it be a problem for modern translators to follow in their steps?

Responsible modern translations don’t remove theologically difficult terms like “justification” or “propitiation,” nor do they paper over culturally challenging contexts. Numerous modern translations render the original Greek and Hebrew with precision, care, and accuracy. They do not and cannot remove the challenges that come with studying an ancient text. However, they can and do remove the unnecessary challenge of reading that text in outdated and needlessly difficult English. 

With all the areas of Christian discipleship we are called to undertake, why should significant bandwidth be devoted to training people to read a Bible translation that uses archaic English when other equally trustworthy options are available? Would not that time be better spent teaching people who to interpret the Bible, apply the Bible, and live the Bible? 

If the KJV were the only available, reliable translation, teaching the archaisms would make sense. But it’s not. Equally reliable translations are available. It’s ok to use them. 

Further, this objection is elitist. It requires Christians learn coded languages, an insider speak, to be able to get to the Bible. It makes education from the enlightened a necessary step to being able to read the Bible. 

Some people say, "We would never change a word of Shakespeare. Why do we need to change the Bible?" As good as this sounds, this objection forgets that, while Shakespeare was originally written in English, the Bible was not. It was written in Greek and Hebrew, and then translated into English. As the English text of the Bible is not the original text of the Bible, updating to accurately convey the Greek and Hebrew in more intelligible English is no more "changing the Bible" than translating it in the first place. This kind of rhetoric is a functional Ruckmanism, the belief that a single particular English translation is itself inspired and perfect. It assumes the very point it purports to prove. 

Those who offer this objection typically have had decades of familiarity with the KJV. They do not remember what it is like to stumble across complex syntax, unfamiliar words, and false friends in the text. Worse yet, many do not know what they do not know, wrongly equating familiarity with understanding. Requiring new Christians to read with the Oxford English Dictionary nearby to make sense of God’s Word is adding a barrier to understanding the Bible and placing a burden on their necks that the Bible itself nowhere demands. 

Accuracy: Greek Texts

One of the most common arguments, indeed for many, the argument for the exclusive use of the King James Version is the Greek text on which it is based, the Textus Receptus (TR). The TR largely reflects the Byzantine family of manuscripts which makes up the vast majority of extant Greek manuscripts (hand-written copies) of the New Testament.

While it is true that there are differences between the TR and the Critical Text (CT) that underlies modern translations like the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the English Standard Version (ESV), and the New International Version (NIV), most (though not all) of these differences are insignificant, and none ultimately determines a matter of doctrine. If you don’t read Greek, but you’d like to see what the translatable differences would look like had the KJV translators used the CT, take a look at this resource. You will quickly see that most Greek text differences have little effect on meaning, and most are the result of understandable copying mistakes made in the long hand-written transmission of the New Testament. 

For those who believe the TR is a better Greek text than the CT, the New King James Version is an accurate, updated translation from the TR, done by deeply devout and faithful scholars. Those for whom the Greek text is the primary issue should have no issues in recommending or using the NKJV for personal and public ministry, as it is based on the exact same Greek manuscript tradition as the original KJV, all without the archaic words and false friends. If the goal is to have an accurate and accessible translation of the Word of God, the NKJV is an excellent option. 

Objection: Modern versions delete important words, phrases, verses, and, in the case of John 8 and Mark 16, entire paragraphs!

Have you ever seen someone show a comparison between say the KJV and the NASB and point out the fact that the NASB “removed” the title “Lord” from “Lord Jesus Christ” and “DELETED” verses like 1 John 5:7? This is a very troubling assertion, given the Bible’s claim to inspiration and the warnings against tampering with its text. 

But is it accurate to claim that the translators simply deleted words, phrases, and verses they didn’t like? Or is there a reasonable explanation for the differences? 

A study of the Greek manuscripts (a discipline called "Text Criticism") of the New Testament shows that later manuscripts (900s-1400s) on which the KJV is based are slightly longer and smoother than the earlier manuscripts (200s-1400s) underlying modern versions. If the earlier manuscripts provide a more ancient and accurate text, that means that the allegedly deleted words, phrases, and verses were actually added over the centuries, and due to the power of tradition, made their way into the King James Version. 

Simply put, the KJV is based on a narrow slice of late medieval manuscripts, while (most) modern versions take into account earlier manuscripts like the great codices and more recently discovered papyri manuscripts, many of which date from the first and second centuries. If we believe that God inspired every word of the Bible, then we should value the contribution of textual scholars as they painstakingly compare manuscripts, weigh readings, and do due diligence to ensure that we are translating from the best available Greek text. 

Thus, in actuality, objective examination of the evidence shows that the words were possibly added over time, not deleted as is asserted. To declare them “deleted” is to assume the very conclusion you are seeking to prove.

So how were these words added over time? Pious copyists were unlikely to ever remove something from the text, but were more likely to smooth out the text in front of them or inadvertently resort to more familiar phrases as they copied out the text of the New Testament. Sometimes, they accidentally copied a phrase twice and other times they misheard a term and wrote the wrong term (for example, the plural “you” and “we” sound the same in Greek). 

If a copyist came across, say the Lord’s Prayer, he would be far more likely to add “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever, amen” than he was to delete it, as this phrase as included in the weekly liturgy, even though it was not in the oldest copies of Matthew. It is easy to see how this could have happened, without any plot or nefarious plans. 

The reality is that, because no two manuscripts agree perfectly in every detail, scholars must do the hard work of comparing manuscripts to see which words are original and which are not. The reason why a small handful of verses and phrases are “missing” from modern translations is because the evidence shows that these words were likely picked up along the way in the process of copying. 

If the presence of text variants in the manuscript rattles you, the good news is that no matter of Christian doctrine or practice is ultimately determined by any text variant. We should marvel, not at the presence of these mostly minor text variants, but at the surprising infrequency of them. God has truly kept His Word for us through faithful Christians copying it over the centuries. Text variants are simply the natural by-product of this process, most of which are readily resolved. We should celebrate the fact that scholars today have 5,000+ manuscripts to comb through, compare, and confidently conclude that they convey God’s Word to us today. 

Tradition or Truth?

I have no problem with Christians using the KJV—so long as they are truly understanding it. I am troubled by Christians requiring the exclusive use of the KJV for the simple reason there is nothing in the Bible that requires that we do so. We believe in Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone. If we are going to insist on a particular practice, we need either the clear teaching or necessary inference of the Bible for it. You can read the Bible cover to cover, and the only place you will find the term “King James” will be on the spine (thanks again to Mark Ward for this great phrase!).  

Nothing in the Bible tells us to use only one translation. Nothing in the Bible promises that God would convey His Word in a single translation in a single language. Nothing in the Bible declares that the text critical choices made in 1516 would be effectively inspired, or that translational decisions in 1611 would forever settle the English wording of the Bible. 

Stated simply, because it lacks any biblical basis, King James Onlyism is a man-made tradition masquerading as a biblical conviction, something our Lord denounced strongly in Mark 7:1-13. It is not wrong to have traditions and preferences, but it is wrong to give them the weight of biblical commands. This is done when the use of the King James Version is made a matter of official church doctrine and when individual consciences are led to believe that using any other translation is sinful. If it's a personal preference or an institutional practice to use the King James Version, that's fine. But be on guard lest the barnacles of personal preference or human tradition stick to the hull of biblical conviction and the two get confused. 

While the Bible gives no command that we use only a 400 year old translation, the Bible does require that we teach intelligibly (I Corinthians 14), that we not bind people’s consciences on matters of indifference (Romans 14), and that we refuse to divide the body of Christ over personal preference and traditions. Unfortunately, King James Onlyism violates all three biblical priorities. 

While KJVO brethren claim that those using up-to-date translations are the cause of division, I have yet to encounter brethren angrily denouncing Christians who refuse to use, say, the CSB, in their personal ministry. I have encountered myriads of angry, divisive, and fearful King James Only brethren who readily separate from those who read a different translation or look down on those who allow multiple versions in their ministry. By insisting that other Christians and churches conform to their extra-biblical conviction regarding Bible translations, it is the King James Onlyist who divides the body of Christ, not those standing for the intelligibility of the Scripture. 

Finally, while the Bible has no command that we use one and only one translation, it does demand that we present God’s Word in the clearest terms possible. This flows out of the Great Commission itself. For too long, conservative churches clinging tenaciously to the KJV for all ministry have inadvertently made the Bible less accessible to the world they are called to reach. When we do so, we run the risk of making “church” a club for the convinced instead of a lighthouse for the lost. Our mission demands that we use translations that make God’s Word as clear, readable, and accurate as possible. While we should never sacrifice accuracy for readability, we should never sacrifice clarity for tradition. 

Conclusion 

Maybe, like me, you love and use the King James Version. My appeal is not for you to discard it, but to supplement it with other faithful translations that will help you better understand God’s Word. The New King James Version is based on the same manuscript tradition as the King James, but avoids most of the challenging phrases in the King James. The New American Standard Bible takes a rigorously literal approach to rendering the text, and gives good insight into the underlying Greek and Hebrew structure, though sometimes at the expense of clarity in English. The New International Version is more dynamic in its approach, meaning that the translators attempt to render the author’s intended meaning, as specific idioms and Greek/Hebrew structures do not always translate well. As an aside, all translations must do this, but the NIV does it more than others. The result is an English text that is smooth and readable, but less transparent to the underlying Greek and Hebrew. The English Standard Version and Christian Standard Bible attempt to be Swiss Army knives of Bible translations, seeking to balance an “essentially literal” translation with smooth English. 

As this quick survey of major translations shows, they all have their strengths, and no translation is the “end all be all” for Bible study. If you are simply reading large portions of Scripture, the NIV or ESV might be the way to go. If you are looking to study the text closely, the NASB and NKJV might be good companions.

My plea is simple: make it your ambition to read, study, understand, and obey God’s Word. Don’t let a man-made tradition stand in your way. 

Comments

  1. Liberal!! Liberal!! Liberal! I’m sure your next post will be justifying why you have decided to leave the church.It starts with questioning the KJV and ends with unchained perversion.

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