Is the KJV the Most Literal Translation?

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
Return to King James Onlyism

King James Only advocates often praise the KJV for, among other things, being the "most literal translation." The KJV certainly is often very literal, perhaps more often than most other translations (though the NASB is generally considered by most to be even more literal than the KJV). But this is only a generalization. There is no one translation that is in every instance more literal than every other translation. There are many places where the KJV may be more literal than most or even all others, but there are many other places where it is not. Indeed, in some passages, it is among the least literal translations used today. If one argues that the most "literal" rendering is always the best, then in some passages the KJV is easily found wanting.

God Forbid

One pervasive example is the KJV's use of the English idiom "God forbid," especially throughout the book of Romans. To take just one example, we read in the King James:

"What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid," (Romans 6:15, KJV).

The Greek words translated here as "God forbid" are the words "μὴ γένοιτο." The word "μὴ" is a particle of negation. It basically translates in English as "not." The second word, γένοιτο, means "be, become, arise, come into being, etc."  Thus, μὴ γένοιτο literally means "not be," "not arise," or "not come to be." There is no word there for "God" or for "forbid." The idiom "God forbid" carries the same basic meaning in English as the Greek phrase, but it is quite far from a literal translation of the words. The idiom was widely used in early English translation. Indeed, it was present here in every major English translation not only before the KJV but even afterward on up through the ASV. In fact, the much more recent MEV retains this traditional idiom as well. But it is just that: a tradition. It captures Paul's sense, but it is not at all rendered literally in equivalent terms. Modern translations render the phrase variously as:

"...May it never be!" (Romans 6:1, NASB).

"...Certainly not!" (Romans 6:1, NKJV).

"...Absolutely not!" (Romans 6:1, CSB, NET).

"...By no means!" (Romans 6:1, ESV, NIV).

Of these, the NASB's "may it never be" comes by far the closest to a literal rendering.

Cast in His Teeth

To take another example, when describing the crucifixion, the KJV notes:

"The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth," (Matthew 27:44, KJV).

Not only is this a somewhat difficult sentence from the standpoint of modern English, more to the point, the phrase "cast the same in his teeth" is an old English idiom, not a straightforward translation from the Greek. There is no word for "teeth" in the Greek here nor is the phrase at all a literal rendering. The actual phrase, literally translated, simply means "reviled him in the same way," (ESV, see also NKJV, NASB, MEV, and others). The phrase "cast in his teeth," was first introduced to this passage by William Tyndale in his 16th-century English New Testament. Tyndale was attempting to produce a translation in colloquial, street-level English. He did not always succeed at this, but it was his goal, and he was willing at times to use rough, idiomatic paraphrases to make the text understood. The next English translator after him, a man named Miles Coverdale, kept the idiom but adjusted it to read "cast the same in his teeth," the same wording we find in the KJV today. But long before any of these men, back in the 14th-century, the very first complete English Bible rendered the text more literally:

"And the thieves, that were crucified with him, upbraided him of the same thing," (Matthew 27:44, Wycliffe).

Indeed, if one looks at everywhere else that the KJV translators render the same Greek word, you will find it translated as upbraid, reproach, or revile; never "cast in his teeth." Thus, the modern translations are all far more literal than is the KJV in Matthew 27:44. The King James is, in fact, extremely periphrastic in this passage. 

Three Days or Three Years?

Or again, in Amos 4 we read:

"Come to Bethel, and transgress; at Gilgal multiply transgression; and bring your sacrifices every morning, and your tithes after three years," (Amos 4:4, KJV).

This is probably a good interpretation of what the passage means, but what the passage actually says is "after three days," rather than "after three years." The Hebrew word in this verse is the word for day, not the word for year. Note how the earliest English translators all rendered the verse quite literally:

"...in three days..." (Amos 4:4, Wycliffe).

"...unto the third day," (Amos 4:4, Coverdale, Matthew Bible, Great Bible).

But, beginning at the Geneva Bible and continuing through the Bishop's Bible and on into the KJV, the literal (and probably idiomatic) use of the word "day" was replaced with the more interpretive word "year" so that the passage would make more straightforward sense to English readers unfamiliar with Hebrew idiom. Thus, the KJV translators chose to convey the meaning of the passage rather than the actual words. The NIV renders this clause the exact same way as the KJV, and for the same reasons. Most modern translations, however, translate the passage more literally as "...after three days," (NASB, ESV, MEV, CSB, etc.) and leave the interpretation to the reader/preacher.

The Shepherd or to Feed?

In yet another example, the KJV renders Paul's words in Acts 28 as:

"Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood," (Acts 20:28, KJV).

The Greek word here is ποιμαίνω, which is simply the verb form of ποιμήν, the Greek word for shepherd. Thus, the most literal translation would be "to shepherd the church of God," which is the reading found in many modern translations like the NASB, NKJV, MEV, CSB, NET, etc. Other translations, both historical and modern, have rendered this verb more interpretively in a variety of ways, such as:

"...to rule the church of God..." (Acts 20:28, Wycliffe).

"...to rule the congregation of God..." (Acts 20:28, Tyndale, Matthew Bible, Great Bible, Bishop's Bible).

"...to feed the congregation of God..." (Acts 20:28, Coverdale).

"...to feed the church of God..." (Acts 20:28, Geneva).

"...to care for the church of God..." (Acts 20:28, ESV).

"...Be shepherds of the church of God..." (Acts 20:28, NIV).

All of these, along with the KJV, capture a sense of the general meaning of the text, but none is as literal or as complete as "to shepherd," which captures both the idea of caring for and leading/governing the church. The KJV is not "wrong" here, but it also is not literal.

The Root of All Evil

To give just one more instance, the famous words of Paul to Timothy read:

"For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows," (1 Timothy 6:10, KJV).

This verse is so well known that the truncated quote from it "money is the root of all evil" has long been a cultural cliche' in the English language. But is this the most literal translation of the Greek? Not exactly. There is no Greek article (or the equivalent of the word "the") before "root" in this sentence in the Greek. Now, the Greek article works a little differently than the English, and there are instances where "the" is required in English even where no article is found in the Greek, but this does not appear to be the case here. Paul is not trying to argue that the love of money is "the" root of evil, as if literally all sin stems only from the love of money and nowhere else. Rather, he is explaining that the love of money is a root of all evil, which is why he uses no article here. Further, the word for "evil" in this sentence is actually a plural in the Greek, which is why the early Wycliffe Bible and the modern NET both translate it as "all evils" rather than "all evil." But there is yet another issue. The word "evils" does have an article in front of it. Now, again, The Greek article works a bit differently from the English article, and sometimes it is appropriate to leave "the" out in English even when it is present in the Greek, but the most straightforward, completely literal translation would actually be that the love of money is:

"...a root of all the evils..." (1 Timothy 6:10, Young's Literal Translation).

Most modern translations try to make sense of this in English by rending it:

"...a root of all sorts of evil..." (1 Timothy 6:10, NASB).

"...a root of all kinds of evil..." (1 Timothy 6:10, ESV, NKJV, NIV, CSB).

These translations are also not completely literal, but they have the advantage of recognizing that it is "a root" rather than "the root" and the evils are plural rather than singular, thus they are more literal than is the KJV.

Conclusion

Many more such examples could be produced. Now, to be clear, I am not denying that the KJV is usually a very literal translation. It certainly is. But it is not in every place the most literal translation. Indeed, in some places it isn't literal at all! Does this make the KJV wrong? Only if you insist that literal translation is the only acceptable approach to translation or that one must always prefer the most literal rendering possible. If that is your position, then you must consider the KJV to be in many places flawed, and you ought to be demanding a new, perfectly literal translation (or at least as much as is possible in English). The KJV is not as literal as it could possibly be. As we have seen, the translators of the KJV sometimes chose looser translations or even idiomatic paraphrases of the thought rather than word for word translation even in places where word for word translation was quite possible. Thus, if you demand a truly and completely literal translation as the only true Bible, then the KJV falls short, and you need to keep looking.

If, on the other hand, you concede that it can be appropriate to translate the thought or general idea of a verse rather than the exact wording, then what is the problem with modern translations doing the same? When translations like the NKJV or MEV (both of which are normally pretty literal and use the very same Greek and Hebrew texts as the KJV) choose to word something slightly different so that it makes sense to the modern reader, what are they doing that was not also done in the KJV? Why is it okay for the KJV to deviate from a literal translation but not for anyone else? If you are going to embrace the KJV, you have to also embrace their translation methodology, which means accepting that sometimes it is best, or at least acceptable, not to be literal even when you could be.