I recently had an encounter that reminded me of the existence of the “King James Only” movement. Spend a few years intently engaged in serious scholarship in theology and biblical studies, and you could easily forget that the movement is even there, because it’s a movement that is not relevant to such study. You’ll never see a reference to the movement or any contributions from it – but it’s there, and now in the age of the internet it has an audience like never before.
As it’s not the kind of issue that even a student of biblical studies is likely to encounter, let alone anyone else with a serious interest in studying the Bible, I thought I’d use this “nuts and bolts” blog to provide a basic outline of the King James Only movement. It’s a break from previous episodes in the nuts and bolts series, which have all been about subjects in philosophy, but I always said the series would branch out into other areas.
The term “King James Only movement” is a convenient way of referring to a variety of positions, all of which are marked by a special kind of regard for the King James Version (or Authorised Version) of the Bible translated in 1611. James White, author of The King James Only Controversy has distinguished five different such views:1
I Like the KJV Best
There’s an obvious sense in which this is not really a KJV “only” stance in the way that the others in this list are, as this is simply a matter of preference.
The Textual Argument
This is the position that the KJV’s underlying Hebrew and Greek textual basis is the most accurate, and so the KJV is better than any version that has a different manuscript basis.
Received Text Only
Here, the traditional Hebrew and Greek texts that were used to translate the KJV are believed to be supernaturally preserved. Any variation from the manuscripts that were used to translate the KJV is seen as a departure from the word of God. This is s stronger version of the textual argument.
The Inspired KJV Group
According to this view, the KJV itself was divinely inspired. The translation itself is preserved by God and as accurate as the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts found in its underlying texts.
The KJV As New Revelation
This group maintains that the KJV is itself the standard from which all other translations originate, and as a work inspired by God it may be used to correct extant Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. This view is often called “Ruckmanism” after pastor Peter Ruckman, who advocates the view.
This list does not quite exhaust the options. For example, Doug Wilson preaches from the King James only, and in this brief interview he explains that his reasons are 1) he thinks the manuscript basis of the KJV is the best (i.e. the “received text only” position), 2) He prefers the literal translation style of the KJV (although he accepts that some modern versions have this as well), and most importantly, he says 3) the ecclesiastical argument: The KJV was a translation carried out and owned by the church, whereas the copyright for modern versions is owned by big corporations. I was a little surprised to see this argument, since the KJV, as far as I am aware, was owned not by the church but by the crown, which owned – and still owns – the copyright.
Some people who hold to any one of the positions that might fit under the heading of “King James only” have taken exception to the use of that label. Donald Waite has called the label a “smear word,” and in recent conversation I was told by someone upset at my use of that term that it amounts to a “theological slur.” It’s true that people don’t like to be labelled. There’s a sense in which I don’t like to be called a “Calvinist,” but on reflection I can accept that the label is a reasonable one, largely for reasons of convenience. The same is true of some who hold the traditional doctrine of hell as eternal torment being labelled “traditionalists.” Some have indicated that they don’t like the label, but they nonetheless understand that it makes sense.
So too on this issue, the label “King James only” is neither a slur nor an attempt to smear anyone. According to a large heading at the website of the Dean Burgon Society (http://www.deanburgonsociety.org) (a group that advances the King James only position), “The God-honored Authorized King James Bible has been, and continues to be, the only accurate English translation of the inspired, inerrant, infallible, and preserved original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Words of God for the English-speaking people” [emphasis added]. Far from being a smear or slur, then, the term does nothing more than take advocates of the position at their own word. It is a fairly accurate way of summing up the fact that for some people, the King James Version and only the King James Version has a certain status among English versions of the Bible.
For a number of King James only advocates, the issue goes much deeper than the question of textual criticism or fine intricacies of linguistics. If only things were so innocent. For some, what we are seeing with the rise of modern translations is really a part of the grand scheme of Satan to corrupt the church and prepare the world for the reign of the antichrist via the one world government. One vocal author who subscribes to this school of thought is Gail Riplinger, whose books can be purchased from Authorized Version Publications
Her work New Age Bible Versions: An Exhaustive Documentation of the Message, Men & Manuscripts Moving Mankind to the Antichrist’s One World Religion lays out her defence of that rather extraordinary position on modern Bible translations. Comments on this book include:
G.A. Riplinger objectively and methodically documents the hidden alliance between new versions and the New Age Movement’s One World Religion.
If you only read one book on the version issue, THIS IS THE BOOK! It is so powerful – the devil despises it.
The well-known tract author Jack Chick too feeds this sort of conspiratorial view of modern Bible versions, publishing several tracts that specifically condemn modern Bible translations as an infiltrating work of Satan in corrupting the word of God. See his tract, “The Attack” HERE. In it, he depicts (in his cartoonesque way) the way that modern Bible translations are an “attack” on God’s truth. His website contains a section where you can purchase books that present what is described as “Information on Bible Versions,” but which is fairly obviously a polemic on why modern versions are unreliable and only the King James Bible is acceptable, featuring such titles as Let’s Weigh the Evidence: Which Bible is the Real Word of God? and Why the KJV is the Perfect Word of God.
Fortunately, the views of many advocates of the KJV do not resemble this sort of bizarre scaremongering.
The “received text” or Textus Receptus is the name given to the Greek New Testament, compiled by Erasmus, from which the KJV was translated.2 The Greek manuscripts upon which it was based – which came from a textual tradition referred to as the Byzantine family of manuscripts – are fairly late (as far as New Testament manuscripts are concerned), none of them earlier than the 12th century, and none of them were complete copies of the New Testament (there are older Manuscripts available in the Byzantine tradition, but these did not contribute to Textus Receptus). The incompleteness of the individual manuscripts is not a problem in itself, of course, if there are enough copies available so that the gaps will be filled in by other copies. However, this wasn’t quite the case for Textus Receptus. As the convenient Wikipedia article on Textus Receptus relates:
Typographical errors (attributed to the rush to complete the work) abounded in the published text. Erasmus also lacked a complete copy of the book of Revelation and was forced to translate the last six verses back into Greek from the Latin Vulgate in order to finish his edition. Erasmus adjusted the text in many places to correspond with readings found in the Vulgate, or as quoted in the Church Fathers; consequently, although the Textus Receptus is classified by scholars as a late Byzantine text, it differs in nearly two thousand readings from standard form of that text-type, as represented by the “Majority Text” of Hodges and Farstad.
Unfortunately, it was not just passages that were lacking in existing manuscripts that Erasmus adjusted. For example Erasmus added the notorious “Comma Johanneum” to the Greek text in his third edition, even though he knew full well that it did not exist in any Greek manuscripts that he had access to. It existed in the Latin Vulgate, however, and not to include it in his Greek New Testament could have been construed as an opportunity to accuse him of not supporting the doctrine of the Trinity.
This is not the place (and nor do I have the time or the inclination) for a very lengthy discussion of the discipline of textual criticism, but I take it as fairly well established that Textus Receptus is anything but the best representation of the Greek New Testament insofar as textual accuracy is concerned, and for that matter depending on the Byzantine textual tradition – on its own, at least – is a less dependable way to study the Greek new Testament than to use eclectic texts that draw on a wider variety of manuscripts – especially those that pre-date the Byzantine manuscripts that we have access to by centuries.
Technical issues of text criticism aside, however, part of the real problem that I see in the “King James only” stance is that it introduces an unnecessary and unhelpful bias. I have found in my own experience that in discussions over various possible translations of Greek sentences, phrases or words in the New Testament, the more strongly a person is committed to their King James only stance, the less relevant the evidence becomes. So long as a line of argument is available that results in favouring a translation that is offered in the KJV, no matter how strained that line of argument may appear to outsiders, that line of argument will be favoured. In effect, the KJV becomes the yardstick with which arguments about exegesis and textual criticism are assessed. For example, in what is actually a fairly common such list, pro KJV website “Dial-the-Truth Ministries” enumerates cases where the NIV differs from the KJV. The NIV reading is criticised in each case, not on the basis of comparison with the available Greek manuscript evidence, but because it differs from the KJV. Often this takes the form of containing fewer words than the KJV, where the KJV verse includes extra words of praise or an extra title for Christ, and the NIV does not. The explanation is given that the NIV is removing from the word of God (in fact at the top of the page there is a picture of a man cutting bits out of what is presumably the Bible). In other words, the KJV is being treated like “the Bible,” and any text that doesn’t include everything that the KJV includes is deemed to be subtracting from the Bible.
I make no secret of the fact that I regard the KJV-only stance to be an intellectual black hole. It is, in my view, diametrically opposed to the learning that can be had through the careful study of textual criticism, and it serves to impede progress in biblical studies. I do not think that it is merely mistaken, I think it does not even deserve a seat at the table of serious discussion about the Bible. I would like nothing better than for its advocates to be edged out of any and all scholarly endeavours, only to come back when they have set aside their absurd beliefs and are willing to learn. The fact that they currently hold the view they do is materially relevant to their ability to reason about exegesis, and as such this is not merely a bias, but it is the rejection of what is a genuinely harmful influence on serious scholarship. Since I have this view, it’s only fair that I link the reader to other resources to look further for themselves:
Bible Believers Resource Page
Chick Publications, “Information on Bible Versions”
The Bible for Today
The Dean Burgon Society
The King James Version Defended, by Edward F. Hills
Trinitarian Bible Society
Alpha and Omega Ministries – The articles section is currently being converted to a new format, so I have linked to the main page instead.
KJV Only Debate Blog
The KJV only issue
The KJV Only Resource Centre
Readers who are familiar with the issue are welcome to suggest further resources.
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- White, The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1995) 1–4 [↩]
- Nobody at all doubts this much at least. The KJV-only group The Trinitarian Bible Society notes: “Today the term Textus Receptus is used generically to apply to all editions of the Greek New Testament which follow the early printed editions of Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469?-1536), a Roman Catholic humanist, translated the New Testament into Latin and prepared an edition of the Greek to be printed beside his Latin version to demonstrate the text from which his Latin came. Erasmus used six or seven Greek manuscripts (the oldest being from the 10th century), combining and comparing them in a process in which he chose the correct readings where there were variants.” The Chick website, working hard to distance Erasmus, responsible for Textus Receptus (the basis of the KJV that Jack Chick loves), from the Catholic Church (which Mr Chick hates), says: “Erasmus, who edited the Greek text which was later to be known as the Textus Receptus, was an embarrassment to the pope and a poor example of a “good” Roman Catholic.” [↩]