Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

23 May 2012

Should Churches Abandon the King James Version?

Posted By


I suppose I should qualify that answer. A church should not switch from (abandon) the KJV to another version of the Bible if it would truly be harmful to the well-being of the church. But it is difficult to imagine there are many instances where this would be the result. Also, obviously, I don’t mean to imply that any church should be compelled by some external authority to make such a change. But I am saying, in general, churches that use the KJV would be better off if they made a purposeful change to a modern version. It would be helpful to both the pastor and members of the church to make the switch.


I believe there are two main reasons why moving to a modern version is beneficial. The first is the nature of the NT Greek text from which the KJV was translated in 1611. The Greek text behind the KJV is inferior to the editions of the the Greek text available to modern Bible translators. This is not a fault of the translators of the KJV; they simply used the best text available to them at the time. But in the last 400 years things have dramatically improved.

The KJV was translated from what is commonly called the Textus Receptus (TR), which is Latin for “Received Text.” For the first 1500 years of the church, all available copies of Greek NT were handwritten manuscripts, copies of copies of the original writings themselves. Today, there are about 5,800 of these copies, many of which are fragmentary in nature. While these copies of the NT are in general agreement as to what they say, there are differences, mostly minor, among them. But still, no two of these 5,800 manuscripts of any size agree exactly. It is necessary to carefully compare these manuscripts in order to identify the exact words of the original writers.

In the year 1516 the Roman Catholic priest Erasmus of Rotterdam published the first printed Greek NT. Sadly, Erasmus’ text suffered from two primary defects. Because of time constraints, his edition was, as he himself said, “thrown together rather than edited.” As such it contained hundreds of typographical errors, some of which have been perpetuated down to our day. But more problematic was the limited amount of manuscripts evidence available to Erasmus. While 5,800 manuscripts are known to exist today, only a few were available in Erasmus’ time. In fact, he had access to only seven Greek manuscripts, and none of these contained the entire NT. The seven included three copies of the Gospels and Acts, four of the Pauline Epistles, and one incomplete copy (missing the last page) of the book of Revelation. The earliest of any of these is from the 11th century—1000 years later than the original writings.

Erasmus produced five editions of his Greek NT. Since there were no copyright restrictions in those days, others copied and republished Erasmus’ text, with some modification. Theodore Beza, the successor of John Calvin at Geneva, produced nine editions between 1565 and 1604. It is generally accepted that Beza’s 1598 edition was the Greek text used by the translators of the KJV. In 1633 Bonaventura and Abraham Elzevir published their own edition containing an advertising blurb in Latin that claimed the reader could be assured they were in possession of “the text now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted.” It is from the words “text…received” that the phrase Textus Receptus is derived. We commonly apply the phrase to about thirty editions of the Greek NT from 1516 to 1678. None of these editions agree exactly—there are hundreds of individual differences—but given the number of words in the NT, all these TRs are very similar. [For more detailed info on the TR, see my article here.]

The problem with the KJV is that it was translated from the TR, which, as we have seen, was based on a very few, very late manuscripts. Today we have access to numerous early manuscripts, copied within a few decades of the originals themselves. We now have manuscripts from as early as the 2nd (possibly 1st) century. This means that we are able to produce a Greek NT that is acknowledged by most informed scholars to be much closer to the original manuscripts than the TR. It is this Greek NT, based on all 5,800 manuscripts, that is the text behind modern English Bibles like the English Standard Version (ESV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New International Version (NIV), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

All of this is not to say that the TR is a theologically bad text. The differences between it and modern editions do not affect doctrine in any way, but there are differences, and we naturally want our English translations to be based on a Greek text that is as close to the original writings as possible. For instance, in 1 John 3:1 the KJV reads, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God.” But the ESV reads, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” The ESV (and NASB, NIV, HCSB) add the phrase “and so we are,” reflecting the fact that we now possess very old manuscripts which add those words at this point in the text. The best evidence suggests that John actually wrote these words, but they apparently accidentally dropped out of the manuscript tradition. Although these words don’t ultimately change the message of 1 John, nevertheless, the user of a modern version like the ESV is in possession of a Bible that more accurately reflects what the authors of Scripture actually wrote. And that is exactly one key advantage of modern versions like the ESV, NASB, NIV, and HCSB.

In my next post I will discuss the second reason a church will benefit from switching to a modern Bible version.

7 Responses

  1. Perhaps your very good point could be made even more forcefully if asked thus: “If a church is using a Bible text written in a dialect that is hundreds of years out of date, and based on a manuscript tradition that represents a very small fraction of what has been available for a century, should it be replaced by one of several available translations done by godly men, written in a more modern dialect, and based on the modern body of available manuscripts?”

    Or more briefly: “Should a church use a translation written in a language spoken by ZERO people and textually inferior, or a translation written in the people’s language and textually superior?”

    1. Dan, it isn’t really accurate to say “the manuscript tradition represents a very small fraction of what has been available for a century.”

      The majority of manuscripts is more in line with the TR than with the texts underlying most modern translations. The “very small fraction” lies on the side of the modern translations.

      That small fraction includes our oldest extant manuscripts, one major reason they are considered by many to be better. But the majority generally supports the KJV text, primarily. That text was obviously used and accepted by the Greek-speaking church for many centuries. One’s view of the history of the text (and perhaps one’s view of the doctrine of preservation) is determinative as to whether one prefers that traditional text or a text which, for some reason, was not passed down and accepted through the centuries.

      Dr. Combs is consistent. If he is convinced those “Alexandrian” manuscripts are the best text, he should not use the KJV (or NKJV).

  2. Landon

    It breaks my heart to see a typical rehash of misinformation in this blog. There are too many speculative arguments contained here to be considered useful and accurate. For instance, the typical misinformation of how many manuscripts Erasmus had available to himself. It is only conjecture to presume manuscript evidence was lacking in Erasmus’ hands. We do, however, know that Erasmus continued editing his work, and advanced his research while he yet lived. But the “Textus Receptus” certainly did not end with Erasmus, nor would it be right to say his text was the sole basis for the KJV.

    Furthermore, today’s NT text is not really based on 5,800 Greek texts. Though the modern Critical Text notes variations in the NT, much of what exists does not make the basis for modern translations.

    Other than that, if churches feel the need to use a different translation, then God bless them in edification. I will always stick with TRish Bibles myself with the KJV as my absolute preferred Bible. Just to make some people mad though, I am not even convinced that the NT was entirely written in Greek in the first place. Personally, I think too much time is spent bickering over these matters, which really takes the focus off our Lord Jesus Christ. KJVOs and those dead set against the KJV are to blame for this nonsense. Where is the unity of the Spirit anymore?

  3. Brian

    There is one fallacious argument that keeps being proposed by those who wish to push aside the TR; that “older is better” or “older is more accurate” or “older is closer to the original.” Sure it is closer to the originals in “time” but that does not ensure their accuracy to the originals. Most acknowledge the differences that we have in the extant manuscripts. Question, when did those differences appear? They are just as easily to appear at the end of the 1st century/beginning of the 2nd as they are to have appeared in the 10th or 13th century. So the whole idea that those earliest manuscripts are “better” is just plain hype. Older doesn’t equate to “better” or “more accurate” or any other such statements. They are just older.

  4. Dr. Combs, I appreciate your kind, reasonable responses that you have given to my posts in another thread and I don’t want to be a pest but I would weary you with one more comment.

    Dr. Combs said: “I suppose I should qualify that answer. A church should not switch from (abandon) the KJV to another version of the Bible if it would truly be harmful to the well-being of the church. But it is difficult to imagine there are many instances where this would be the result. Also, obviously, I don’t mean to imply that any church should be compelled by some external authority to make such a change.”

    I do appreciate your sentiment of not trying to externally force a change in Bible versions–this is a matter for local congregations. However, I will take issue with your second sentence in the quotation. There have been innumerable instances of church splits in the South where a new pastor tried to change Bible versions. The battle was often so intense and heated that it created many hard feelings and much bitterness. It divided the people and polarized them into one camp or the other.

    Even in cases where the majority of the congregation agree, there are usually people who leave the church. From a pragmatic point of view, I am not certain your argument achieves its own standard of pragmatism.