If you’ve read my piece “It’s Good to Get Gobsmacked” either on my blog or on the Street Epistemology blog, or if you’ve listened to the corresponding recording of that piece on the SE Podcast, then you already know that I grew up going to a Southern Baptist church.
While I do not ever recall it being explicitly stated at church, and while my memories are admittedly quite distant as the years have rolled past, I’m quite sure it was implied that the King James Version (KJV) was the expected translation of the Bible that we were to use during our services and our Bible studies.
For many years my assumption was that there was no better translation.
With all of the “thees and thous and shalts and shalt nots,” the KJV was the first mass-produced English translation of the Bible. And being first has some serious sticking power! Not to mention that 16th century English just sounds more exotic. As if that somehow makes the words more believable. It’s sort of like how Hollywood has almost every character of antiquity – Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern, etc. – speak English with a British accent. It makes no sense, but it somehow is more believable than an ancient character speaking English with an American accent.
But does being first, or does being the most widespread, mean it’s the most correct?
In this case, not even close.
According to most Biblical scholars (the academic experts who spend their lives reading and studying Latin and Greek languages, Greco-Roman history, etc., and who build evidence-based cases for this sort of thing) the King James translation of the New Testament is based on the Textus Receptus. The Textus Receptus is nearly universally accepted by those same scholars as a fairly poor and unreliable translation built on Erasmus’ cobbled together 12th century manuscripts.
Even shortly after Erasmus published his translation, other more “reliable” Greek translations began to trickle out. Whether it was Erasmus or someone else, the bottom line is all translations are based on copies of copies of copies of the original manuscripts. And there are no original manuscripts. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
Because there are no original manuscripts of any of the New Testament writings, and because these thousands upon thousands of copies of manuscripts were scattered across what was the former Roman Empire, and because none of these copies of copies agree precisely with each other in terms of content, and because these copies of copies were written by many different people over the course of centuries, and because the KJV was published before the academic field of “Textual Criticism” had ever been dreamed up, I always find it peculiar when people suggest the KJV translation is somehow the “best.”
If we are defining “best” as the translation most likely to be closest to what the original authors wrote, then most scholars agree the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV), first published in 1989, the best. Yet people still say things like:
In summary, in 1516 Erasmus completed a rushed Greek translation based on a dozen or so copies of the New Testament that he was able to get his hands on in Europe. William Tyndale translated that copy in to “modern” English in 1526 (an act for which he was charged with heresy and executed), and the King James Version while also “translated” from the Greek, relied heavily on Tyndale’s translation. Alas, the KJV stuck and to this day, despite hundreds if not thousands of additional textual discoveries since the KJV and despite an entire academic discipline devoted to understanding how the Bible came to be the Bible, people still believe the KJV is somehow the best.
Thou shalt think critically about such things!
Happy critical thinking!