History of the English Bible - Lesson 3

From the KJV to the RV

Daniel Wallace
History of the English Bible
Lesson 3
Watching Now
From the KJV to the RV

I. Problems

A. Text

B. Translation

C. Tradition


II. Manuscript Discoveries


III. The Birth of the Revised Version (1881)

A. A Revision of the Authorized Version

B. Nature of the Translation

C. Reception


This short class covers the history of the English Bible from the time of Wycliffe to the present day. The four lectures are just over two hours total. These lectures were given as a part of the Staley Lecture Series at Lancaster Bible College.


Preface: This is the third part of a four-part lecture that was delivered at Lancaster Bible College in March, 2001, for the Staley Bible Lectureship. We are hoping to get permission to post all of the lectures as an audio tape on the Biblical Studies Foundation website. Here are some audio of a Textual Criticism series Dr. Wallace has done. Dr. Wallace is available as a conference speaker on “The History of the English Bible.” If your church is interested, contact him at wallace@bible.org for details.

The 270-Year Reign of the King

Although some folks think that the KJV had no rivals until 1881, this is not exactly true. After 1611, Bible translation continued to be quite vigorous.

  • In 1703 Daniel Whitby did a paraphrase of the KJV.
  • Edward Wells, in 1724, made a revision of the AV called The Common Translation Corrected.
  • In 1729 Daniel Mace also did a corrected version of the KJV.
  • William Whiston produced his Primitive New Testament in 1745, changing the KJV in light of more ancient Greek MSS. He followed the Western text, thus producing the only English NT ever to be based on the Western text.
  • John Wesley made a translation in 1768.
  • In the same year, Edward Harwood produced a quirky translation, in which the Lord’s Prayer did not begin, “Our Father, which art in heaven,” but instead it said this: “Thou great governour and parent of universal nature.” Apparently, this was the first gender-inclusive translation!
  • The distinction of being the first woman to translate the Bible into English goes to Helen Spurrell, who in 1885 published a version of the Old Testament that was translated entirely from an unpointed Hebrew text—that is, a Hebrew Bible that only had consonants, no vowels.
  • Countless others also produced translations. Charles Thompson, Samuel Sharpe, Isaac Leeser, A. Benisch, J. N. Darby, Robert Young, Joseph Bryant Rotherham, Thomas Newberry, W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson, and Henry Alford all produced their own versions.
  • But there was a common thread through all of these translations that kept them from overtaking the KJV: each version was produced by an individual, not by a committee. Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury, published a revision of the AV in 1869. But he had no illusion that it would replace the KJ. His assessment of his own work reflects on the others as well:

“It is impossible,” Alford declared, “that one man’s work can ever fulfill the requisites for an accepted Version of the Scriptures.”

Alford in fact expressed hope that a Royal Commission would be appointed to revise the AV. Only a year after his translation appeared, the Convocation of Canterbury decided to start the ball rolling on a thorough revision of the KJV. Alford was a prophet! He was right on target on a short-range prophecy—so he passed the first test; let’s see how he did on a long-range prophecy…

Alford was not only concerned over the language of the KJV; he was also troubled by its inadequate textual base. He knew that the Greek text that stood behind the KJ was thoroughly inadequate (and we’ll talk about that later this hour). In anticipation of criticisms that would come from KJ advocates, he noted that many of these criticisms would be borne out of ignorance—from a failure to recognize that such changes were made “simply as an act of honest obedience to truth of testimony, or truth of rendering.” Alford argued that “a translator of Holy Scripture must be… ready to sacrifice the choicest text, and the plainest proof of doctrine, if the words are not those of what he is constrained in his conscience to receive as God’s testimony.”

In this statement, Alford anticipated and answered the criticisms of King James Only folks for the next 130 years! I guess he really was a prophet!

But apart from revisions and translations done by individuals, no other English Bible appeared between 1611 and 1881. This raises a question: How did the King James stay on the throne for 270 years?

There are basically eight reasons why the AV (or Authorized Version, as it is called in England) went unchallenged so long.

  1. Unlike the Geneva Bible, it was produced in England.
  2. Unlike the Bishops’ Bible, it appeared in both folio size and quarto size. It could therefore compete with the Geneva in the home as well as in the church.
  3. It was adopted and promoted by the Church—without the stigma of persecution (unlike the Geneva), and without the stigma of the poor literary quality of the Bishops’ Bible.
  4. It did not have lots of marginal notes from a particular theological perspective—again unlike the Geneva.
  5. It involved 47 scholars, an obviously impressive number that, in itself, would persuade many to use this version. The Bishops’ Bible had been translated by nine men; the Geneva by a small committee as well.
  6. It was excellent English (unlike the Bishops’), and was more lyrical and rhythmic than even the Geneva.
  7. It was a compromise translation between various factions within England—including High Churchmen and Puritans, and to a degree, between Protestants and Catholics. Even though it was ostensibly based on the Bishops’ Bible (to satisfy the High Churchmen), it really looked a lot more like the Geneva, and even borrowed from the Rheims-Douai. So everybody had something to like about the AV!
  8. Finally, it had the financial and political backing of the throne.

Essentially, the KJV stayed in power because of the mixture of political clout, religious compromise, and literary power. And that’s a threefold cord that’s not easily broken.

All this contributed to the longevity of the AV. But even with all this, it could not sit on the throne forever.

Problems with the King James Version

Two fundamental problems with the King James Bible began to surface in the decades following its publication—problems of text and problems of translation. And there is a third problem, not really related to the King James directly, but rather related to the perception of the King James Bible by its advocates—the problem of tradition.

1. Text Problems

The Greek text used by these editors was vastly inferior to that of modern translations. It was principally the Stephanus text of 1550 (third edition), which, in turn, relied essentially on Erasmus’ third edition of 1522. The Stephanus text was modified slightly by Theodore Beza who took the text through eleven editions. Beza’s 9th edition was used in preparation for the KJV. This Greek text, later known as the Textus Receptus (TR), misses the wording of the original New Testament in about 5000 places. Most of these places cannot be translated, but a few of them are fairly substantial. Once again, all of these Greek texts—from Erasmus to Beza—are essentially the same. They are all essentially the third edition of Erasmus.

To understand the history of the English Bible you have to know a little about the Greek text that stands behind it. Here are some of the facts about Erasmus’ Greek text.

  1. With the invention of the printing press and with Greek learning returning to Europe, there was a felt need for the first Greek NT. The rush was on! And the first one done would almost certainly be a sloppy production.
  2. The Roman Catholic priest and Dutch humanist, Erasmus, met the challenge. On March 1, 1516 he published the first GNT. Exactly 20 months later the Reformation would begin because Luther had read Erasmus’ Greek text. And when he read Romans in Greek for the first time, he was converted to Christ. In a very real sense, the Reformation began because of the Greek NT. Luther himself said that he never would have challenged the Pope without first reading the Greek NT. Sidenote: I know we are studying the English Bible and how important it is for our faith. But I want to turn right now and speak to the future pastors, the future Bible translators, the future theologians and apologists in this room. For you, the Greek NT and Hebrew OT are even more important than the English Bible. All of the Reformers—from Luther to Calvin, from Zwingli to Melanchthon—insisted on two fundamentals for any who would become pastors. First, they had to hold to the right doctrines—sola scriptura, sola fidei, sola gratia. But second, they had to learn Greek and Hebrew. This was not an option for any ministers of the Word. The battle cry of the Reformation was ad fontes—“back to the sources!” This meant back to the original text. For too long the Church had been enslaved to tradition and to biblical interpretation that was given to it by others. The only way to get past tradition, and to test anyone’s interpretation of the Bible was to know the original languages. Today, the learning of Greek and Hebrew are often regarded as non-essentials for Christian ministers. “It’s too hard.” “Just use the commentaries.” “Ministry is about people, not about the text.” I’ve heard all these excuses for years. It’s nothing new. The same excuses were used in the sixteenth century. Luther went into a strong diatribe against those pastors-in-training who resisted learning the biblical languages. And characteristically, he didn’t mince words. What he had to say then is still valid today. Listen to Luther:

    In proportion as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the [biblical] languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others. If through our neglect we let the languages go (God forbid!), we shall lose the gospel too. It is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish. When our faith is held up to ridicule, where does the fault lie? It lies in our ignorance of the languages; and there is no way out than to learn the languages. It is also a stupid undertaking to attempt to gain an understanding of Scripture by laboring through the commentaries of the fathers and a multitude of books and glosses. Instead of this, men should have devoted themselves to the languages. Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study [the biblical] languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. How sternly God will judge our lethargy and ingratitude [if we do not learn Greek and Hebrew]!

    It’s almost as if Luther had been sitting in on faculty discussions at half of our seminaries in this country! If you plan to go into the pastorate, I urge you to consider a seminary that has an unswerving commitment to the biblical languages. It is not all you need, but it is something that you cannot do without. One of the significant and terribly sad historical notes here is this: virtually every evangelical seminary that abandoned the study of the original languages has become unorthodox within fifty years. Back to Erasmus.

  3. Erasmus took his Greek text through five editions. All of them were Latin-Greek diglots, never Greek alone. The reason? Erasmus’ motive was not primarily to produce a Greek NT, but rather to prove that his Latin translation was an improvement over Jerome’s Vulgate (done 1000 years earlier). The Vulgate had been the authorized Bible of the western Church ever since its production.
  4. Because he was in a rush, he could find only one copy of the book of Revelation. And that copy lacked the last leaf, Rev 22.16-21. What was Erasmus to do? He decided to backtranslate those final six verses, from Latin into Greek. And as good as Erasmus’ Greek was (he was considered the premier Greek scholar of the sixteenth century), he still created seventeen (17) variant readings that have not been found in any Greek New Testament MSS (except, of course, for one that was a copy of Erasmus’ printed text). The most remarkable text is Rev 22.19: “And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” But Erasmus’ text had ‘book’ instead of ‘tree’ because the Latin had ‘book’ here: “God will take away from him his share in the book of life.” Erasmus’ text was thus quite defective here. The reason that some Latin MSS had ‘book’ here was no doubt due to the fact that the Latin scribes saw ‘book’ twice in this verse and they accidentally replaced ‘tree’ with ‘book’ in the middle of the verse. This could easily happen in Latin because the words were similar (unlike Greek, which has ξύλον for ‘tree’ and βιβλίον for ‘book’): the Latin word for tree is ligno and the word for book is libro. Thus, a two letter difference between these two words. The KJV repeated this error, giving rise to the possibility that the Bible teaches that one can lose his salvation (since removal from the book of life would be tantamount to loss of salvation).
  5. MS basis: about half a dozen, none earlier than 10th to 12th century. Today we have 5600 MSS, with some as early as 2nd century.
  6. The 1516 edition was called by one scholar the ‘most poorly edited book in the world.’ Erasmus himself admitted that it was pasted together rather than edited.
  7. The response to Erasmus’ efforts was not altogether positive. The Roman Catholic hierarchy complained that the Comma Johanneum of 1 John 5.7-8 (see below) was not in Erasmus’ text and thus his text must surely be defective. But Erasmus responded in the Annotationes of his second edition (1519) that he did not put in the famous text about the Trinity because he did not find it in any Greek MSS. Erasmus’ text read as follows: “There are three who bear witness—the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree.”
  8. Latin Vulgate (late copies): For there are three who bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three who bear witness on earth—the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree.” But these words of the Latin Vulgate were not found in any Greek MS until one was ‘made to order’ for Erasmus (who implied that he would not publish a NT with such words unless he could find them in a Greek text) in 1520 by a scribe named Roy, working in Oxford. It somehow was ‘discovered’ before Erasmus published his third edition.
  9. In the 3rd edition of 1522, the Trinitarian formula of the late Latin Vulgate MSS was added. To date, only four Greek MSS are known to have this reading (all from the sixteenth century or later) and four others have marginal readings to this effect. The source of the wording has been traced to a homily on the passage, written in the eighth century, in a Latin allegorical commentary on this text.

I would love for this verse to be in the original! But the doctrine of the Trinity does not live or die with 1 John 5.7! You recall that I quoted from Henry Alford earlier about his obedience to the truth of the evidence for the sake of Christ. He said: “a translator of Holy Scripture must be… ready to sacrifice the choicest text, and the plainest proof of doctrine, if the words are not those of what he is constrained in his conscience to receive as God’s testimony.” Alford was speaking of 1 John 5.7. He believed very strongly in the Trinity, but knew that the Trinitarian statement in the KJV here was added later. (The fact that these words were never used in argument with Arians in the early centuries of the Greek church shows that they must surely have been added later, and from the Latin tradition.)


This is Erasmus’ text: Half a dozen MSS, sloppily edited, six verses back-translated from Latin with no Greek support, and some verses added because of pressure from the Catholic church. It misses the original wording in about 5000 places. This is the Greek text of Erasmus; this is the Greek text that the KJ NT is based on.

There has been much emotional baggage attached to the verses in the KJV, both because of the cadence and lyrical quality of some of those verses (though often at the expense of an accurate translation ) and because of later additions made to the text as it was transmitted in the Greek and Latin traditions. Ultimately, what is needed of all Christians is a hunger for the truth. It is not that we have too little of the Bible (as KJ advocates argue), but that they have too much. Their Bible is 110% of the Word of God! Modern translations are often condemned for taking away from the words of Scripture, when in reality the KJV falls under the flip-side criticism of adding to the words of Scripture. Our goal should be to burn off the dross to get to the gold.

2. Translation

There were also problems in translation.

The 47 scholars who worked on the KJV knew Latin better than they knew Greek or Hebrew. Hence, it should not surprise us that they committed hundreds of errors in translation, especially in relation to the definite article (since Latin does not have one and Greek does). For example:

John 4.27 (“Jesus was speaking with the woman”). The point of the text is not that Jesus was speaking with the woman, but that he was speaking with a woman. First century Jewish law forbade a rabbi from speaking to a woman in public; he would even have to refrain from speaking to his own mother in public! Jesus, of course, did not follow such arbitrary rules, but his new disciples were unaware of this fact. The whole point of the narrative at this stage is not the kind of woman that Jesus was speaking to, but simply that he was speaking to a woman. Her nature as the “town naughty lady” would soon enough be revealed to the disciples.

1 Tim 2.12 (“I do not permit a woman to usurp authority over a man”). Many a woman preacher has said, “I am not usurping any man’s authority; the authority to preach to you today has been granted to me by the elders of this church.” That is an understanding of 1 Tim 2.12 that is based on the KJV, not modern translations. Where did the KJV get that notion? Not from Tyndale, since he translated this verse as follows: “I suffer not a woman to teach, neither to have authority over a man: but for [her] to be in silence.” The KJV here has “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” The key difference is in the translation of αὐθεντεῖν. Tyndale renders it “have authority,” while the KJV renders it “usurp authority.” From what I can gather, the verb did not bear the force of “usurp” until Chrysostom (fourth century AD) gave it that spin in his comments on this text. Further, “usurp” was not the predominant meaning of αὐθεντέω until the ninth century A.D. But since the word occurs less than 125 times in all of Greek literature (according to a search of the TLG database of 64 million words from Homer to A.D. 1453), the KJV translators were at a loss. Hence, they relied on Erasmus’ Latin (which, you may recall, he put forth as a correction of Jerome’s) of usurpare. Now the Oxford Latin Dictionary gives as the first definition of this term, “To take possession of (property) on one’s own initiative (and without strict legal claim).” Jerome’s translation, incidentally, was dominare (OLD gives as its first definition of this verb, “To exercise sovereignty, act as a despot, rule”). Thus, Tyndale’s translation was more accurate to the Greek than either Jerome’s or Erasmus’ (though Jerome’s was fairly literal, since there is no verb in Latin that is a cognate to either potestas or auctoris. Thus, if a verb has to be used, dominare is the most neutral term available and therefore the most accurate.) But the KJV translators knew Latin better than they knew Greek, so when it came to this verb they relied on Erasmus’ erroneous Latin translation rather than the true meaning of the Greek, thereby spawning generations of faulty interpretations on the role of women in ministry. And where did Erasmus get this notion? He was a Roman Catholic priest: he read the patristic writers. In fact, he knew them as well as he knew the scriptures.

It is a remarkable thing that many today read this text as though the KJV was the accurate rendering. But most modern translations render the term neutrally (cf., e.g., RSV, NKJV, NIV [“have authority”], RV, ASV [“have dominion”], NASB [“exercise authority”], etc. Remarkably, even the NRSV, with its strong bent toward inclusive language and egalitarianism [as in 1 Tim 3:2: “married only once” for “husband of one wife”] here reads “have authority”).

Titus 2.13: KJV reads: “the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour, Jesus Christ.” But this text employs a construction that can only mean that “God” and “Savior” refer to one person; it is one of the clearest texts in the NT affirming the deity of Christ. The KJV does not affirm this here. In 1798 the lay scholar Granville Sharp wrote a treatise in which he advocated a new translation of the Bible since the “common version” (the KJV) had incorrectly rendered the Greek here, as well as in 2 Peter 1.1. The point we wish to make here is not that the KJV is unorthodox on the deity of Christ! Rather, it is that in many places it misses the point of the Greek text because the translators were more at home in Latin than in Greek. Although some KJV Only advocates have quite unfairly charged modern translations with denying the deity of Christ because in a few verses such is not clearly affirmed (e.g., 1 Tim 3.16), frequency of prooftexts is not the same as affirmation vs. denial of doctrine. If one translation affirms the deity of Christ 300 times and another only 295 times, there can be no real charge of unorthodoxy in either case. Further, several studies have shown that modern translations have more evidence of the deity of Christ than the KJV does—yet no one is charging the KJV translators with unorthodoxy on this matter, nor should they. No cardinal doctrine depends on a single or even a few verses.

Not only are there hundreds of mistranslations, but also hundreds of archaisms or antiquated expressions in the AV. Many words were already archaic when the KJV came out. But by 1881, over 300 words in the AV had changed their meaning. “Suffer the little children to come unto me” does not mean “beat your kids so that they’ll go to church”! I often ask KJ advocates which dictionary they use to help them understand the Bible. If they use a modern dictionary to understand 1611 English, it simply won’t do. More sophisticated KJV advocates say, “The 1828 Webster.” That’s better, but still not good enough. 1828 is still closer to 2001 than it is to 1611.

Frankly, there is only one dictionary that you really can use to understand every word in the KJV: the 13-volume unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. For each entry, it traces the history of the word’s usage. To take but one example: 2 Tim 2.15:

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (KJV)

All modern translations have something like “Be eager to show yourself approved” or “Be diligent to show yourself approved” rather than “Study to show yourself approved.”

This is not a mistake by the KJV translators. They translated this correctly, because in 1611 English “study” meant “be eager,” or “be diligent.” But who would know today that ‘study’ in 1611 meant ‘be diligent’ unless they consulted the Oxford English Dictionary? My recommendation to KJV users—to better understand their preferred Bible—is to do two things: (1) Use the OED liberally as they study their Bible, and (2) get a New King James Bible to help them in the hard places. Nevertheless, one has to understand that the great value of the KJV today is the heritage of the English language and the beauty of this Bible. But as a study Bible, or one that is as accurate as can be, the King James comes up short.

3. Tradition

Finally, there is the problem of the perception of the KJV by its advocates. They often believe that it is perfect, and the only Bible that can properly be called ‘the Holy Bible.’ In this section, I will actually be defending the KJV against its modern-day proponents. It is not a member of the Trinity! The danger one has in putting it on a pedestal is that for many people, once it gets knocked off that pedestal, it is viewed less positively than it should be. We should have a very positive assessment of the KJV without elevating it to inspired status.

Sometimes this KJ Only attitude goes beyond all logic and dabbles in the realm of the absurd. In 1995 I was on the John Ankerberg show called, “What’s the Best Bible Translation?” There were three KJV advocates. Early on in the eight-part program (that was filmed all in one day) John Ankerberg asked them, “If a person in Russia becomes a Christian, are you saying that he would need to learn English in order to read the only true Holy Bible?” After a brief pause, the lead KJV advocate said, “Yes!” I wondered why I had been asked to be on the show after hearing that response. Not all KJV advocates employ such illogic however. Here are some of the basic arguments that KJV advocates use for this Bible’s status as the only Holy Bible, with a brief response:

  1. It is perfect. The translators were the best ever, the most godly men. But even the translators explicitly denied that the KJV was perfect in the original preface (which, unfortunately, is now no longer printed with the KJV Bible). They said, “perfection is never attainable by man.” They themselves said that only the original was inspired, that no translation was perfect or ever could be.
  2. All modern translations cause chaos because they are so different. If we all used the KJ, there would be no uncertainty about the wording of the text. There is no uncertainty anywhere. But this ignores the fact that original 1611 KJV had 8500 marginal readings, many of which expressed doubt about the meaning or wording of the text. On numerous occasions, they simply had to ‘flip a coin’ and put something in the text! The translators were humble men, who wanted to alert the reader when they just weren’t sure what the Hebrew or Greek text meant. It is only the omission of these marginal readings that has given some folks the illusion of certainty.
  3. No modern translation deserves the name, “Holy Bible.” But this is not the attitude of the KJ translators themselves. They said, “the word of God may be recognized in the very meanest translation of the Bible.” This would include the translations that came before them and the ones that came after.
  4. God has used the KJV for 270 years. No other translation has stood the test of time. No other translation has sold as many copies. This proves that it is the one and only inspired Word of God. But this is not true. The Latin Vulgate was the official Bible of western Europe for over 1000 years—four times as long as the KJV was on the throne! And the NIV has actually outsold the KJV—and it did it in one-tenth the time. Frankly, this attitude is remarkably similar to the attitude that virtually every generation of Christians has had when confronted by a new translation that challenges their ‘old favorite.’ It represents emotional baggage rather than clear thinking. This attitude of resistance to new translations was seen when Jerome produced the Latin Vulgate, when Erasmus ‘corrected’ the Latin Vulgate, and even when the King James Bible was produced! Those who know history know that it is the attitude of the ignorant. And as much as we must truly love these folks, it is also important that we help them love and learn truth. The incarnation of Christ demands no less of us.
  5. The language is exalted, elegant, beautiful. This Bible was written in the golden age of the English language—when English was correctly and properly spoken. This is the language that the Bible deserves to be in—Elizabethan English.

But the real language of the Bible was of a different sort. It was the conversational Greek of the day—the Greek that men on the streets of Athens and Antioch, Jerusalem and Corinth, spoke. In fact, it was known as the ‘common Greek,’ and it was a big step down from the golden age of Greek literature, the classical Greek era that ended 400 years earlier. And although there were artificial and pompous attempts in the first century AD to revive this classical Greek, none of the NT writers got sucked into this mode of writing. Their writing was clear, and simple, and connected to real people—not artificial and pompous. And the KJ translators explicitly tried to capture that. Their goal, in fact, was to make the text as plain and simple to understand as possible. They said (in the original preface):

[The Catholics have] the purpose to darken the sense, that [although] they must needs translate the Bible, yet by the language thereof it may be kept from being understood. But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself … that it may be understood even [by] the very vulgar.”

It is a great irony that today part of the reason the KJV is so revered is because it sounds so archaic, so other-worldly. It is the Bible that speaks in a stained-glass voice. But this is precisely what the KJ translators condemned in a translation! Their intention—which they accomplished for their day 400 years ago—was to make the Bible clear, simple, easy to understand.

All of these arguments have nothing to do with our Protestant heritage. Instead, KJ Only advocates unwittingly look more like Roman Catholics than Protestants. (And Roman Catholics of yesteryear, for nowadays many Catholics are embracing the need to learn the Bible, and the study the original languages.)

As you recall, Protestantism was begun when the Word of God became accessible to the people. Now, the KJV has become to today’s layman what the Latin Vulgate was to yesterday’s layman. Further, since people cling to it because it is traditional, they unwittingly embrace another Roman Catholic notion (tradition over Scripture). Thus, in two major respects (clarity vs. obscurity in understanding, and Scripture vs. tradition), those who cling to the KJV resemble (older) Roman Catholicism against the rest of Protestantism!

To sum up: There are two attitudes to avoid in dealing with the KJV. (1) We must not be so reactionary to KJ Only advocates that we despise the KJV! From time to time, I put an essay or two on the internet. Sometimes I discuss Bible translations. Inevitably, I tick someone off, usually someone from the KJ Only crowd. In fact, I average one or two emails a month in which I am condemned to hell! This happens to every Bible translator. Dr. Bruce Metzger got a letter one time from a New York cab driver which said, “I hate what you have done to the Bible! If you ever come to NYC, I will run you over with my cab, and then I will back up and do it again.” The letter ended with, “In Christian love” followed by the man’s name! This kind of attitude still does not give me the right to become sour on the KJV.

If you’ve got family or friends who are rabidly loyal to the KJV, the danger you have is arrogance and apathy. You might be thinking, “Aha! Now, I’ve got some arguments to use against my uncle Howard! Let’s see what he says to this!” But I urge you: don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater! If the AV is not all it’s cracked up to be, that doesn’t give you the right to neglect the Scriptures. And even though the Bible is not a member of the Trinity, the only way we can know God is by knowing his Word.

The Age of Discovery, the Age of Reason

What is it that finally overthrew the reign of the King James? It was essentially the discovery of new MSS. The KJ was based on half a dozen Greek MSS, no earlier than the tenth century AD. Today, we know of 5,600 Greek MSS—and some of them are as early as the second century AD.I won’t rehearse the details of these discoveries with you, because we’re out of time. But by 1881 the English-speaking world was ready for a new translation, one that was based on the oldest possible MSS. In that year, the Revised Version was born.

The Birth of the Revised Version (1881, 1885)

1. A Revision of the Authorized Version

The Revised Version was a revision of the KJV. It was consciously intended to be in line with the KJV—that is, a major revision, but based on the best and earliest MSS. It was thus the fifth major revision of the AV.

2. Nature of the Translation

This new translation was heralded as a very accurate translation. It was a good translation in representing the meaning of the original. But it was often too stilted; not the best English. Produced in England, though with significant input from American scholars. However, many of the Americans’ suggestions went unheeded.

3. Reception

You’ve all heard the old line, “Something is lost in the translation.” That is always the case. There is never exact correspondence in wording, structure, literary power, cadence, and emotive impact between two languages. What the KJV sacrificed was accuracy; what the RV sacrificed was beauty. The problem is, even if a translation is accurate, if it doesn’t get read it won’t have an impact on people’s lives. An old Italian proverb suggests the more beautiful the translation, the less faithful; the uglier the translation, the more faithful it must be.

The KJV is the beautiful and graceful matron of the family who gave birth to a homely daughter that kept pointing out her mother’s faults! And even though the RV launched a new era—the era of accuracy—the RV was a dismal failure. No one wanted to read it. The KJ was still safe on the throne for another 20 years, but the seeds of revolt had been planted. We can be grateful to God that we live at a time when there is an abundance of excellent translations. We don’t have to choose between an elegant translation that misses the mark and an accurate one that’s ugly. Tomorrow, we will see what our choices really are.

Enable us, Father, to love this book, to study this book, to read it, search it, embrace it. Forgive us for our apathy and our laziness. Give us a passion to know your Word, Lord, that we might know you.