Bible Versions:

Textual History Behind the King James Version
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

The largest difference between the King James Version and modern versions like the New Revised Standard, New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version, is the sources from which they were translated.

The King James Version of the Bible was the work of some of the most brilliant Scriptural Scholars of the 17th century. Their aim was to produce the best English translation of the Holy Scriptures which had been made up until that time. They wanted their version to be not only as accurate as was possible, they also wanted it to read well and sound beautiful. They succeeded on all three counts. The result was one of the most beloved and used English translations in history. And, for this achievement alone the translation team commissioned by King James I of England, and the Bible they produced, should be applauded.

There is just one small problem. While the KJV translators used the oldest manuscripts available to them at that time—and the best available edition of the Greek New Testament in print in 1600—we now know that their sources were extremely late in the transmission of the New Testament text.

The edition of the Greek New Testament upon which the KJV is based is actually a critical compilation of 12 different Greek manuscripts (manuscript=hand-written copies) which date from between 1000 AD and 1500 AD. We, on the other hand, have access to manuscript copies of the Greek New Testament that date from as early as 125 AD to roughly 350 AD. In other words, we have available to us copies of the New Testament that are 875 to 1350 years older than any of the source manuscripts of the King James Version.

At first glance a modern person might think “so what? What does it matter that the copies which we now have are far older than those upon which the KJV translators relied?” It matters greatly. You see, each and every manuscript copy of the New Testament had to be hand copied ... there were no Xerox machines in the first and second centuries. When one copies another manuscript by hand there are bound to be errors—especially in something as long and as complicated as the Bible.

Let us say that it’s the year 75 AD, and you have been given the originals of Paul’s letters to the Churches which he pastored, and you’ve been directed to produce a copy of of these letters. In the making of that first copy of Paul’s original letters, you made 12 unintentional errors. Then, 20 years later, a copy was made of your first copy of the originals, and this copy included not only the 12 initial errors of the first copy, but also 9 more errors. Most of these 21 errors are insignificant: variants in spelling and punctuation, a word left out here, a word doubled there—the various kinds of errors that can creep into a hand made copy are, for the most part, obvious and easily corrected. But, over time, as the copies of the copies of the copies of the copies multiply in numbers and become more and more removed in time and duplication from the originals, errors have a tendency to become greater and greater. Sometimes whole verses got left out, sometimes whole phrases got added in from other places in the Scriptural account or, worse still, from the marginal notes of some previous reader. And, we have examples of both of these in the manuscript record. Someone would be reading a part of one of Paul’s letters, remember something that he had read somewhere else, and then add it to the margin of the manuscript. 25 years later a scribe takes that manuscript and begins to make a copy of it and, coming across the marginal note, thinks to himself “now, I remember that too. Did the scribe who made this copy leave it out by mistake? I’d better add it into the body of the text.” And, so, a verse or two, lifted from another of Paul’s letters, gets added into the body-text of a different letter! And, then, when this copy is used as a master for another generation of copies, that inclusion is perpetuated! We have actual examples of this kind of thing happening, this is not just a theory.

Many of the noted differences between the KJV and, for example, the NRSV are due to copy errors just like the above. The NRSV’s New Testament is based upon those MUCH older copies—mostly upon copies from between 125 and 350 AD—and, hence, far fewer scribal errors can be found in its text. In other words, because the sources of the NRSV are substantially closer in time to the originals, the text of the NRSV is, subsequently, closer to the original reading than is the text of the KJV.

This doesn’t make the KJV wrong, or flawed, or unsuitable for use by Christians today. Not at all! It’s just that the problems of 400 year old syntax and grammar (the KJV is the product of the 1600s, let us not forget) are multiplied by the problems inherent in it being translated from copies of the New Testament that were so much farther removed from the originals than those copies available to us today. It is still one of the most beautiful translations of the Bible to be found in English; but, at times it is hard to understand due to the many changes in the English language that have come about since 1611, and you will find many words and verses in it that are not in the newer translations of the Holy Scriptures.

© 1999, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

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.