The Folly of KJV-Onlyism

I suspect that some Christians reading this may be quite surprising to learn that there are churches that vehemently reject every translation of the Bible but the King James Version. This may seem to be a peculiar idea, but where I grew up in the Bible Belt it was not an uncommon notion among congregations from a variety of doctrinal traditions. In subsequent years, I have spent hours researching and much effort painstakingly addressing each aspect of this teaching, but I've learned that such an approach has little effect upon the faithful disciples of KJV onlyism (KJVO). This is because it is a belief system founded primarily upon feelings of piety and the subjective desires of its followers. Such entrenched beliefs are notoriously difficult to counter with rational engagement and evidence, but the persistence of this doctrine makes it necessary to do so.

The central axiom of KJVO is that every English translation of the Bible has been corrupted except for the KJV. To back up this assumption, KJVO proponents present several central claims. I will try to briefly address these core ideas thought what is found here merely scratches the surface

Claim 1: Other translations attempt to water down important doctrines

There are plenty of websites that list out all of these supposed compromises, and it would take hours to address each one, but the most glaring error of this attack on more recent versions is that it compares English translations with little consideration for the wording of the original languages. This is why you will rarely find an actual Greek or Hebrew scholar that supports KJVO. It is simply a rookie mistake to think that you can address the accuracy of a translation from a Greek or Hebrew passage by comparing English versions.

Claim 2: Other translations leave out passages of Scripture

This is not an entirely accurate claim, since most recent English translations don't completely leave out passages. There are, however, a few select sections of Scripture that appear to be missing from the earliest and most reliable manuscripts and as such, they are commonly annotated with a phrase such as "Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include..." or sometimes the questionable passage will be listed in the footnotes.  There is an ongoing debate over these verses, but the fact that they are identified shows that the translators want to be as accurate as possible. This is more accurate and upfront than simply including a verse in the English version because tradition says it should be there, even if manuscript evidence is sketchy. None of these questionable passages invalidate a core doctrine of Scripture that is established well by other unquestionably accurate passages.

Claim 3: The KJV is based upon better source manuscripts

This is one of the more preposterous claims of KJVO. In fact, the opposite is true. For example, the KJV and other Reformation period translations were based upon versions of the Textus Receptus. The Textus Receptus is the first critical edition of the Greek New Testament which tries to get to the original reading of the original Greek manuscripts by analyzing the places where manuscripts disagree using textual criticism.

The original version of what would latter be called the Textus Receptus was assembled by a scholar named Erasmus. While Erasmus’ work was ground-breaking, he had access to only six Greek manuscripts (though he had studied others), and none of them were complete. (He actually translated a portion of the NT from the Latin Vulgate back into Greek so that he would have a complete work – an unthinkable action by modern scholarly standards)

By the time the KJV came along, Erasmus’ original work had benefited from additional editing, scholarship, and manuscripts. By this time, from what I can find, the Textus Receptus benefited from somewhere in the ballpark of twenty manuscripts. An improvement, yes, and a sign that textual criticism was growing as a scholarly discipline, but by comparison, we now have thousands of New Testament manuscripts many of which are hundreds of years older and more reliable. (This is not an arbitrary claim. Through the science of textual criticism, modern translators have gone to great lengths to develop reliable methods of determining which manuscripts are the most reliable.)

I won’t get into a lengthy dry discussion of Alexandrian vs. Byzantium texts here except to observe that the Textus Receptus is also based upon a flawed assumption that a variation in a text that is found most often is superior to a text that is found in earliest manuscripts.

However, it is often important to point out that even if the source manuscripts (the Textus Receptus) for KJV are superior, there are a number of places where the KJV doesn’t follow any known Greek manuscript. For example:

Acts 19:37 – KJV uses the phrase “robbers of churches,” but it is actually “robbers of temples.”

Acts 12:4 – KJV uses the anachronistic term “Easter,” when the passage clearly references the Jewish Passover.

Isaiah 14:12 – An equivalent error in the Hebrew. It uses the term Lucifer, which is a Latin term, not a proper noun, and has no place in an English translation of a Hebrew text.


If the KJV’s source manuscripts are so reliable, why doesn’t it follow them?

Claim 4: Modern translations have been corrupted by the personal bias and spiritual inadequacies of their translators

This is simply an ad hominem fallacy, and if it were true would affect the KJV just as much as it would any other English translation. There is no denying that the personal biases of translators will have an effect on how they approach a passage of Scripture. That is why most reputable translations are created by a team of translators that can prevent any one person's bias from affecting the final work. KJVO adherents take it a step further and assemble elaborate conspiracy theories about how modern translations have been corrupted by everyone from Roman Catholics (Keep in mind that the KJV was translated by the Church of England, not evangelical Christians, and in fact the translators specifically translated certain passages to fit with Anglican teachings about the church and baptism) to Satanists. These approaches are not designed to be rationally compelling, but are, like many conspiracy theories, designed to play on the fear and angst of others. To anyone who has actually studied Greek or Hebrew, and can compare the original languages with modern translations it is abundantly clear that no such corruption has taken place.

Claim 5: The Methods of Textual Criticism are flawed

Textual Criticism (Not to be confused with types of "higher criticism" such as form, source, redaction, etc. These methods are based on many improper assumptions.) is the science by which experts take various Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and compare their variant readings and try to determine what the original author wrote. It is certainly not foolproof, but it is the most accurate method available for determining what the original writers of the Bible put down on paper. The interesting thing is that the editions of the Textus Receptus which were used in the translation of the KJV, were created by men such as Theodore Beza who was a pioneer of this science. Yes, you heard correctly. The KJV is based upon the science (then in its infancy) of Textual Criticism. So, if the very use of this methodology has corrupted modern translations we must logically assume that the KJV is corrupt as well.

Claim 6: If you truly believe in the infallibility of Scripture, you would be KJV only

Fundamentally, this is an argument based in fear. Many of us grew up in a world where "the Bible" meant the KJV. We got used to the "thees" and "thou's." It is easier to simply accept the one translation as the word of God, than to be thrust into a word where there are literally hundreds of English translations that must be evaluated for their merits. The solution? Create a doctrine that claims that the KJV is the only inspired word of God in the English language. Usually, this doctrine is established through clever rhetorical methods by asking loaded questions such as, "Do you truly believe that God can preserve his Word in an infallible form?" Of course, every Christian is going to answer in the affirmative, but this is simply a bait and switch. The question is not "can" God do something, but what did He do? The reality is that you run into some very difficult territory when you start claiming that any translation from the original language is infallible. Anyone that is familiar with translation knows that information is lost when you translate it into a different language. Even if we had the original manuscript in front of us, there is no way that a translation could be considered infallible and perfect. That is not the way that language works. The only way that you can have an infallible and perfect translation is if God inspired the translators in the same way that he inspired the original authors. So to claim that the KJV is the inspired, infallible word of God is to claim that God inspired the translators as he did the original authors. That belief is heresy by the standards of almost all Christians who hold that the Canon of Scripture was closed sometime soon after the twelve apostles died.


Claim 7: Modern translations use language that is too ordinary and does not respect the integrity of God's word.

This is a sort of last resort argument for KJVO. To be sure, there is always a tension between rendering a passage as close as possible to the original language, and rendering in a way that is readable by contemporary standards. (I will readily agree that certain translations are useful for certain things. For in-depth Bible study, I would never choose a version that uses paraphrases and that strays significantly from the actual wording of the text in its original language) What is certain is that the KJV uses horribly outdated language. I have heard some KJVO adherents brag about how their young children can read and understand the KJV, but there is a reason that we don't write first grade textbooks in Shakespearean English. We want children to understand them. As a child who grew up in a home that primarily used the KJV (though my parents are not KJV only and encouraged me when I moved to more updated versions), I can say that there are whole passages that never came alive until I read them in a language that I was used to reading and understanding. The truth is that the writers of Bible used language that was common to the audience, because they wanted to be understood. The New Testament uses Koine Greek, the language of the common man and not simply of scholars. Remember that one of the cornerstones of the Reformation was the availability of God's word in everyday language. Why would we saddle our children with a Bible written in a language that hasn't been used for hundreds of years?

Conclusion

This is a brief summary of some of the greatest issues with KJVO. Why though, should we take the time to address this issue? Is it really our concern if certain churches want to stick with the KJV? The problem is not so much that, as it is that this has become a divisive factor, and a point from which some can claim spiritual superiority over others. As a missionary kid, I can even remember my parents getting a letter from a person ending their support because we used translations other that the KJV. Really?! In a country where most people speak English as a second language, or not at all? Do we really want to require them to learn Old English to be able to understand the Bible? That is simply ludicrous. Like many other fringe doctrines that have wormed their way into the church, KJVO is a distraction. It's a way to consume the energy and resources of the church with meaningless pursuits.

With all of the genuine challenges that face the church in today's world, it's time to commit KJVO to the dusty recesses of history where it belongs and move on important issues. If by any chance, you are a KJVO person that has made it this far down the page, I will not question your motives, but I implore you to allow truth and Biblical reason to win out over feelings of piety and fear of change. There is way too much at stake - a world in need of a Saviour, and a church in desperate need of rejuvenation.

[UPDATE: READ THIS]

As I continue to come across new information and bad arguments on the KJVO side, I have updated the information on this page. If you are here for a simple overview of the discussion, the above should suffice. What follows are some examples of the problems that I see with using the KJV or encouraging others to do so.

Problem 1: The KJV is a technically inferior translation in comparison to modern translations


Here are some examples of bad translations in the KJV that have been resolved in modern translations:

Matthew 14:9 – “And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath's [1611: oaths] sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her” 

  • This passage should have oaths’ not oath’s. It is a plural possessive in the Greek. The updates to the 1611 tried to fix it, but the fix was also wrong

John 4:27“And upon this came his disciples, and marveled that he talked with the woman: yet no man said, What seekest thou? or, Why talkest thou with her?” 

  • Should read “talked with a woman.” There is no definite article in the Greek. Their surprise was over the fact that he was speaking with a woman in general, not this specific one.

1 Peter 3:1“Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives;”

  • First, “Conversation” has changed meaning in modern English, it means conduct, that makes the passage somewhat confusing.
  • Second, it should read “they may also without ­­a word be won…” The second use of “word” is clearly not talking about “the Word,” and there is no definite article in the Greek
Acts 12:4“And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.” 

  • This should read Passover, not Easter. It is an anachronism that is not found in the Greek.
1 John 5:7 “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” 

  • All evidence points to this passage being an error brought over from the Latin Vulgate - only very late Greek Manuscripts contain it.

Hebrews 4:8“For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.” 

  • Jesus and Joshua are the same in Greek, but this translation makes it sound like Jesus was insufficient to give rest. That is heresy.

Acts 14.12“And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker.” 

  • Should read Zeus and Hermes - for some reason, the KJV went with the Roman names of these Gods rather than the Greek names that appear in the text

Isaiah 14:12 – "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!" 

  • “Lucifer is a Latin term that doesn’t belong in a English translation of a Hebrew text. “Day star” is the more appropriate translation. The assumption that this passage is not just talking about the king of Babylon is something readers have imposed on the passage. The term lucifer occurs elsewhere in the Vulgate, but not as a proper noun, and never as a reference to Satan.

Matthew 23:24“Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”
  • Should read “Strain out a gnat.”
Isaiah 11:8 (and elsewhere) – “And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den.” 

  • Cockatrice was a mythical creature from the 13th century, anachronistic to the passage. It should be translated as snake or viper. The KJV translators were unfamiliar with the term and just put in their best guess.

2 Kings 22:14"So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asahiah, went unto Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; (now she dwelt in Jerusalem in the college;) and they communed with her." 

  • Should read “second quarter,” not “college”

Mark 6:20“For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.” 

  • Should read “protected” him, not “observed” him

Acts 17:22“Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.” 

  • Paul was complementing their piety, not insulting them for superstition, apparently the KJV translators couldn’t fathom that he would do that, so they made it into an insult.

Romans 15:16 “That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost.” 

  • The KJV omits the reference to priestly duties found in the original languages to obscure the idea of the priesthood of the believers, which didn’t fit well with their Anglican assumptions.


Reason 2: The KJV has a number of inelegant and obscure translations that aren’t helpful to modern English-speaking people.

Uses “Holy Ghost” instead of “Holy Spirit”

  • The word “ghost” has completely changed meaning, and most modern readers will think of the ghosts of horror films, etc. Spirit is a much better term.

Romans 8:16“The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:” 
  • The Holy Spirit should not be referred to as “it.” That creates confusion and the perception that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force.
1 Peter 2:17 – "Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king." 

  • Anachronistic. Most modern translations say “emperor,” because clearly, that is the particular monarch to which he is referring. 

Using the name Jehovah is confusing and unnecessary. Jehovah is a mispronunciation of the holiest name of God. Modern translations denote this name as LORD.
Numbers 23:22 – (and elsewhere) uses the term “unicorn.”

  • Modern scholarship agrees that these were real creatures, and not the mythical unicorn. Atheists and other skeptics have gotten much mileage from these passages, in attempts to prove that the Bible is mythological.

1 Samuel 25:22 – (and elsewhere) So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall 
  • This passage is troublesome in that it chooses English terms that are crude by modern standards, and it translates a passage literally that was clearly an idiom (acceptable in its time) for referring to men. Why should I have to explain to my ten-year-old what “pissing against the wall” is supposed to mean?
And, of course, the ever-present archaic term for donkey, a**. That is another conversation I don’t need to have with my children in the midst of introducing them to Scripture.

1 Thessalonians 5:22 – "Abstain from all appearance of evil."
  • All modern translations render this “form” or “kind” instead of “appearance.” That prohibits the common misuse of this verse out of context to be a prohibition on all actions that might appear bad to someone.
Acts 26:14 "And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks."
  • This verse has lost its original meaning in modern English, and could even be percieved as having sexual overtones.

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