Nehemiah relates the following scene as the long-exiled Israelites return to the land:
The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
Nehemiah 8:7-9, NIV
A great day in the history of the nation of Israel! The people heard the words of the Law, probably for the first time in their lives. But there was a minor problem: The people had been away from Jerusalem so long that they no longer spoke Hebrew. The language had shifted to what linguists today call Aramaic, a closely-related language, as a result of movement and intermarriage:
Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. Nehemiah 13:23-24
The priests and leaders read the law, but they had to “make it clear” or “give the sense” (the NIV footnote says “translating”) so that the people could understand. The work of translating God’s Word into language understandable by the hearers is an important, holy calling.
Modern Bible translations such as the New International Version (NIV) and New American Standard (NAS) are attempts to continue the noble work of Nehemiah’s scribes. Sadly, some in our midst insist that the Bible be available only in an archaic species of English spoken by no one on earth. These are the King James Onlyists, and their divisive teaching prevents God’s people from understanding His Word.
In this analysis we will see how, on four counts, the King James Version (KJV) is an inferior translation for modern English-speaking readers:
- It perpetuates textual errors, long since cleared up by scholarship;
- It includes obvious translation mistakes;
- It is difficult to understand;
- It is comparatively weak on the deity of Christ.
We will compare a number of verses between the New International Version (NIV) and the KJV to examine these points. (Please note, this is not intended to exalt the NIV over other modern translations such as the NAS or ESV. All are valuable; the wise Bible student will consult several versions in his own language in order to better understand the intent of the authors, who did not write in English.)
1. The King James Perpetuates Textual Errors
|I Timothy 3:16||And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.||Without question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.|
King James advocates commonly seize on this text as “proof” that modern translations are inferior. The difference is that where the NIV says “He appeared in a body,” the KJV asserts that “God was manifest in the flesh.” Thus the King James, it is argued, attests to Christ’s deity where the NIV does not.
First of all, this is no way to evaluate a text. Our rule should always be that we evaluate our doctrine in the light of Scripture, and NOT to evaluate Scripture in the light of our doctrine. We humbly accept whatever the Word of God reveals to us, and build our doctrine from that foundation.
The best Greek manuscripts that we possess today universally use the relative pronoun “who/which” (ος) and not the proper noun θεος meaning God. Scholars agree that the original text, as Paul wrote it, was “who/which” and not “God.” Many ancient Greek manuscripts employ a sort of shorthand for writing common Christian terms such as Jesus, God, cross, etc. In this case, the shorthand for “God” (θεος) is to leave out the intervening vowels and simply write the theta and the sigma (θς), sometimes surmounted by a line to indicate the contraction. Thus it would be a simple matter for a copyist to change (intentionally or not) the meaning of the verse by the addition of the single pen stroke that transforms omicron (ο) into theta (θ).
It may have been an honest mistake. Or it may have been more deliberate, a dishonest attempt to shore up Trinitarian doctrine. Some other errors, however, were decidedly dishonest:
|I John 5:7-8||For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.
|For there are three that testify: The Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three are in agreement.|
Again, deceptive KJV-only groups (e.g., Chick Publications) tout this difference as evidence that the modern translations (as well as Luther’s German translation, which predates the KJV) are weak on the Trinity.
But without question, the Catholic Church corrupted the I John passage (by adding the italicized words) to reinforce the Trinitarian doctrine. This is not a mere theory; it is acknowledged by all Bible scholars, and in fact is footnoted in many KJV “Study Bible” editions. If it had been part of the original text, then certainly the Church could have used it in the well-documented fourth-century disputes with the Arian heresy (a non-trinitarian sect similar to today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses). But none of the early church writers made use of it in their debates. In particular, Augustine of Hippo, who wrote prolifically against the Arians, never employs this passage. As Isaac Newton observed,
“In all the vehement universal and lasting controversy about the Trinity in Jerome’s time and both before and long enough after it, this text of the ‘three in heaven’ was never once thought of. It is now in everybody’s mouth and accounted the main text for the business and would assuredly have been so too with them, had it been in their books.” – An Historical Account Of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture, pub. 1754
The other “Notable Corruption,” is will be noted, is I Timothy 3:16 (see above). Thus two of the common “proof texts” used by King James enthusiasts are merely textual corruptions that no serious Bible scholar should accept as part of the inspired Word.
This is not to say that the Scriptures lack abundant evidence of Christ’s deity. They do. But one should not rely on trickery to prove a doctrinal point.
|Romans 8:1||Therefore there is now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.||Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.|
Either the glorious promise of “no condemnation” is available to those who are simply “in Christ Jesus,” or it includes a second requirement of proper behavior. Where the NIV proclaims the simple Pauline truth of righteousness by faith alone, the “Authorized Version” falsely adds works as a requirement for justification. The King James thus denies salvation by faith alone, and teaches the erroneous, heretical Roman Catholic doctrine that one’s salvation depends on both faith and works. This is no mere trifle. The whole thrust of Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and (to a lesser extent) Colossians destroys the man-exalting, Pharisaic notion of justification by works. As the KJV itself proclaims elsewhere (and correctly):
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. Ephesians 2:8-9
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost. Titus 3:5
In its translation of Romans 8:1, the KJV is flat-out wrong, both in the sense of relying on an obviously corrupted source manuscript, and in the sense of promulgating false doctrine. (The added phrase is a direct copy from Romans 8:4, which is where it properly belongs.)
Most textual errors are additions, not deletions. Given that the New Testament was copied by hand for many centuries before the invention of movable type, there are three reasonably-likely ways that the text becomes corrupted by addition:
- A copyist thinks a little more explanation is needed, or that a certain passage requires reinforcement of key doctrinal points.
- Marginal notes written on a manuscript (the way that modern readers mark their personal Bibles) are inadvertently copied into the body of the text;
- A copyist finds a parallel verse elsewhere with a fuller treatment of the same subject matter, and augments the text with borrowed words.
Like the 1 John passage cited above, the following is a prime example of #1:
|Acts 8:36-37||And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?
And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
|As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”|
Without question, the Acts passage was amended by a well-meaning Baptist who insisted that the eunuch must make some kind of profession of faith before Philip baptized him.
Without question, the Catholic Church corrupted the I John passage to reinforce the Trinitarian doctrine. This is not a mere theory; it happened in the 16th century.
The King James translators worked from the manuscripts they had available, and thus perpetuated these errors, errors which are at this point acknowledged by all Bible scholars. The duty of Biblical scholarship is to ascertain the original intent and meaning of the Holy Spirit as the text was written.
2. The King James Includes Obvious Mistakes
The KJV translators did a very good job in general, balancing between the demands of a faithful translation and the need for a readable text. However, scholarship over the past 400 years has revealed a number of errors that were made.
|Hebrews 4:8||For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.||For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later of another day.|
The King James implies that Jesus is unable to give rest, implying that God needs to somehow complete Christ’s incomplete work at a later time. This denigrates Christ. Reading the full context of the passage, even in the King James, instantly clears up the problem – the writer is referring to the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land under Joshua, to illustrate that this event was not the true “rest” that God promised.
The most likely explanation for this discrepancy is a simple translation error on the part of the KJV translators – since the Greek word for Joshua (Ιήσους) is exactly the same as the word for Jesus. The NIV avoids this error and thus brings greater glory to Jesus Christ.
|Revelation 22:19||And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of thebook of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.||And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
This is a significant difference: Is it “book” or is it “tree”?
The two words are not similar at all in Greek; it is not a case of a literal versus a figurative meaning of the same word. Certainly other verses in Revelation speak clearly of the “book of life.” But this one does not. There is no record of any manuscript in the world having the word “book” in that place, until the publication of the King James Version in 1611. Every manuscript, every fragment unearthed, every translation in any language before or since, reads “tree.” So we are left with three possibilities:
- The translators of the KJV made an honest mistake, which later scholarship has discovered and cleared up.
- The translators of the KJV deliberately intended to change the words of the book. This seems unlikely. Consider the irony: Of all the verses in the Bible to choose to adulterate, they would choose the very one that warns against adulterating the Bible?
- The translators of the KJV, inspired by divine guidance, changed the word “tree” into “book.” Every other manuscript has been wrong; the KJV alone corrects the error and conveys God’s true intended meaning, hidden from every generation until 1611 (and in fact still hidden from those who don’t speak English, and from those who use another English translation). This is more than unlikely; it is fantasy. It implies that God initiated some kind of “second revelation” in 1611. KJV people often make the false argument that since God is powerful enough to preserve His Word through the generations, therefore he must have. Why, then, would he fail to do this for Spanish-, Arabic-, or Chinese-speaking peoples?
The first is the only logical option.
|Hebrews 10:23||Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised).”||Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.|
I’m not so keen on the NIV’s clumsy word “unswervingly,” but the NIV is the superior translation here, because it correctly renders the Greek word elpis (which, after all, is the word the author actually wrote down with his own hand) as “hope,” not “faith.” The Greek word for “faith” is quite different (pisteuo). All Greek manuscripts, including the Textus Receptus used by the KJV translators, have elpis and not pisteuo:
κατεχωμεν την ομολογιαν της ελπιδος ακλινη πιστος γαρ ο επαγγειλαμενος
ελπιδος (elpidos) is the form of elpis used here.
Everywhere else in the New Testament the KJV translators used “hope” to translate elpis. This is simply a mistranslation, an error. The Ryrie Study Bible (KJV) footnotes this verse, saying “literally, ‘profession of our hope.’” If that is the acknowledged literal meaning of the word, why is it not in the text to begin with? Why should Dr. Ryrie be compelled to explain it to us?
3. The King James Is Difficult to Understand
The Greek of the New Testament, the words actually spoken and the characters actually written down by the apostles, is not the classical Greek of the poets and philosophers. It is “Koine” Greek, the language of the common people. This in itself is an argument for a vernacular Bible; after all, God chose to have His word, from the very start, published in the common lingua franca of the Roman Empire.
Language is fluid; words change in meaning or fall out of general use. Because of this there is a constant need for up-to-date, accurate translation of the Bible from its original languages, using the best available manuscripts, into the language of the common people. The KJV accomplished that goal in 1611, but the English language has changed greatly since then. Consider these examples:
|James 3:2||For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.||We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.|
A modern reader of this verse in the KJV would naturally interpret it to imply that James is referring to offensive or malicious talk about others. But this is not the intended meaning of the verse; The Greek word translated as “we offend” is ptaio, meaning to “stumble, err, or sin.” This is clearly a situation where, through no fault of its own, the King James translation no longer renders the verse in comprehensible English. According to Merriam-Webster, “offend” currently has the meaning of “violate, transgress, hurt, or cause pain to,” but also lists an obsolete meaning as “to cause to sin, stumble, or fall.”
The King James translators, working in the context of 1611 English, used a word commonly understood by the people of that time. Unfortunately, a modern English-speaking Christian, armed with a King James Bible, comes away from James 3:2 with quite a different interpretation than what was intended by the writer, and indeed by the King James translators. This is just one example of how insistence on using the KJV will result in a measurably poorer understanding of the Word of God.
This problem, i.e., that the English language has changed in the four centuries since the King James Version was published, applies to many other verses:
|Mark 6:25||I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.||“I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”|
The urgency of the request is utterly lost in the KJV’s phrase “by and by.” To 21st-century ears, “by and by” means “eventually, in due time, when you get around to it.” But even the King James itself demonstrates the true meaning, when, two verses later, we read:
And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison.
The NIV more accurately conveys the tone of the request.
|Luke 23:15||…and, lo, nothing worthy of death is done unto him||…as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death|
Apparently, in 1611, “is done unto him” was somehow equivalent to “he has done.” Today, of course, these two phrases would be recognized as having opposite meanings. The NIV accurately conveys the true sense of the verse to the modern English speaker.
|Romans 1:17||…therein is the righteousness of God revealed||For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed|
How many Christians have failed to understand the great comfort of this verse because of the KJV’s reading? Paul was not talking about God’s righteousness, that is, his holy, righteous character, but a “righteousness” that is provided by him through the life and death of Jesus Christ. It speaks of a righteousness that is ours as believers, imputed to us by God’s grace. The NIV more clearly attests to the true sense of the verse.
In 1611 the word “of” carried a meaning closer to the modern meaning of “from.” The King James translators used the best word available to them. The English language has since changed. This change demands a fresh translation.
|Romans 1:28||… to do those things which are not convenient.||… to do what ought not to be done.|
Obviously from the context, Paul was not speaking of “convenience,” in the modern sense of “suited to personal comfort,” at all. The meaning of the word has changed over 400 years. Today, a preacher using the KJV would always find the need to explain this passage further, effectively “translating” it into modern English for his hearers. If translation is required, why not translate it accurately in the first place?
|Romans 3:22||Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ||This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ|
Again, due to no fault of its own, but because the English language has changed, the KJV is now teaching error. As in Romans 1:17 above, the word “of” formerly had a multitude of functions that it no longer serves. Because of the two “ofs,” the King James implies two errors. First, it indicates that the righteousness that Paul is referring to is God’s own righteousness – a considerable difference from the true meaning of “righteousness that comes from God.” Second, the KJV’s wording implies that the “faith of Christ” secures this righteousness. In reality the verse is proclaiming the mighty Reformation truth that righteousness from God (i.e., justification) is available through faith in Christ. The NIV accurately expresses this meaning.
|I Corinthians 10:24||Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth||Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others|
In 1611, “wealth” could mean what we mean today by “welfare.” Today it has only the meaning of personal property, and so an accurate translation should use a different word. The King James translation of this verse could be construed to justify coveting – and perhaps stealing!
|I Corinthians 16:22||… let him be Anathema Maranatha.||…a curse on him. Come, O Lord!|
What is “Anathema Maranatha”? “Anathema” is a Greek word for “accursed,” while “Marana tha” is an Aramaic expression meaning “Come, O Lord.” Someone forgot to put a period after “Anathema,” and to this day King James Bibles have this error. And why does the KJV fail to translate these words – at all – into English? By what reasoning is it better to leave certain words in the original language?
|I Thessalonians 1:4||Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God…||For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you…|
Though probably comprehensible to 17th-century English speakers, due to linguistic change the KJV now suggests the opposite of what the Apostle Paul actually wrote in Greek. Again the word “of” causes the difficulty. To a modern reader the phrase “your election of God” implies that one chooses God, rather than God choosing him. This is not the sense of the Greek. The NIV translates this verse more adequately.
|II Thessalonians 2:7||he who now letteth||the one who now holds it back|
Today “let” means “allow, permit,” but in 1611 one of its meanings was “to hinder, obstruct, or prevent.” The King James text thus now expresses (due to language change) precisely the opposite meaning of what was intended. The NIV conveys the actual sense of the verse in modern English.
|James 5:11||patience of Job||Job’s perseverance|
A famous line from the KJV that has become a familiar expression. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Job was not a “patient” man, as we understand patience. To the modern English-speaking Bible reader, the primary meaning of “patient” is “bearing trials calmly or without complaint.” In fact, Job spent nearly forty chapters complaining to God. Again, the word “patience” has undergone a transformation: where it once referred to one’s steadfastness, it now refers to one’s attitude. The translation was accurate in 1611. It is not accurate today.
|Luke 14:10||But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.||But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.|
This verse as rendered in the KJV is nearly incomprehensible to the modern English reader; its words have different meanings now than they did in 1611. Who talks of “sitting at meat” or of a person “having worship”? No one speaks this way. What is the point of using a Bible that is not in the language of the people?
4. The King James Is Weak Regarding Christ’s Deity
Some believe that the NIV and other modern translations tend to dilute or downplay the deity of Jesus Christ when compared to the King James Bible. Aside from the many verses where both versions equally proclaim this important truth, there are plenty of verses where the NIV actually surpasses the KJV in declaring Christ’s deity:
|Titus 2:13||…the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.||…the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.|
The King James, in this verse, orders the words in a way that denies, or at least obscures, the deity of Christ. The NIV, on the other hand, is unambiguous in its declaration that Christ is God in the flesh.
|Romans 9:5||…and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever.||…from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised.|
The NIV declares plainly that Jesus Christ is God over all. The King James says only that Christ is over all. The NIV again more strongly supports the deity of Christ than does the King James.
|John 1:18||No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.||No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only [or only begotten], who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.|
The King James omits the second instance of the word “God” from this verse, diminishing the role of Jesus to one who merely declares God, as any other prophet would. The NIV, on the other hand, clearly states that Jesus is God; i.e., that God reveals Himself through Jesus.
|John 12:41||These things said Esaias, when he saw his glory, and spake of him.||Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about Him.|
The King James omits the name of Jesus. This passage (when considered alongside the parallel passage in Isaiah 6) is, to my mind, the strongest biblical witness to Christ’s deity. From my personal experience, I confess that I stand firmly on this doctrine, have often been called upon to defend it – and I discovered it by reading solely the NIV! Had I been reading the King James, I might have missed this very strong evidence, because the language there is considerably less forceful.
I have seen misleading lists of verses showing where the name of Jesus has been “removed” in the modern translations (when compared to the KJV), the implication being that Bibles such as the NIV are part of a modernist conspiracy to remove Jesus Christ from Scripture. Unfortunately, this argument cuts both ways. This is a case in point: Why does the King James Bible omit the name “Jesus” from John 12:41?
|Colossians 2:9||For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.||For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.|
Another extremely important biblical description of Christ’s deity, and again the King James Bible is vastly weaker than the NIV text on this issue. Again one may ask: Why does the KJV omit the name of Christ from this verse?
|I John 5:20||…and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.||And we are in Him who is true — even in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true Godand eternal life.|
Here the NIV is clearer on the deity of Christ, using the personal pronoun “he” (referring clearly to Jesus) rather than “this,” as the King James does. To be fair, the Greek text would allow either interpretation – but then why does the KJV favor the weaker one?
|Philippans 2:6||Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God…||Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped…|
The King James is very flimsy on the deity of Christ in this verse, claiming that Christ was merely “in the form of” God, rather than the NIV’s stronger “in very nature God.”
|2 Peter 1:1||…to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ:||To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:|
The NIV explicitly affirms Christ’s deity by declaring “our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” The King James text is comparatively weak on this point.
I admire the zeal of the KJV-Only people. They believe their efforts are preserving the purity if God’s Word as revealed to man. But their zeal is not based on knowledge. By keeping the Word of God cloaked in an archaic, incomprehensible, and erroneous translation, they accomplish exactly the opposite of their intentions: they hinder the promulgation of the Gospel and of God’s truth into the world.
It is good to remember the example of the great saint John Wycliffe (1326-1384), who gave his life for the cause of translating the Bible into the common language of the people. The Roman Church of his day maintained that St. Jerome’s 1000-year-old Latin translation was sufficient, thus (since common people did not speak Latin) keeping the Bible as the province of the educated clergy. As Wycliffe’s critics said of his English translation, “The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity.” The religious professionals wanted no part of Wycliffe’s work; it would produce a Church whose people could understand the Bible. Their aim was to maintain some semblance of “purity” and continuity. The net effect was to keep the Scriptures obscure. Thus the corrupt medieval church and today’s King James Onlyists are brothers; they both seek to put an end to the vernacular Bible.
(Jerome’s fifth-century translation was, and is still, known as the “Vulgate” – indicating that at the time Jerome did his work, a similar situation existed: The books of the New Testament were commonly available in their original language of Greek. So too the Old Testament, in a Greek translation called the Septuagint. But the Mediterranean world had changed over four centuries; in the provinces only a few educated people spoke Greek; the official language of Latin had become more common within the Empire. There arose a desire to create a Bible translation in the common, “vulgar” language of the people – a desire which Jerome fulfilled by producing the Vulgate.)
The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). It is not ink and paper; it is the truth of God conveyed to the human conscience. One should use the best translation available in the language one speaks, and rely on God’s Spirit to make it effective.
 For instance, the KJV uses “flesh” to translate the Greek word sarx, while the NIV prefers – wrongly, I think – “sinful nature.” The literal meaning of sarx is “flesh,” and though it is often used in a figurative sense, I believe the rule of translation should prefer the literal sense and allow the reader to discern its figurative meaning. In other places the NIV proves to be more literal than the KJV; for instance, in II Timothy 3:16, the NIV translates theopneustos as “God-breathed,” a perfect word-for-word literal translation, whereas the King James opts for the more figurative “given by inspiration of God.” Were I the type to foment mindless controversy in the way KJV-onlyists do, I might argue that the King James translation casts into doubt the source of the Scriptures, as being “inspired” by God but not directly “breathed out” by Him. But such is not my wont.