Why Textual Criticism is Irrelevant to the King James Only Debate

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

When discussing Bible translations with King James Only advocates, textual criticism almost always becomes the main issue. The question of which manuscripts should be trusted is a major sticking point. Lists of "missing" verses in modern translations or words and phrases that have been "added" or "deleted" feature prominently in King James Only literature. In some corners of the movement, conspiracy theories abound regarding the shadowy "Alexandrian cult" that allegedly produced all the "corrupt" early manuscripts of the New Testament. In the mind of most King James Onlyists, these are the central issues.  They believe that all modern translations represent one set of manuscripts and the KJV alone represents the other set of manuscripts. Thus, if the set of manuscripts used by modern translators can be discredited, only the King James Bible is left, or so the thinking goes. The reality is, this isn't even close to true. And, while understanding the manuscripts and their differences is an important area of study and worthy of our consideration, when it comes to the King James Only debate, the issue doesn't actually matter!

The Textus Receptus and Modern Translations

Perhaps most importantly, there are modern translations that are based on literally the exact same textual decisions as the King James Translators throughout the entire text. King James Onlyists make a particular issue out of the KJV being translated from a tradition of 16th-century printed Greek New Testaments known collectively as the "Textus Receptus" or "Received Text." Now, the KJV translators did not rely on just one such text. They carefully compared a variety of them, weighed out the differences, and made the best decisions they could with the information they had (just as modern translators do today). Long after the KJV was published, however, a form of the Greek edition of the Textus Receptus was developed that was based on those textual decisions made by the KJV translation team. Thus, one can now buy a Greek New Testament designed to mirror the exact Greek behind each word of the King James Version, even though no such text existed anywhere on earth in 1611 when the KJV was produced. This is the text that most King James Only advocates defend as the true, original text of the Greek New Testament.

But the KJV is not alone. There are actually modern translations based on that very same Greek text! They are likewise based on the same Hebrew text for the Old Testament that was used in the KJV. Thus, even if I grant the King James Onlyist all of their textual arguments; even if I were to concede, just for the sake of argument, that the Greek and Hebrew behind the KJV really was perfectly pure down to every word and letter, that still would not make me a King James Onlyist! I would use the NKJV or the MEV, for example, as both are fine modern translations of those same Greek and Hebrew texts, but into the contemporary English that I actually know and use! But the King James Onlyist rejects those translations, too. Even though they are based on the same text as the KJV, they are still denounced as corrupt right alongside other modern translations. Why? Because the underlying text doesn't actually matter to this debate. That's not what its really about. If a translation is worded even the slightest bit differently than the King James Version, the King James Onlyist will see it as wholly corrupt no matter what Greek or Hebrew manuscripts it utilizes. Even Dr. Maurice Robinson notes this. Robinson is a strong critic of the Greek New Testament text used by most modern translations and a staunch defender of manuscripts the King James Onlyist would claim to more highly regard. Nevertheless says about the KJV Only movement:

"This includes all the various factions which hope to find authority and certainty in a single 'providentially preserved' Greek text or English translation (usually the KJV). It need hardly be mentioned that such an approach has nothing to do with actual text-critical theory or praxis."1

Conclusion

This is the bottom line. The King James Only debate is not a debate about textual criticism. It's not about manuscripts, not about text-types, not about missing verses or variant readings. All of those are a smokescreen. Give the King James Onlyist a modern translation based on the very text they demand, and they will still reject it. Indeed, many of them will hate it as a thing most vile! Why? Because it's not really about those things. It never has been. They don't hate modern translations because of manuscript choices. If they did, they would make an exception for the MEV, the NKJV, and others like them. They make no such exception because what they are really arguing against is the idea that translations of the Bible need to be updated as languages change. In fact, they are arguing against the changing nature of language itself. The truth is, no issue of textual criticism could ever defend the idea that one must continue to use a 400-year-old translation written in an archaic form of English. That's not a manuscript problem. That's not a variant reading problem. The issue is whether tradition trumps comprehension. Should our desire to keep using what we've always used and what we have come to regard as so beautiful and lofty supersede the increasing inability of new Christians to fully understand what they are reading. That is what the King James Only debate is really all about.

 

  • 1. Dr. Maurice Robinson, New Testament Textual Criticism: The Case for Byzantine Priority, Footnote 2 http://rosetta.reltech.org/TC/v06/Robinson2001.html#footnote2 (Accessed 3/28/18).