Posts Tagged ‘King James’

We all know the Christmas story, although there are a number of elements that we commonly associate with it that we probably shouldn’t. Some of these include:

Jesus was born on December 25. Actually, nowhere in the Bible are we given the date of Jesus’ birth, and shepherds would not likely have been in the fields in late December. The truth is we can’t even be certain of the year.

The manger scene as we normally picture it is almost certainly not accurate. There were no “inns” as we know the term today. Actually the word commonly translated as “inn” is only used two other times in the New Testament in Mark 14:14 and its parallel passage, Luke 22:11. There it refers to the room where Jesus and His disciples had the Last Supper. Jesus may even have been born in a house that took Joseph and Mary in. In the ancient world animals were often kept within the house, sometimes on the first floor while the family slept on a second floor. So, if there was no room on the second floor, Joseph and Mary may have been placed with the animals on the first floor. The point is that the cute little manger scene probably does not reflect what really happened.

The wise men were not there. Luke says nothing about wise men; that account is found in Matthew. The Magi as the Greek refers to them (we get the word “magic” from the name) were probably astrologers. That’s why the star meant something to them. And the wise men find Joseph, Mary, and Jesus living in a house in Bethlehem. Matthew says nothing about them coming from Nazareth.

The visit of the wise men may have been when Jesus was two years old. Matthew has Herod killing all male children two years and under. In the tiny village of Bethlehem Herod would have killed at most a dozen children, not enough to merit a place in history. Herod was known for doing much worse.

I am not attempting to discourage our traditions. Traditions can be powerful expressions of faith and meaning. I just thought it might be interesting to consider some of the questions that can be applied to what we have come to call “the Christmas story.”

We also tend to picture Christmas in one of two ways. We may remember Christmas from our childhood—for some of us quite long ago. The other picture has been implanted in our minds by Charles Dickens. Because of his famous story, A Christmas Carol, our minds almost unconsciously bring up images of Victorian England.

Nothing is wrong with either of these images; I tend to use them as well. At the same time, we should recognize that Christmas is not exclusively American or European. The message of Christmas is for all people in all ages. Below is a page from the Codex Vaticanus, showing what we have come to label as Luke 2:4—29. This early manuscript of course has neither chapters nor verses. It dates to approximately AD 325. Actually, the earliest manuscript that contains this story is p45 and it dates from about AD 225, a hundred years earlier than the Vaticanus.

Luke 2 Vaticanus

I would suggest that as we  look at the page from the Vaticanus, we pause to remember two things. First of all, the Christmas story is not a Victorian invention. As much as we may have buried its message in commercialism, it is still a part of the Christian message that goes back to the time Luke was originally written.

Also, Christmas is not an invention of Western culture. While it is meaningful to us, it is just as much for all people in all times. The story of Christmas is after all a message of hope and redemption, and all of us need that in some way.

While the King James Version may not be the best translation of the Greek text, its message has resonated for centuries, and it still speaks to us today. I leave you with it, just as it was spelled in the 1611 version.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good wil towards men.

And don’t forget to listen to this version of the Christmas story.


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A large number of the posts in this blog have dealt with textual variations in one form or another, especially in the text of the New Testament. I have concentrated so much on this topic, because opponents of the Bible frequently charge that the variations among the manuscripts demonstrates that the text of the Bible has become so hopelessly corrupted that we cannot know whether it reflects the documents as originally written. I have attempted to face the issues as honestly as possible.

Most recently I concluded a series of posts, concentrating on the most serious textual problems we find in the New Testament. I thought about doing one or two more, but I feel the point has been made. Some of my readers questioned my interpretation of the evidence for some of these passages, and with good reason. While a huge proportion of the variations can be determined with virtual certainty, there are passages for which the evidence is more subjective and which do make a real difference in how we read certain books. That is precisely why I chose these passages to examine. I wanted to bring out into the open the most serious textual problems we find.

I have attempted to demonstrate that the most significant textual problems we find have more to do with favorite stories than with real doctrinal or theological issues. Let me mention three that reflect what I have been trying to say.

The story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8 has no doctrinal or theological significance. Removing this story from the text may take away a favorite story (and it is one of my favorites), but it does no damage to anything taught in the New Testament.

The baptismal confession in Acts 8 describes a doctrinal practice within the heritage in which I was raised, but once again, only reflects a simple ritual that very few people would see as significant in any real sense.

Finally, the heavenly witnesses found in 1 John 5 provides a specific reference to what came to be known as the Trinity. At the same time, there are a number of other passages that teach essentially the same thing about which there is no question textually. So, once again, no theological teaching is in question.

And these passages are truly representative of the most serious kinds of textual problems we find in the New Testament. Those who suggest that the text of the Bible has become so corrupted that we cannot have any confidence in what it teaches have the burden of proof to back up such assertions. From my study there is simply no substantial evidence to support such charges. On the contrary, with over 5,800 Greek manuscripts dating back to the second and third centuries, we have a wealth of evidence that should cause us to feel confident that when we read the Bible, we are reading what the authors originally wrote. I remain convinced that is where the evidence should lead us.

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I have said that there are no textual variants that affect doctrine or theology. Actually, the one I wish to discuss today does have doctrinal implications, but primarily in the religious tradition of which I am a part. My heritage practices adult baptism by immersion and almost exclusively asks the person being baptized, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Most people today would be hard pressed to state where that confession comes from. The reality is that it comes from Acts 8:37 which is routinely footnoted in most translations except the King James. The question today is why do most modern translations not include verse 37 in the body of the text?

The simplest answer to that question is that the most ancient Greek manuscripts do not include it. The manuscripts that do not have verse 37 include—p45 (3rd century), and the big three codices, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (4th century),and  Alexandrinus (5th century), along with other manuscripts.

Verse 37 is included in Codex E which dates from the 6th century and in many of the later cursive manuscripts. It is also included in the Old Latin. Irenaeus quotes part of it, which shows that the passage was in existence at least in the latter part of the second century, perhaps earlier. Bruce Metzger provides an interesting perspective when he writes in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, “Although the passage does not appear in the late medieval manuscript on which Erasmus chiefly depended for his edition (ms. 2), it stands in the margin of another (ms. 4), from which he inserted it into his text because he ‘judged that it had been omitted by the carelessness of scribes.’”

All of this is probably more detail than most of my readers care about. The bottom line is that we should be able to see that the passage is certainly questionable. Possibly it was inserted as a possible answer to the Eunuch’s question in verse 36, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (ESV). Certainly the passage retains perhaps the most ancient baptismal confessional handed down to us. I like it because of its simplicity and its emphasis on the primacy of faith in Jesus as the Christ. I can think of nothing with which I would want to replace it.

At the same time, it probably was not originally part of the text of Acts. As I said earlier, this may disturb some people within my religious heritage, but I am first of all interested in truth, not in preserving what I was taught to believe. This is the lesson I would like for my readers to get from this post. We should not come to the Bible seeking to validate what we already believe. Nor should we bring our preconceptions to it. I have always attempted simply to accept what I find there, and I feel comfortable doing so.

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The ending of Mark is perhaps the most significant textual question in the New Testament. It is important for two reasons. First, there is real doubt as to how the gospel originally ended. Also, it is a significant message. This is the type of issue that troubles people. Let’s look at it.

Most modern translations raise some kind of question about Mark 16:9-20. They may also include what is referred to as the shorter ending, which reads in the NAS Revised Edition, “And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

So, there are four possibilities:

  1. Mark originally ended with the shorter ending.
  2. Mark originally ended with the longer ending (vv. 9-20).
  3. Mark originally contained another ending which was lost before it could be copied.
  4. Mark originally ended after verse 8.

Let’s eliminate the first possibility immediately. It isn’t natural. It even sounds like something tacked on, because a scribe did not find the ending satisfactory. Greek manuscripts that contain it date from the 7th to the 9th centuries or later, although an Old Latin and other less significant versions (translations) include it. But, overall, this shorter ending has very little to support it.

Could the gospel have ended as we have it with verses 9-20? Yes, that is a possibility, although I have to admit I don’t think it likely, even though there are a very large number of manuscripts and versions that support it.  Several 5th century manuscripts include it, along with virtually all the later manuscripts, as well as the earliest manuscript of the Old Latin, Latin Vulgate, one Old Syriac Version, the Syriac Peshitta, and a number of other versions. Irenaeus, one of the church Fathers, refers to the longer ending, which shows that it existed in the 2nd century and that Mark was believed to be the author. That sounds impressive, so what’s the problem?

In an earlier post, we talked about the three most significant manuscripts we have of the New Testament. Two of these, the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus date from AD 325-350). Whenever these manuscripts agree scholars consider that to be significant. And neither of these manuscripts includes verses 9-20. These verses are also absent from the earliest Old Latin manuscripts, about 100 Armenian manuscripts, the two oldest Georgian manuscripts, as well as other versions.

Among the church fathers, Clement of Alexandria and Origen show no knowledge of the existence of these verses. Eusebius and Jerome acknowledge that it was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them. Finally, many of the manuscripts that do contain verses 9-20 are marked with notations indicating that it was questionable as to whether the passage should be included.

Finally, we must consider the possibility that the original ending of Mark was lost before it could be copied. While that is a real possibility, it is somewhat unlikely. The original was probably written on a scroll, rather than a codex. While the last leaf of a codex could be torn off, the ending of a scroll is harder to lose.

One quick message of reassurance. If we eliminate verses 9-20, we have not lost what is commonly referred to as “the Great Commission.” It is contained in virtually the same words in Matthew 28, and there are no textual issues relating to Matthew’s version at all.

I tend toward believing that Mark ended his gospel with verse 8. While that may seem to be an unusual ending, it has literary value. The rest of the story would likely have been known by most of Mark’s readers, but by ending it abruptly at verse 8, Mark forces us to ask ourselves the question, “How will I write the ending for myself? How will I respond to the events as described? Will I respond with faith or with doubt and confusion? I can’t say whether Mark deliberately set out to pose these questions, but they are there, nonetheless, and I must admit that I am intrigued by the literary value of this ending. Mark leaves us with an empty tomb, but with the disciples afraid and not sure what to do. I can identify with that. Can’t you?

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Actually, I am not aware of a book called Textual Criticism for Dummies, but I think it would be good for someone to write such a book. As we begin to look at some of the more significant textual variants in the New Testament, there is one aspect that you may notice if you take time to compare different translations. Virtually all of these passages are included in the King James Version, but are either in footnotes in modern translations or have a footnote, indicating that the most ancient manuscripts do not contain them. And that’s the real issue. In earlier posts I mentioned just a few of the oldest manuscripts we have. Please understand there are more that I could have listed.

Most of these older manuscripts were not available to the King James translators, who basically used only a handful of relatively late manuscripts. Since that time, both the number of manuscripts, as well as the discipline of textual criticism, have allowed scholars to evaluate textual variations with much more precision. The downside is that it has called into question some of the passages that we grew up with and which are meaningful to us. I wish to repeat that no fundamental doctrinal or theological beliefs are threatened by these issues. At the same time, honesty requires that we look at them.

Recognizing that probably no one reading this post will be a textual scholar, I wish to mention one book that might help you if you are curious and want to know more. The book is Essential Guide to Bible Versions by Dr. Philip W. Comfort. After discussing some of the same issues that have been presented in this blog, Dr. Comfort then goes on to concentrate on the history of English translations of the Bible. Most significant for our subject today is the last chapter, entitled “Extra Verses in the New Testament.” If you read through the book, by the time you get to this chapter, you will have the background to understand what he presents there. And what Dr. Comfort does may be helpful to some. He takes every passage that is found in the King James, but which is normally not included in modern versions and explains why they are not included. While most people may not be interested in this much detail, I would offer it to those who feel uneasy and wish to be reassured.

This is especially important, because there have been accusations that textual criticism is an assault on the integrity of the Bible or is an attempt to take out essential passages. If you have heard this or are disturbed by some of the passages we shall look at, you might wish to pick up Essential Guide to Bible Versions.

I have put off the subject long enough. My next post will begin looking at specific passages in the Bible about which there are significant textual problems. I look forward to that, and I hope you do too.

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In a previous post, I discussed some of the “intentional” changes that we find in our bibles. If you want to review that post, you can find it here.


Today I want to focus on variants that make up the vast majority of discrepancies in the bible, what we might refer to as unintentional errors. These are errors that crept into the manuscripts simply because they were copied by hand. The reality is that, based on the number of manuscripts we possess, the number of variants is about what we should expect for books copied by hand. Most of these variants can be divided into a few categories.

The most frequent example of variants in manuscripts involves what is called the “moveable nu.” “Nu” is a Greek letter that has a sound like the English “N.” We have a similar function in English with the indefinite article “a.” In English, if “a” comes before a consonant, there is no change; however, before a word beginning with a vowel, the “a” becomes “an.” So we write “a potato,” but “an apple.” Greek did the same thing, but applied it to most instances in which a word ending in a vowel came just before a word beginning with a vowel. Before a word beginning with a vowel, Greek would often insert a “nu” at the end of the word before the vowel to make it easier to pronounce. This was not always done, however, and different writers might or might not insert the “nu,” and this single practice is the most common cause of variant readings. In fact, over 70% of the variants in the New Testament are the result of differences in spelling; that’s right, differences in spelling.  We see the same thing today. In English is there any real difference between the American spelling of “honor” and the British spelling of “honour”?

Just to emphasize the point, in case you didn’t notice, 70% of the variant readings among the New Testament manuscripts have been shown to be about essentially nothing.

Other mistakes can often be accounted for by simply having so many manuscripts that we already have an idea of how the text should read. For instance, if a scribe is copying a manuscript and becomes distracted, his eye may skip from (for example) the word “Jesus” in one line down to the word “Jesus” several lines below it, leaving out the text between. Usually these kinds of errors are easy to spot and explain.

We usually visualize a scribe copying a book with a manuscript at his desk from which he makes his copy. It was not always done that way. In order to produce more copies at once, sometimes one scribe would read from a manuscript, while several scribes would copy from his dictation.  Romans 5:1 contains an example of how this might have happened. The NIV reads, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Depending on your English translation, you may have a footnote that tells you that some manuscripts read “let us have peace” instead of “we have peace.” In Greek this is represented by a single word, and the issue is whether the word is in the indicative or subjunctive mood. This difference is represented by a single Greek letter, either omicron (short O) or omega (long O). And in the ancient world these two letters were pronounced virtually identically. Although modern Greek textbooks, tell the student to pronounce omicron with a short “O” sound and omega with a long “O” sound, I didn’t learn it that way. When I took Greek, the textbook I used gave both Greek letters a long “O” sound, and there is evidence that they were pronounced that way. If five scribes heard a presenter read from Romans 5:1, three of them might have written it with the short “O” and two with a long “O.” So now we have another way that variants can arise in the manuscripts.

There are so many other examples that could be given, but I think this is enough to make the point. Like it or not, the New Testament arose and was transmitted when books were copied by hand. Yes, there are variants among the manuscripts just as we find in all ancient books (assuming we have more than one manuscript of those books).  What we find is very much in line with the kind and number of variants we should expect, considering the large number of manuscripts we possess. The vast majority are spelling differences or errors that are quite easily caught and explained. These kinds of errors do not affect our text in any meaningful way.

This does not mean there are no textual problems that are significant. There are, and in the next posts I want to examine some of them. And I have no intention of looking at some obscure meaningless differences. Rather, I intend to look at the most serious textual problems in the New Testament. Make no mistake, this will be challenging. If you do not want to be challenged, you might consider not reading my next posts.  But I do not believe we have anything to fear from these passages. Yes, we may have to admit that some passages in the New Testament were not in the original autographs, but we need not fear that any central point of theology is endangered. I invite you to come with me on that journey as we seek out the truth about textual variants that do make a difference in our New Testament.

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With all that the King James Version had to recommend it when first published, we are forced to recognize that during the past 400 years it has become a less than ideal translation. Let me state clearly, that I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with using the King James. If you are accustomed to it, and wish to continue using it, you should feel free to do so, and it would be improper for anyone to tell you otherwise. That being said, just as we looked at the strengths of the King James last week, today we shall consider its weaknesses. They fall into two general areas. While this requires mentioning something about manuscripts and textual criticism, which we have not discussed yet, I feel it is necessary. In the future I plan to deal with these areas more fully.

The Text of the King James

It should be obvious that no Bible translation can be better than the Hebrew and Greek texts upon which it is based. Perhaps no other point better illustrates both the strengths of the King James when first produced and its weaknesses today.

The earliest manuscript of the Hebrew Old Testament the King James translators had was from the tenth century AD, only 700 years before their own time. Since 1948 the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls has provided some Old Testament texts written before or slightly after the time of Christ. Additional early manuscripts of the Septuagint have provided another basis for comparison with the accepted text of the Hebrew Bible (the Masoretic text).

For their basic text of the New Testament the King James translators used the Greek text of Erasmus, which was certainly the best text known to them at that time. Erasmus’ text, however, was not a particularly good one. He had only four or five fairly late manuscripts which he could have used, and they dated from the 10th to the 13th centuries. Of course the King James translators did have other resources. They had before them every previous English version, all available foreign versions, as well as ancient Latin and Syriac translations; however, there appears to be some doubt that the translators made use of these, deferring (for the New Testament) for the most part to the text of Erasmus, which as we have seen, was not an especially accurate text.

And the search for the most accurate text possible has over the years rendered the King James a less than ideal translation. None of the three most significant manuscripts of the Bible (Codices Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, or Alexandrinus) were available to the King James translators. In fact they could have had access to no more than 25 rather late manuscripts, and there is little evidence they used them. Today we know of well over 5,500 manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament, some dating back to the second century AD.

Although still occasionally denounced by some, the application of scientific methods in textual criticism has helped explain many of the variations among ancient manuscripts, and the result is a biblical text far more reliable than we have had since the earliest days of Christianity.

The Language of the King James

The primary function of any translation is to render the original in the language of the reader, and, for good or ill, Jacobean English is no longer the standard language of any English-speaking culture, and the continuing changes in English usage must increasingly make the King James more difficult to understand and in some cases actually misleading.

The word “let” can serve as an example of how changes in English word meanings since Jacobean times can easily obscure, if not actually distort, the meaning. The King James translates Romans 1.13 as follows: “Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto) . . .” In a similar usage 2 Thessalonians 2.7 reads, “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” Since the word “let” has, in modern English, virtually the opposite of its Elizabethan meaning of “prevent,” its usage in the King James must present difficulty to the average English reader unfamiliar with the history of the language. While the passage in Romans might appear simply strange or quaint, the verse in 2 Thessalonians could easily be confusing to the modern reader.

Another example can be found in the word “prove.” In current English, the word “prove” means to establish the truth of something; however, as used in the King James Bible,“prove” means to “test.” Judges 3.3 shows us this meaning. “And they were to prove Israel by them, to know whether they would hearken unto the commandments of the LORD, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses.” In this verse, the word “prove” clearly means to “test.” A New Testament example is Galatians 6.2 where the King James reads, “But let every man prove his own work.” Again, the context shows that the meaning is “test.” We have all heard the expression, “The exception proves the rule.” In current English, this expression makes no sense. How can an exception prove a rule? In the modern sense an exception does precisely the opposite. But using the King James understanding of the word, the expression is saying that the exception tests the rule, which makes perfect sense. If we do read the King James without knowing that, we can actually misinterpret what the text is saying.

These are only two examples of how changes in language over 400 years have made it more difficult to understand the King James Version. As I indicated in my last post, I have nothing but admiration for the quality of the King James Version. At the same time, we need to recognize that, like all translations, it has weaknesses. And these weaknesses have increased over the passage of time. Next week I intend to provide my last posting on the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. I will summarize my thoughts at that time.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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