There is a subset of Christians who believe that the only valid English Bible translation is the King James Version, also known as the Authorized version. These KJV Only (KJO or KVJO) sticklers reject other English translations, considering the KJV to be inerrant. They demand inerrancy because, they ask,
“How can you trust what you read if your translation is not inerrant?”
To fully understand this controversy, we must consider the chain of transmission of the scriptures. In the many steps from original inspiration of prophets to our English translation, how can be know if the original message was preserved?
Traditional Christianity, interestingly, takes the LEAST extreme position – that only the original autographs are inerrant. The other steps may be imperfect but those imperfections are managed by God’s providence and the Holy Spirit’s personal illumination of each believer in the last step. Let’s examine the steps, and see how the KJVO person differs in their assumptions about each.
The steps of transmission are
1. Initial inspiration by God (not inerrant)
Of course, there is a step before writing, which is that the prophetic source rightly observes, hears, and understands what God is saying to them. The author may immediately write down the revelation (step 3 below), but they may not. There is no need for perfect understanding or perfect recollection on the part of the hearer, but some level of accuracy is required.
2. Oral Transmission (not inerrant)
If the prophet did not write down the revelation during their lifetime, they may have passed it on in the form of oral tradition for generations until it was written. This may be the case with Moses’ authorship of the The Pentateuch includes the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The literary category of the Pentateuch reflects the traditional Jewish grouping of these books together, also known as the Torah. More. Moses was born some 2500 years after Adam, and even though the Bible records Adam to have lived approximately 930 years (Genesis 5:5), Moses would not have lived contemporaneously with Adam.
Therefore, his knowledge of the events in early Genesis would have had to be communicated second hand through oral tradition. But this gets more interesting.
2.1 Generational Transmission
Based on the long lifespan of the patriarchs, it would only take two generations of oral tradition to go from Adam to Abraham. Lamech’s life overlapped Adam’s (he would have been around 45 years old when Adam died). Lamech could have told his son Shem, and Shem Abraham, so that long gap is covered in essentially two generations.
Adam —> Lamech —> Shem —> Abraham
There were approximately 6 generations between Abraham and Moses. so that would be a total of oral transmission across a minimum of 8 generations. We don’t know much about the methods or felicity of this oral transmission, but there is at least one other possibility.
2.2 Methuselah’s Obelisks
The first century Jewish historian Josephus claimed that Methuselah was an ancient historian of his day who recorded the history of the world (as told by Adam) on stone obelisks. These obelisks, sometimes called Seth’s obelisks or the pillars of Enoch, were supposedly carried by Noah onto the ark, and after the ark came to rest, Noah deposited the stone tablets in Arabia. 1 2
According to Josephus (Jewish Antiquities Book 1, Chapter 2, 68-71), the family of Seth, the third son of Adam, was noted for constructing a particularly long-lasting edifice or monument.
…Now this Seth…did leave children behind him who imitated his virtues…. They also were the inventors of that peculiar sort of wisdom which is concerned with the heavenly bodies, and their order. And that their inventions might not be lost before they were sufficiently known, upon Adam’s prediction that the world was to be destroyed at one time by the force of fire, and at another time by the violence and quantity of water, they made two pillars; the one of brick, the other of stone: they inscribed their discoveries on them both, that in case the pillar of brick should be destroyed by the flood, the pillar of stone might remain, and exhibit those discoveries to mankind; and also inform them that there was another pillar of brick erected by them. Now this remains in the land of Siriad to this day. 3
If these pillars captured important world history events, Moses may have had access to them. Of course, this again introduces some communication limitations, but these may become largely unimportant compared to the next important step.
3. Original Manuscript Creation (INERRANT)
This is the critical step that nearly all orthodox Christianity agrees on – that the original documents (“autographs”) were inerrant, and that the holy spirit guided the authors as they recorded what was important.
It is worth noting that even when it comes to inerrancy of the autographs, there are various approaches to defining the arguments for it (inductive v. deductive), as well as the scope of precision included (e.g. inspired v. inerrant). See my graduate paper on this topic – A Usable Taxonomy for Inerrancy as well as Daniel Wallace’s My Take on Inerrancy. 4 5
4. Copying manuscripts (not inerrant)
Much ink has been spilled about the felicity or lack of it in the monastic Jewish and Christian practices around holy manuscript copying, but to summarize; though the process might not be inerrant, the demanding disciplines involved, the many extant manuscripts, and the observed minimal errors and differences across time make our confidence in the manuscripts very high.
To some extent, I suspect that KJVO adherents may require or believe that this copying must be inerrant, but it is not logically required since, as we shall see, it is primarily the translation step which they consider to be necessarily without error so that we have an English Bible that is 100% the word of God.
5. Manuscript preservation (not inerrant)
Not only were thousands of copies made, but these manuscripts are grouped into families. There are at least three major old testament groupings of manuscripts (Masoretic, Septuagint, Samaritan The Pentateuch includes the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The literary category of the Pentateuch reflects the traditional Jewish grouping of these books together, also known as the Torah. More), and at least four for the New Testament (Alexandrian, Western, Byzantine, Caesarean).
Most modern New Testament translations rely primarily on the Alexandrian family of manuscripts, due to their age, quality, and shorter readings. But scholars also examine the other families, especially where the major manuscripts disagree on wording. And the common orthodox view is that God, in his providence, preserved the ones we can find.
However, KJVO requires trust in only a few of the major manuscript families. For the OT, the KJV relied on the Masoretic text, which is not controversial. However, for the New Testament, it relied primarily, nearly exclusively on the Byzantine manuscripts. While there are more numerous copies of these than the more common used Alexandrian, the manuscripts were penned much later (5th century and later), and so are generally considered farther removed from the originals. See the figure above that compares the number and dates of three of the families. 6
Critics also argue that the Byzantine manuscripts represent a standardized text promoted by the Eastern Orthodox church centuries after the originals were written. They question if this standardized text overly smooths out original style, grammar, and wording.
So for these reasons, the KJVO adherents are out of the mainstream of scholarship, and perhaps overly narrow in their commitment to one family of manuscripts out of a need to have one set inerrant.
6. Translation into English (INERRANT?)
This is primarily where KJVO isolates itself the most from orthodox inerrancy, requiring inerrant translation to ensure trustworthiness. This also therefore demands rejection of other translations even if new manuscripts or better research have emerged since the original 1611 publication date of the King James Bible.
However, I do not want to seem dismissive of the King James Bible. It influenced the world for 400 years as the best English translation of its time – you can get a fun insight into the intrigues around it in the movie The King James Bible: The Book that Changed the World (2011). 7
7. Pastoral teaching (not inerrant)
Even if we assume that our English Bible is without error, does the pastor’s preaching have to be without error? Not even KJVO adherents believe this, so in this step, they are in accord with the majority of Christians. No preacher is infallible, not even the Pope, even if the Roman Catholic Church claims that he sometimes speaks infallibly (ex cathedra).
8. Personal understanding (not inerrant)
This step is interesting for two reasons. First, we know that our ability to hear or understand scripture and God’s voice are imperfect. Scripture even indicates that our understanding of God’s will grows (Romans 12:2) and that we learn our faith through practice (Hebrews 5:14).
However, we are also instructed on how to discern if a teacher is wrong, or even a false teacher – and that is by asking the Holy Spirit to confirm to us what is true – so while we are imperfect, we are to learn to listen to our spirit-molded intuitions and impressions from God – a daunting endeavor! This does not mean such impressions are inerrant, but rather, we must learn to hear God, trust that He can teach us poor students, and that this illumination does come from God.
I am writing these things to warn you about those who want to lead you astray. But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true—it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ. (1 John 2:26-27 NLT)
It is my conviction that we ought to call the scriptures inspired, not inerrant, that is, true in what they teach even if we don’t have the original autographs, which may have been inerrant. I do not think inerrancy is explicitly biblical or necessary for us to exercise faith in Christ and in the scriptures. The illumination of he Spirit has to cover our faults, and any faults in the manuscript process whether or not our translation is inerrant.
Recently, a group of Evangelical leaders put together an excellent and short statement on inerrancy called The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Note how they clearly use the word “inspired” and refer to the autographs. 8
Article VI. WE AFFIRM that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration. WE DENY that the inspiration of Scripture can rightly be affirmed of the whole without the parts, or of some parts but not the whole.
Article X. WE AFFIRM that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. WE DENY that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.
Perhaps this is too strong for most, but it is much less narrow than the KJV approach, and infinitely more defendable.
- The Lost Pillars of Enoch: When Science and Religion Were One (amazon.com)
- Rediscovering the Lost Pillars of Enoch (innertraditions.com)
- Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, trans. William Whiston, Wordsworth Editions, 2006
- A Usable Taxonomy for Inerrancy (wholereason.com)
- My Take on Inerrancy (bible.org)
- The Majority Text and the Original Text: Are They Identical? (bible.org)
- The King James Bible: The Book that Changed the World (justwatch.com)
- The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (defendinginerrancy.com)