Luke 23:33, Calvary, and King James Onlyism

by Luke Wayne
Return to King James Onlyism

Some King James Onlyists point to Luke 23:33 as an example of modern translations "altering" the text and "changing" important things that are "preserved" in the KJV. The issue in this particular verse is simply how best to translate the name of the location where Jesus was crucified. No doctrine or practice is a stake. No event in Jesus' crucifixion differs in any way between the translations in view. The only issue is the proper name of the place where it happened. In the KJV, the place is called "Cavalry" in this verse while in most modern translations, it is simply called "the Skull." Ironically, this argument is actually a fine example of how KJV Onlyism is firmly rooted in preserving human tradition rather than in the actual teachings of Scripture.

The Verse in Question

The text of the verse at issue here reads:

"When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left," (Luke 23:33, NASB).

"And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left," (Luke 23:33, KJV).

Now, it is important to note that, where ever one lands on this issue, it is not actually a King James Only issue at all! Some modern versions, like the NKJV, also utilize the name "Calvary" here, so even if this were the best English translation of the name, one would not be left with only the KJV. Still, it is worth exploring why this difference exists.

Greek, Latin, and the Root of the Problem

Interestingly, the KJV actually agrees with modern translations on what the place was called; it just does so in the other three gospels! Note the following verses:

"And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull," (Matthew 27:33, KJV).

"And they bring him unto the place Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, The place of a skull," (Mark 15:22, KJV).

"And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha," (John 19:17, KJV).

The same Greek word is used in all four gospels for the name of the place. It is the word Κρανίον (kranion) from which we get our English word "cranium." The word means skull, and three of the four times it is used to refer to the place of Jesus crucifixion, the KJV translates it that way. Only in Luke does the KJV insert the name "Calvary" here instead. But why? If the word is still Κρανίον, if it's still "skull," where did they get the name Calvary?

The answer is actually fairly simple. The word "Calvary" is just an anglicized form of the Latin word "Calvarius," i.e., the Latin word for "skull." So the name "Calvary" is an accurate translation of the Greek, just not into English. It is, instead, a Latin translation of the word, but it means the same thing! The fact is, the KJV and modern translations like the NASB don't disagree! The NASB gives a direct English translation of the word while the KJV offers a Latin translation of the word in an otherwise English sentence.

But Why Did They Use Latin?

This, of course, raises the question of why the KJV translators would use a Latin word here instead of an English word? To answer this, we have to consider the historical context. From the earliest days that the Scriptures came to the British isles, they came in Latin translation. Like much of Catholic Europe, Latin remained the language both of religion and scholarship in England throughout the middle ages. Various portions of the Bible had often been translated into English at many times during that history, and at least once the entire Bible (the Wycliffe Translation of the 14th century), but up until the time of the Protestant Reformation, every English translation was from the Latin text rather than the Greek or Hebrew. Thus, it is not surprising that certain Latin place names became a part of the normal religious vocabulary in England during the medieval era. Calvary is one such Latin name.

As early as the West Saxon (or "Wessex") Gospels of the 10th and 11th centuries, the Latin word "Calvary" remained untranslated as a proper name in Luke 23:33. The Wycliffe Bible and the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible, also translated from the Latin Vulgate rather than the Original Greek, retained the Latin word "Calvary" in all four gospels rather than ever using "skull." Though only a minority of people in England actually spoke Latin, the word "Calvary" had become familiar as a name for the place where Jesus died, even though very few of them knew that the word was not really a name at all and was actually just the normal Latin word for "skull."

When Tyndale translated the first English New Testament from the original Greek, he used the Latin "Calvary" at Luke 23:33, and all the translators after him all the way up to the KJV (and some afterward) followed suit. To my knowledge, these translators did not leave us any notes specifically explaining why they did this, but there seems to be a very reasonable explanation. As noted above, the same word is used for in all four Gospels, and thus the place is always referred to as the skull. The NASB is correct here. But there are a couple of slight distinctions worth noting. One, the word for skull in Greek is in the genitive form in Matthew, Mark, and John. In other words, it comes into English as an "of" construction. The place of the skull. In Luke, it is in the accusative form, i.e., "skull" is the direct object of the verb "called." The place is called "the skull." Thus, grammatically, "skull" is a description of the place in Matthew, Mark, and John, but in Luke "the Skull" is treated more like a name. Likewise, Luke is the only Gospel writer who does not offer the Hebrew name of the location. In Matthew, Mark, and John, "skull" is presented as a translation explaining the Hebrew "Golgotha." Thus, the KJV translators offer the English "skull" in those places. In Luke, however, since the Hebrew name is not present, the early English translators felt freer to treat Κρανίον as the actual name of the place rather than a translation of the Hebrew name. Thus, instead of translating the meaning of the name, they put in the term most familiar to them as the proper name of the place, i.e., the Latin word "Calvary." That is the name by which they were accustomed to calling the place, so in this context, it seemed appropriate to them.

Thus, the KJV is not wrong here, and neither is the NASB. The KJV translators used a traditional place name from England's Latin history to translate what they understood to be a proper name in the Greek of Luke 23:33. The NASB gives the literal English meaning of the word. The Latin word used in the KJV means the exact same thing as the English word used in the NASB. The translators were writing in different times and places to readers with different cultural backgrounds and vocabularies. They also have slightly different translation philosophies. For these reasons, they chose different words here, but their translations are actually in full agreement.