KJVO apologists believe the King James translation is derived from the best manuscript evidence of the original biblical languages. Some will go so far as to say the original Hebrew and the original Greek language texts used by the King James translators represented the exact duplicates of the original prophetic oracles of the Old Testament, as well as the original apostolic epistles from the New Testament. So, in other words, when the KJV translators were translating Isaiah, they were looking at what was really a photographic copy of Isaiah’s original collection of prophecies. When they were translating the book of 1 John, it was if the Apostle John just wrote it the day before.
They further claim we can trace God’s direct, providential hand guiding the transmission of the biblical texts down through history. God’s providential direction is clearly evident in the language texts used by the KJV translators.
I will take up this idea of textual, providential guidance in a later post, but with this one, I thought it would be helpful to present a quick overview of textual criticism because it is so misunderstood by the vast majority of Christians, as well as maligned by KJV onlyists.
To begin, we need to pause and consider the value of our printed Bibles. Christians in our modern world fail to realize how recent printing has come on the scene and appreciate how it transformed our world.
Up until about 1450, when Gutenberg invented his printing press, all published material was handwritten. Any sizable document took a while to hand copy, and if there were a need for many copies of the same document, depending on the available human copiers, it would take some time to duplicate them. Printing revolutionized how we communicated with one another, something that was heavily exploited by the Reformers during the Reformation.
In a similar fashion, we see an information revolution happening with the emergence of the internet and email. Before email, if I wished to write a friend in Arkansas from California, I had to take the time to write out the letter (or type it), put it in an envelope and mail it. My letter would probably take 3-4 days to make it to Arkansas. My friend would then have to take the time to respond to me, mail his letter, which again would take 3-4 days to return to me. Depending upon how quickly our letters got turned around there was maybe an 8 to 10 day period of me sending a letter and waiting for a reply.
Now, with email, my letter is in my friend’s email box with in five minutes. If there happens to be a glitch in the system, my message might be delayed a day.Even more remarkable is how I can email a friend around the world in the same amount of time.
As email is to letter writing, so printing was to publishing. It took the transmission of information to a new level never before considered. When Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the church door, by the next day, there were a multitude of printed copies. To have handwritten them would have taken several days or more.
The original biblical texts were handwritten — painstakingly copied by a variety of different people in different areas of the world with varying degrees of abilities. These handwritten texts are called manuscripts. Thus, when people speak of manuscripts, they have in mind handwritten documents.
With the Bible, what a manuscript will look like depends upon four elements:
Materials What the manuscript is written on. Papyrus is paper made from processed reeds. It is easily the cheapest material in production of a manuscript. Parchment, on the other hand, is made of leather from some sort of animal. It is more time consuming to make, plus it is pricey, because animals were not cheap in the ancient world. Only important documents were reserved for parchment.
Form What the manuscript looks like. The manuscript could be either in a scroll form: pieces sown together to make a roll. Generally, parchment was used for scrolls. Or, the manuscript could be in codex form: bound together like a book.
Completeness How much of the manuscript is available to study. It could be in fragments, or what is a small portion of a text. It could also be partial, a small portion of a chapter, or maybe a page from a manuscript. It could also be a whole, complete document, all the way to being an entire OT or NT.
Style How the manuscript was written.The manuscript could be written in uncial style, or all capital letters.Or in minuscules, small letters. Also, the text could be arranged in columns or be a single running text.
With the NT alone, we have nearly 5,500 pieces of manuscript evidence either entire, partial, or in small portions. That does not include the lectionary citations, what would be early worship books, Church father citations, and the multitude of early translations of Scripture. Put together, experts believe the NT has 20 thousand plus pieces of manuscript evidence attesting to the veracity of the NT documents. The textual evidence for the NT dwarfs any other book or document in ancient history.
Keeping all of this evidence in mind, there is a fundamental question we need to answer: With all of these tangible pieces of manuscript evidence, how do we boil it all down to produce a working apparatus used for translating a Bible?
This is where textual criticism comes into action. The idea of a textual critic has a negative connotation attached to it because people mistakenly believe a critic is criticizing the Bible and casting doubt upon God’s Word. This is hardly the case. A critic is someone who evaluates the quality of a produced work of some sort. There are movie critics, art critics, and drama critics as well as critics of other literary documents. For example, there are critics surrounding the publication of Jonathan Edwards’s handwritten sermon manuscripts.
Though we know our modern day critics will make critical remarks against a movie for instance, their job is to evaluate the quality of the film, not just talk bad about it. In the same way, textual critics of the NT evaluate the quality of all the available manuscript evidence so as to determine what the original autographs said. They deal with the four areas I highlighted: materials, forms, completeness and style.
The role of a critic is imperative because we are dealing with handwritten documents, and handwritten documents copied over and over for a long period of time will contain variants. What exactly is a variant? It is any reading of a particular verse or passage that will vary between two or more manuscripts of the same verse or passage. For instance, perhaps a passage in a group of manuscripts will read, The Lord Jesus Christ, where as in another group of manuscripts we find in the same passage the words, Jesus Christ. The words the and Lord are added to the first group, but absent from the second.
What is the cause of these variants? There could be a multitude of causes. The most common is human error when copying; anything from fatigue causing mistakes, sloppy penmanship, not paying attention when copying, etc. There are also intentional variants, like harmonizing two similar sounding passages, particularly between the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Whatever the case, a trained textual critic can evaluate the value of these variants, sort through them and draw some reasonable conclusions as to which one represents the original writing of the prophet or apostle. For example, one of the most reasonable conclusions when evaluating variants is to take the oldest reading. A copy of the book of Luke that dates to just 200 years after Christ is more than likely going to reflect the original book of Luke, than a copy of Luke that is dated a 1,000 years after Christ. Why is that? Because the book dated a 1,000 years after Christ is more likely to have gathered more and more variants as it is representative of a copy that is the end product of a vast amount of copying over a millennium of time.The manuscript just 200 years removed from Christ has not been around a long enough time to pick up copying errors.
Despite how well-tuned textual criticism has become over the years, after the Reformation when Christians became interested in determining the original text, KJVO advocates cast a dark shadow of suspicion over the helpful role it has played in sharpening our understanding of the biblical documents. They do this in a couple of ways:
They will exaggerate the significance of the variants, implying that God’s Word becomes lost among all of them. They claim in their literature that the manuscripts utilized by modern versions are different in THOUSANDS of places, suggesting that any modern version is an entirely different Bible altogether, as if it is like comparing the story of Jesus from The Book of Mormon with the historical Jesus of the NT documents.
They will claim that many of these variants are a result of heretical men intentionally altering the Bible so as to promote their heresy. For example, KJVO imply that heretical individuals would slightly alter the biblical text to water down Christ’s Deity, or make Him appear to be a created being. In fact, pretty much all KJV literature has a section providing extensive verse comparisons between the KJV, which is supposed to be translated from the pure, providentially guided texts, and a variety of modern versions, which are supposed to be translated from a text that reflects these heretical alterations.
The problem, as we will see, is there is no evidence of such heretical corruption. It just doesn’t exist. If anything, orthodox Christians leaned toward altering the text so it will reflect orthodoxy more clearly. I will take up the separate question of whether or not heretics have corrupted our Bibles in a later post.
In closing, I believe it is important for Christians to have a correct understanding of textual criticism. It is not a Bogey man that is to be feared, but is an essential process in maintaining the integrity of our Bible. The next time I will take up the transmission of the OT documents and the NT documents, and consider the KJV view of providential preservation.