The Old Testament and the Worship of the KJV
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
Many people have been bothered by the perception that the modern translations would "remove" anything from the Bible, but as I have already demonstrated these various passages were not removed, they were added to the Scriptures at some point in history. They were additions, made through scribal error and the inclusion of marginal notes into the body-text of the scriptures. This is not a theory; in numerous cases it is an established fact as to how these additions were made. Without a doubt, the modern translations have restored the New Testament scriptures to their reading as it was in the second century AD.
We have a similar situation in the Old Testament. The Old Testament of the King James Version was highly dependent upon the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, commonly known as the "Septuagint," the oldest extant copy of which dated to the mid 1000s AD. The King James translators used the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate's Old Testament (which dated from about the 5th century AD), along with earlier translations of the Bible into English and a very late edition of the Old Testament in Hebrew to produce their translation. As such, for the most part the King James Version is not even dependent upon the original-language editions of the Hebrew Bible but, rather, upon Greek and Latin versions!
The NIV, RSV, and NRSV (as well as other modern translations) are all dependent upon the most ancient Hebrew-language copies of the Old Testament available to us today. In the case of the NRSV, this means that 3rd and 4th century BC Hebrew manuscripts, mostly from the Dead-Sea Scrolls collection, were used. Yes, that is right ... copies that were old when Christ was born!
Due to their antiquity and originality, these Hebrew language copies sometimes lack various verses and/or words that can be found in the Greek and Latin editions. And, even if the verses and words are present in the original langauge texts, the meanings of the Hebrew words in question sometimes become altered when filtered through Greek and Latin translations. Indeed, most of the differences which exist between the Old Testaments of the KJV and the NRSV come from this kind of problem.
An excellent, though sometimes disturbing, example of this kind of problem can be found in Isaiah 7:14. In the King James, it reads:
"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
But, in the NRSV it reads:
"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel."
This does, indeed, appear to be a significant problem, doesn't it? Many conservatives have been upset about this as being a "heretical" translation which "destroys the Christian faith in the Virgin Birth!" One person I have spoken with has even said: "If you remove virgin from Isaiah 7:14, you make Jesus into an illegitimate child!"
I understand the upset many have with this translation, but there is a reason behind the different reading, a reason which should be noted and understood before blanket charges of heresy are leveled. The Hebrew word in question is (written in English letters) ha-almah, which literally means "the very young woman." The word itself is almah and has, in its Hebrew root, the sense of a young woman who is either not yet capable of having children (prepubescent), or who is just entering the stage of development in which bearing children is possible. This is very important because not only was Mary a Virgin, but she was also quite a young woman. And, if you'll note, the Hebrew is clear that she was not sexually active and, therefore, a miracle is indeed involved in the conception of Jesus.
The question arises: why did the KJV use the term "virgin" rather than "young woman?" The answer is simple: the KJV's translation is here based upon the Septuagint's rendering of the Hebrew word almah with the Greek word parthenos, which means "virgin." As I have shown above, this is correct in its meaning, but incomplete in a literal sense.
Regardless of the translation, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is still fully preserved in the New Testament. St. Matthew 1:23:
KJV: "Behold, a virgin shall be with child..."
NIV: "The virgin will be with child..."
NRSV: "Look, the virgin shall conceive..."
And, so, with the Hebrew word almah properly understood, and with the New Testament witness so very clear, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ is not only retained, but fully affirmed.
Quite often these days, in conservative Christian circles, you will hear certain individuals saying that if you use any translation other than the KJV you are using a "New Age Bible" or, far worse, a "Satanically inspired book." Nothing could be farther from the truth! There is no doctrine of the church which cannot find full scriptural support in any of the major modern translations. These claims, which some make for the superiority of the KJV, only serve to undermine many Christians' faith in the scriptures. Those who wish to press for the superiority of the KJV even over the original manuscripts themselves are lifting up another God than Jesus Christ, a God of the printed word and leather-binding, a God which they can hold and see and feel, a God which requires no faith, no trust, no hope, only blind submission. It is idolatry, it is bibliolatry, it takes that which is Holy—the Scriptures—and perverts it into an alternate object of worship. The Word of God is Jesus Christ, our Lord, not a book.
The KJV is a very good translation, once its age and the shortcomings of its manuscript sources are taken into account, and it should still be used! I still use it, myself, for many purposes! But the NIV, the NRSV, the RSV, the NASB, and many other modern translations are also perfectly good and useful. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise!
© 1999, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.