King James Version

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Title page of a 1611 printing.

The King James Version, usually shortened to KJV, is an English translation of the Protestant bible commissioned by the Church of England in 1604 and published in 1611 under the sponsorship of King James VI and I. The translation team was made up of a few dozen scholars who, rather than translating the work from the earliest known sources, primary plagiarized the work of existing English translations. Over time, it became the most popular English translation of the bible, and has become the most printed single book in history.

Personal

Growing up attending a Protestant-based Pentecostal Christian church, the KJV was always held up as the exemplar translation of the bible. Although the preacher's position was the best translation of the bible is the one you read, I heard from more than one member that the KJV was always to be preferred, and many Christians I have met with since have repeated as much. Even though my personal bible was a New International Version translation, I still also saw the KJV as being the best and asked my parents to buy me a good KJV for Christmas one year. However, as a Christian, I never read my KJV, and only skimmed through it occasionally. However, after I started identifying as an atheist, and began reading about the history of the bible, I began seeing many problems with the KJV. When I began my Web comic, The Blasphemer's Bible, I decided to use the KJV as the primary source due to the reverence awarded to it, and found lots of problems with it when reading it side-by-side with more modern (and more accurate) translations. I now view the KJV with a fair amount of scorn and find it to be one of the least-accurate translations and dangerously inaccessible to the modern English reader.

Title

Nobody referred to this translation as the King James Version at the time of its publication, or even decades after its publication. The book's title as printed in the title page of the first pressing is simply, "The Holy Bible." When an author needed to differentiate it from those bibles printed before it, scholars would either refer to it by its year of publication or as "the bible printed during the reign of King James." However, as more and more English translations were published, it became necessary to distinguish it from the others. The first known publication which identifies this book as the "King James Bible" is [Horae Biblicae]] in 1797, but it wasn't until the 1800s that the nickname saw widespread use in Western culture. The book is also commonly referred to as the "Authorized Version" (AV) or "Authorized King James Version," because it is one of the few translations officially authorized by the Church of England.

Authorization

The first English translation to be officially authorized by the Church of England was the Great Bible in 1539, then the Geneva Bible in 1557, the Bishops' Bible in 1568. The Vatican saw Protestant bibles being translated into English as a threat to their dominance, so they authorized their own English translation which resulted in the Douay–Rheims Bible whose New Testament was completed in 1582 and old testament in 1608. The King James Bible was published in 1611. There don't appear to be any surviving records of the authorization process, as many of the Church of England's records during this time were lost in a fire, but the production of the earlier bibles ceased once the KJV was published. It took many years before the KJV supplanted earlier bibles, as the Geneva Bible was especially popular throughout the English speaking world. Since then, most Christian denominations have fractured severely and there are now hundreds of sub-denominations, each authorizing their own translations, however, the KJV is still generally accepted by every Protestant branch.

Printing History

When the King James Version was first printed in 1611, English was a notably different language than it is today, both in its spoken and written forms. Each time a new print run of the KJV was made, the typesetters changed the book in order to bring it in line with the latest conventions of grammar, syntax, and orthography, however, due to the nature of manual printing, errors were introduced every time. Notable revisions in the print occurred in 1629, 1638, 1760, and 1769.

Some of the more obvious changes in these revisions include:

  • Hundreds of words had their spelling changed, some multiple times.
  • The letter j was introduced. The 1611, "Jesus" and "journey" are spelled "Iesus" and "iourney."
  • The lowercase v was swapped with u at the start of a word, but the reverse was true in the middle of the word. In 1611, "unto" is spelled "vnto" and "have" is spelled "haue."
  • The long s (ſ) was replaced with a round s. In 1611, "asses" is spelled "aſſes."
  • The r rotunda (ꝛ) used for an r after rounded letters was replaced with a straight r. In 1611, "for" is written "foꝛ"
  • The double oblique hyphen (⸗), used as an end-of-line word divider, was replaced with a single hyphen, and the acceptable locations for word division was very different. In 1611, if the word "morning" couldn't fit on the line, it could be divided as "mor⸗ning," but in later versions it would be "morn-ing."
  • The capital pilcrow (⸿), used to denote the beginning of paragraphs, was removed in later versions.
  • The et (🙲), was replaced with the word "and." In 1611, the phrase "🙲 called his name" would be written, "and called his name."

Popularity

Because previous versions of the bible were no longer being printed, it was inevitable that the KJV would become the most popular English bible among Protestants, and, although there are now hundreds of different English translations of the Protestant bible, the KJV still remains especially popular. Many Christians have taken the popularity of the translation to be a divine sign that it is the best version of the bible (some even argue that it's better than the Hebrew and Greek source material!). I think the version's popularity is a result of several factors.

  1. The Church of England didn't authorize another version of the bible until the 1900s, meaning Protestants would view any other version as heresy. This meant the KJV was the only option English-speaking Protestants had access to for around 300 years. Everyone attending a Protestant church had no choice but to read from this version and quote from it.
  2. England colonized much of the world, forcing natives to convert to their religion in the process. Throughout most of the time they were doing this, the KJV was the primary bible being used. This rapidly (and violently) made the KJV a world-wide phenomenon.
  3. By their very nature, religions appeal to tradition, and, with its long and wide history of use, the KJV is now viewed by many English-speaking Christians as the "traditional" bible, despite it being made relatively recently in the religion's history.
  4. The translation makes liberal use of poetic prose, and, when it comes to religious mysticism, poetic language is preferred.
  5. The now-archaic word usage adds to the air of mystery of the passages that many people appreciate. In fact, a lot of the translation was made using words that were even seen as old-fashioned at the time. For example the translators used thee, thou, and ye, but the word "you" for all three was already quite popular at the time.

Sources

Scholars have written that the translators of the KJV made no attempt to study early original language sources, even though, at the time, several would have been available to them. Instead, they mostly plagiarized directly from existing English translations and occasionally used various Latin or back-translated Greek sources.

The primary source of the KJV translation was from existing English translations, particularly the Bishop's Bible, and, to a lesser extent, the Geneva Bible. However, the majority of both bibles were plagiarized word-for-word from William Tyndale's bible. His 1500s bible was the first Modern English translation (and he was executed by Christians for making it). With the two largest sources of the KJV translators both used Tyndale's translation as their primary source, an estimated 83% of the New Testament and 76% of the old testament of the KJV is identical to Tyndale's bible. Tyndale used a variety of sources in his translation, but doesn't appear to have had access to any early Greek or Hebrew manuscripts. For the New Testament, he used the Textus Receptus, a Greek book compiled from a variety of older Greek manuscripts, none older than the 11th century, and most of which were back-translated from Latin translations. To help recreate the earlier Greek, Tyndale also used the Latin equivalent of the Textus Receptus and Martin Luther's German translation. Tyndale also used a Vulgate, an updated version of a Vetus Latina, an Old Latin translation of earlier unknown Greek manuscripts. Tyndale's old testament sources aren't as well documented, but scholars guess he used either a Polyglot Bible, some other Hebrew source, or the Septuagint.

Where KJV translators diverged from Tyndale in the old testament books, they didn't use the most accurate Hebrew source of the day (which was the Masoretic Text, 1000 BCE), but rather the Ben Hayyim edition of the Mikraot Gedolot which was written in 1525 CE and has many differences from the oldest known Hebrew sources which date back around 200 BCE. Where the KJV diverged from the New Testament, the translators used Theodore Beza's New Testament which was written in Greek and contained side-by-side comparisons with the Vulgate. The source of Beza's New Testament is unknown, but it couldn't have been any of the the hundreds of ancient Greek manuscripts now available because they hadn't been discovered at the time.

In the book's preface, the translators also claim to have sourced from bibles translated into Chaldee, Hebrew, Syrian, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, and German, and specifically the Peshitta and Plantin Polyglot. The also criticize the Catholic Douay–Rheims Bible even though scholars note that they used it for source material.

Criticisms

Sources

Today, most Christian scholars are in agreement that the Alexandrian text-type sources, which are the oldest surviving New Testament sources, are the best sources of the New Testament. The translators of the KJV did not use any of them. For the old testament, most Christian scholars prefer the Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls (which are the oldest surviving manuscripts) as source material. The translators of the KJV didn't use any of them. Lay-Christians may believe because the KJV is so old the authors had access to source material that we no longer do, paradoxically, the opposite is true. Modern Christians have put forth much more effort to find and preserve older manuscripts, so today's collection of ancient documents vastly exceeds that of the 1600s. Also, as is made obvious from the lazy approach of the KJV's translators, even if they did have access to fantastic sources, they wouldn't have used them.

Accuracy

In addition to using poor source material, the KJV was also the result of religious politics which resulted in a less accurate translation. There are several clear examples of pious fraud where the translators injected the dogma of their religion over another. Fox example:

Passage Notes
I John 5:7–8 This is the infamous Comma Johanneum which is included in the First Epistle of John. This passage is fully excluded from most modern translations because it doesn't exist in any early manuscripts. It appears to have been added by early Catholics in order to add weight to their trinitarian views.
Isiah 7:14 The Hebrew word alma which means "young woman" is translated in the KJV as "virgin." Modern translations favor the more accurate translation. Jews never believed this word was intended to mean virgin, as they already have a word for that, and they don't ascribe this passage as a prophecy for Jesus either, so they see this as an attempt by Christians to hijack their religion.
Psalm 22:16 In Hebrew, this verse describes hands and feet being injured, but the KJV (and most subsequent translations) specifically use the word "pierced" to allude to the crucifixion of Jesus.

Modern bibles tend to make liberal use of footnotes for various reasons such as pointing out when the sources conflict or highlighting an ambiguous translation. While the KJV does make heavy use of footnotes, the translators were very selective in how they are used and nothing that might actually call Protestant doctrine into question is ever noted. For example, there are hundreds of passages where all the sources are in disagreement, and known fraudulent additions like the adulterous woman in the Gospel of John and the three endings to the Gospel of Mark). These all go unmentioned, so the reader never knows just how dubious the passages are. Likewise, some areas of ambiguous translation have a footnote, but the sheer scope of untranslatable words is downplayed dramatically.

Readability

I find that modern Christians who prefer the writing style of the KJV give two main reasons, first, it uses a more poetic writing style than modern translations, and, second, it uses an archaic writing style. However, both of these preferences introduce problems.

Indeed, the translators valued readability over accuracy, but this is a bug, not a feature. I don't argue that it results in prose that is more memorable and impactful, but, by its very nature, it can't convey the source text as accurately. Consider Romans 5:2-3 where the KJV reads, "By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;" Both of the bold words are identical in the Greek source: καυχώμεθα (kaukhṓmetha), and should therefore be identical in the translation. A more scholarly translation, the NSRV, keeps them the same, "through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,"

Because the language is so archaic, the KJV is frequently misunderstood by modern readers. Unless a person has been formally educated in 1600s English, they will get the wrong impression in a large number of sentences throughout the KJV. See the list of misunderstood words in the King James Bible.

Also, unless they actually have a 1611 manuscript in front of them (or facsimile), readers are not reading an original 1611 printing, but rather a modern equivalent. The 1611 printing uses archaic orthography so different from modern English that a lot of people assume it is a different language when they first see it. For example, below are comparisons between a first edition 1611 printing and a modern printing.

Poor Translation

Although the translators could read Hebrew and Greek, they clearly did not know the cultures very well as they left a lot of figures of speech in their literal form. Subsequent translators actually consulted native Hebrew and Greek scholars were able to offer more meaningful translations of these idioms. For example:

Passage King James Version New Living Translation
II Kings 9:8 "For the whole house of Ahab shall perish: and I will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel." "The entire family of Ahab must be wiped out. I will destroy every one of his male descendants, slave and free alike, anywhere in Israel."
Ecclesiastes 12:11 "The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd." "The words of the wise are like cattle prods--painful but helpful. Their collected sayings are like a nail-studded stick with which a shepherd drives the sheep."
II Corinthians 6:12 "Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels." "There is no lack of love on our part, but you have withheld your love from us."
II Thessalonians 2:7 "For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way." "For this lawlessness is already at work secretly, and it will remain secret until the one who is holding it back' steps out of the way."

Also, a lot of the translations of the more esoteric words are demonstrably wrong. For example:

Word KJV Example Notes
nephilim giants Genesis 6:4 The actual definition is unknown, and probably refers to "fallen ones," or "ones who make others fall."
tachash badger Exodus 25:5 From the way it's described, it probably refers to a porpoise.
pitdah topaz Exodus 28:17-20 Unlikely as the gemstone was unknown in the Middle East when Exodus was written. There are 11 other examples of similarly mistranslated stones in the surrounding passages. Likewise, when you see lists of translated clean and unclean animals (like Leviticus 11:13-19, 11:29), many of the animals are wild guesses.
tachra habergeon Exodus 28:32 A habergeon is a mail shirt, but mail wasn't invented when this passage was written, so it can't be correct. The actual definition is unknown.
tamim perfect Genesis 17:1 In this passage, "perfect," refers to a human and not Yahweh, therefore, it is either the wrong translation, or the KJV is claiming that humans can be perfect.
re'em unicorn Psalms 92:10 Modern scholars suggest the author was writing about an aurochs. If the translation is correct, it must mean that unicorns are real (actually, some Christians believe in unicorns because of this passage!).
sa'iyr satyr Isaiah 34:14 Modern translations translate this word to "wild goats," as the exact same word is used elsewhere to refer to goats. The KJV translators probably translated to satyr due to their similar spelling. However, in ancient Greek mythology, satyr are sexual horse-like spirits, they weren't attributed to goats until the Romans compared them to their fauns. Either way, satyrs don't exist.
tanniyn dragon Jeremiah 51:34 The KJV translators also translated the same Hebrew root word into "whales" in Genesis 1:21, "monsters" in Lamentations 4:3, and "serpent" in Exodus 7:12.
tsepha' cockatrice Isaiah 14:29 Another mythical beast.

Typographic Errors

Most Christians recognize that bibles are printed by people, and people make typographic errors, so we should expect bibles to contain typographic errors. They don't see this as a fault of the original manuscript, and such simple errors are easily corrected upon revision. However, there is a minority of Christians who believe the original 1611 King James Version of the bible is literally perfect in every way, and that later revisions are flawed and blasphemous. However, scholars have noted that the first edition printing of the KJV actually has hundreds of typographic errors which had to be corrected in later revisions. In fact, even in 1611, there were two different printings made which have 216 differences between them. These typos are of little consequence to most Christians, and I give examples here only demonstrate why reverence for the 1611 KJV is unwarranted.

Passage 1611 KJV Revised KJV
Genesis 39:16 until her lord came home until his lord came home
Numbers 6:14 and one lamb without blemish and one ram without blemish
Joshua 3:15 Jordan overfloweth all his banks at the time of the harvest Jordan overfloweth all his banks all the time of the harvest
Judges 11:2 and his wives sons grew up and his wife's sons grew up
2 Chronicles 28:11 the fierce wrath of God is upon you the fierce wrath of the LORD is upon you
Jeremiah 49:1 why then doth their king inherit God why then doth their king inherit Gad
Matthew 12:23 Is this the son of David? Is this not the son of David?
John 15:20 The servant is not greater than the Lord The servant is not greater than his lord
Romans 12:1 prove what is that good, that acceptable and perfect will of God prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God
2 Corinthians 5:2 For in this we groan earnestly, desiring to be clothed For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed

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