How Accurate Is the King James Bible (KJV) 400 Years Later?
- Leland Ryken Author
- Published Sep 29, 2022
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential EnglishTranslation by Leland Ryken (Crossway). This section is taken from Chapter 4, "The King James Bible of 1611."
The King James Version . . . is greatly cherished. For generations, Christians and lovers of fine English have read the Bible in this version. They have felt that its words spoke to them in a particular way, in public or in private. . . . The very essence of what Christians believe has been for centuries in the words of that version.
—David Daniell, The Bible in English
The preceding chapter has given an account of how the King James Bible came into existence and what happened after it appeared. But what about the actual Bible that was first published in 1611? This chapter is designed to answer that question. The focus will be on the King James Version as an English translation. Chapter 8 will fill out the picture by examining the King James Bible as a work of literature.
King James Bible: A Synthesis of Earlier Translations
The first thing that we can say about the King James Bible is that it is an amalgamation of the English translations that had preceded it in the sixteenth century. The tradition started with Tyndale and then proceeded through Coverdale’s Bible, Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the Bishops’ Bible. The King James translators began with the Bishops’ Bible as their starting point, but the Bishops’ Bible itself was a conflation of the preceding century of English Bible translation.
The King James translators themselves made no attempt to conceal their indebtedness to the past tradition. On the contrary, they highlighted their oneness with their predecessors. In the preface to the 1611 edition of the KJV, we read that the translators, “far from condemning any of their labors that travailed before us in this kind, . . . acknowledge them to have been raised up of God, for the building and furnishing of his Church, and that they deserve to be had of us and of posterity in everlasting remembrance.”
We should not overlook the significance of that statement. First of all, there is exemplary humility in the translators’ attitude. Second, there is an impulse to give credit where credit is due, even though the King James translators obviously disagreed with their predecessors in many details. Third, as I will explore in the next chapter, there is an essential principle of Bible translation at stake here, namely, continuity with the mainstream of English Bible translation versus the quest for originality and novelty (a deliberate attempt not to be like previous English translations). It is a fact that producers of modern dynamic equivalent translations often make disparaging comments about the King James Bible. One might wish for more of the graciousness of the King James translators and their awareness that the grand tradition of English Bible translation is worthy to be perpetuated in many details.
Unfortunately, the almost automatic effect of seeing the facts and figures regarding the indebtedness of the King James Bible to its predecessors is to diminish the accomplishment of the KJV. We need steadfastly to resist this tendency. The King James Bible of 1611 consists of whatever is present in it, and it does not cease to exist simply because it was also in an earlier translation.
A Refinement of the Received Tradition
Another thing that often gets lost when we consider the indebtedness of the King James Bible to its predecessors is that the King James Bible is a refinement of the earlier translations and not simply an amalgamation of them. The translators themselves were as aware of this as they were aware of their assimilation of earlier translations, and the preface to the KJV attempts to make sure that readers will be aware of it. Here are two statements from the preface:
• “Yet for all that, as nothing is begun and perfected at the same time, and the later thoughts are thought to be the wiser: so if we building upon their foundation that went before us, and being helped by their labors, do endeavor to make that better which they left so good.”
• “Whatsoever is sound already . . . the same will shine as gold more brightly, being rubbed and polished; also, if anything be halting, or superfluous, or not so agreeable to the original, the same may be corrected, and the truth set in place.”
In view of the smoothness of flow for which the King James Bible is matchless, the statement in the preface about what is “halting” in earlier translations is particularly noteworthy. It shows that the translators were consciously seeking rhythmic excellence. Adam Nicolson notes that “Tyndale was working alone, in extraordinary isolation. His only audience was himself. And surely as a result there is a slightly bumpy, stripped straightforwardness about his matter and his rhythm.” Even though Tyndale and the King James translators might agree in basic content, the King James translators “are memorable where Tyndale stumbles over his grammar.”
Although modern debunkers sometimes try to portray the King James translators as introducing inferior changes, the scholarly consensus has been that on balance the King James Bible is a refinement of what had preceded. This is not to deny that we can find passages in the King James Bible that are entries in the “what were they thinking?” category, such as this: “Through desire a man, having separated himself, seeketh and intermedleth with all wisdom” (Prov. 18:1). Nonetheless, it is indisputable that the King James translators had wonderful intuitions in regard to retaining what was excellent and adding touches of improvement where they could. Here are representative scholarly statements:
• “Some of their adjustments had the Midas touch. . . . In a cumulative way, all the virtues of the various translations which preceded it were gathered up.” – Benson Bobrick, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible
• The KJV “was no sudden miracle but rather the harvesting or refining of the previous century’s experience of translating the Bible into English.” – Craig R. Thompson, The Bible in English
* “It forms a mosaic of all that was best in the work of preceding translators. . . . [Sometimes] the improvement is effected by a change in a word or two; but, in addition, there are entire clauses and sentences, the independent work of the Authorised Revisers, which have passed unscathed the critical tests of modern scholarship.” – Samuel McComb, The Making of the English Bible
• Conclusion drawn from a comparison of parallel passages in Tyndale, Geneva, and King James translations: “Even a superficial examination of the three renderings bears witness to the good judgment and taste of the revisers in selecting the best elements of preceding versions, and then adding a few fine touches of their own. . . . Omission of what is unnecessary to the thought is one of the effective means of heightening the style.” – M. Ellsworth Olsen, The Prose of Our King James Version
• “Compared with its predecessors, the King James version shows a superb faculty of selection and combination, a sure instinct for betterment.” – Charles C. Butterworth, The Literary Lineage of the King James Bible
Refining the Biblical Text
Sixteenth-century translators could not have seen the process of refinement that was going on with the same clarity that we can see it with the advantage of temporal distance from the event. The process of change for the better, evident in the following specimens, was repeated hundreds of times. Here are three successive versions of John 15:12-13, reprinted in original spelling:
• Tyndale: “Thys ys my commaundement, that ye love togedder as I have loved you. Gretter love then this hath no man, then that a man bestowed his lyfe for his frendes.”
• Geneva: “This is my commandement, that ye loue one another, as I haue loued you. Greater loue then this hathe no man, when any man bestoweth his life for his friends.”
• KJV: “This is my Commaundement, that ye loue one another, as I have loued you. Greater loue hath no man then this, that a man lay downe his life for his friends.”
Here are successive versions of Matthew 6:34b.
• Tyndale: “For the daye present hath ever ynough of his awne trouble.”
• Coverdale: “Every daye hath ynough of his owne travayll.”
• Great Bible: “Sufficident unto the daye is the travayle therof.”
• Geneva: “The day hathe ynough with his owne grief.”
• King James: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
A Translation Suited for Public Use
Another differentiating trait of the King James Bible is that it is preeminently translated for public use. Of course, its primary use through the centuries has been private reading. But that is true of all English Bible translations. The King James Bible shows versatility by being ideally suited for oral use in public settings.
One of these public settings is worship in church services. In the centuries when the King James Bible was the standard Bible of Christendom, people in the pew heard something authoritative and beautiful when passages were read in the liturgical parts of a worship service, when the Lord’s Prayer was prayed when the passage for the sermon was read, and when verses from that passage reappeared during the course of the sermon. Twentieth-century Bible translator Edgar Goodspeed said that the KJV “occupies a place . . . in Christian liturgy that is . . . unique.”7
But the public nature of the King James Bible was not limited to the church. As a later chapter will demonstrate, the degree to which the KJV lent itself to quotation in public discourse through the centuries has been breathtaking. Whenever a speaker, politician, or lawyer wanted to reference the Bible, the King James Bible was the translation of choice. And whenever the speaker quoted from the KJV, the effect was oracular.
The answer is twofold if we ask what makes the King James Bible so ideally suited for public use. First, it is an oral Bible, meaning its rhythm flows smoothly off the tongue and into the ear of the listener. The second is a quality of the KJV that regularly gets registered by such words as dignity and eloquence. In later chapters, I will explore the qualities of the KJV that elicit these impressions, but for the moment, it is enough to note that the King James Bible has struck readers as possessing these qualities.
An Essentially Literal Translation
We get to the heart of the 1611 King James Bible when we consider how the translators lined up on the question of literal versus free translation. Of course, the translators had no clue as to what would happen three and a half centuries after them with the advent of dynamic equivalent translation. It is all the more significant, therefore, that when left to their own designs, the translators evolved the principle of verbal equivalence—the practice of making sure that every word in the original biblical text would be represented by an equivalent English word or phrase.
We indeed need to infer this from the actual translation. The translators do not spell out their “essentially literal” philosophy. Still, neither do the prefaces of any other translation (even the RSV of 1952) until the NIV established the new translation philosophy as the norm. Here is what Alister McGrath believes the King James translators aimed to do:8
- Ensure that every word in the original was rendered by an English equivalent;
- Make it clear when they added any words to make the sense clearer, or to lead to better English syntax. . . .
- 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, were 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 agrees: “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 considered inferior today. Both of these require brief exploration.
We can discern three levels of archaism in the King James Bible, as follows:
- “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever” (Eccles. 1:4).
- “For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief” (Eccles. 2:23).
- “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 the King James Bible archaisms fall into the first two categories. I look 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.
The second strike that the KJV has against it in some circles is that the Greek text from which the translators worked is not considered the most reliable today. The King James translators (and all their sixteenth-century predecessors) used what is familiarly known as the Received Text (Textus Receptus). Older manuscripts than this have surfaced since the sixteenth century and are the basis of most modern translations of the New Testament.
We need to tread cautiously here: to say that the King James New Testament is based on manuscripts that are today considered less than the best can superficially sound more sinister than in fact it is. If the Received Text is considered by most (not all) modern scholars as second-best, that does not mean that it is bad. The Greek text from which modern translators work is itself constantly being revised, so that a translation fifty years old might also be said to be based on less-than-the-best manuscripts. Additionally, the actual differences between the Received Text and modern conflated texts (“the Majority Text”) are minor, and modern editions of the King James Bible indicate textual variants in scholarly footnotes, so no one is in danger of being misled by a modern edition of the KJV.12
Is the King James Bible Accurate Today?
The question of the accuracy of the King James Bible today is usually answered by looking only at the data that I considered in the preceding section. But quite another verdict surfaces when we place the King James Bible into the context of modern dynamic equivalent translations. Then suddenly the King James
Bible zooms up on the scale of accuracy.
The reason for this is that the King James Bible is an essentially literal translation that aims to take the reader straight to what the original authors said. It is transparent to the original text. Here is a random example of the accuracy of the King James Bible as contrasted to modern dynamic equivalent translations
( James 1:18b):
• “. . . that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (KJV).
• “He wanted us to be his own special people” (CEV).
• “And we, out of all creation, became his choice possession” (NLT).
• “. . . so that we should have first place among all his creatures” (GNB).
Which of these is the most accurate? Surprise of surprises—the KJV is the most accurate because the translators gave us the equivalent English word with firstfruits. The original text says nothing about “special people,” “choice possession,” or “first place.” It compares God’s people to one of the Old Testament Mosaic produce offerings (“firstfruits”).
Modern colloquializing translators lament that Bible translations run the risk of being further and further removed from the everyday language of people. This of course needs to be taken seriously. But an even worse problem is possible: many modern translations have moved further and further from the biblical text.
Here is a second example of the accuracy of the King James Bible even today. I recently participated in a year-long scholarly seminar on the Psalms. At one meeting, Psalm 131 was the text on the day’s agenda. The leader circulated the NASB version of the text, which concludes the opening verse this way:
Nor do I involve myself in great matters,
Or in things too difficult for me.
This makes the forbidden knowledge a matter of intellectual complexity. Some modern translations agree with this interpretation (NKJV: “too profound”; HCSB: “too difficult”). An Old Testament scholar in the group then offered the information that current scholarship inclines to agree with “how the old versions translated the term.” This naturally led to an inquiry about how the King James Bible renders the passage. The answer: “things too high for me”—not an intellectual challenge but spiritual and divine knowledge that is known only by a transcendent God.
I will offer one more personal anecdote. I recently listened to a sermon based on a passage in Galatians 4 that included verse 15. The NIV from which the preacher was preaching renders it, “What has happened to all your joy?” This makes it appear that the Galatian Christians were deficient in their religious emotions. My ears perked up when the preacher wondered aloud “whether the King James Bible doesn’t say it best,” despite its archaic language. The KJV reads, “Where is the blessedness you spake of?” The Galatians were not deficient in religious emotions but had allowed their “works righteousness” to obscure the true foundation of their religious standing with God, namely, the blessedness that God conferred on them by faith in the work of Christ. An anecdote like this should serve as a caution against a facile dismissal of the possibility that the King James Bible might represent accuracy (even a superior accuracy) in our day.
Whether or not the King James is an accurate version depends partly on how we define accuracy. If we believe that the standard of accuracy is a translation’s giving us the words of the original text in equivalent English words, then the KJV shows its superior accuracy over modern dynamic equivalent translations on virtually every page of the Bible (and probably multiple times on every page).
When the 1611 King James Bible was published, it was a book that summed up and refined the preceding tradition of English Bible translation, and that represented accuracy of translation as understood within a translation philosophy of essentially literal translation. How noteworthy was the achievement of the King James Bible in these areas? I will end this chapter with a medley of scholarly quotations:
• “It grew to be a national possession and . . . is in truth a national classic. No other book has so penetrated and permeated the hearts and speech of the English race.” - Albert S. Cook, The 'Authorized' Version and Its Influence
• “If everything else in our language should perish it would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power." - Thomas Babington Maccaulay, The Miscellaneous Writings of Lord Maccaulay
• “And that was their triumph: a polished collation, a refinement of a century’s translating, a book that became both clear and rich." - Adam Nicolson, God's Secretaries
• “It was the genius of the King James Version that it made [the word of God] speak so directly to those who heard it that though men knew it was a translation . . . they could never really think of it as such, for never did a translation speak with such directness and lifegiving power.” - Geddes MacGregor, The Bible in the Making
• “In popular Christian culture, the King James translation is seen to possess a dignity and authority that modern translations somehow fail to convey. . . . The King James Bible retains its place as a literary and religious classic, by which all others continue to be judged.” - As McGrath, In the Beginning
• “On a historical scale, the sheer longevity of this version is a phenomenon, without parallel. . . . ‘King James’ is still the bestselling book in the world. . . . In the story of the earth we live on, its influence cannot be calculated.” - David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence
• “The Authorized Version is a miracle and a landmark. . . . There is no corner of English life, no conversation ribald or reverent that it has not adorned.” - J. Isaacs, The Sixteenth-Century Versions
“Fact Sheet” on the 1611 King James Bible
• The translators were experts in Hebrew and Greek, and in producing the KJV, they consulted the original texts of the Bible, but they did not start from scratch. Technically the King James Bible is a revision of the Bishops’ Bible. The case can be made that it is a revision of the entire preceding century of translation, starting with William Tyndale.
• Since the aim of the translation was to conserve what was best in the tradition of English Bible translation, the vocabulary of the King James Bible was just a trifle archaic already when it was published.
• Over 90 percent of the language of the King James Bible (including multiple occurrences of the same word) is native English rather than Latin-derived.
• The vocabulary of the King James Bible is approximately six to seven thousand words, compared with thirteen thousand for Milton and over twenty thousand for Shakespeare.
• By modern standards, the KJV is too heavily punctuated; the explanation is that the King James translators had in mind the oral reading and hearing of their translation, so they used punctuation to guide oral reading.
• Although the printer italicized words that had been added to what was in the original text, a comparison of the original version with later editions reveals that the original KJV was much more lightly italicized than later editions. The first round of italicizing was apparently inadequate to show the extent of what had been added to the original.
• The KJV was a forerunner of the modern practice of including scholarly notes on specific words to indicate either the literal meaning of a word or a legitimate alternate way of translating a word.
H. Wheeler Robinson, ed., The Bible in Its Ancient and English Versions (1940).
Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (2001).
Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (2003)
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Copyright © 2011 by Leland Ryken
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