KING JAMES ONLY?
by Bob Wheeler
The King James Version Defended
Edward F. Hills
Eye Opener Publishers, 1973
254 pp., pb.
The past several decades have seen a large number of modern English translations of the Bible reach the market, and this, in turn, has produced a reaction in some quarters. With a bewildering array of translations from which to choose, some have clung defensively to the old King James Version of the Bible with which they have long been familiar, the version that has served as the standard English translation for centuries.
A major part of the controversy surrounds the Greek text underlying the translation of the New Testament. The old King James Version was based on what is known as the “Textus Receptus,” a printed version of the Greek New Testament that goes back to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. More recent manuscript discoveries, however, along with some debatable methodology, has led to newer editions of the Greek text which differ somewhat from the older one. This newer text underlies virtually all of the modern English versions, with the notable exception of the New King James Version.
Along the way there have been a variety of critics who have challenged the newer methodology, and among them was Edward F. Hills. The first edition of his book The King James Version Defended, appeared in 1956. He subsequently revised it and a second edition appeared in 1973.
Dr. Hills’ academic credentials were impressive – he had degrees from Yale, Westminster, Columbia Seminary, and Harvard. His reading was also impressive – the book’s 475 footnotes cite everything from Albert Einstein to St. Anselm to Immanuel Kant. Yet despite his massive erudition his basic argument is flawed. In this reviewer’s opinion he failed to make his point.
Dr. Hills tries to argue that because the Bible is God’s inspired Word, God must have preserved it free from corruption. Dr. Hills then goes through the history of the transmission of the text, and argues that at each step along the way the providence of God was responsible for the end result.
So far, so good. But does that mean that all translations should be based on the Textus Receptus? The problem is that the various versions and manuscripts available to us today differ somewhat from each other. So how, then, do we know which ones are the most accurate? Which one is the pure text that has been preserved through the centuries by divine providence?
One obvious possible answer would be what is variously known as the “Byzantine,” “Koine,” or “Majority” text (Dr. Hills prefers to call it the “Traditional” Text). This was the standard text of the Greek Orthodox Church and is preserved in the large majority of surviving manuscripts. But the Textus Receptus is not identical with the Byzantine Text –it differs from it at a number of points. Dr. Hills, then, tries to argue that Erasmus, the original editor of what became the Textus Receptus, “providentially” corrected the Byzantine Text using reading from the Latin Vulgate, which, according to him, providentially had become the standard Bible of the Western, Roman Catholic Church.
But if the Byzantine Text and the Latin Vulgate were both providentially preserved by God, why do they differ at points from each other? And why would Erasmus have had to correct the Greek text using the Latin? It undermines Dr. Hills’ whole argument that divine providence has preserved the text of the New Testament pure and inerrant. And could it not be further argued that in the providence of God Westcott and Hort were raised up in the 19th Century to further purify and refine the text? How then can we conclude that the Textus Receptus only is God’s pure Word?
Yes, we believe, in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, that the Old and New Testaments, “being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical . . .” (WCF, I. viii). That does not negate the fact, however, that the surviving manuscripts contain variant readings, and that the modern scholar must reconstruct the original text using the manuscript evidence available to him. I think, that on the whole, we should accept the Byzantine Text as the one that God in His providence has preserved for our use – see our earlier blog post on “New Testament Textual Criticism” (April 13, 2016). Does this mean that the Byzantine Text is absolutely inerrant in every detail? Not at all; neither is any translation into English perfect either. But in God’s providence the Byzantine Text is the one that God wanted us to have, and there is every reason to believe that it accurately reflects the original text of the Greek New Testament. No cardinal doctrine of the faith hinges on such minor textual questions as whether Eph. 5:9 reads “the fruit of the Spirit” (Byzantine Text) or “fruit of the light” (Alexandrian Text, Latin Vulgate). It is the thoughts, concepts and ideas that were communicated by the Holy Spirit to the inspired prophets and apostles, and these concepts and ideas have been preserved in the text that has come down to us. The average reader of the Bible can know God’s will for his life by reading any reasonably accurate English translation of the Bible out on the market today. That is the way in which God’s Word had been providentially preserved for us.
So what do we make, then, of the venerable old King James Version of the Bible? In some ways it is an unparalleled literary masterpiece. For example, in Exodus 32, as Moses and Joshua are descending from Mount Sinai and hear the commotion below, Moses exclaims, “It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the voice of them that sing do I hear” (v. 18) – exactly what you would expect Moses to have said if English had been his first language! Yet in other places the language is hopelessly archaic and poses a real barrier to understanding for the modern reader. This is especially true in places where words have changed their meaning over time. For example in Psalm 5:6 we read in the King James Version: “Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing . . .” The judgment of God on landlords and car dealers? No. Here the word “leasing” is used in its archaic sense of “the act of lying.” The New King James Version renders it “You shall destroy those who speak falsehood. . .” Dr. Hills himself lists 17 words and phrases in the old King James that are obsolete (p. 212).
Our aim in Bible translation should be the same as that of John Wycliffe, Martin Luther and William Tyndale – to make the Word of God accessible to the common people in language that they can understand. Modern English translations of the Bible should not be shunned.