King James Only and the Preservation of Scripture

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

King James Onlyists often appeal to the "doctrine of preservation" in support of their position. They insist that, since God seems to promise to preserve His word, that must mean that there is an unbroken chain of pure, perfect, errorless copies of the Bible in every generation from the time of the New Testament down to today. The KJV, they claim, is that perfect Bible and thus any variance from the KJV is a corruption or perversion of God's pure and providentially preserved word. To disagree with this, they say, is to teach that God has failed to preserve His word and has broken His promise. Thus, they insist, Biblical doctrine demands King James Onlyism. The flaws in this argument are quite numerous. To break it down to just a few categories, this argument:

  1. Misconstrues the doctrine of preservation
  2. Misapplies it to a particular 17th-century English translation of which the Bible never speaks
  3. Misrepresents or even ignores all of history prior to 1611

For these reasons and more, the doctrine of preservation does not demand King James Onlyism. If anything, it actually refutes it.

What is Preservation?

King James Onlyists produce a number of passages to claim that God promised to preserve the Bible perfectly. Most of these verses, when read in context, are not talking about the future copying of the Biblical text at all. Some could perhaps be argued to have implications related to the preservation of the Scriptures, but are not making the claim as directly as KJV Only literature makes it appear. Still, there are a few passages which do seem to be speaking of God preserving the written Scriptures. Psalm 119, for example, speaks of God's "law," "statutes," "commands," "testimonies," "words" etc. in an almost interchangeable fashion that seems clearly to refer to the Torah. The Psalm contains verses like:

"The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever," (Psalm 12:6-7, KJV).

"Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever," (Psalm 119:160, KJV).

Thus, the Scriptures do seem to promise that God will, indeed, preserve His revealed words. But what exactly does this mean? When God inspired the Scriptures in the first place, the authors were supernaturally and miraculously guided by the Holy Spirit to produce God's perfect and inerrant word, but the Bible never speaks of God doing the same miracle of inspiration for those who copy the text after the original was written. Thus, there is no promise that scribes who copy the Bible will be supernaturally prevented from making the same kinds of normal handwriting mistakes that scribes make when copying anything else. Most KJV Only literature would not assert that each scribe is divinely inspired or supernaturally guided. Rather, even KJVO authors usually speak of "providential preservation."

Providence means "the foreseeing care and guidance of God over the creatures of the earth and the events of history." Thus, providence technically includes everything that God does to govern the universe, including miraculous interventions but not at all limited to them. Yet, when most Christians use the word "providence," they mean specifically the way in which God sovereignly brings about His will through the normal affairs of men and events of nature. People make normal choices, animals behave as they were made to, storms and droughts and fires occur, and God invisibly weaves it all together to bring about His will. That is providence. Every event every single day is under God's providence. No abnormal, miraculous intervention is required. Thus, unlike supernatural inspiration, providential preservation would mean that God preserved His word through the normal means of human copying. All the normal things would happen during that copying that happen to normal scribes, and yet God would use those means to still preserve His word in all generations. Thus, the beautiful story of God preserving His word is not a story of scribes who, possessed of the Spirit, never make any mistakes of any kind and all produce identical copies that match the original. Instead, it is a story of thousands of years of hand-copying with all the normal mistakes and challenges and yet where God's word is nevertheless preserved. As we will see, this picture does not fit the narrative of King James Onlyism.

Why the KJV?

Even if we concede, for the sake of argument, that the biblical passages about preservation do insist that every generation will have equally perfect and error-free copies of the Bible that are in every way exactly like the original, that would be far from claiming the perfection of the KJV. Sure, the KJV got very popular in the English speaking world and was used very widely. But, the Latin Vulgate was also wildly popular over vast portions of the world and was so for over a thousand years, yet every King James Onlyist would agree that the Vulgate was not a perfect translation of the Bible. The Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) was essentially the only Old Testament that pretty much any gentile Christian read for the first several hundred years of church history. Even the New Testament authors used it! It remained the Old Testament of the Greek-speaking east all through the centuries. Yet, a King James Onlyist would deny that the Septuagint is the perfect Old Testament, preferring the Hebrew Masoretic Text on which the KJV was primarily based. Thus, if these pre-eminent translations were not the perfect Bibles of their generation, why should anyone assume that the KJV is the perfect Bible of the last 400 years? Why not a stream of manuscripts in the original Greek, even a minority stream, or perhaps one of the countless translations in other languages around the world that have always differed from the KJV? The Bible never says that the KJV will be the perfect preservation of God's word. It never says that any English translation will be. Thus, to say that the KJV is the perfect Bible is to go beyond the Bible's own words to make a historical claim, one which requires substantial evidence.

The Preservation of the Church

God's Word is not the only thing that He has promised to preserve. God has promised to preserve His church. Jesus said, for example, that:

"...upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it," (Matthew 16:18, KJV).

All the powers of death and hell cannot and will not destroy Christ's church. We cannot, like so many cults, believe that the true church failed and the true faith was wiped off the face of the earth for nearly 2,000 years and then had to be brought back and restored. No, God has preserved for Himself a people in all generations. This does not mean, however, that the truest faith is the one held by the majority of churches or by most of the professing Christians in any given generation. No, God can preserve His church in a remnant minority and still hold true to His promise. Indeed, He has often done just that. Likewise, God's promise does not imply that every generation has one specific local church or denomination that has every single detail of doctrine and faith correct. While any true church will hold to the fundamentals of the faith, on secondary issues they disagree. It is not that the true faith on such issues has been lost, but rather that it is preserved in Christ's people as a whole, not in one specific line or expression of them.

In the same way, preservation of the Scriptures need not mean that the manuscripts available to the majority of people were perfectly preserved, nor that every single word was preserved in the same manuscript. Rather, it can and probably does mean that God preserved His word within the manuscript tradition as a whole. No one particular manuscript is without any error (however small the errors therein may be) yet, those same mistakes will not be in all the other manuscripts. Taken together, the body of surviving biblical literature still contains everything that God revealed.

Preservation and the Old Testament

King James Onlyists also often assume that, if the Scriptures are preserved, they must also have been available to and in use by Christians in every generation. Yet, this is not really consistent with their position when we look at the Old Testament. Throughout the vast majority of Church history, Christians could not read Hebrew. In much of the world, they used the Septuagint for their Old Testament, or a secondary translation of the Septuagint into another language like Syriac or Coptic. In the West, they used the Latin Vulgate, an ancient translation of the Old Testament into Latin from Hebrew manuscripts in the 4th century. The Christian churches did not preserve or use the Hebrew text. That text was, instead, preserved by the rabbinic Jewish community. It was used and copied by Jews who did not accept Jesus as Messiah and who were not in any way part of the Christian faith community. KJV Onlyists believe that this Hebrew Text, copied by medieval Jews and ignored entirely by Christians, is God's perfectly preserved text, while the Vulgate and the Septuagint are not. So, what does this mean? It means that God can preserve His word in such a way that Christians can lack the purest form of that word for centuries and that this is no violation of God's promise. Thus, even the King James Onlyist must admit that the doctrine of Preservation does not require all or even a large number of Christians to have open and easy access to a single perfect copy of God's word from beginning to end. It must be true that nothing has actually been lost, but it need not be true that it has all been preserved in the same place by the same people, nor that it always exists as a single perfect version available to all.

Preservation and the KJV

If "preservation" meant that there were always in all ages manuscripts, copies, or versions that are completely perfect in every letter and detail, and if the KJV is the modern English example of those perfect copies, then we should see a chain of manuscripts or translations prior to the KJV which say exactly what the KJV says, word for word. If the KJV Onlyist is right, we should be able to find numerous manuscripts prior to 1611 that are identical to the KJV and to one another. That is quite plainly not what we actually find. Even the King James Only scholars of the Trinitarian Bible Society openly explain that:

"No two of the well over 5,000 manuscripts which are known today agree 100% with each other."1

This is true. While there is an amazing degree of agreement between even our most different manuscripts, and none of the variants between any manuscripts affect any fundamental Christian doctrine, nevertheless, no two manuscripts are identical. They all differ from one another to some extent.2 So, if the doctrine of preservation means that every generation has completely perfect copies, where are they? How come every one of the tens of thousands of copies we have of the Bible in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, and many other ancient languages all contain differences? There is no chain of identical "perfect" copies anywhere in any language.

And, of course, none of these copies in any language match the KJV exactly either. In the late 19th century, a man named Frederick Scrivener set out to discover the precise Greek text behind the New Testament of the King James Version. He found that, even among the various editions of the Textus Receptus, there was no one text that everywhere matched the KJV, and so he produced a new text which was meant to reflect the Greek behind each of the translators' textual decisions. The KJV was based on editorial choices between a number of different printed texts which were themselves each based on the collation of readings from multiple differing manuscripts. The KJV also drew on the choices of earlier translators who also relied on differing Old and New Testament texts. As such, the KJV does not precisely match any Greek text that ever existed prior to 1611. As the Trinitarian Bible Society (who publishes Scrivener's Greek text) admits:

"the AV [Authorized Version, i.e. the KJV] was not translated from any one printed edition of the Greek text. The AV translators relied heavily upon the work of William Tyndale and other editions of the English Bible. Thus there were places in which it is unclear what the Greek basis of the New Testament was. Scrivener in his reconstructed and edited text used as his starting point the Beza edition of 1598, identifying the places where the English text had different readings from the Greek. He examined eighteen editions of the Textus Receptus to find the correct Greek rendering, and made the changes to his Greek text. When he finished he had produced an edition of the Greek New Testament which more closely underlies the text of the AV than any one edition of the Textus Receptus."3

Thus, the KJV is not the preservation of any text that existed when it was translated. It was a scholarly reconstruction of what the translators thought the original text must have been based on the available data. In other words, it was a critical text, just as modern translations are. Indeed, even Scrivener's text did not perfectly reconstruct a text that would justify the KJV in every place. For example, in Hebrews 10:23, the KJV reads:

"Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)," (Hebrews 10:23, KJV).

Yet, the Greek word here to describe our profession in every edition of the TR (and, indeed, throughout the entire manuscript tradition) is "ἐλπίς" (hope) rather than "πίστις" (faith), so even in Scrivener's TR, the word is "hope" rather than the KJV's "faith." In Every other instance where the word ἐλπίς occurs in the New Testament, the KJV translators rightly rendered the word "hope," so it cannot be argued that "hope" is not really what the word means. The word means "hope, " not "faith," and there is no manuscript or even printed Greek text anywhere that reads "faith" in this place rather than "hope." This is why the NKJV, based on the same Greek text as the KJV, renders the verse:

"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful," (Hebrews 10:23, NKJV).

Indeed, every single English version before the KJV likewise used the proper word "hope" here, from John Wycliffe in the 14th century all the way up the Geneva and Bishop's Bibles shortly before the time of the KJV. It is unclear why the KJV translators inserted the word "faith" here, but it is certainly not the perfect preservation of the text that had been read by Christians of all generations before. The reading did not exist prior to 1611, and even then existed only in an English translation.

Similarly, the printed Greek texts of the TR on which the KJV is based likewise contain a number of new readings. Note, for example, Revelation 17:8. "the beast that was, and is not, and yet is," (KJV) versus the reading in modern translations of "...the beast, that he was and is not and will come," (NASB). The reading in the TR, which is what lies behind the KJV, is "καίπερ ἐστίν" and means "although is" or (as the KJV has it) "yet is." This was a copying error that occurred during the production of Erasmus' first edition of the TR in the early 16th century. Erasmus' only manuscript of Revelation actually contained the words "καὶ παρέσται," the very same words behind the NASB's "and will come," but Erasmus' copied it wrong. This mistake is understandable. Note the two readings' similarities if we remove the space between the words:

καίπερἐστίν
καὶπαρέσται

Though we can understand and forgive Erasmus' error, it certainly was an error. There is no manuscript support for the reading "καίπερ ἐστίν" prior to Erasmus' volume; not in the Greek nor in the ancient translations. The only Greek manuscript to contain this reading at all is Minuscule 2049, which is a later 16th-century manuscript from after Erasmus and was, indeed, probably copied from Erasmus' printed edition. Thus, Erasmus created this muddled reading which in turn made its way into the KJV. Countless such examples could be produced. The point is, there is simply no case to be made that the KJV represents a perfect preservation of an unbroken chain of perfectly preserved texts. That is not how God chose to preserve His word.

The KJV as a Changing Text

What's more, the KJV itself has differed from one printing to the next and undergone its own revisions since its first printing in 1611. As one scholar notes:

"The text of the KJV was not fixed in 1611. There was no master text from which all subsequent editions descended, and later editors, printers, and publishers were not always certain which text was the first edition. The absence of an agreed master text gave license to a long tradition of corrections, and there was not always a clear line drawn between corrections of printers' errors and corrections of translators' errors."Gordon Cambell, Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011 (Oxford University Press, 2010) 3-4.

Thus, we don't arrive at a stable KJV text until the 1789 Blayney revision. Before that, there were no Bibles anywhere that read exactly like the KJV reads today. If all the Bibles were imperfect in one way or another until the late 18th century, that is hardly a picture of a singular, perfect stream of preservation in the manner some KJV Onlyists claim. Still worse, even afterward, even today, there are differences between the two major editions of the KJV, the Oxford and the Cambridge. These differences are not many and most are quite trivial, but they are there. To give the most well-known example:

"But ye turned and polluted my name, and caused every man his servant, and every man his handmaid, whom he had set at liberty at their pleasure, to return, and brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids," (Jeremiah 34:16, KJV Oxford Edition).

"But ye turned and polluted my name, and caused every man his servant, and every man his handmaid, whom ye had set at liberty at their pleasure, to return, and brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids," (Jeremiah 34:16, KJV Cambridge Edition).

Which is correct? Did he set them at liberty? Or did ye (plural you) set them at liberty? Both make grammatical sense here. We could, of course, look back at the Hebrew text or check other translations to settle the matter (and doing either would make it clear that ye is the correct reading), but the King James Onlyist doesn't have either of those options. At any rate, this shows us that the perfect original wording of this verse cannot be preserved in all King James Bibles, not even all modern ones, but at best only in some KJVs and not in others. Even within the present printed editions of the KJV, there is variation on the precise wording.

Likewise, in Nahum 3:16, the Oxford text says that "the cankerworm spoileth, and fleeth away," while the Cambridge text reads "the cankerworm spoileth, and flieth away." Since the very next verse speaks of grasshoppers which "flee away," some argue that "fleeth" is likewise the proper reading in verse 16, thus siding with the Oxford text. On the other hand, some argue that "flee" in verse 17 is the source of the typographical error of "fleeth" in verse 16, and therefore "flieth" is the original reading. Since cankerworms are not really able either to "fly" or to "flee" in any especially literal sense, it's not altogether obvious which to go with. Of course, the general sense of the verse remains the same, but if we are quite concerned that every single precise word must be preserved exactly and all in one place, one of these two readings must be right and other must be a corruption, only we know not which is which (at least, if the KJV must always be perfect and cannot be checked by outside sources).

Conclusion

Thus, it is clear that there is no unbroken chain of perfect individual copies of the Bible behind the KJV. The KJV is not the flawless preservation of any previous tradition, much less of the original text. God did not promise us a perfect KJV, and that is not how He chose to preserve the Scripture. Instead, the very words of Scripture are indeed preserved, but not woodenly in one line of identical manuscripts. Instead, God ensured the production and survival of so many manuscripts in so many places that, even though errors exist in any given copy, those errors are absent in others. Thus, by comparing the different manuscripts, we can arrive at the original text. Whenever manuscripts differ, one of the options they give us is the original. Nothing has been lost. In this way, while God has indeed preserved His word, He has done so primarily through providential governance rather than special, miraculous intervention. The KJV translators knew this, and so they compared the various Greek texts to make the best choices they could rather than relying on any one copy to be the "perfect" one. This is what modern translators do as well, only with far more and earlier copies available to them.

  • 1. G. W. Anderson and D. E. Anderson, “The Received Text: A Brief Look at the Textus Receptus” (Trinitarian Bible Society, 1999) 2; http://www.standardbearers.net/uploads/The_Received_Text_A_Brief_Look_at_the_Textus_Receptus_TBS_GW_and_DE_Anderson.pdf (Accessed 8/13/2018)
  • 2. Gordon D. Fee, “The Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 1 (Zondervan, 1979) 420
  • 3. G. W. Anderson and D. E. Anderson, “The Received Text: A Brief Look at the Textus Receptus.” (Trinitarian Bible Society, 1999) 3; http://www.standardbearers.net/uploads/The_Received_Text_A_Brief_Look_at_the_Textus_Receptus_TBS_GW_and_DE_Anderson.pdf (Accessed 8/13/2018)