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Is KJV the only reliable translation?

Weekly Q&A

Is KJV the only reliable translation?
Posted on August 11, 2020  - By Dr. Scott Shiffer

Is it true that the King James Version is the only reliable version of the Bible? Why do some people advocate so strongly against other versions? Are versions like NIV right to be criticised for being simpler in language and are they, in fact, compromising on accuracy of interpretation/translation in doing so?

The KJV is not the only reliable version of the Bible. People who advocate for it or against other versions usually like how it reads more than how others read and may also have an impression that it is inspired.

Others read differently because they more closely match modern English and they rely more heavily on older documents of the original Hebrew and Greek texts. Other versions do not intend to compromise accuracy and they should not be criticised for doing so.

Roots of the KJV

The KJV was translated by a group of translators in the 1600s under the authority of King James of England. These translators worked hard on their translation, but primarily had access to Hebrew and Greek manuscripts from 1300 AD to 1500 AD. They also utilised previous English translations including the ones done by John Wycliff (1380s), William Tyndale (1500s), and Miles Coverdale (1535). They further utilised the Great Bible (1539) compiled by Thomas Cranmer in England for Henry VIII, and the Geneva Bible (1560) that was completed by John Calvin.

The Geneva Bible was the first copy of the New Testament to break books down into chapters with verses (though the King James Version did not use the same numbers). Finally, the King James translators also relied on the German version of the Bible translated by Martin Luther from the Latin Vulgate (the Latin Bible compiled by Jerome between 382 and 405 AD).

‘Mistakes’ and manuscripts

Since the translation of the King James Version of the Bible, many older manuscripts have been discovered. Among those manuscripts are Codex Vaticanus, which was penned in Greek in the AD 300s, and Codex Sinaiticus which was also penned around that time. With the additional findings of literally thousands of Greek New Testament manuscripts as well as older copies of the Hebrew Scriptures, we now have a much better understanding of the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. By dating the manuscripts, we also have a better understanding of scribal errors that occurred over time.

Since the translation of the King James Version of the Bible, many older manuscripts have been discovered

When I say errors, I specifically have in mind mistakes made by scribes when copying the texts from one piece of papyrus to another. Most often, a person would stand at the front of a room and read a manuscript out loud, while several scribes would write what they heard. There was no way to erase a mistake, so if a scribe misspelled a word or left a word out, it had to be left on the papyrus that way.

In the original manuscripts, there were also no spaces between words. Sometimes, a scribe would miss a word; after realising the omission, the scribe would just write it in — sometimes, a word or two after it should have appeared.

Over 90 per cent of all the things considered errors in the original manuscripts today are spelling mistakes, or instances where a word is out of order. The other 10 per cent of mistakes involve leaving a word out altogether, adding a word or two that were not in previous documents, or writing the wrong word down. No mistakes in any manuscripts constitute doctrinal errors or change the theological message of the text in any way.

Accessible to all

The King James translators did a really good job for the materials they had available, but we have so many more materials available today. We also have a much more exhaustive understanding of ancient Greek and Hebrew, because we have more texts available both from the Bible, and from legal documents, shopping lists, personal letters, and other books.

Today’s translations typically rely more on older texts that would have been closer to the time of the writing of the original manuscripts. That being said, the NASB, the ESV, the NIV, and others are actually a bit more accurate than the KJV. Each of these translations has a different audience in mind.

The King James translators did a really good job for the materials they had available, but we have so many more materials available today

The NIV translates Greek and Hebrew texts phrase for phrase — this means that the translators looked at a phrase in Greek or Hebrew and then said, “How can we best express this idea in English?” The NASB and ESV translate word for word — this means that they translated each word as closely as possible from Greek or Hebrew. The NIV is written on a 9th grade reading level and is intended to aid those who have lower reading skills. The NASB and ESV are written on a 12th grade reading level and are geared towards more highly skilled readers.

There is no reason to be critical of newer translations for their different approaches. Instead, we should be thankful that we have translations that people of different reading and language skills can all benefit from.

We must remember that each version is intended to help people learn the Word of God and understand the gospel. The different translations are all on the same team. As Christians, we should all be on the same team about helping the Word of God make it to the world in ways that people can understand, regardless of their skill level as readers.

Dr. Scott Shiffer

About Dr. Scott Shiffer

Dr. Scott Shiffer has a Ph.D. in Christian Theology from the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute and has been teaching religion classes since 2006. He leads Faith and Culture Now, an organization to help believers think biblically about culture in America. Scott has given numerous presentations, including one at Oxford. He has spoken at church retreats, youth retreats, conferences, and has taught discipleship classes for many years. Scott is married and has four children. He has a heart for helping believers draw closer to God and for aiding them as they are faced with new challenges every day.



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