The King James Version in the 21st century

After 400 years, can we return to the original King James Version of the Bible? Photo: 1885 ERV translators

VANCOUVER, Wash., July 27, 2012 — Four hundred years after the publication of the King James Bible, it may be surprising for some to learn it remains the second most popular of all English translations. However, it could be an even greater shock to KJV enthusiasts to know that our modern KJV is not the same translation as was printed in 1611.

From the moment the first 1611 came off the press, there were misspellings, missing words, and other general corrections that needed to be made. Minor corrections were made in subsequent printings, but the first attempt at a genuine revision was done in 1629 by two of the original translators: Samuel Ward and John Bois. They were joined by Thomas Goad and Joseph Mead for another revision in 1638.

The text remained fairly stable between 1638 and 1762, apart from printers’ errors, and there were many. The revision of 1638 formed the text that most printers followed. However, it is possible to find many variants and errors in the editions between the publications of these two major revisions. Errors generally resulted from inadequate editing or hurried production in order to get the copies on the market.

In 1762 Thomas Paris edited the text for Joseph Bentham at Cambridge. It had been more than 100 years since a serious attempt to revise the text. This edition updated spellings, marginal notes and employed contemporary meanings of words.

Thomas Paris introduced a rather interesting marginal note in Acts 7:45. The text reads, “Which also our fathers that came after, brought in with Jesus …” Paris’ marginal note reads, “Or: having received.” No notice is made of the alternate rendering of the Greek phrase in the 1881 Revised Version or the 1901 American Standard Version. However, the 1979 New King James New Testament published by Thomas Nelson integrated the marginal reading when it was placed in the text itself, “which our fathers, having received it in succession …”(1982 complete Bible edition in turn)

Benjamin Blayney edited the King James Version in 1769. His expansion of Paris’ work became the standardized version for more than 100 years. Blayney contributed new spellings, italics and marginal notes. Paris’ edition incorporated Bishop William Lloyd’s chronology (it used 4004 BC as the date for creation) and it continued in the text of Blayney. The two editions of 1762 and 1769 changed the diction and set the stage for future work in the nineteenth century. With a few exceptions, the notes, and especially the italics, remained the same in subsequent editions and is the text of the KJV today.

In February 1870, both houses of the Convocation of Canterbury unanimously passed a resolution to appoint a committee of scholars to begin the task of a new translation. Its stated purpose was to revise the King James Version and make as few alterations as possible; however, it became more than a simple revision. For the first time the modern findings of Greek manuscripts and textual criticism came into play. Completed in 1885, the English Revised Version along with the American variations in 1901 became the first genuine text revision. Scholars delighted in the new translation, but the general public remained loyal to the King James Version.

There have been serious attempts over the 400 years to return to the 1611 edition. In 1830 Thomas Curtis ignited a firestorm of controversy and in 1833 published an article that created a challenge to the accuracy of the contemporary edition of the King James Version. He called for a return to the original 1611 edition. Thomas Turton, professor at Cambridge University and Edward Cardwell, professor at Oxford countered with a defense of the contemporary revision.

To provide a basis for the controversy, Oxford Press published an exact reprint of the 1611 King James Bible in 1833. By this time the common version in use was the 1769 Blayney edition. The mistakes, spellings, etc. recorded in the reprinted 1611 edition demonstrated that it was impossible to return to the 1611 edition. Words had changed in meaning, modern spellings had been adopted, and printer’s errors were corrected.

Even though the KJV remains very popular in the twenty-first century, modern translations better reflect the English used today. The New King James Version (1982) made a valiant effort to update archaic terms and grammar usage. However, very little attempt was made to upgrade the Greek text used. That does not mean the KJV should not be read in modern society, only that words in the text need to be examined carefully. Words have changed meanings, some words have different nuances, the original figures of speech and expressions are confusing today.


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Donald L. Brake, Sr.

Donald L. Brake, Ph.D., is Dean Emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, past president of Jerusalem University College, Israel; author of A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of The World’s Bestselling Book; Baker Books, 2008 (a 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award finalist), A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Tale of the World’s Best-Known Translation, Baker Books, 2011, A Royal Monument of English Literature: The King James Bible 1611, Credo House Publishers, 2011; and antiquarian collector with his extensive collection of rare and significant Bibles and artifacts currently at the Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.

Contact Donald L. Brake, Sr.


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