The inaccessibility of the KJV

king-james-bible-trust-logoI had the privilege of being at Westminster Abbey this week to attend a service celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Along with Her Majesty The Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles, there were over 2,000 people assembled in a service which was the culmination of a year of events to mark this anniversary. The Queen herself had highlighted this anniversary in her Christmas message last year. In our own congregation we have been acknowledging this anniversary in our preaching series, Route 66, in which we have been preaching from each of the 66 books in the Bible.

The preacher at the service was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, not always the most lucid and easily understood when it comes to preaching. In his sermon he said that he believes that Christians should resist the temptation to make the King James Version of the Bible more accessible. Instead we should celebrate the determination of its translators to find words that express “the almost unbearable weight of divine intelligence and love pressing down on those who first encountered it.”

The temptation is always there for the modern translator to look for strategies that make the text more accessible. When that temptation comes, it doesn’t hurt to turn for a moment – for some long moments indeed – to this extraordinary text, with its continuing capacity to surprise us into seriousness, to acquaint us again with the weight of glory – and we hope and pray, to send us back to the unending work of letting ourselves be changed so that we can bear just a little more of the light of the new world, full of grace and truth.”

The main reason why many churches have turned to more modern translations of the Bible for use in public worship is precisely the reason which Dr Williams says we should celebrate.  Many believe that the language of the 1611 translation makes divine truth inaccessible to modern readers and hearers. The “inaccessibility” of the King James Bible, far from being an obstacle, is in fact one of its virtues, claims Dr Williams. Since “there never is an ideal or final translation ” of a text, we should not think that the KJV is the final word. But there is a weightiness and seriousness about the King James Version of the Bible that we should not lose.

In terms of our dress and our language in worship, we have become much more informal. That is not a bad thing. The increased informality of church life reflects key aspects of Christian truth, namely, that we are loved, and accepted by God as we are, because of Christ, and that we ought to reach out in love and grace to those who worship with us. Barriers and walls on both the vertical and horizontal dimensions have been removed by Christ. But most Christians will concede that there is something missing when we become too relaxed in the presence of God. Perhaps the continued use of the KJV in public worship would help us to appreciate the greatness and the majesty of the One who speaks to us from his Word when we assemble for worship, that it would “surprise us into seriousness”, as Dr Williams says. And there are aspects of God’s being and love that we will never grasp, and which the “inaccessibility” of the KJV helps us to appreciate.

But if the language of the Bible translation we use results in us understanding little of what we read or hear in worship, then nothing is gained. Paul himself commends intelligibility in worship. He says,”I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (I Corinthians 14:19).  The translators of the King James Bible themselves said in their words to the Reader, “Translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light, that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel.” The work of Bible translation is a window-opening, shell-breaking task that enables us to access sweet and precious spiritual truths.

We recognise that the King James Bible is probably the most beautiful and elegant English translation that will ever be produced. It has contributed so much to the English language. Lord Melvyn Bragg has described it as “the DNA of the English language”. Many of our contemporary English expressions were first coined by the translators of the King James Bible: “the powers that be”, “the apple of his eye”, “signs of the times”, “a law unto themselves”, “from strength to strength”, and “the writing on the wall”. Modern translations lack the elegance of the 1611 version because modern scholars are often more like scientists than artists.

Nevertheless, there are two major problems with the King James Bible. Firstly, in the 400 years since 1611, thousands of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts have been uncovered which are older and more accurate than those which were available to the translators of the King James Bible. Modern translations give us a more accurate understanding of the original words of Scripture. Secondly, the English of the 17th century is a very different language from that which we speak today. Both vocabulary and grammar have changed significantly. For many people, reading the King James Bible is like reading a foreign language.

That does not mean that we should embrace every new translation of the Bible that comes on the market. The danger of some modern Bible translations is that flawed human agendas can impose themselves and distort the truth of God’s Word. Recent controversies have highlighted the issues that arise when translators attempt to make the Bible gender-neutral or when they try to create a version which is acceptable to Muslims.

I was struck by the words of the Dean of Westminster, Dr John Hall, in his introduction of the service which accurately summarised the reason for our celebration:

Four hundred years ago this year, the King James Version of the Bible was published, the result of the commitment and foresight of King James I and the scholarly work of six companies of learned divines. Two of the companies met in each of Oxford, Cambridge and here at Westminster. It is fitting that we gather here to give thanks to almighty God for their work.

We celebrate the impact of the work on our understanding of the great story the Bible tells of God’s persistent and generous love for his creation and for his people. We acknowledge with gratitude the work’s lasting influence on our national language and culture and on the faith, language and culture wherever the English language has reached throughout the world. We give thanks for the contribution of so many to this year of celebration.

Above all, we pray that we and all people may continue to be uplifted and transformed by the great story the Bible tells, and may grow daily in our knowledge and love of almighty God who unites us now as we join together to offer him fitting worship.

As the service in the Abbey came to an end, it occurred to me that just over 30 years after the company of scholars at Westminster had completed their work on the translation of the Bible, another group of divines met in the same Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster and completed the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. As they reflected on Holy Scripture, they affirmed that while not everything in the Bible is accessible and clear, the important matters with regard to salvation are transparent.

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due sense of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

17 Replies to “The inaccessibility of the KJV”

  1. Stafford I noticed in your blog in relation to the King James Bible you said that there were two major problems with the KJB, quote “ Firstly, in the 400 years since 1611, thousands of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts have been uncovered which are older and more accurate than those which were available to the translators of the King James Bible. Modern translations give us a more accurate understanding of the original words of Scripture. Secondly, the English of the 17th century is a very different language from that which we speak today. Both vocabulary and grammar have changed significantly. For many people, reading the King James Bible is like reading a foreign language. “

    I am sharing some facts and fables regarding the KJV in relation to the two statements you made and hope they will be of help to both yourself and fellow bloggers

    FABLE: The King James Bible was revised several times before 1800, so modern translations are just additional revisions of the original King James Bible of 1611.

    FACT: The so-called “revisions” of the King James Bible prior to 1800 were to correct typographical errors and add notes. There were no changes in the actual TEXT of the King James Bible. The REAL changes (over 36,000 of them) didn’t start until the modern revisionists came on the scene.

    FABLE: The modern translations are more accurate because they have been translated from older and better manuscripts.

    FACT: It is truly amazing how so many Christians have bought into this statement without ever checking to see WHAT these manuscripts are, WHERE they came from, and WHO wrote them. It’s also strange that no one seems to be asking the question, “Has God honored these ‘older’ and ‘better’ manuscripts throughout Church History?”

    The modern translations are based on the work of two nineteenth century liberal Greek scholars from England–B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort. Westcott and Hort, who were deeply involved in the occult, hated the Textus Receptus Greek text, from which the King James Bible was translated, so they produced THEIR OWN Greek text. This Westcott and Hort Greek text was based primarily on two corrupt fourth century manuscripts: Codex Vaticanus (“rediscovered” in the Pope’s library in 1481) and Sinaiticus (discovered in 1859 in a waste paper bin at St. Catherine’s monastery at Mt. Sinai). These are usually the “older” and “most accurate” manuscripts that we keep hearing so much about. These corrupt manuscripts supply most of the changes to the KJV found in the new versions.

    The Vaticanus is considered to be the most authoritative, although it is responsible for over thirty-six thousand changes that appear today in the new versions. This perverted manuscript omits the pastoral epistles (I Timothy through Titus) with their instruction for Church structure and governance, the Book of Revelation with its exposure of Antichrist, and it cuts off the Book of Hebrews at Hebrews 9:14 (a very convenient stopping point for the Catholic Church, since God forbids their priesthood in Hebrews 10!). The attacks on the word of God found in these manuscripts originated in Alexandria, Egypt with the deceitful work of heretical teachers such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria. Then in 313 A.D. the Roman emperor Constantine ordered fifty copies of “the Bible” from Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesaria. Eusebius, being a devout student of Origen’s work, chose to send him manuscripts filled with Alexandrian corruption, rather than sending him the true word of God in the SYRIAN text from Antioch, Syria. So the corrupt Alexandrian text (also called the “Egyptian” or “Hesychian” type text) found it’s way into the Vatican manuscript, then eventually into the Westcott and Hort Greek Text, and finally into the new Bible versions in your local Christian bookstore. Therefore, when you hear or read of someone “correcting” the King James Bible with “older” or “more accurate” manuscripts, you are simply hearing someone trying to use an adulterated and Roman Catholic text to overthrow the God-honored text of the Protestant Reformation and the great revivals.

    FABLE: New Translations are needed to bring the archaic Old English language up to date. People have trouble understanding the language of the King James Bible.

    FACT: The King James language is NOT hard to understand. Most of the so-called “archaic” words are explained by the context of the passage or by comparing the passage with other passages in the Bible where the same word is used. In fact, the Grade Level Indicator of the Flesch-Kincaid research company says the King James language is EASIER to understand than the new versions.

    We certainly agree that the language of the King James Bible is a unique language, but why shouldn’t it be? It’s the WORD OF GOD!

    FABLE: The King James translators added to the word of God, because the italicized words in the KJV were not in the originals.

    FACT: The italics in the KJV prove that the translators were HONEST in their work. They set the words in italics so we’d know they were not in the manuscripts they were using.

    Also in relation to your statement that “For many people, reading the King James Bible is like reading a foreign language.“ some years ago a survey was done in America where children of 10 years of age were given verses from both the King James Bible and modern translations to commit to memory. Those who used the KJV had a 94% success rate as opposed to 43% from those children who used modern translations, proving that memorizing verses from the KJV is a lot easier than from modern versions, the main reasons being the structure and vocabulary of the King James language. It is much easier to commit to memory and the language/style of the modern versions is a major reason why so many children (and adults) today don’t know their bibles.

    Give ear o ye heavens and I will speak and hear o earth the words of my mouth Deuteronomy 32:1

  2. cmt – fascinating commentary but ultimately a futile argument. The key protestant and reformed philosophy on the bible is the accessibility of the scriptures, to the people, in a language they understand. Therefore the argument regarding the KJV versus other versions is totally sterile, because it fails to recognise the reformers demand, “in a language the people can understand” – there is no language that is “the Word of God”. The scriptures are the “Word of God” the meaning and the teaching, otherwise the entire world would have to read the KJV in the original 17th century English and that is absurd think about the applicability of the KJV to a Kenyan or an Afgan not to mention a 21st Century American or UK citizen. Anyone who seriously argues that the language of the KJV is easily understood should try and use it in everyday speech and communication. This is not a matter of learning or necessarily of poetry, though I do agree that the art of learning scriptures has been lost and the poetry may not be as good in the modern translations but the fundamental issue remains, the accessibility of the scriptures, its readability and ultimately the ease of understanding. There are enhanced by the modern translations. However we must not fixate on the human aspect of scriptural translation, surely we believe in a sovereign God who said “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” and this applies as much to scriptural understanding, as it does to all other aspects of the Christian lives, so it is God who will use the fallible and imperfect works of man, either in preaching or translation to do his glorious will, and in doing all the praise and the glory will be His!

  3. @Mark
    hi mark thanks for your remarks
    arguement in futility? you stated that the primary aim of the protestant and reformed philosophy is to give people the scriptures in a language they can understand ,I agree but what about the trustworthiness of the translation, surely if you are going to do some thing so important you would make certain that what the people got was the truth . thats why the translators of the king james version not only set about translation but made sure they used the most reliable texts. I mentioned therse texts in my original blog I noticed you did not remark on them or show evidence that these documents were not reliable .The trustworthiness of the text is the issue , so if you were to share the scriptures with a kenyan or an afgan or an american though you would not use the king james english version for the first two nationalities you would endeavour to use a translation from the original texts . Accessibility and readability are obviously important but more important is the text from which they were translated OTHER WISE YOU WOULD FAIL TO DO THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF TRANSLATION NAMELY TO CONVEY THE TRUTH. Compare for instance the niv and the king james and see the difference

    micah 5: 2 niv states that Christ had an origin
    kjv same verse states that Christs ,s goings forth have been from old from everlasting one version talks of a Christ who had a beginning , the other a Christ who is from everlasting ………which Christ do you think is capable of saving sinners???? which Christ would you present to your kenyan or afgan friend??? also you remarked that God uses men and that we must not fixate on the human aspect of translation “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” and this applies as much to scriptural understanding, as it does to all other aspects of the Christian lives, so it is God who will use the fallible and imperfect works of man, either in preaching or translation to do his glorious will, and in doing all the praise and the glory will be His”!…….read 1 peter 2:19-21 ” no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation ………holy men spake as they were moved by the holy spirit. God does not depend on mortal men to keep his word he does it by his spirit and he preserves it by his spirit. God can and does use fallible man, all the writers of scripture were such but God did not allow them to write his word in and of them selves …they were moved by the spirit the scriptures are not the result of the works of fallible man they are the living word of the living and soverign god …thats why he is soverign because He does not need man yet in his soverignty he chose to use him.

  4. cmt, the problem with your response is that being tied to 17th century language, mixed with 21st century understanding, the clarity and meaning is lost and misinterpreted. If the matter really is about sources, then a modern translation from the most reliable sources is the answer. Blindly and doggedly accepting and promoting a 17th century translation, with all the attendant issues is simply not credible. Accurate translation, in a language that is understood by the people is the only sensible and logic position for a reformed evangelical

  5. give me an example of the most reliable source

    difine accurate translation give me examples from both modern versions and the king james

    i am neither blindly nor dogedly accepting anything i have studied the issue and am asking you have you come to your conclusions as a result of study or of blindly and doggedly accepting what others have said without checking

  6. @cmt
    Alright cmt, for the sake of argument, what about the ESV? It doesn’t warrant the approval of King James (that well known upholder of reformed orthodoxy!) nor does it criticize ‘popish persons’ on the opening introductory pages. But, from my meagre study of Greek, it is accurate.

    I’ve never read a version of the Bible which appears to be totally consistent with Hebrew.

    So why shouldn’t we study the ESV? I’m assuming you’re opposed to it, which may be wrong of me.

  7. hi marty you say you have a meagre understanding of greek yet in the same sentence you say that the esv is accurate , how did you come to that conslusion ? i would like to hear your opinion as to why we should use the esv . at the moment i am studying the background to the translation and will comment on in presently but as someone who uses the esv (I presume ) would value your comments

  8. I think people are in danger of treating this debate on translations as one that centres on- old & new, ancient & modern, out of date & up to date type arguments. If we are to arrive at rational conclusions what people need to focus in on is the fact that we have TWO fundamentally different Bible texts. One of the texts is known under various names – Received Text, Textus Receptus, Majority Text, Byzantine Text. This Majority text has been used historically for nearly 1800 years prior to 1881 by the following within Christendom. The Churches in Palestine, Antioch, Northern Italy (157AD), Southern France (177AD), the Celtic church in Britain, the Pre-Waldensian church, the Waldensian church (120AD). The Byzantine period (312-1453AD) Greek churches. The churches of the Reformation all used the Received Text. Erasmus 1516, Luther’s German Bible 1522, William Tyndale’s 1534, French Olivetan 1535, Coverdale’s Bible 1535, Great Bible 1539, Geneva Bible 1560, Bishops Bible 1568, Spanish Version 1569, Czech Version 1602, Italian Diodati Version 1607, King James Bible 1611.
    The other text is called the Wescott Hort text or Minority text which made its modern appearance with the Revised Version in 1881. The text is named after the two liberal C of E Bishops who headed up the RV translation committee. This text differs significantly from the Majority Text. Most modern Bibles are translated from this Minority text. The Minority Text is based mainly on two 4th century manuscripts, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. Dean John William Burgon was a contemporary of Wescott and Hort and opposed their challenge to the Traditional Text of the Bible. Burgon was one of the C of E’s greatest textual scholars. He was one of the few men ever to have examined both the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus in person. Burgon described them as “corrupt” and “foul”. He found that the two codices disagreed with each other over 3000 times in the Gospels alone. Burgon was able to demonstrate that the maxim that “the Oldest manuscripts were the Best manuscripts” was patently wrong in the case of these two discredited manuscripts. Burgon also amassed over 2,600 quotes containing the Majority Text from early church fathers to prove that the Majority Text of the Protestant Bibles predated the 4th century Vaticanus and Sinaiticus manuscripts. Burgon stated: “ I am utterly disinclined to believe, so grossly improbable does it seem – that at the end of 1800 years, 995 manuscripts out of every thousand will prove untrustworthy; and that the one, two, three, four or five that remain, whose contents were till yesterday as good as unknown, will be found to have retained the secret of what the Holy Spirit originally inspired.
    History shows us that the Revised Version failed to replace the Authorised Version as the standard Protestant Bible but what Westcott and Hort did achieve was to begin a process which has had and continues to have huge ramifications for the Church and individual believers today. Most Christians who are sincerely studying their Bibles today are unaware of the fact that there are TWO texts to choose from. When those two texts are compared side by side major differences stand out for all to see. Time after time essential doctrines are watered down or totally changed by the deletions/emendations of the Westcott Hort text. To catalogue and comment on these many changes would fill several books. If we can briefly look at one vitally important area. At that Name which is above every other name: The Lord Jesus Christ. If we compare the Byzantine Text of the KJV with the Westcott Hort Text of the NIV we find the following:
    Lord is missing 39 times from the NIV
    Jesus is deleted a total of 87 times from the NIV
    Christ is removed 52 times from the NIV.
    Likewise, in the NIV, when we examine the “proof” texts which have historically demonstrated the Deity of Christ we discover that at least 38 references are diluted, changed or removed altogether. No wonder the Christ denying “Jehovah Witnesses” have stopped using the Byzantine text and now use the Westcott Hort text in their New World Translation.
    Jesus said: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” Matt 24 vs 35. When we compare the “red letter” editions of the NIV and KJV we discover that over 600 words of Christ have “passed away” from the NIV.
    Westcott and Hort held to a low view of both Christ and the Scriptures as can be seen from their own quotations below.
    Concerning the Deity of Christ:
    “He never speaks of Himself directly as God, but the aim of His revelation was to lead men to see God in Him.” Westcott,( The Gospel According to St. John, p. 297).
    Concerning the Scriptures:
    “I reject the infallibility of Holy Scriptures overwhelmingly.” Westcott, (The Life and Letters of Brook Foss Westcott, Vol. I, p.207).

    “Evangelicals seem to me perverted. . .There are, I fear, still more serious differences between us on the subject of authority, especially the authority of the Bible.” (Hort, The Life and Letters of Fenton John Anthony Hort, Vol. I, p.400)

    “Our Bible as well as our Faith is a mere compromise.” Westcott, On the Canon of the New Testament, p. vii.
    As a result of the schisms caused by the Westcott Hort text we are certainly now living in “a new period in Church history “where the subject of Bible translations can cause much disharmony amongst believers. Please understand that this summary is not about advocating King James Onlyism. If someone has genuine difficulty with the styled language of the AV then why not consider using say the Evidence Bible. This Bible modernises some of the more difficult words but all importantly (and this is the crux of the matter) the text it is translated from is the time honoured Traditional Text.

  9. I say meagre, because, I have been too lazy to keep up the study. But I can assure you that memorizing the ESV for a Greek exam will give any student a huge advantage. It is a literal word for word translation. Check out http://www.esv.org for all the detail.@cmt

  10. Philip, to take you at your word; then anyone using or advocating any translation of the bible post 1611, is encouraging the use of a corrupt and foul bible, tantamount to propagating potential heresy and a false doctrine! There can be no compromise; if you are right then this is a matter of supreme biblical importance, a matter of supreme biblical importance which means that any preacher, knowingly, using a modern translation from a corrupt text, should be opposed. Alternatively your views are an exaggeration and this is a matter of current debate without an agreed evangelical position.

    I personally find it hard to believe that our current biblical scholars plus the great evangelicals of today, particularly those whom God is blessing mightily are currently preaching and teaching using a heretical or corrupt text.

    As an aside, I find it interesting that your evidence is based mainly on the views and scholarship of one man, Dean Burgon. I further assume all the comparative evidence presented between the KJV and the NIV has been based on an acceptance that the KJV is totally correct and inerrant. I may be mistaken but to accept this position, and thus as a biblical imperative to reject heresy or corruption, I would suggest that a greater examination is required.

    CMT – as evidenced above an agreed accepted, earliest and most accurate text must be agreed before translation can occur and obviously this is not, nor will it be easy but if that can happen then the translation can begin. As for blindly following – I have only your word for your conclusions and obviously Philip’s critique as supplied but I am not persuaded further study is required.

  11. Congratulations to cmt and Phillip for injecting some creditably into this subject, it is obvious they have put a lot of work into their replies.

    Mark seems to have completely missed the point of the discourse which as Phillip has well pointed out that modern versions are heavily influenced by the Wescott and Hort text which is based on the discarded Vaticanus and Sinaitcus texts which were found to be untrustworthy.

    Mark and Stafford and all who find it difficult to understand the KJV Bible seem to be quite happy to accept the fact that as Phillip informs us, “Lord is missing 39 times; Jesus is deleted 87 times; Christ is removed 52 times in the NIV,” as well as whole verses and whole passages, eg Mark 16. 9-20 and John 7.53- 8.-11 that are missing in the NIV.

    Let us be brave enough to discard these imitations and all get back to God’s word; I finish with a verse from His word and God give you understanding,

    “FOR IF THE TRUMPET GIVE AN UNCERTAIN SOUND, WHO SHALL PREPARE HIMSELF FOR THE BATTLE.” (1 Cor. 14. 8)

  12. Sorry this is a late response but –

    James, on the contrary, I have made no personal assessment of the veracity of Philip or CMT’s claims, though I do suggest I find them hard to correlate with the views of the many evangelical biblical scholars and teachers.

    As for the accusation that I accept the removal of Lord, Jesus and Christ, I’m in no position to do so as I only have Philip’s interpretation and I haven’t been able to verify his claims.

    But my point remains and it remains fundamental to this whole discussion; the scriptures are the basis of the faith, if as has been suggested here that they are corrupt, contaminated or vile then discarding these “imitations”, as you describe them, is not enough – it is shadow boxing, it is cowardice. If you believe that the NIV does what has been suggested and denies or removes Christ for the scriptures, then this is not a matter to be treated lightly nor can it be a matter for pseudo academic discussion. Action is needed. If the modern translatons reduce Christ in anyway, then they should not be discarded they should be destroyed, where they are used Evangelical Christians should oppose their use and churches and preachers that use them should be shunned! Anything less is complicity.

    The only uncertain trumpet sound I hear, comes from those who claim that the NIV etc is corrupt and yet they remain in fellowship with, and under the teaching of, those who use such unacceptable texts.

    it is fundamental, if the scriptures used are corrupt then the teaching cannot be pure, if the teaching is corrupt then… “come ye out from amongst them”!

  13. Mark,

    You are quite right, if the modern translations reduce Christ in any way then we must take this seriously. In view of this, and in light of the comment by Philip that “Jesus is deleted a total of 87 times from the NIV”, could anyone link me to an article which demonstrates the way in which this has occurred?

    I suspect a quick ‘google’ will get us going – I’d thought of using the search criteria ‘Dan Brown’.

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