King James Onlyism and Romans 8:1

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

King James Onlyists frequently latch on to any place where the text of the KJV differs from modern translations and then try to find any way to represent the difference as being of paramount doctrinal importance (when, in fact, the differences rarely have any significant impact on the meaning of the text and never alter any fundamental Christian doctrine.) One of the passages that often draws this kind of attention is Romans 8:1.

Most modern translations lack the words "who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit," to describe those who are in Christ, and many King James Onlyists point to this passage and claim that modern translations deny that believers walk after the Spirit rather than the flesh and are trying to justify carnal living by "removing" the phrase. Never mind that literally the exact same words are used in verse 4 of the very same chapter in every modern translation, and never mind that the theme of Christians living in the Spirit and not in the flesh runs thoroughly through the chapter in any translation. Such considerations don't matter. If the words are not present in every single place in which the KJV possesses them, then apparently the whole teaching is no longer valid, no matter where else the word of God may plainly state it. Still, this verse does provide a great example to show why the differences between the KJV and modern versions exist and thus is worth exploring in more detail.

The Verse in Question

Romans 8:1 actually exists in three basic forms, adequately represented by the following translations:

"Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," (NASB).

"Therefore now nothing of condemnation is to them that be in Christ Jesus, which wander not after the flesh," (Wycliffe).

"There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit," (KJV).

As you can see, there is a short form, which is found in the manuscripts used by the NASB and most other modern translations. There is what we might call a middle-length form, which persisted in the Latin translations and from there found its way into the 14th-century John Wycliffe Bible, the oldest English translation of the complete Bible. There is also a long form which was found in the manuscripts that were available to the KJV translators and most other 16th and 17th century English translators. So, where did each of these forms come from? Which is the oldest, and how can we tell?

Examining the Manuscript Evidence

There is manuscript evidence in support of each of these three traditions:

  • Affirming the short form in the NASB and other modern translations: Codex ‭א and B (fourth century), Codex D (sixth century), and a number of other Greek manuscripts in the centuries that followed and on into the middle ages. This is also the reading in itd (sixth century) and some other Old Latin manuscripts, as well as the Sahidic and Bohairic Coptic translations, the Ethiopic, and some of the Armenian and Georgian witnesses.
     
  • Affirming the middle form found in Wycliffe's translation: Codex A (fifth century). A later scribe added this reading into Codex D (probably seventh century). The reading is also found in a number of Greek manuscripts in the centuries that followed. It is in most of the Old Latin manuscripts, including itm (fifth century). It is also the reading in the Latin Vulgate. This reading is found in the Syriac Peshitta, which is the earliest surviving form of Paul's letters in Syriac, and it is the reading found in the Gothic and some of the Armenian copies.
     
  • Affirming the long form found in the KJV and other TR-based translations: The earliest manuscripts to contain this reading in the main body of the text are from the ninth century, though a scribe did add the reading into Codex א probably around the seventh century. It is the reading in the majority of the medieval Greek manuscripts. It was the reading of a few late Old Latin manuscripts and of some of the later Syriac manuscripts. This reading is found in the Old Slavonic and in some Georgian witnesses.

As you can see, all these readings do have diverse witnesses in their favor. Our oldest manuscripts affirm the short form, which is a major reason why modern translators prefer it. The middle reading also has notably early evidence, though not quite as early as the short reading. Because it was the reading adopted by the Vulgate, the middle reading can also boast the largest number of ancient and medieval copies (if copies of ancient translations are included). The long reading does not show up in the manuscript record until notably later, though because it was the preferred reading in the Byzantine monasteries where Greek continued to be used and copied on through the middle ages, it does ultimately find itself in the largest number of Greek copies, though all of these copies are quite late by comparison to the other two readings.

Early Citations

Evidence from citations in early Christian writings is always secondary to manuscript evidence, but can still be worth noting. In our case here, the earliest citations again side with the shorter reading (Origen, Athanasius, Augustine,1 John Cassian,2 and others.) Thus, the short version was being cited at least as early as the third century and was certainly well established in the fourth and early fifth. Again matching our manuscript evidence, the Middle reading also has early evidence, though not quite as early, being referenced in Victorinus, Ephraem the Syrian, Basil, Jerome, and others. The earliest apparent reference to the long reading is in Theodoret, a fifth-century writer who comes after the earliest evidence for the other two readings but much earlier than the long reading's manuscript evidence.

John Chrysostom, the famed late fourth-century preacher, is an interesting and potentially informative case. When preaching directly on the passage, he is very clearly preaching from the middle reading. He not only quotes the verse that way, he goes on to draw thorough special attention to the fact that the words "but after the Spirit," are not in verse 1 but are present in verse 4 (where, again, all manuscripts and translations agree they are present). He says, for example, commenting on the parallel language between verse 1 and verse 4:

"after saying, there is therefore no condemnation, he added, to them that walk not after the flesh; and here also, that the requisition of the Law might be fulfilled in us, he proceeds with the very same thing; or rather, not with it only, but even with a much stronger thing. For after saying, that the righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled in us that walk not after the flesh, he proceeds, but after the Spirit," (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, Homily 13).

Thus, Chrysostom is clear that Paul used the words "that walk not after the flesh," in Romans 8:1, but only added "but after the Spirit" in verse 4. Chrysostom clearly possessed, used, and believed the middle form, and did not seem to know of any other. Yet, when he references this passage off-the-cuff in one of his Homilies on Matthew, he does so by saying:

"And as to our having received more abundant help, hear thou Paul, when he saith, “There is therefore no condemnation now to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit: for the law of the Spirit of life hath made me free from the law of sin and death,” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, Homily 16).

Here, he quotes what appears to be the longer version. So, what are we to make of this? That Chrysostom had a manuscript of Romans that included the longer reading seems unlikely, considering how clear he is on the matter when actually preaching on Romans with the book open in front of him. Conversely, it is possible that the later copies we have of Chrysostom's sermons on Matthew which cite the verse this way were harmonized by later scribes and that Chrysostom himself didn't quote the verse that way but rather cited only the middle version as he does elsewhere, but that would require further evidence to substantiate. Perhaps the most likely option is that Chrysostom, speaking from memory (having Matthew and not Romans open in front of him), mixed in the similar and familiar words from Romans 8:4 into his quotation of Romans 8:1, the kind of honest mistake so many of us have made when speaking publically. If this is the case, Chrysostom's misstatement in his homily on Matthew may give us a window into how a scribe might have later made a similar mistake. Indeed, Chrysostom was such a monumental figure and these transcriptions of his sermons were so well read, it is not unthinkable that this homily may well be the direct origin of the longer reading, though such a conclusion is hardly necessary. The point is simply that Chrysostom provides us with a fine example of how someone could produce the long reading based on knowledge only of the middle reading and the parallel language in Romans 8:4. This further increases the likelihood that the long reading is not original to Romans but is rather a later scribal error or interpolation.

Putting it all Together

In all our streams of evidence, we consistently observe a common pattern. The earliest manuscripts, translations, and citations in early church writings all reflect the shorter reading. The middle reading is evidenced later but still quite early witnesses, and the long reading arises only after that. This is why modern translators think that the short reading is probably the oldest and that the long reading found in the KJV is probably a much later tradition, likely due to a scribal error. One could also make the case, however, that the middle reading may be original. This reading is also quite early, and it may be the case that some early scribe (or scribes) mistakenly omitted a few words at the end of the verse, creating the shorter reading, just as later scribes mistakenly added words to create the longer reading. This narrative also makes logical sense, though based on the general rules for why scribes would most likely mistakenly omit a phrase, this seems less likely than the former, given the lack of any clear reason why a scribe would have skipped these words. Either way, both of these possibilities are far more likely than the idea that the longer reading is original and the other two are both corruptions. All the material we have seems to point in the opposite direction.

Conclusion

What, then, should Bible translators do? Well, something like what they are already doing, i.e. place the most likely reading in the main body of the text while noting the other readings in the margins or in a footnote, thus making the information available to all believers and local churches, who may then be guided by the Spirit in how best to use and apply that information. Nothing is gained by hiding anything or by insisting on the least likely reading simply because your favorite translation has always read that way.

  • 1. See, for example, "A Treatise Against Two Letters of the Pelagians," Book 1, Chapter 21; "On Marriage and Concupiscence," Book 1, Chapter 36
  • 2. See, for example, "The Third Conference of Abbot Theonas: On Sinlessness," Chapter 13