Ephesians 3:9 and King James Onlyism

by Luke Wayne
10/21/2019
Return to King James Onlyism

In discussions with King James Onlyists, the most heat often centers around verses that the KJVO advocate perceives to impact a central doctrine like the deity of Christ. This is completely understandable, as Christians are rightly protective of teachings at the center of our faith, and this is what makes variants like one found in Ephesians 3:9 challenging to discuss. King James Onlyists sincerely believe the doctrine of the deity of Christ is affected by which version one reads here. No version of this verse says anything against the deity of Christ, but one version of this verse contains a plain affirmation of it while the other does not. Still, when addressing textual variants, our concern must always be what the biblical authors actually wrote rather than what we wish they had written to give us a convenient proof text. The deity of Christ is a pervasive teaching throughout the New Testament and does not stand or fall on the precise wording of any single verse. There is nothing doctrinally at stake here. We simply want to know which version best reflects Paul's original words?

The Verse

The verse under consideration here reads:

"And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ," (Ephesians 3:9, KJV).

"and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things," (Ephesians 3:9, NASB).

There are several variants here, but the most sensitive one, and the one of most immediate concern, is at the very end. The NASB merely says that God created all things while the KJV says that God created all things "by Jesus Christ." The version in the NASB does not say anything untrue. Every Christian King James Onlyist would agree that God did, indeed, create all things. The only issue is whether or not Paul originally mentioned in this specific verse that God did so "by Jesus Christ." It is also worth noting that this is not, in fact, a King James Only issue since some modern versions such as the NKJV and MEV actually agree with the KJV here, so regardless of where one lands, one need not limit oneself to only the King James Version.

Are Modern Versions Hiding Something?

Before we look at the evidence, it is important to address the common KJVO accusation that modern versions that do not contain the phrase "by Jesus Christ" are conspiring to hide the fact that Jesus is creator. This is simply untrue. The fact that Jesus created all things is plainly stated throughout modern Christian Bible translations. To note just a few verses:

"All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being," (John 1:3, NASB).

"For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together," (Colossians 1:16-17, NASB).

"yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him," (1 Corinthians 8:6, NASB).

"in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world," (Hebrews 1:2, NASB).

There is clearly no effort at all to hide the plain fact that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, is creator. God did make all things by Jesus Christ. All Christian translations agree on this. The only issue is whether or not Paul wrote it specifically in Ephesians 3:9. The issue simply comes down to the manuscripts.

The Evidence

In favor of the KJV, NKJV, MEV, and other such translations, the reading of "by Jesus Christ" is found in the majority of medieval Greek manuscripts. Though these copies are rather late, there are a large number of them that share this reading. A later revision of the ancient Syriac translation also reads this way, and it was added into the 5th-century Codex D by a later hand. Beyond this later editorial addition to D, no manuscript from before the middle ages contains the phrase.

In favor of modern translations, we find that the phrase is lacking in all the ancient texts in any language. This includes, of course, the very earliest copies of the passage like P46 (late 2nd to early 3rd century), the 4th-century codices like א and B, and the 5th-century witnesses like A and the original hand in D, alongside numerous other manuscripts. The ancient translations likewise do not contain the phrase. The Latin (both the Old Latin and the Vulgate), Coptic, and early Syriac read just like the NASB or ESV here. While no early church father quotes the passage fully enough to say definitively which version they were reading, both Ambrose1 and Basil2 quote the phrase "In God who created all things" without including the clause "by Jesus Christ." No early Christian writer quotes the verse as containing that clause.

Because of the widely diverse and extremely ancient evidence that all unanimously agrees that Paul did not use the phrase "by Jesus Christ" in this verse and noticing that the longer reading does not appear until much later, scholars justifiably conclude that the shorter form is the original. This is why the majority of modern versions do not contain the phrase "by Jesus Christ." They are simply following the evidence.

The Majority Text and the Question of "Fellowship"

Of course, one could make the case (and a minority of scholars have done so) that the late majority of Greek manuscripts actually preserved the ancient original and that our earliest manuscripts and translations are all aberrations. Many King James Onlyists are tempted to defend this position, believing that it helps their own. The fact of the matter is, however, that even this line of argument ultimately undermines the KJV Only position, and we need not even leave this verse to demonstrate it.

The large number of later medieval manuscripts that were copied in Byzantine monasteries during the middle ages and which make up the majority of all Greek New Testament manuscripts agree with the KJV when it comes to the phrase "by Jesus Christ." However, if we conclude that these manuscripts are the ones that reliably preserve the wording of Ephesians, the King James Onlyist is still left with a problem. Let's look at our verse again:

"And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ," (Ephesians 3:9, KJV).

"and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things," (Ephesians 3:9, NASB).

Here, we take note of another difference between the KJV and modern versions. Does Paul speak of "the fellowship" or "the administration" of the mystery? The KJV says fellowship (from the Greek "κοινωνία") but the vast majority of other translations read "administration" (NASB, NIV, CSB) or "plan" (ESV, NET). Some older translations use the word "dispensation" (Wycliffe, ASV). All of these, however, are translations of the Greek "οἰκονομία." Thus, the KJV is based on a slightly different Greek text here than all of these other translations.

Not surprisingly, the modern versions again agree with all the ancient witnesses. Every single ancient Greek manuscript reads "οἰκονομία," all the way back to P46 in the late 2nd or early 3rd century. Not only that, every single ancient translation agrees with this as well. Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian, Slavonic, all of them side with the "administration" reading. And, once again, not a single early Christian writer quotes the verse with the word "fellowship." The ancient evidence is unanimous, and that is why modern translators render the verse in the ways that they do.

But what about the majority text argument? Can the King James Onlyist fall back on the claim that the later medieval Byzantine manuscripts represent the original over against every ancient copy and every early translation? No, he cannot. In this case, the argument backfires. The majority text also agrees with the modern versions! The Byzantine manuscripts overwhelmingly support the "administration" or "plan" reading and not the KJV's "fellowship" reading. As such, the KJV's reading on this point is at odds with pretty much the entire manuscript tradition. The KJV translators did not look at manuscripts, only at 16th-century printed texts, so they faithfully translated the text they had without realizing that it was (in this particular place) such an extremely late and feebly supported minority reading. Whether one favors the ancient and diverse witnesses on which modern translators rely or the Byzantine majority text of the middle ages, either way, one has to conclude that the KJV is not the best possible translation of this particular verse. Any way you look at it, Ephesians 3:9 is a strike against King James Onlyism.

 

 

 

  • 1. On the Holy Spirit, Book 2, Chapter 8, Section 76
  • 2. The Holy Spirit, Chapter 5, Section 11