Charmaine McRoberts, a former model who lives in Dromore, Co Down, is in no doubt that the King James Bible – or in her case the New King James Version – is still the best English bible available today.
What is different about her opinion is that she formed it after living in Greece for seven years and absorbing much of its culture and language. Brought up in Presbyterian and Church of Ireland traditions, six months into her stay she began to attend a Greek Orthodox Church. This is the church which believes its Greek New Testament faithfully reflects the manuscripts used by Greek churches throughout history. Greek was the most common language across the Roman Empire and therefore across the early church.
“I just loved it – the atmosphere and the myrrh going through the air. I found it amazing,” Charmaine said of the Greek Orthodox Church. She was determined to learn contemporary Greek while living there.
“It was quite a headache and it took me six months to get the basics. But now I can speak, read and write in Greek.”
She returned to Northern Ireland six years ago and, with her new competence in modern Greek, started comparing the different English translations of the bible.
“I compared the traditional Greek Orthodox Church’s New Testament with the New KJV and quite a few other English translations. And I discovered that the [New] KJV is the closest to the original Greek,” she said.
“The [New] KJV carries across the richness of the Greek Orthodox New Testament much better than other modern translations.”
She has met with a number of Greek and British nationals in Greece who have come to similar conclusions.
However Charmaine’s findings will not impress many academics. Today some 97 per cent of scholars in the field reject the family of texts to which the Greek Orthodox Church’s New Testament belongs, in favour of historically little-known manuscripts from Alexandria in Egypt.
There are two sides in what is still a heated debate. On one side there are KJV supporters who believe the traditional Greek manuscripts used by the Greek speaking churches down through history are the most reliable because they were the most widely used and trusted texts – and because they originated from the areas where the apostles started their early churches. These are known as Byzantine manuscripts, named after the Greek and Christianised section of the Roman Empire.
On the other side are those who favour a small minority of Greek manuscripts from Alexandria in Egypt, which make up around only four per cent of surviving Greek texts. These were not widely used until some 200 years ago but, their supporters argue, are more reliable because they are older and therefore probably closer to the original writings of the apostles.
The Eastern/Greek Orthodox Church’s Greek New Testament comes from the same family of texts as that used in both the KJV and the New King James Version (NKJV). In contrast, almost all other modern English translations rely primarily on the minority Alexandrian texts.
The original KJV translation was ordered by James I and is therefore also known as the Authorized Version, or AV. The aim of his 1611 translation was to forge unity between rival church factions. Although the 1611 KJV’s English has been somewhat updated since then, the poetic language is still clearly from a bygone age. The NKJV is based on the same translation and Greek texts but aims to modernise all outdated words. However, many purists feel it is inadequate and still prefer the older translation.
One interesting point is that the Greek Orthodox Church strongly supports Charmaine McRobert’s preference for the Byzantine texts, a small selection of which form the foundation of the KJV and NKJV New Testament.
Eastern Orthodox priest Laurent Cleenewerck from California edited the Eastern Orthodox Church’s first English language translation of the Bible, which was published in 2007/9. He affirms the special place of both old and new KJVs in his church. And he has previously gone on record to say that modern English translations based on Alexandrian texts are “generally prohibited” by his church “due to doctrinal bias and other aberrations”.
“Of course, the KJV is not quite a perfect Byzantine/Majority Text, so we are not defending that particular translation as the ultimate reference, but it certainly served well and is still commonly used in Orthodox Churches,” he told the News Letter.
Whereas the beauty of language in the KJV is widely celebrated, the validity of sources for its New Testament is still a hotly debated subject among experts.
Some people believe that the question of preferring either Byzantine or Alexandrian sources is not merely a marginal debate among biblical scholars, but that it can undermine core Christian doctrines. There are countless footnotes in most non-KJV translations which question the validity of many verses which were never in doubt in the KJV. Sometimes the traditionally accepted verses are removed from the passages altogether and transformed into footnotes (The New KJV can be bought either with or without such footnote references to Alexandrian texts).
Furthermore, some KJV supporters fear that the widespread rejection of the Byzantine manuscripts by English academics in the 1800s set a precedent which allows for the New Testament to be perpetually ‘updated’, depending on new manuscripts coming to light, and new academic theories about them.
The Rev David Silversides of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Loughbrickland uses only the KJV, believing its traditional Greek texts have been divinely preserved and cannot be legitimately updated with Alexandrian texts.
He said: “Either God’s Word has been preserved down through the ages or else we are left constantly depending on scholars of textual criticism to construct what they think is the most accurate New Testament, taking account of the latest manuscripts to be found and the latest theories about them. If that were the case, then the whole Greek New Testament would always be provisional and open to change. In our view that would not be consistent with the Bible being the Word of the Lord, enduring to all generations.”
But Prof James White from Phoenix, Arizona, who has studied all the issues in depth, believes the traditional texts behind the KJV and NKJV are weak compared to the Alexandrian texts behind most other modern translations. He believes that adopting ancient manuscripts just because they were historically favoured across the Greek speaking churches is meaningless.
“To be honest, it has no more meaning than the use of incense and censors in worship,” he told the News Letter.
“One does not determine the text of the New Testament on the basis of liturgy or tradition. And if we simply adopt a traditional text we [will] have done what the Muslims have done, who reject new light on the origins of the Qur’an. I want to know what Paul and Peter wrote, not what men a thousand years later thought they wrote.”
Mr White will not sacrifice what he sees as the complex but true facts of the situation for what he believes is uninformed “certainty”. He adds: “My Mormon friends do that all the time.”
“There is no question the Eastern Orthodox Church used the Byzantine text. It was all they had. They did not compare [it with Alexandrian] texts and choose it. It was simply the text they possessed.”
The Rev Silversides and Prof White do not agree on the issues concerned. Yet while the debate continues, many people on both sides agree that all doctrines can still be established from either manuscript tradition.
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