The King James Version and Principles of Translation – Part 1

The King James Version (AV) originally published in 1611 is, in many places, rarely matched in terms of the beauty of its language. After four centuries it is still the third most popular English translation – a testimony to the diligence and faithfulness of those involved in its production. During these modern days, with so many different English translations to choose from, it is still important to ask, ‘What makes a good and a reliable translation of the scriptures?’ In answer this article seeks to address two important foundations: (1) the choice of the original language text; and (2) the method or mode of translation into the receptor language, i.e., the language into which the original languages are being translated.

1 The Underlying Text Used

The Old Testament

Unlike the New Testament, where there are several different theories as to the best manuscripts, most scholars accept the traditional Masoretic text for the Old Testament. This name is derived from the ‘Masoretes’, a name for textual scholars derived from the Hebrew word for tradition. From the seventh to the tenth century A.D. they produced the text that has become the generally accepted text used today.

Another thing to note concerning the text of the Old Testament is that the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1947 that show a remarkable similarity to the later traditional Masoretic text. These contain parts of all the books of the Old Testament, except Esther. The Isaiah scroll, found in the first Qumran cave, is a complete text of his prophecy. The extraordinary thing is how very closely it resembles the text from which the Old Testament of the KJV was translated.

The New Testament

There are over five thousand manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, some written soon after the writing of the original texts. There are four categories of writing and material available for use by translators:

The Papyri. These oldest manuscripts, usually quite fragmentary, were written in capital letters on papyrus (a paper like material derived from the Papyrus plant). There are over eighty papyrus manuscripts, most of which are in codex (book) form, but four are fragments from scrolls. The papyri are designated by the letter ‘P’ with a superscripted number. The earliest New Testament fragment is the Rylands Papyrus 52, generally accepted as being dated around three decades after the death of the apostle John. It contains several verses from John chapter 18.

The Uncials. The word uncial, deriving from the Latin word for ‘inch’, is used to describe these manuscripts because of the large capital letters that are used. There are about 260 uncial manuscripts, only one of which contains most of the New Testament. Nevertheless, every New Testament book has ample uncial witnesses. The uncials are designated by English and Greek capital letters.

The Minuscules. There are about 2,700 minuscules. These are written in smaller letters in a slanted and flowing ‘cursive’ script. Most of these are from later centuries and it was from six of these later minuscules that the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus produced his first edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516.

Lectionaries. Greek lectionaries are similar to the scriptures seen in Book of Common Prayer. They are, of course, in the Greek language, and still used by the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Church Fathers

There are thousands of quotations from the Greek New Testament in the so-called ‘church fathers’. These ‘fathers’ lived from the second century until early medieval times, but the manuscripts containing their works trace back only from about the fourth century onwards. If the actual manuscripts of the New Testament were lost, virtually the entire text could be recovered from their writings.

The Traditional Greek Text – Textus Receptus or Received Text (TR)

The manuscripts of the Greek New Testament available to the earlier European scholars were primarily late medieval copies that became available in Europe after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. These were manuscripts used by the Greek speaking church. The AV translators used these along with other resources, including previous translations into English by Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale and others. Until the nineteenth century the Greek texts used by Bible translators were based on ancient manuscripts that were in substantial agreement. As a result, there were few questions raised concerning the conformity of the then current Greek texts, to the original autographed texts of the various New Testament writers.

In the nineteenth century, earlier Greek manuscripts were discovered that caused some Bible scholars to change their approach towards evaluation of the Greek text. These discoveries were thought to be important for Bible translation because the text of these older manuscripts was significantly different from the TR in a number of places. Because of their antiquity, many scholars came to regard these earlier manuscripts as better copies of the original autographs and thus more authoritative. In turn, this caused scholars to consider how to determine which of the differing readings were original and which might have been later changes. How to go about this review of the text caused scholars difficulty. Finally, many accepted a method developed by F. J. A. Hort and B. F. Westcott, who propounded their theory in a two-volume work published in 1881, The New Testament in the Original Greek.

The Westcott-Hort Theory

Westcott and Hort advocated that relationships among manuscripts were of primary importance. On the basis of their investigation they identified four principal text types, which they called the Syrian, the Western, the Alexandrian, and the Neutral. The text they regarded as the latest and least reliable they called ‘Syrian’, generally called ‘Byzantine’ today. This latter is the text type which Erasmus used and from which the New Testament of the AV was translated. The very smoothness and completeness of the text led some scholars to believe it had become corrupted through much editing. Hort taught that the text was in such a vast majority of extant manuscripts because the Byzantine Church made it her official text. There is, however, no historical evidence for this.

Westcott and Hort’s favoured text they called ‘Neutral’, a name now rejected by many as too biased. This text was heavily dependent on Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, their first and second most favoured manuscripts. Many of their contemporary scholars, however, were disturbed that a few recently discovered manuscripts, no matter how much older, should be made to counter balance the hundreds of years of reliance on the traditional text and the overwhelming majority of manuscripts supporting it. The most outspoken critic of their theory was John W. Burgon, Dean of Chichester.1 He favoured the Byzantine text because the vast majority of manuscripts supported it. He regarded Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus as corrupt and unreliable as copies of the original text. He also felt the writings of the early church fathers were more reliable, particularly as passages of scripture contained therein corresponded largely with the Byzantine text underlying the TR.

In more recent times textual scholars have classified the manuscripts into different text types from those of Westcott and Hort. They have also departed from such extreme dependence on Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, giving more weight to other early witnesses, including early papyri. Many scholars are more willing to include the Byzantine text in their translation work, rather than ignore it and the result is essentially an ‘Eclectic Text’, that is, one based on choosing individual readings rather than following a certain textual theory. This Eclectic Text, often called the ‘Critical Text’, is the Greek text used in all of the modern translations of the New Testament, except the New King James version (NKJV). This Critical Text, though it is not very different from the Westcott – Hort text, does have a wider base although it is still not one based on the majority of manuscripts. It is designated as the ‘NU’ text - ‘NU’ standing for ‘Nestle-Aland/United Bible Societies.2

The Majority Text Theory

There has been a recent resurgence of the conviction that the divine preservation of the text of the New Testament can best be discovered in the type of text used in the Greek speaking churches as far back as we can trace. This is the text found in approximately ninety-five percent of the manuscripts. It is argued that a variant that first appeared in a fourth- entury manuscript, i.e., the Codices from Egypt, when hundreds of manuscripts reflecting the true reading of the original were already in circulation, would have had a poor chance of becoming the dominant reading. For example, the Codex Vaticanus manuscript, has few descendants. TR supporters use this as one argument for choosing the text based on the majority of manuscripts, maintaining that the readings found in the largest number of manuscripts are most likely to trace back to the earliest copies, the autographs actually penned by the evangelists and apostles themselves. It is also worth noting that most of the autographs were originally sent to and carefully preserved by churches in what later became the Byzantine Empire; in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica, and other places. As far as we know, not a single original autograph of a Gospel or Epistle was ever sent to Egypt, the country of origin of Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus.

The main argument against the Majority text is that none of the earliest manuscripts is of this type. Those who support the Majority, however, respond to this criticism by maintaining that the manuscripts found in Egypt during the nineteenth century are corrupt copies of much earlier manuscripts. These originals had been sent to Asia Minor and Europe but were likely rejected as not being the best and therefore not copied. Furthermore, the manuscripts we have from Egypt survived possibly because of disuse and certainly because of the dry climate. Although it used to be said that no Byzantine readings were ancient, early papyri have been found which do contain formerly rejected, so called ‘late’ readings. In recent years the extreme reliance on a handful of the oldest manuscripts – all from Egypt – has decreased. There is a greater openness to giving the so-called Byzantine manuscripts a fair hearing.3 Having said this the majority of translators of the contemporary versions assume that the still popular Critical Text view is correct, often supporting critical readings with marginal notes referring to ‘the best manuscripts’ which seem to many to be biased. It does appear thoroughly unfair and biased that manuscripts supporting the AV readings are largely ignored, since these latter readings almost always reflect the overwhelming majority of extant manuscripts. Most current New Testament translations use some modification of the Westcott – Hort text, such as an eclectic one not too far removed from that text. The only modern English translation which is an exception to this is the NKJV.

To be continued.



See Revision Revised J. W. Burgon.


There are, in fact, two critical editions of the Greek New Testament not an amalgam. They are Nestle-Aland 27th edition, and UBS 4th edition. The difference between them is that NA27 lists more variants in its critical apparatus (footnotes). UBS4 text was specially designed for translators.


H. A. Sturz – The Byzantine Text Type and New Testament textual criticism.


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