This article first appeared as a two-part series at SharperIron (click for Part 1 and Part 2), entitled “The KJVO Debate in Light of ‘The Translators to the Reader,’” on January 14 and 16, 2008. I have also posted a list of resources related to the KJVO Controversy here.
[Author’s Note: I have provided page numbers for quotations using The Holy Bible: King James Version (1611 Edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, n.d.). From the title page: “a word-for-word reprint of the First Edition of the Authorized Version presented in roman [sic] letters for easy reading and comparison with subsequent editions.” I have updated some words with modernized spelling and inserted my own explanatory notes in brackets, however.]
Many of us have been exposed to or embroiled in debates relating to the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Is it the only legitimate English translation? Should it be revised? Was it really good enough for Paul? The list goes on. The point of this article is to consider some issues raised by proponents of some form of the King James Version Only (KJVO) position and how those issues were addressed by the translators of the KJV in their preface. The listing below should not be taken as an accusation that all KJVO advocates hold to all of these ideas, but they are ideas that have been advanced by various advocates of a KJVO position.
The KJV, which was translated by committees amounting to 47 men, included an epistle dedicatory (dedicating the work to James I, King of England). Translator Miles Smith penned “The Translators to the Reader.” Unfortunately, this preface is omitted in most, if not all, editions of the KJV today (except for facsimiles and reprints of the original 1611 edition, such as those available from Thomas Nelson Publishers in Nashville, Tennessee, and Hendrickson Publishers in Peabody, Massachusetts). This 11-page, small type, verbose preface may seem irrelevant, but it actually contains much helpful material related to Bible translation in general and much that is applicable to the KJVO debate in particular. Although the KJVO position was not around in their time (although similar arguments had been used for the Septuagint and Latin Vulgate centuries earlier), we can see how the KJV translators would have been likely to respond to certain issues raised by KJVO advocates, with the significant exception of which textual traditions are most reliable (since the wide variety of New Testament manuscripts available now were unknown to them). In addition, it is hoped that this article will stimulate parties of all sides in this debate to actually read, in its entirety, “The Translators to the Readers.” Such time would be well-spent if it resulted in eliminating much of the “zeal without knowledge” that characterizes many KJVO discussions and writings. Let us see how it bears on seven areas of discussion.
1. The Idea of an Inspired or Perfect Bible Translation
The KJV is not the first translation alleged to be inspired or perfect. Some viewed the producers of the Septuagint (LXX) as inspired, calling them prophets, but Smith writes,
It is evident . . . that the Seventy [translators of the Septuagint] were Interpreters, they were not Prophets; they did many things well, as learned men; but yet as men they stumbled and fell, one while through oversight, another while through ignorance, yea, sometimes they may be noted to add to the Original, and sometimes to take from it; which made the Apostles to leave them many times, when they left the Hebrew, and to deliver the sense thereof according to the truth of the word, as the spirit gave them utterance. (p. 4)
Given these words on the Septuagint, it is quite doubtful that the KJV translators would have considered themselves to have produced a perfect work on the level of the prophets.
The KJV translators did not believe that a translation had to be perfect to be designated as the Word of God.
We do not deny, nay we affirm and avow, that the very meanest [most undistinguished] translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession, (for we have seen none of theirs of the whole Bible as yet) containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. As the King’s speech, which he uttereth in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere . . . A man may be counted a virtuous man, . . . though he have some warts upon his hand, yea, not only freckles upon his face, but also scars. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it. (p. 7)
In regard to using imperfect translations, the Septuagint comes up again.
The translation of the Seventy dissenteth from the Original in many places, neither doth it come near it, for perspicuity [clarity], gravity [seriousness], majesty; yet which of the Apostles did condemn it? Condemn it? Nay, they used it, (as it is apparent, and as Saint Jerome and most learned men do confess) which they would not have done, nor by their example of using it, so grace and commend it to the Church, if it had been unworthy of the appellation and name of the word of God. (pp. 7-8)
So, we even have precedent from the apostles to use imperfect translations, according to the KJV translators.
Furthermore, the KJV Preface discourages us from expecting any post-apostolic translation to be perfect. “For whatever was perfect under the Sun, where Apostles or Apostolic men, that is, men endued with an extraordinary measure of God’s spirit, and privileged with the privilege of infallibility, had not their hand?” (p. 7). The KJV translators themselves evidently did not think they were producing something on the same level as the apostles. Nonetheless, their goal was to produce as excellent an English Bible as they could:
Truly . . . we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against [i.e., objected to]; that hath been our endeavor, that our mark. (p. 9)
The translators thought that the frequent translation and revision of secular works offered an argument from the lesser to the greater for continual translation and revision of the English Bible: “Now if this cost may be bestowed upon the gourd, which affordeth us a little shade, and which today flourisheth, but tomorrow is cut down; what may we bestow, nay what ought we not to bestow upon the Vine, the fruit whereof maketh glad the conscience of man, and the stem whereof abideth forever?” (p. 7)
2. The Propriety of Modern English for Translations
Some think that the KJV language was inspired and that the Bible does not need to be translated into modern English. But the KJV translators spoke of people of ancient times who “provided Translations into the vulgar [common language] for their Countrymen, insomuch that most nations under heaven did shortly after their conversion, hear CHRIST speaking unto them in their mother tongue, not by the voice of their Minister only, but also by the written word translated” (p. 5). This is the need in our day as well. There is no good reason to continue to advocate an unnecessary language barrier. The KJV translators and their forebears (such as William Tyndale) would argue for a translation in a language that is common enough to be understood. Seventeenth century English usage is not common enough to be understood widely today. Language changes; therefore, updates, revisions, or new translations are necessary from time to time.
3. Marginal Notes—Helpful for Clarification or Harmful by Confusing?
Some allege that marginal notes or footnotes concerning alternate translations and/or textual variants create uncertainty among God’s people, suggesting that we are not sure what exactly God’s Word is and how it should be translated. Therefore, such notes are considered dangerous. But the KJV translators thought differently. The preface states:
There be many words in the Scriptures, which be never found there but once, (having neither brother or neighbor, as the Hebrews speak) so that we cannot be holpen [helped] by conference [comparing] of places. Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts and precious stones, etc. concerning the Hebrews themselves are so divided among themselves for judgment. (p. 10)
So, some words are so rare that marginal notes are needed to give an alternate rendering since the meaning is quite uncertain.
They also argued that an honest uncertainty was far superior to an unwarranted insistence on what might even turn out to be wrong, both in the case of the meaning of a passage and in the acknowledgment of a textual variant.
Now in such a case, doth not a margin do well to admonish the Reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as Saint Augustine saith, that variety of Translations is profitable for the finding out the sense of the Scriptures . . . so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded . . . They that are wise, had rather have their judgments at liberty in differences of readings [i.e., alternate translations and textual variants], than to be captivated to one, when it may be the other. (p. 10)
Some allege that marginal notes undermine the authority of Scripture. The translators recognized that
some peradventure would have no variety of sense to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty, should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be sound in this point . . . Yet for all that it cannot be dissembled, that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from the loathing of them for their every-where plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God’s spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, and never scorn those that be not in all respects so complete as they should be, being to seek in many things ourselves, it hath pleased God in his divine providence, here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation, (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain) but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence. (p. 10)
So, uncertain places in the text were seen not as occasion to doubt God’s Word, but as grounds to trust His providence and call out to Him for help. These areas in no way threatened to overthrow any established doctrinal point that concerned salvation. Integrity dictated the recognition of passages that were difficult to translate or that contained textual variants. While not specifically referenced in the preface, their marginal note on Luke 17:36 is an example of what many KJVO proponents oppose in modern versions: “This 36. verse is wanting in most of the Greek copies.”
4. The Source for Translations
Instead of translating from the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament (the original languages of the Bible), some have advocated using the KJV as the basis for their translations into other languages. What would the KJV translators have thought?
Smith said, regarding the source of the translators,
If you ask what they had before them, truly it was the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the Greek of the New. These are the two golden pipes, or rather conduits . . . If truth be tried by these tongues, then whence should a Translation be made, but out of them? These tongues therefore, the Scriptures we say in those tongues, we set before us to translate, being the tongues wherein God was pleased to speak to his Church by the Prophets and Apostles. (pp. 9-10)
Prior to the Vulgate, Latin translations of the Old Testament
were not out of the Hebrew fountain . . . but out of the Greek stream, therefore the Greek being not altogether clear, the Latin derived from it must needs be muddy. This moved Saint Jerome, a most learned father, and the best linguist without controversy, of his age, or of any that went before him, to undertake the translating of the Old Testament, out of the very fountain with that evidence of great learning, judgment, industry, and faithfulness, that he had forever bound the Church unto him, in a debt of special remembrance and thankfulness. (pp. 4-5)
So, clearly, the KJV translators believed that one should translate the Bible from its original languages. While a translation from the KJV to another language may be better than no translation at all (so long as it is expressing the teachings of the Bible clearly), it will necessarily be “muddy” in comparison to the translation that could be made from the fountains of Hebrew and Greek.
5. The Existence of the Septuagint
Some KJVO advocates allege that the idea that the Septuagint existed before the time of Christ is a fairy tale. But what did the scholars of the early 17th century say? Smith wrote that
it pleased the Lord to stir up . . . Ptolemy Philadelph King of Egypt, to procure the translating of the Book of God out of Hebrew into Greek. This is the translation of the Seventy Interpreters, commonly so called, which prepared the way for our Saviour among the Gentiles by written preaching . . . the Greek tongue was well known and made familiar to most inhabitants in Asia, by reason of the conquest that there the Grecians had made, as also by the Colonies, which thither they had sent . . . Therefore the word of God being set forth in Greek, becometh hereby like a candle set upon a candlestick, which giveth light to all that are in the house . . . It is certain, that that Translation was not so sound and so perfect, but it needed in many places correction; and who had been so sufficient for this work as the Apostles or Apostolic men? Yet it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to them, to take that which they found, (the same being for the greatest part true and sufficient) rather than making a new, in that new world and green age of the Church, to expose themselves to many exceptions and cavillations, as though they made a Translation to serve their own turn, and therefore bearing a witness to themselves, their witness not to be regarded. (p. 4)
Obviously, the KJV translators believed that the Septuagint existed.
6. Conspiracy Theories
New Age Bible Versions is not the first source to allege a diabolical conspiracy in regard to translations. The KJV was controversial even before its release. The translators heard from those who said, “Hath the Church been deceived . . all this while? . . . ‘Do we condemn the ancient?” They replied, “In no case: but after the endeavors of them that were before us, we take the best pains we can in the house of God’” (p. 6). While one may not agree with all their choices on texts and translation philosophy, producers of many modern versions may be able to sincerely echo the answer of the KJV translators.
7. Does Using a Variety of Bible Translations Unnecessarily Confuse God’s People?
It need not. The translators themselves thought it was profitable to consult a variety of translations.
Neither did we think much to consult the Translators or Commentators, Chaldee, Hebrew, Syrian, Greek or Latin, no nor the Spanish, French, Italian, or Dutch; neither did we disdain to revise that which we had done, and to bring back to the anvil that which we had hammered: but having and using as great helps as were needful, and fearing no reproach for slowness, nor coveting praise for expedition, we have at length, through the good hand of the Lord upon us, brought the work to pass that you see. (p. 10)
The preface looks to early church history for a commendation of using a variety of translations. In the context, this refers to alternate readings in the margin, but based on the principle and on the fact that they utilized many other translations themselves, the KJV translators would think it absurd to only use the Bible they produced. “Therefore as Saint Augustine saith, that variety of Translations is profitable for the finding out the sense of the Scriptures” (p. 10).
The KJV translators may not have the final word on the KJVO debate, but their voices should not be ignored when thinking through these issues. They may not have written their preface by divine inspiration, but their helpful thoughts are worthy of consideration. They certainly reveal how unlikely the translators would be to embrace a KJVO position if they could speak to us in person today. Rather, they would desire to see an English Bible that faithfully conveyed the words of God in today’s vernacular.
 I gladly refer the reader to the following journal article for a more thorough treatment of the KJVO controversy and the KJV Preface. See William W. Combs, “The Preface to the KJV and the KJV Only Position” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, vol. 1, no. 2 (Fall 1996), 253-267. Download for free at http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_2/Preface.pdf
 F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English. 3rd Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 98.
 For a free downloadable version of this document, see “The Translators to the Readers: Preface to the KJV” as printed in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, vol. 1, no. 2 (Fall 1996), 269-290, available at http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_2/KJVPref.pdf