The KJV Translators Were Not KJV-Only
by Mark Ward
I trust all the major modern evangelical English Bible translations. I don’t trust any of them to be perfect; I don’t even trust any of them to be the best. However, I do trust them to be what they say they are: serious and sincere attempts by evangelical Biblical scholars to teach God’s words to God’s people. I trust these translations to try to live out the translation philosophies they say they have in their respective prefaces, from formal (or literal) to functional (or dynamic). I trust them to help me understand what God revealed to the world in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
The contemporary Bible translations that I’ve worked with long enough to trust them well include the following:
• New King James Version
• New International Version
• New American Standard Bible
• English Standard Version
• Christian Standard Bible
• New Living Translation
• New International Reader’s Version
• New English Translation (this I value more for its notes than its translation)
But if you toss this list, like so much chum, into the internet ocean, nearby waters will soon froth with people who do not trust any of these translations—and who don’t think you should either. The versions I trust they call “corrupt”: these Bibles have “omitted verses,” they have “removed the deity of Christ,” and they have taken unconscionable liberties with the pure words of God. They are the source of much that is wrong in the modern church. One leading critic of the Bibles I listed—a courteous British pastor with whom I have had brief correspondence—even opined that the decline of Scripture memory was “probably down to the proliferation of the modern English translations.” To some Christians, these translations can do no right. And I am decidedly not exaggerating, as many readers will know; I am working hard to represent these brothers and sisters in terms they themselves would use. I am speaking, of course, of the views of Christians within the KJV-Only movement.
But the saddest irony in the long debate over the King James Version is that the translators of the KJV, were they alive today, would almost certainly be happy to use the translations I’ve listed. As I have said before, so I say again: the KJV translators were not KJV-Only. I love and trust modern evangelical English Bible translations precisely because I hold the KJV translators’ views.
I love and trust modern evangelical English Bible translations precisely because I hold the KJV translators’ views.
Now permit me, I pray thee, to explain—in three points drawn from the wisdom of “The Translators to the Reader,” the preface to the 1611 King James Version.
1. No Bible translation can be perfect unless God makes it so.
KJV-Onlyists often tell me that the KJV is “tried and true.” And I am certain that they are right to trust this venerable translation. I, too, trust the KJV. I love it. I grew up on it. I quoted it without hesitation to a colleague mere moments ago; its language spills out of me like espresso from well-aged beans. But I don’t trust the KJV in quite the way KJV-Onlyists do, because most of them, in my experience, trust it to be perfect. They have found a secret verse in Proverbs that says, “Except the Lord produce the translation, they labor in vain that read it.”
I, by contrast, trust the KJV translators to live out the translation philosophy they, in their preface, say they have. They did not consider their work to be perfect, and I stand sadly but staunchly with them against their modern would-be defenders. This is what the KJV translators said:
[There is] no cause . . . why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current [“circulated”], notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it. For whatever was perfect under the sun, where Apostles or apostolic men, that is, men endued with an extraordinary measure of God’s Spirit, and privileged with the privilege of infallibility, had not their hand?
This is an elliptical and elegant way for the KJV translators to disclaim that privilege of infallibility. They argue that the only way a perfect translation can be made is for God to provide an analogue to the Bible’s original inspiration—special nudges from the Spirit that make translators choose all the right words and none of the wrong ones. They did not get these divine nudges, or so they say.
And if this is the case, then a whole lot of angst—and chum—can be drained out of the internet ocean. We don’t have to find the best Bible translation; we certainly don’t have to fight over it on Facebook. We can stay open to benefiting from all good translations, and we can view them as complementary rather than as competitors. “Because the Lord did not produce these translations, they labor well who read more than one” (2 Proverbs 45:55, MWB).
The KJV translators said in their day what I would say in ours: “All is sound for substance in one or other of our editions.” In other words, even if one English translation is a little off on one preposition in Amos 4:12, another one will get it right at that place—even more reason to use and trust more than one Bible translation.
2. Two Bible translations can both be good.
But how can we really trust any Bible translations if none is perfect? What good is Biblical inerrancy if translations aren’t inerrant? The KJV translators answer this question repeatedly in several ways, and they hint at their answer in the very first sentence of their preface. Here it is:
Zeal to promote the common good, whether it be by devising anything ourselves, or revising that which hath been laboured by others, deserveth certainly much respect and esteem.
“Revising”—that’s the key word here. What the KJV translators thought they were doing was making relatively minor improvements to something—in this case, the 1568 Bishop’s Bible—that was already good.
Truly, good Christian reader, we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new 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 principal good one, not justly to be excepted against, that hath been our endeavour, that our mark.
It’s difficult to explain to the uninitiated, to the monolingual, just how many minute decisions go into the translation of any document. Word choice, word order, verb tenses, genitive uses, literary devices, obscure idioms—the list is 1,611 pages long, because language is such an amazingly complex creation of God. So the KJV translators use metaphors that are more accessible to explain the revision process. They use a construction metaphor: they talk about “building upon their foundation that went before us.” They use a metallurgical metaphor: they say that gold shines “more brightly, being rubbed and polished.”
Was the foundation good before? Did the gold shine before? Yes and yes! Does revision work imply that the previous foundation was cracked or that the gold was actually iron pyrite? No and no!
So follow me here: one way the KJV translators answer the question of how we can trust imperfect Bible translations is to make the simple observation that a Bible translation can be good without being perfect and, hence, that two Bible translations can both be good. They use yet another metaphor to express this, one to which we will have repeated recourse:
Things are to take their denomination of the greater part…. A man may be counted a virtuous man though he have made many slips in his life (else there were none virtuous, for, “in many things we offend all”), also a comely man and lovely, though he have some warts upon his hand.
I’m not up on the names of many supermodels, but Cindy Crawford is one I remember from my youth. And I specifically recall that she was counted a comely woman and lovely though she had a mole upon her face.
So the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 was the Cindy Crawford of English Bibles: it was still good despite its minor flaws. The King James of 1611 was the Naomi Campbell: slightly younger and without a beauty mark. And that means there’s room today for the NIV to be Gisele Bündchen, the ESV Chrissy Teigen, and the NASB your great-aunt Ethel— beautiful in her own way. The Amplified Bible is a plus-size model. (Can I please stop this metaphor now?) The point is this: more than one translation can be good.
The Bishop’s Bible was the Cindy Crawford of English Bibles.
3. Institutions are collectors and stewards of the church’s trust.
My argument so far has appealed to the KJV translators to show that no translation is perfect and that more than one can be good—but it hasn’t shown that any particular translations of today are actually good. Why do I trust the (1) major (2) modern (3) evangelical (4) English Bible translations?
To answer this question, we must do a little “epistemologizing.” We must ask what the criteria might be for determining whether a given translation is trustworthy. Obviously, fidelity to the originals is practically the sole criterion. Does this translation say in English what the Spirit through David said in Hebrew and what the Spirit through Paul said in Greek?
But this only pushes the question back a level, because every significant translation out there claims fidelity to the originals. How can I know if this one, the one in front of me on the shelf at the Christian bookstore, is one of the good ones?
Let me suggest two common bad ways to answer this question before I go on to a good one.
The first bad answer is “Look at this error in modern Bible translation X! It CANNOT BE TRUSTED IN ALL CAPS!” Many people on the internet say this. And sometimes their lists of alleged errors go up to a dozen. And my answer is that of the KJV translators: perhaps indeed you’ve found 12 warts. But see point two. Given the sheer size of God’s Word—nearly 800,000 words in the KJV, for example—how many warts must be found before a given translation must be considered ugly? I’d say it’s more than a dozen.
I grant that the recent NRSV Updated Edition’s single choice to translate ἀρσενοκοίται (arsenokoitai) in 1 Corinthians 6:9 as “men who engage in illicit sex,” obscuring Paul’s clear condemnation of homosexuality, produces such a massive wart that, given the availability of multiple other good translations, and given the NRSV Updated Edition’s affiliation with theologically liberal groups, I feel safe in avoiding it.
But so, so many critics of modern Bible translations produced by evangelical conservatives present miniscule and rather disputable warts as proof of the perfidy of those Bibles—and I wonder if they’ve ever heard of the common logical fallacy called “insufficient sampling.” Unless they have a perfect alternative date for the dance, perhaps they ought not disdain to take Cindy Crawford just because she has a beauty mark. Indeed, they should feel blessed to have her; she’s still out of their league.
So many critics of modern Bible translations produced by evangelical conservatives present miniscule and rather disputable warts as proof of the perfidy of those Bibles.
The second bad answer might be called the “Because I said so” answer. Plenty of people in the internet ocean talk as if they just know when a Bible translation is good or bad. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it usually is—because how many people out there are qualified to judge the quality of an English Bible? It takes excellent knowledge of at least two ancient languages (Hebrew and Greek) and one modern one (English) to make such a judgment. And it takes sitting down and carefully checking a ton of examples. How many people in the world have this knowledge and experience? Comparatively few.
And even if you run into someone who has at least a goodly portion of this knowledge and experience, how can those without Hebrew or Greek knowledge verify that person’s scholarly claims? Perhaps he is a mountebank who pasted a Harvard logo on what was originally a University of Phoenix diploma he got on eBay.
This was a rather long lead-up to my point 3: the best way to know if a Bible translation is trustworthy is to look for the usual institutional signs of trustworthiness. A huge reason we have professional associations and vocational schools and certifications and degree requirements—all the trappings of education and training in every imaginable field, from automotive maintenance to horticulture—is that the layperson needs to know whom to trust. My taxes are done by an enrolled agent. I cannot fairly evaluate her skills as compared to those of Turbo Tax, so I look for her qualifications, qualifications given to her by various training institutions.
It is no different in the world of Biblical studies. Perhaps there is a brilliant but merely high school–educated English Bible translator who is languishing in a job as a forklift operator at the northernmost Walmart in Saskatchewan. But if no institution validates his skill, his Bible translation just isn’t going to be published.
The alternative is that no medical board examines the claims of the snake oil salesmen and all oncologists are self-trained— and we’re back to a situation in which nonspecialists must decide whether to believe individuals on their own merits, merits we’re just not fit to judge. We need the trust-collecting-and-stewarding power of institutions when it comes to Bible translation, and we have it in all the Bibles I listed at the beginning of this piece. Each is done by serious people who were vetted by groups of other serious people.
Not unlike the KJV.
The KJV translators were very defensive for their revision work, as their preface abundantly shows: they expected lots of gainsaying and other scurrilities to be arrayed against it (“Cavil, if it do not find a hole, will make one” is my favorite line in the KJV preface). They therefore appealed repeatedly to the authority of the top (human) institution in their world, the monarchy.
The KJV translators were very defensive for their revision work.
The KJV translators dedicated their work to the king after whom that work is now named: “The Most High and Mighty Prince, JAMES, by the grace of GOD, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc.” And in their preface, they make it unmistakably clear in multiple places that they’re working on his orders. There were multiple English Bible translations available in 1611, several of which had been authorized by previous kings. Why did the KJV become dominant? In large part because of the king’s power over the English-speaking church.
The KJV translators also appealed, though more subtly, to the authority of other top institutions in their world. They tried not to praise themselves, but much like Paul to the Corinthians, they had to magnify their office against skeptics. They likened themselves to Jerome, the most famous Bible translator in history, who said (and they quote), “We have learned the Hebrew tongue in part, and in the Latin we have been exercised almost from our very cradle.”This kind of thing does not happen unless someone has educational advantages. These were elite men in their day, men connected to the major institutions of higher learning then (and now) in England: Oxford and Cambridge.
To this day, the best way to ensure that a translation is trustworthy is to check to see if it was produced by a committee of qualified people from trusted institutions. And that, again, is what we have in all the translations I’ve listed. All the names and institutions responsible for the NIV, ESV, NASB, etc. have their own warts, as they will be the fourth to acknowledge. But they have no more warts than did the KJV translators, whose blemishes are simply difficult to see because there were no cameras back then.
The Conclusion of the Matter
I didn’t evaluate one single rendering of one single translation I listed in the beginning of this article. And I made this omission quite purposefully. I did it because the people who have the skill to evaluate and compare translations that way, the inductive way, already know who they are and don’t need to read my bloviations.
I’m speaking to the majority of Bible-believing, Bible-loving people—like me—who are not fluent enough in both Hebrew and Greek (my latter is better than my former) to make their own translation. That’s almost all of us. That’s William Tyndale’s plowboy. That’s certainly the man on the street, the uninitiated man of 1 Corinthians 14:24–25, who is also part of the intended audience for God’s Word.
God is the one who made it so that His Word would require translation. He is the one who made language learning after childhood so difficult. He is the one who withholds His Spirit from inspiring contemporary translators. He is the one who made perfect translation between languages otherwise impossible. He is the one who called not many wise and not many noble.
Which all means that you’re going to have to trust somebody to give you God’s Word in your language; that you should humbly look for trustworthy translators who have been validated by the best institutions of the day; and that, no matter what Cindy Crawford says, there is space in this world for more than one supermodel.
Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is the editor of Bible Study Magazine and author of its back-page column, “Word Nerd: Language and the Bible.” He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption (BJU Press, 2016), Basics for a Biblical Worldview (BJU Press, 2021), and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018), which became a Faithlife infotainment documentary. He is also the host of the Bible Study Magazine Podcast and is an active (read: obsessive) YouTuber.
- This article was published in the September/October 2021 Baptist Bulletin. Subscribe to the Baptist Bulletin or purchase a gift subscription. If you already subscribe to the print edition, sign up for free digital access.