1. Ensure that every word in the original was rendered by an English equivalent;
  2. Make it clear when they added any words to make the sense clearer, or to lead to better English syntax. . . .
  3. Follow the basic word order of the original wherever possible.

McGrath concludes that “the King James translators seem to have taken the view—which corresponds with the consensus of the day—that an accurate translation is, by and large, a literal and formal translation.”9

An Accurate Translation

There can be little doubt that when the King James Bible was released in 1611, it was the most accurate English translation in existence. It was the product of the combined expertise of the four dozen best biblical scholars of their day, something that cannot be said of any previous English translation. The printed resources that these translators had at their disposal, though rudimentary by today’s sophisticated standards, was the best available at the end of the sixteenth century. Donald Brake writes that “the new version won over its readers by sheer merit. Its faithfulness to the original languages and its fluid expressions as literature guaranteed its success.”10 C. B. McAfee is of the same opinion: “A second trait of the work as a version is its remarkable accuracy.”11

Two things make it hard to get a fair hearing for the accuracy of the King James Bible today. One is the fact that the archaic language of the KJV is so acute for people unfamiliar with it that it is easy to conclude that it cannot be an accurate rendering of the original biblical text. The second is that the King James New Testament is based on original manuscripts that are today considered inferior. Both of these require brief exploration.

We can discern three levels of archaism in the King James Bible, as follows:

  1. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever” (Eccles. 1:4).
  2. “For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief” (Eccles. 2:23).
  3. “I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate” (Eccles. 1:16).

The first passage is archaic by virtue of its inflected verbs (passeth, cometh, abideth); it strikes us as an abnormal way of speaking, but the meaning is clear for anyone who makes an honest attempt to get beyond the inflected verbs. The word travail in the second example is not in most people’s active vocabulary today, but it is in most Bible readers’ passive vocabulary, or at least is a word that can be accurately construed from its context.

The archaisms in the third passage are more extreme. The formulations communed with and great estate use words whose meanings have changed during the past four centuries. Looking them up in the dictionary will not yield the meanings that the King James Bible has in view. If the words are not accurate by a modern lexicon, the translation needs to be judged inaccurate for a reader today. This is not to deny that a modern reader can be educated into what the words meant for the translators and their contemporary audience.

The overwhelming percentage of archaisms in the King James Bible fall into the first two categories. I find myself looking far and wide to find examples in the King James Bible of words whose meanings have changed so drastically that the translation can be called inaccurate. Perhaps the number of these passages is statistically insignificant. But for readers unfamiliar with the King James Bible, the mere presence of archaic language and constructions is usually interpreted as evidence that the King James Bible is inaccurate. This is a false impression.