King James Onlyism is, by definition, a fairly recent and modern phenomenon. It obviously could not exist until after the KJV was translated and after later translations arose to which the KJV would then be compared. Yet, at a more fundamental level, King James Onlyism is simply a recent expression of a pattern which we have seen throughout church history, a pattern we might call "sacred translationism." This is the pattern in which a translation becomes so well established in a given culture that it becomes unassailable in the minds of that culture. Its wording is so familiar and, as the translation becomes dated and obscure, seems then to possess a unique character specially fit for sacred use. As time goes on, the translation may eventually become virtually unreadable to the general public, but it is not to be changed or updated: that old fashioned way of speaking is, after all, the way God speaks, right? It is the sacred tongue. It is reverent and poetic and beautiful, never mind if we are only grasping a portion of what it really means. This is sacred translationism, and we have seen it again and again throughout history and find it in many places still today. King James Onlyism is, in fact, just the English expression of this age-old mentality.
The King James Version of 1611 is the most widespread and influential of a series of English translations which were produced during the 16th and early 17th centuries, largely as a result of the Protestant Reformation. When William Tyndale (1493-1536) began the first of these translations, it was quite controversial. To bring the Bible into English was seen as something profane and demeaning to the Scriptures. They had been read and recited in the beautiful Latin of the Vulgate in churches throughout western Europe and beyond for over a thousand years! How dare some brash young minister presume to degrade these sacred texts by rendering them in the common vernacular of the streets of England. As C.S. Lewis once explained:
"The kind of objection which they feel to a new translation is very much like the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all. Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) 'barbarous' English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into 'language such as men do use' - language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street."1
Thus, while the early English translations were excitedly received by many who could actually understand them for the first time, many others were not only reticent but in fact hostile to the entire enterprise, feeling that the Scriptures were profaned by new translations in common speech that differed from the venerable, old wording and cadence of the Latin Vulgate. On the most extreme end of this reaction, the Roman Catholic Church responded at the Council of Trent by proclaiming:
"the old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many ages, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever," (Council of Trent, Fourth Session, Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures).
In other words: for centuries this is the Bible that all the church has received, the Bible that God has blessed and used. How dare you presume to change it with your new editions? This is the spirit of Sacred Translationism.
Ironically, before it became the "sacred standard" which new translations ought not tamper with, the Vulgate itself was once the controversial new-comer. Particularly in the Old Testament, the early church was quite devoted to the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint. When Jerome produced what came later to be known as the "Vulgate," he had the audacity to go back to the Hebrew Scriptures used by Rabbinic Jews rather than the age-old, God-blessed, Church-approved Greek translation which God's people had used for centuries. The origin of the Septuagint was even shrouded in legends about seventy translators miraculously producing identical translations, proving that God was behind it. One version of this story preserved in an early Christian writing reads:
"the king being ambitious of adorning the library he had at Alexandria with all writings, desired the people of Jerusalem to translate the prophecies they possessed into the Greek dialect. And they being the subjects of the Macedonians, selected from those of highest character among them seventy elders, versed in the Scriptures, and skilled in the Greek dialect, and sent them to him with the divine books. And each having severally translated each prophetic book, and all the translations being compared together, they agreed both in meaning and expression. For it was the counsel of God carried out for the benefit of Grecian ears. It was not alien to the inspiration of God, who gave the prophecy, also to produce the translation, and make it as it were Greek prophecy," (Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book 1, Chapter 22).
And even as early as the mid-second century, Christian writers like Justin Martyr wrote against the Jews and their Hebrew manuscripts:
"But I am far from putting reliance in your teachers, who refuse to admit that the interpretation made by the seventy elders who were with Ptolemy [king] of the Egyptians is a correct one; and they attempt to frame another," (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 71).
Even the name "Vulgate" was not originally applied to Jerome's translation. In the early days, the term "Vulgate" was actually used of the Latin translation of the Septuagint.2 The name "Vulgate" means "the common text" and was used here to mean the text commonly accepted by the churches, much as the term "the received text," derived from the idea that it was the "text received by all,"3 is now used for the Greek text behind the KJV. Indeed, the exclusive use of the Septuagint, even where it differed from the Hebrew, was defended on the basis of Proverbs 22:28, "Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set,"4 just as many King James Only advocates do in defense of the KJV today!
Even Augustine, a close friend of Jerome's, was uncomfortable with his Old Testament text, differing as it did from the Septuagint. While writing about Jerome's translation of the New Testament, Augustine gushed:
"Accordingly, we give no small thanks to God for your work on translating the Gospel from Greek, because it is almost without fault when we compare it with a Greek Bible: when these manuscripts are brought out and compared, anyone argumentative who prefers an error of the old version will be either corrected most easily or refuted."5
However, when it came to his translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew rather than the Greek, Jerome's friend was not so laudatory, urging him to produce a translation of the Septuagint instead:
"I desire, moreover, your translation of the Septuagint, in order that we may be delivered, so far as is possible, from the consequences of the notable incompetency of those who, whether qualified or not, have attempted a Latin translation; and in order that those who think that I look with jealousy on your useful labours, may at length, if it be possible, perceive that my only reason for objecting to the public reading of your translation from the Hebrew in our churches was, lest, bringing forward anything which was, as it were, new and opposed to the authority of the Septuagint version, we should trouble by serious cause of offence the flocks of Christ, whose ears and hearts have become accustomed to listen to that version to which the seal of approbation was given by the apostles themselves."6
In other words, please make a Latin translation from the Greek Septuagint, the translation the Apostle's themselves approved and all the churches are accustomed to hearing. I want to use your translation, but I can't so long as you insist on using manuscripts that differ from the sacred translation. And the issue was not just over perceived doctrinal differences, but any differences. Among Augustine's concerns, for example, was that Jerome's translation disagreed with the Septuagint on the exact type of plant it was that provided shade for the prophet in Jonah 4!7 The Septuagint was the sacred translation, and thus no new version could in any way disagree with it, even if the manuscripts in the original languages were on the new version's side. So too is the cry of the King James Onlyist today, just on behalf of a different translation.
Sacred Translationism is a human impulse. We have a natural tendency to imbue the familiar wording of an old, trusted translation with an inviolable, sacred status and to perceive its increasingly difficult and old-fashioned language as reverent, poetic, beautiful, and uniquely worthy of God's Holy word. In my travels in eastern Europe, I have seen the same reverence attached to old translations there. People can scarcely understand them, but new translations are met with suspicion simply for not being the sacred old translation. The Amish do the same with Martin Luther's 16th-century translation into German. Each of these translations was originally produced to make the Scriptures readable to the masses of their day. Now, thanks to their lofty traditional status, each has transformed into a barrier against readable translations for the masses of our day. So too was it with the Septuagint, and then with the Vulgate. And so is it today with the KJV in English. The tradition of "sacred translationism" is appealing to people across cultures. We like to venerate things. It's in the very nature of human religion to do so. But the Bible itself does not vindicate this impulse. No promise of Scripture gave special status to the Septuagint, or to Jerome's Latin, or to Luther's German, and no word of Scripture gives special status to the translation authorized by the English crown in 1611. It's just an age-old case of reverence for a human tradition trumping Scripture itself.
- 1. C.S. Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis (Family Christian Press) 455, from "God in the Dock" Chapter 10
- 2. H.A.G. Houghton, The Latin New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2016) 32
- 3. David Norton, The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today (Cambridge University Press, 2011) 5
- 4. Henry Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek: Second Edition (Cambridge University Press, 1914) 61
- 5. H.A.G. Houghton, The Latin New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2016) 37
- 6. The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 1, Letter 82, Section 35
- 7. ibid.