Acts 19:37 and King James Onlyism

by Luke Wayne
12/17/2019
Return to King James Onlyism

The "King James Only" movement claims that the KJV is a perfect translation in every way and that it cannot be improved upon. They do not admit that any verse could be translated better or that any word should perhaps be rendered differently. Thus, when we turn to Acts 19:37, the King James Onlyist must defend the odd wording in which the pagan judge in Ephesus reassures the pagan lynch mob that Paul and his companions are not "robbers of churches." This is self-evidently not the best possible translation, and pretty much every modern translation renders this term in a clearer and more accurate manner.

The Verse and its Context

Acts 19 tells of Paul's time in Ephesus. While there, a group of craftsmen who make idols is threatened by Paul's preaching and rallies a mob against the Christians to defend the honor of their false goddess Diana (KJV) or Artemis (NASB), these being two names for the same Greco-Roman deity. The leader, a silversmith named Demetrius, explains, "this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands," (Acts 19:26, KJV) and further that, if Paul is allowed to continue, "the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed," (Acts 19:27, KJV). They stirred up a large crowd who drug some of Paul's companions to the public theatre while crying out repeatedly about the greatness of their goddess. The town clerk comes and addresses the people, attempting to calm the mob and mediate a peaceful solution. He reassures them that everyone knows that "the city of the Ephesians is a worshipper of the great goddess Diana," (Acts 19:35, KJV). It is then that we read our key verse, where the clerk says:

"For ye have brought hither these men, which are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess," (Acts 19:37, KJV).

The crowd could care less if Paul and his companions robbed churches. They weren't worried about protecting the possessions of local Christian gatherings. The whole point was their local cult and the honor of their goddess (and, behind that, the money they made in manufacturing and selling idols). Indeed, the explicitly mention her temple. Thus, even before looking at the underlying Greek words, modern translations are obviously clearer and make more sense by reading "robbers of temples," (NASB, NKJV) or "temple robbers" (CSB, NET, MEV), rather than the KJV's "robbers of churches." When we do look at the Greek, this becomes only clearer.

The Underlying Greek Word

The KJV's "robbers of churches" is actually the translation of a single Greek word, ἱερόσυλος. This precise word only occurs this one time in the whole New Testament, but it is a compound word made up of two other words: ἱερόν and συλάω. The first of these, ἱερόν, occurs some 71 times in the KJV and is always translated "temple." The second word, συλάω, is a word for seizing, plundering, stripping off, or taking as spoil. The word is found in places like 2 Corinthians 11:8, where the KJV translates it is "robbed." Thus, we have a word that the KJV translators agree means "robbed" and a word that the KJV translators agree means "temple" combined into one word. The most natural definition (and the one preferred by most modern translators) is "robbers of temples" or "temple robbers." There is no reason in the language or the context to insert the idea of "churches" here.

It is also worth noting that, while our key noun ἱερόσυλος only occurs this one time, the verb form of the word (ἱεροσυλέω) occurs in one other instance, in Romans 2:22. Staying consistent, most modern translations render this verb as "rob temples." Interestingly, the KJV does not translate it as "rob churches" or as "rob temples." Instead, it treats it more idiomatically, translating it as "commit sacrilege." In this, they were directly following the Geneva Bible before them, though even earlier Bibles like the 14th-Century Wycliffe Bible rendered it the same (as do some modern translations, like the ESV). The difference between the KJV and these other translations is that they are consistent, using this same approach to Acts 19:37. Where the KJV says that Paul and his party were not "robbers of churches," the Geneva Bible describes them as men who have not "committed sacrilege." The Wycliffe Bible, likewise, says that they are not "sacrilegers" and the ESV that they are not "sacrilegious." Had the KJV simply been consistent with the approach they took in Romans 2:22, there would be nothing to critique about the KJV that could not be said about numerous other translations, both historic and modern. It would simply be an example of using a looser translation approach to prioritize the overall meaning over against the precise wording. Thus, both the literal "robbers of temples" and the periphrastic "sacrilegious" prove to be better translations of Acts 19:37 than the KJV's "robbers of churches," even by the standard of the KJV's own approach in other verses.

Robbers of Churches and the 1611 Apocrypha

But that the Greek word is really referring to robbing temples and not churches can also be seen in one other example from outside the New Testament. The KJV originally also contained translations of the Apocrypha (non-biblical Jewish books that Roman Catholics falsely regard as Scripture.) In the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees, there is a passage that contains the very same Greek noun found in Acts 19:37, (i.e., ἱερόσυλος). The story is of a wicked man named Menelaus who (along with his compatriot Lysimachus) steals articles from the temple in Jerusalem. This part of the story is introduced thus:

"Now Menelaus, supposing that he had gotten a convenient time, stole certain vessels of gold out of the temple, and gave some of them to Andronicus, and some he sold into Tyrus and the cities round about," (2 Maccabees 4:32, KJV).

Note, even the KJV says that gold vessels are stolen from the temple. As you continue to read, the context doesn't change. These stolen gold vessels are what is in view:

"Now when many sacrileges had been committed in the city by Lysimachus with the consent of Menelaus, and the fruit thereof was spread abroad, the multitude gathered themselves together against Lysimachus, many vessels of gold being already carried away," (2 Maccabees 4:39, KJV).

We then get to our key verse, where our word shows up again:

"Thus many of them they wounded, & some they stroke to the ground, and all of them they forced to flee: but as for the Churchrobber himselfe, him they killed besides the treasury," (2 Maccabees 4:42, KJV).

Here, like in Acts, the KJV translates the word as "churchrobber." Yet, the KJV itself is clear that it was the temple that was robbed, not a church. Indeed, this is from pre-New Testament times. There were no churches yet! Thus, it is altogether clear that "robbers of temples" is the better translation of Acts 19:37 than the KJV's "robbers of churches."

But Why Churches?

So, why did the KJV translate Acts 19:37 the way it did? Why use the word "churches"? The reason stems back to earlier English versions. In 1526, William Tyndale published the first English New Testament ever translated from the original Greek (all previous English Bibles were from the Latin Vulgate). Tyndale never used the word "church" to refer to a gathering of Christians. Indeed, he scarcely used the word at all! Believing that the English word "church" called to mind Roman Catholic buildings and papal hierarchy rather than the local body of New Testament believers, Tyndale preferred the word "congregation." In fact, the word "church" only occurs two times in Tyndale's New Testament, and both refer to pagan buildings. In addition to creating the reading "robbers of churches" in Acts 19:37, we also see earlier in Acts:

"Then Jupiter's Priest which dwelt before their city brought ox and garlands unto the church porch and would have done sacrifice with the people," (Acts 14:13, Tyndale).

Tyndale describes the doorway or gate where the priest of Jupiter offers pagan sacrifices as a "church porch," a term used in Tyndale's day for the entryway to a cathedral. While Acts 14:13 was quickly changed to the simpler "gate" in later English translations, the majority of those after Tyndale kept his reading in Acts 19:37. Thus, the Matthew Bible, the Great Bible, and even the Bishop's Bible (the immediate predecessor of the KJV) all retained "robbers of churches," while the Coverdale Bible used the similar "Churchrobbers." Most of these translations shared Tyndale's aversion to using the word "church" to refer to local bodies of Christian believers, so Tyndale's reading made a certain sense.

The decision of these early translators may also have been influenced by Martin Luther's German Bible, which used the word "Kirchenräuber," which literally means "churchrobber." Tyndale was a Lutheran, and Coverdale openly admitted to using Luther's Bible as a source for his own translation, so the connection here is quite likely. Yet, in Luther's day, the German word "Kirch" was a much broader term than the English "church." It was used to refer to the Jewish temple, the idolatrous "high places" throughout the books of Kings, and even pagan temples. For example, in 2 Kings 10:23, the "house of Baal" (KJV) is rendered by Luther as "die Kirche Baals." Yet, in English, we would not speak of the "church of Baal." Again, the German word allowed a much wider use.

This was not so in the KJV, however. The word "church" is not used in the Old Testament and the King James translators did not share Tyndale's concerns about the word and so used it consistently as the term for Christian gatherings. Yet, when they reached the rare word "ἱερόσυλος" in Acts 19:37, they chose to stick with Tyndale's translation of it rather than producing a new rendering of their own. Unfortunately, while this made some sense for Tyndale, for whom a "church" was strictly a building and not a Christian gathering, in the KJV the term no longer belongs. The KJV's conservative impulse regarding this rare word is understandable, especially when dealing with a word that only occurs once in the whole Bible, but in this case, their choice was not the best one, which is why translators since then have not followed it. The word "church" does not belong in Acts 19:37.