Proverbs 22:28 and KJV Onlyism

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

Among certain corners of the King James Only movement, it is common to appeal to Proverbs 22:28 as a mandate that forbids the use of new Bible translations or newly discovered ancient manuscripts. They claim that this proverb teaches that we ought to hold to and use the Bible that the generations before us so widely upheld and trusted for so long. This argument is flawed on a number of levels. The proverb itself reads:

"Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set," (Proverbs 22:28, KJV).

The issues with the King James Only use of this proverb can be summed up in at least three basic categories: The language of the proverb, the meaning of the proverb, and the history of this application. Let us consider each of them.

The Language of the Proverb

While this is by no means the central point, if we are to properly understand this proverb, it is important that we note that there are multiple words in this little sentence that meant something different in 1611 than they do today. "Remove", for example, today means to "take away" or "get rid of". In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, it had a broader, more general use. The word "remove" simply meant to relocate or go from one place to another. Today, we would simply use the word "move." So the proverb is not talking about getting rid of or abandoning the "ancient landmark," it is talking about moving it or changing its location.

And what is being moved, exactly? This brings us to another word: Landmark. To us, a landmark is a prominent land feature or a conspicuous building or object that serves as a guide, especially for travelers or those otherwise seeking directions to a desired location. It is a distinguishing, visible, recognizable object or feature that marks a site or location to make it easier to find. That is not, however, how the King James Translators are using the word here. In this proverb, a "landmark" is a property marker. It is an object that marks the boundary between one person's land and another person's land. It determines where one person's property ends and the next person's begins. This is why modern translations often render this text in ways like:

"Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set," (Proverbs 22:28, NASB).

"Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your ancestors," (Proverbs 22:28, NIV).

"Don’t move an ancient boundary marker that your fathers set up," (Proverbs 22:28, CSB).

"Remove" and "landmark" would have been quite clear in 1611, but they are not as obvious today and can lead to confusion. Thus, ironically, this verse actually provides us with an example why it is important to update translations as languages change over time. 

The Meaning of the Proverb

But more to the point, what is this proverb actually saying? What is the point that Solomon is making here? Does it really have anything to do with what Bible translation we use, even by extension? The King James Onlyist seems to think that the proverb is a defense of certain traditions. Thus, when it comes to Bible translations, if our forefathers were wise enough to trust and agree on a certain Bible translation, we ought not to remove that "landmark." As Dr. Mark Ward notes:

"This verse is frequently used by readers of the King James who don’t wish to see other Christians set it aside. It’s actually something of a rallying cry urging others to hold onto the KJV and assorted other traditions. Whether the KJV and those other traditions are worth holding on to or not, however, this sentence has nothing to do with traditions. It’s about landmarks."1

And again, we need to remember that "landmarks" here are boundary markers dividing property ownership. The fact of the matter is, this passage isn't really about preserving traditions or old, tried-and-true practices at all. It is actually about theft and exploitation through defrauding someone's land inheritance. If the line between your property and your neighbor's property was marked by a particular stone, for example, you could conceivably move that stone over without your neighbor knowing and thus take for yourself and your children a portion of his land. This would be criminal and immoral even now but was an especially big deal in Old Testament times when the inheritance of every tribe, clan, and family of Israel was of such importance in the law of Moses. Thus, we read other passages like:

"Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour's landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it," (Deuteronomy 19:14).

The issue here is the land inheritance that God has given to each household in Israel. To "remove the ancient landmark" does not mean to abandon an old practice or to change a way of doing things. It certainly doesn't mean updating a Bible translation. It means to rob your neighbor of a portion of their field by deceitfully redrawing the property line. Note another proverb on the subject:

"Remove not the old landmark; and enter not into the fields of the fatherless," (Proverbs 23:10).

As Ward again notes:

"Proverbs does not say that you should never change any ancient thing your fathers did. Hey, they didn’t take regular baths. They owned slaves. They shaved with monster razors you’d be scared to touch. No, these proverbs specify one thing you are not to change: the hereditary boundaries that marked off the property for farm families in the land of Israel. To do that would be to quite literally steal property, and the resultant crops, from weak and needy people— and that is something God cannot and will not abide."2

So, in context, Proverbs 22:28 is entirely unrelated to the issue of Bible translations. It's actually an application of the command "thou shalt not steal." This was one way someone in the ancient world might take from another slyly without having to rob or seize property by force, and it was just as evil a method.

History and Application

Applying this Proverb the way some King James Only folks do does not actually accomplish what they think it does. Indeed, it undermines the King James Version entirely! If indeed we are never to produce a Bible translation that differs from the one approved by our fathers for many generations past, then the KJV is itself a violation of this command. In fact, the King James Only movement is not the first group ever to offer this argument from Proverbs 22:28. In the New Testament time period, as the gospel spread throughout the Roman world and even beyond, very few of these new Christians could read the Hebrew Old Testament. Even among the practicing Jewish populations outside Roman Palestine, most people spoke Greek. Thus, even before the New Testament era, the Jews had produced a Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint.

The New Testament authors themselves often quoted from the Septuagint and the early churches widely adopted it as their Bible translation. In time, the Septuagint took on a sacred status among Christians throughout the world. Eventually, a few Christian scholars began to discover that there were differences between the Septuagint and the manuscripts in the original Hebrew that were still used by most Jews. Most Christians were indignant toward these discoveries and the implications that the Septuagint might not be an absolutely perfect translation. The 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."3

The Septuagint remained the official Bible of Greek-speaking churches for centuries, indeed, for millennia! Before the Latin Vulgate, all the ancient Christian translations of the Old Testament were based on the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew. Nearly two thousand years later, some churches in the east are still using it or a translation based on it. This was the Bible translation used by the Apostles themselves. Even Jesus quoted from it. Every generation of Christians throughout the entire history of the faith has had Churches that relied upon and used the Greek Septuagint or a translation based on it. In the early church, it was the only Bible around for hundreds of years. So, if Proverbs 22:28 really meant that we were not to have translation other than the one embraced and used by our fathers, then we should be using the Septuagint or at least an English translation based on the Septuagint. Instead, the KJV and virtually all modern English Bible translations are all based on the Hebrew Masoretic text which was never embraced by previous generations of Christians and was preserved only by non-Christian Jewish communities. Seems like a pretty clear violation of the Proverb, at least if the Proverb meant what some King James Onlyists claim it means.

Other examples of pre-KJV Bibles could also be used to make the same point. The KJV itself was controversial in its time exactly because it parted ways from translations before it in the scholarly effort to be as faithful to the original text as possible. Now that we better understand the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages and have discovered so many more manuscripts, many from much earlier dates than anything the KJV translators had available to them, shouldn't we follow our fathers' example by striving to produce fresh translations that reflect the data we have even if it differs with time-honored tradition? If the KJV was not wrong to reject the Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, and other previous traditional, time-honored translations which their fathers had embraced and defended, why should it be wrong for us to ask the same questions of the translation they passed on to us? And even if we decided that they pretty much got it right, would it be so wrong to change "remove" to "move" or "landmark" to "boundary marker"? No, it would not.

The very fact that King James Onlyists offer this argument demonstrates that the dated English vocabulary is skewing the understanding of at least some KJV readers regarding this otherwise plain passage. How many other places might you think you understand what the KJV is saying but, in fact, are reading it incorrectly due to changes in language. How would you even know? Thus, though the verse has nothing directly to do with Bible translations at all, Proverbs 22:28 actually helps us see just a little piece of why fresh translations are a help rather than a hindrance.

  • 1. Mark Ward, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018) Kindle Locations 640-643
  • 2. ibid, Kindle Locations 651-655
  • 3. Henry Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek: Second Edition (Cambridge University Press, 1914) 61