2 Corinthians 2:17 and King James Onlyism

by Luke Wayne
07/15/2019
Return to King James Onlyism

Most King James Onlyists will latch onto just about any apparent difference between translations and read into it all kinds of doctrinal significance that isn't there, typically attributing the worst possible motives to the modern translator. On a more fair and careful reading, not only do the accusations fall flat, the difference itself generally disappears. Properly considered, the two renderings usually turn out to actually be saying the very same thing. Yet, there are a few places where the KJV and our modern translations genuinely differ, not only in wording but actually in meaning. Such instances are minor. They don't actually affect our doctrine and rarely have any significant effect even on the individual passage. It usually involves little more than a disagreement over the precise meaning of a single Greek or Hebrew word. Such is the case in the common example of 2 Corinthians 2:17.

The Verse

The verse in view here reads (with the relevant section in bold):

"For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ," (2 Corinthians 2:17, KJV).

"For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God," (2 Corinthians 2:17, NASB). [see also ESV, NIV, NKJV, MEV, NET]

The NASB is not alone here. Pretty much every modern translation agrees. Not only versions like the NIV, ESV, and NET, but even the NKJV and MEV which are based on the exact same manuscripts as the KJV. Others, like the CSB, use different words to say the same thing (i.e., "market the word of God for profit"). Thus, this is a place where the KJV genuinely differs from all major modern translations. It also disagrees with translations that came before it, like the Geneva Bible which speaks of those who "make merchandise of the word of God," thus agreeing with all the modern versions. Thus, here we have one of the few possible King James Only passages. By this I mean that, if the KJV is right, it is pretty much the only version that is right on this particular verse.

The Stakes

Before considering the reasons behind this difference, it is important to consider what is at stake. The King James Onlyist will tell us that modern translators have willfully changed this verse so as to justify "corrupting" the word of God. This, of course, is no more true than it would be to accuse the KJV translators of willfully altering this verse to justify a desire to "make merchandise of the word of God," as the Geneva Bible said before them. The fact of the matter is that either version of this verse is a true statement. We would all agree that it is wrong to corrupt the word of God and we all agree that it is wrong to peddle the word of God for selfish gain. Neither version introduces a teaching that one could not find elsewhere in the Bible. No major or even minor teaching is effected no matter which version you choose. Thus, our only question at hand here is what did Paul mean in this particular verse. There is no grander issue at stake. The question matters because every word that the Spirit of God inspired matters, but one will not be led astray by this verse no matter which version one reads. Nothing nefarious is going on here.

The Word

The difference between the two translations comes down to a single Greek word: καπηλεύω (kapeleuo). The word literally means "to trade in; peddle." Thus, all the translations before and after the KJV that translate the verse this way are offering plain and straightforward translations of exactly what the word means. They are fine, literal translations. They also seem to capture the sense in which ancient readers would have understood the verse. Note, for example, how Irenaeus uses this passage:

"In this way, Moses, to whom such a leadership was entrusted, relying on a good conscience, cleared himself before God, saying, 'I have not in covetousness taken anything belonging to one of these men, nor have I done evil to one of them.' In this way, too, Samuel, who judged the people so many years, and bore rule over Israel without any pride, in the end cleared himself, saying, 'I have walked before you from my childhood even unto this day: answer me in the sight of God, and before His anointed (Christi ejus); whose ox or whose ass of yours have I taken, or over whom have I tyrannized, or whom have I oppressed? or if I have received from the hand of any a bribe or [so much as] a shoe, speak out against me, and I will restore it to you.' And when the people had said to him, 'Thou hast not tyrannized, neither hast thou oppressed us neither hast thou taken ought of any man’s hand,' he called the Lord to witness, saying, 'The Lord is witness, and His Anointed is witness this day, that ye have not found ought in my hand. And they said to him, He is witness.' In this strain also the Apostle Paul, inasmuch as he had a good conscience, said to the Corinthians: 'For we are not as many, who [corrupt/peddle] the Word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ,'" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book, Chapter 26, Section 4).

Here, this early church writer pairs our verse with other passages where prophets and servants of God refuse payment and deny receiving bribes. Irenaeus (who spoke the language himself and lived only a century after Paul) obviously understood Paul to be talking about "peddling" the word of God or using it for personal profit. Thus, the wording itself and its plain meaning are firmly on the side of the modern translators here.

Why the Difference?

So, if the Greek so clearly means "peddle," why did the KJV translators render it "corrupt"? There seem to be several factors at play here:

  1. While the common, literal meaning of "καπηλεύω" was, as we have said, to "peddle" or "trade in," we do have examples of poets and literary satirists skilled in rhetoric and word-play making creative use of the word to give it other meanings. In particular, as early as the second century AD, the Greek satirist Lucian of Samasota played off of the reputation of merchants as being cheats and hucksters to use the word "καπηλεύω" in as a term for adulterating or corrupting. Thus, scholars familiar with the classic pagan literature of the Greco-Roman period (as many of the KJV translators likely were) may well have known that the word could technically be used in this way (though, in fact, this was a literary usage and it is unlikely it would have been used in such a way in a straightforward letter like Paul's epistle to the Corinthian Christians).
     
  2. The version of 2 Corinthians 2:17 found in the Latin Vulgate uses the word "adulterantes," from which we get our English word "adulterate." The KJV translators certainly utilized the Latin text in their translation work, and they may have drawn from it here. As to why the Vulgate read this way, it may be for the same reason mentioned in point #1. Jerome received a classical Roman education and, for much of his life, he was enamored with the literary style of renowned Greco-Roman writings. He loved the beautiful and witty rhetorical skill of these authors and studied them often until he later came under the conviction that he should devote himself more fully to the word of God. Thus, Jerome would likely have known how writers like Lucian used the word "καπηλεύω" and may have favored that meaning. It is also possible, however, that the Latin word originally allowed for a broader meaning. In the 14th-Century Wycliffe Bible (an English translation of the Vulgate), 2 Corinthians 2:17 refers to those who "do adultery by the word of God." Rather than referring to corrupting the Word of God, this rendering implies that they are corrupting or prostituting themselves by use of the word of God, which is consistent with the idea of "peddling" or "making merchandise of" the word of God. Yet, by 1611, the Latin text was clearly understood to mean corrupting the word of God. The Roman Catholic Douay Rheims Bible of 1582 (relying on the Latin text) rendered 2 Corinthians 2:17 as "adulterating the word of God." Whatever Jerome's original intention, the KJV translators probably would have read the Latin text this same way.
     
  3. Perhaps most ironically, changes in the English language may also have caused the KJV translators to misread those who had gone before them. Many readers today misunderstand the KJV without even realizing it because we use many of the same words they did but often with different meanings. But we are not the only generation to have this problem. English has been a rapidly changing language for centuries. The KJV translators did not start their translation from scratch. They consulted many previous translations, often simply modifying their wording or even using it entirely unchanged. When they got to 2 Corinthians 2:17, they would have read in almost every version since William Tyndale the phrase, "which chop and change with the word of God."1 Originally, this was an idiom for bartering, exchanging, or making a transaction. To "chop" meant to trade or cut a deal while the older English "change," in this context, is the root where we get our modern word "exchange." The somewhat redundant expression "chop and change" was an intensive on the general overlapping meaning of either term. It meant to engage in trade or barter. By 1611, however, these meanings had already fallen out of use. Thus, the KJV translators mistakenly believed that Tyndale (and the subsequent translations that copied him) meant something more like "cutting up" and "changing" the word of God rather than bartering and making a profitable transaction with it. Thus, there seemed to be a near-unanimous consensus among previous translators (only the Geneva Bible excepted) that Paul was talking about cutting up and changing the word of God. As a matter of fact, however, all of these translations were saying just what the Geneva Bible (and now modern translations) say. The meaning of the words had changed.2

Thus, their mistaken reading of previous English translations combined with the Latin text and perhaps a knowledge of certain Greek poetic and rhetorical compositions seemed to justify the idea that 2 Corinthians 2:17 was talking about "corrupting" (i.e., maliciously changing and perverting) the word of God. Yet, even here, the KJV translators were not certain. The original 1611 King James Bible actually included a marginal note at this verse suggesting that the phrase also might be referring to those who "deal deceitfully with" the word of God, which seems to be an interpretive rendering of the more literal idea of "peddling" it. The King James translators themselves were not "onlyists" about their rendering on this verse and were quite open about the fact that the phrase may not mean what they thought it meant. Today, we have more than sufficient evidence to conclude that "corrupt" is not the best rendering. 

Conclusion

The KJV offers an interpretation of what its translators thought Paul might have meant at this verse based on the evidence they had. Even they admitted in their notes that other interpretations were plausible, and today the alternative seems far more likely. Regardless, as far as translating the actual words Paul used, modern versions provide the far better translation.

  • 1. This phrase is found in the versions of Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew, the Great Bible, and the Bishop's Bible, all of which were used by the King James Translators.
  • 2. Interestingly, in modern British English, the idiom "chop and change" has further evolved to now mean flip-flopping or constantly changing back and forth between two different choices or opinions.