King James Onlyism and Majority Text Arguments

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

King James Onlyists often appeal to arguments based on the "majority text." The claim is that the readings found in the King James Version match up with what is found in the majority of manuscripts, whereas modern translations are based only on a small minority of manuscripts.  On the surface, this can sound convincing, but with only a bit of reflection and examination, the whole argument breaks down. Indeed, for King James Onlyists, the argument fails on at least three fronts:

  1. Mere majority is a bad argument
  2. Even if the majority argument is right, the text behind the KJV does not always agree with the majority
  3. Even if the text behind the KJV were the Majority, that would also apply to modern translations based on the same text

The Majority Fallacy

It sounds very convincing to say "the vast majority of manuscripts agree with my translation over your translation." If you think about it, however, this doesn't prove anything. The Nestle-Aland/UBS Greek text (the version of the Greek New Testament that lies behind most modern translations) is printed and purchased in very large numbers today, larger than other printed Greek texts. If there are not already, there will soon be more copies of that Greek New Testament in print than any other that has ever existed. Would this make the Nestle-Aland/UBS text the new majority text? If so, would that suddenly make modern translations more accurate and the KJV less accurate since now the modern translations are in the majority? You see, the majority can change from one era to the next depending on who has the resources, freedom, and ability to do the copying. If the majority text in one generation can become the minority in the next, what should make us think the majority text of today is the correct one versus, say, the majority text 1500 years ago? Or 500 years from now? If your methodology for determining the original text might give you different results in different eras, it is a flawed methodology.

This is why the general rule in textual studies is that "manuscripts are not counted, they are weighed." Some manuscripts carry more weight than others. Most manuscripts, for example, are from very late, over a thousand years after the New Testament was written. Some manuscripts, however, are from quite early. Many (though still a small minority of the total) are from within only a few centuries of the originals. A small number of manuscript fragments are even from less than 100 years after the originals! Obviously, all things being equal, a second-century manuscript carries more weight than a fourteenth-century manuscript. Of course, this is not always the case, and other factors must also be considered. An early copy may have been copied by a somewhat sloppy scribe who made more mistakes and a late copy may come from a long line of very faithful scribes and have relatively few mistakes. Such things can happen, and we have to keep them in mind when weighing manuscripts. Still, when all the earliest manuscripts agree in reading one way and only later do we start to find manuscripts that read another way, it is healthy to prefer the early reading to the novel one, even if the novel one later becomes the majority. This is just one simple example of the different ways that manuscripts can be weighed and that a minority may actually appear more reliable when properly set in history.

It is also important to remember that the majority of manuscripts are not gathered equally from all over the Christian world. As Dr. Gordon Fee noted:

"It is a matter of fact that the great majority of manuscripts of the Greek NT come from the monasteries and churches of the Byzantine empire - not from anywhere else."1

So, the majority of the Christian world throughout history is not represented in the majority of Greek manuscripts that survived down to today. While the "majority of manuscripts" are quite numerous, they come from one relatively small area. For various reasons, manuscripts didn't make it down to us in large numbers from most other regions. In some places, manuscripts were destroyed through persecution and manuscript production was restricted or stopped altogether. In other places, literacy fell as civilization shifted and manuscript copying fell with it. After the Muslim conquest, Christianity itself diminished greatly in many places, which obviously would reduce the number of copies produced and preserved. In most places, people stopped using Greek. Manuscripts were instead copied in other languages, especially in Latin. If we allow copies of ancient translations to be counted, we come up with a very different majority text!

Indeed, while we have some 6,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (a very impressive number for a collection of ancient documents), the Latin Vulgate boasts 10,000 manuscripts and over a thousand years of exclusive ecclesiastical use in the west. If being the majority text makes a particular translation correct, it seems one must abandon the KJV and embrace the Vulgate as the true Bible!

Finally, it is biblically a dubious argument to assume the inherent faithfulness of the majority. The Bible places little stock in "majority rules" thinking. The righteous are almost always the remnant, not the masses. Few find the straight and narrow path. Broad is the way of destruction. This point can certainly be overstated. I am not claiming that the Bible teaches that every majority of anything is always wrong. The point here is not that the majority must be wrong, but simply that the majority of any class of people, scribes included, cannot be inherently trusted merely on account of being the majority or of agreeing with one another against the minority. It may feel good to have the majority on your side, but the Bible insists that we examine and be sure that we are on the right foundation more carefully than simply following the majority. We must seek the truth, even if it means standing with the few against the many. "The majority agree with me," is simply not a Biblically sufficient argument.

The KJV and the Majority Text

There are Scholars who take the concept of a true "majority text" very seriously. They scrupulously compare manuscripts to determine the majority readings in every instance as their baseline to then deal with those harder places where there is no clear majority. King James Onlyists will often selectively cite these scholars and their arguments to defend the King James Only position, but this is not really correct. The Majority text differs from the Textus Receptus (The Greek text behind the King James New Testament) in over 1,800 places.2 Far from representing the majority in all of its distinctive readings, there are numerous places where the Textus Receptus is supported by few or even no Greek manuscripts at all.3 So, while there are certainly a number of passages where the Majority Text will agree with the KJV against modern translations, the KJV is not a translation of the majority text.

Indeed, there are also places where the KJV agrees with modern translations against the majority text. For example, in 1 John 2:23, the majority text simply reads:

"Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father."

This short form of the verse is found not only in the majority of manuscripts, it is actually the form found in the pre-KJV editions of the Textus Receptus as well. That is why English translations from the Textus Receptus prior to the KJV, such as Tyndale, Coverdale, the Matthew Bible, the Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible, all have this truncated version of the verse. The KJV, however, agrees with modern translations against the majority text by including the longer form:

"Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also."

Modern translators agree that this is the original form of the verse, but it is not the form found in the majority of Greek manuscripts. The KJV translators abandoned the majority reading and the great English translations that came before them and "changed" the verse in agreement with a minority of manuscripts, which they deemed in this place to be more accurate. This is precisely what modern translators are doing when they also opt for readings found only in a minority of manuscripts.

There are also rather important places where the majority text and modern translations agree against the KJV. If the majority text is correct, the KJV's reading at 1 John 5:7-8 is incorrect and modern translations have it right. So also in texts like Acts 8:37 and Revelation 16:5. Examples could be multiplied, but these are sufficient to prove the point. The KJV is not the majority text. Any argument in favor of the ultimate superiority of the majority text is an argument against the absolute perfection of the KJV. KJV Onlyists are undermining their own position when they appeal to majority text arguments.

What about the NKJV?

It is also worth noting that, even if the Greek text behind the KJV was the majority text and even if the Majority text was inherently correct, that still would not prove that the KJV was the best possible translation of that text. While most modern translations now utilize a different underlying Greek text from that of the KJV, some do not. Most famously, the New King James Version (NKJV) is a translation from the same Greek texts as the KJV, as are the Modern English Version (MEV), the 21st Century King James Version (KJ21), and others. These are not only translations into the contemporary English we actually speak and understand today, they are, in many places, better translations. To give one example, in 2 Peter 1:1, the KJV reads:

"Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ," (2 Peter 1:1, KJV).

But these modern versions also translated from the Textus Receptus read:

"Simon Peter, a bondservant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ, " (2 Peter 1:1, NKJV).

"Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have received a faith as precious as ours through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ," (2 Peter 1:1, MEV).

The reading in the KJV, "the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ," implies that "God" and "our savior Jesus Christ" are two separate agents. The modern translations are much clearer and truer to the sense of the original, reading "our God and savior Jesus Christ," thus showing that only one person is in view, Jesus Christ, who is both God and savior. This is a better translation. Indeed, "our God and Savior Jesus Christ" is not a novel rendering. It is found in literally every major English translation before the KJV, from John Wycliffe all the way down to the Bishop's Bible. The modern translations are not changing this text. Quite the contrary, they are correcting a change mistakenly introduced by the KJV translators. Examples like this show us that, even if the Greek text behind the KJV were really the best and most accurate Greek text, that would not make the KJV the best possible translation of that Greek text into the English language. Better translations would be possible and indeed, at least for some verses, already exist.

Conclusion

Do not be misled when KJV Only advocates declare that their position is supported by "the vast majority of Greek manuscripts." The claim is not true. Even if the claim were true, there are good reasons to question whether the majority of manuscripts are more accurate than their far more ancient minority counterparts. Finally, translations into contemporary English from the same Greek texts as the KJV exist and are not only more comprehensible to most modern readers but are demonstrably more accurate in some verses. Majority text arguments offer no support for KJV Onlyism. Indeed, they undermine it.

  • 1. Gordon Fee, "Modern Textual Criticism and the Majority Text: A Rejoinder," (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol 21, June, 1978) 158
  • 2. https://bible.org/article/some-second-thoughts-majority-text (Accessed 4/25/2018)
  • 3. https://bible.org/article/majority-text-and-original-text-are-they-identical (Accessed 4/25/2018)