Is the King James Version an historical landmark from which we have progressed further or has English Bible translation gone downhill since 1611?
Even before accuracy of translation features, what text is to be translated? One noticeable difference between the KJV and the modern versions is that, in the latter, certain New Testament verses are either omitted or have their genuineness called into question by a footnote. The most noticeable of these are Mark 16:9-16 and John 7:53 – 8:11, but there are many others on a smaller scale. Other verses are significantly altered, such as 1 Timothy 3:16 where ‘God was manifest in the flesh’ becomes ‘He was manifest in the flesh’ in the English Standard Version, or something similar.
The modern versions are based on different Greek manuscripts from those used by the KJV translators. As we do not have the original manuscripts that were physically penned by the Apostles, the text has been preserved through several thousand copies that have come down to us as scribes made new copies to replace those worn out through use. Most of these manuscripts belong to what is known as the Byzantine group.
This form of text was used in early centuries by the church. There are references to Mark 16:9-16 in church writers such as Justin Martyr (100-165AD), Tatian (120-180 AD), Irenaeus (130-200AD) and Hyppolytus (170-236AD). Other early writers, such as Clement (150-215AD), Terullian (160-220AD) and Origen (185-254AD) quote from now-disputed passages from this Byzantine text.
With the development of the printing press, a smaller group of manuscripts from within the Byzantine family (known as the Received Text) underlay the printed editions of the Greek Text of the Reformation period.
The earlier English versions, such as Tyndale’s and the Geneva Bible were based on this text as well as the King James Version itself along with Reformation versions in other European languages.
Another much smaller group of manuscripts, (‘Alexandrian’), were brought into prominence when Tischendorf brought two ancient copies of this text to light in the mid-19th century. The claim is that they are older and therefore more accurate.
Perhaps these old copies survived because they were not worn out by use, being viewed as unreliable. If the text can be amended on the basis of fresh manuscript discovery, then this isn’t only about the verses currently disputed. The whole text becomes permanently provisional since none can know that textual discovery has ended. No verse is immune.
Thankfully, God has not left us exposed to such vagaries. With the Old Testament, God preserved his word by means of his church (Psalm 147:19, Romans 3:2). We should expect him to do the same with the New. The true text is to be sought in the manuscripts accessible to the church over the centuries. God’s word has been “by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages” (Westminster Confession 1:8). And that pure text has been accurately translated for us in the KJV. What a treasure! Let us use it.
The Rev Silversides is minister of Loughbrickland Reformed Presbyterian Church and a member of the General Committee of the Trinitarian Bible Society, which defends and promotes the King James Version (though not the NKJV).