Framing the Argument
One of the most common pieces of misinformation is the belief that the KJV translators would be okay with the form of our modern bibles. I see this claim made all the time on the internet, so I figured I’d address it here. The argument is first framed in terms of “KJV Onlyism,” by which is meant people who only use the KJV. This includes everybody who reads a KJV regardless of the reason they do so. Then it moves on to quote the KJV translators, who do indeed praise the work of other translations that they consulted when creating the KJV. The argument concludes by saying that because the KJV recognized other translations as valid, they would not be KJV Onlyists. So far, the argument is valid. It is a low-tier argument against people who think the KJV translators believed they were re-inspired while creating the KJV. The problem is that this argument, as I have seen it, is used to then say that the KJV translators and Christians during that time would have accepted modern translations such as the ESV, NIV, or NASB.
If you read the above argument, you will notice a serious flaw once it is applied to justify the use of modern translations from the words of the KJV translators. Just because the KJV translators were fine with other translations available to them at the time, does not at all mean they would be fine with an ESV, or any other modern translation for that matter. That would require actually understanding what these men believed about Scripture and applying that to translations such as the ESV, NASB, and NIV. It is illogical, a non-sequitur, to say that because the KJV translators appreciated other translations, which they did, that they would then appreciate the translations that were made well after their time. All the argument has set forth is that they were not “KJV Onlyists,” which as far as I’m concerned isn’t exactly controversial or in any way compelling against the use of the KJV. Most “KJV Onlyists” fall into the category of believing that the KJV is simply made from the correct text, and is the best translation of that text. I’m sure the KJV translators were happy with their work as well, for what it’s worth. The whole world certainly was, and in large part still is.
The Argument and its Refutation
You may disagree with the claim that the KJV is the best available translation, but the argument that the KJV translators weren’t “KJV Onlyists” is utterly irrelevant to the claim that the KJV is the best available translation today or that the KJV translators and those that came after would have read a modern translation.
This is why I severely dislike the arguments produced by the Critical Text crowd. In the first place, the argument smuggles in an overly broad and intentionally vague term – “KJV Onlyism.” Then it asserts that the KJV translators would not fit into this category of “KJV Onlyist.” At this point, there hasn’t been anything particularly controversial set forth. The problem is what comes next.
This same argument, which has already started and ended, is miraculously applied to assert that because the translators were not “KJV Onlyists,” they would be perfectly happy reading an ESV, NASB, NIV, MSG, etc. This simply does not follow and is by no means a refutation of any form of “KJV Onlyism.” One could easily say, “The KJV translators didn’t know and couldn’t have known at the time what they were doing.” There, argument refuted. Even if we assume that we are talking to somebody that follows after Ruckman or Gipp, you have still produced a bad argument.
The Hidden Argument and its Refutation
In order to make the leap that because the KJV translators weren’t “KJV Onlyists” they would read modern translations, you would actually have to present a separate argument that supports the premise that the KJV translators would be happy with the text and translation of modern Bibles. This argument has not been made and cannot be made, because they wouldn’t.
They would not read a Bible without the ending of Mark or the Pericope Adulterae. They would not read a Bible that pulls from the Vatican manuscript every time it disagrees with the Received Text. In what world would men read such texts, who wrote that only the “enemies of the faith” performed such surgery on the text of Scripture? The argument is so remarkably absurd and anachronistic it bewilders me. This argument supposes that men who would battle for the authenticity of 1 John 5:7 would adopt Bibles that excluded far less controversial passages such as Acts 8:37 and Mark 16:9-20.
Unlike what is chronicled in the textual-criticism-fan-fiction that is The King James Only Controversy, the reason Erasmus included the Comma Johanneum is that he feared nobody would read it if he excluded it. It is likely that the only reason they are making such an argument is due to the fact that scholars also make this argument, not by any supporting evidence from the historical record.
As we commented on before, the argument that the KJV translators would not be “KJVO” is irrelevant and bad. The issue is the severe logical disconnect that happens afterwards when respectable men make the ridiculous claim that not only would the ESV last more than five minutes in the halls of Westminster in the 17th century, but that they would put down their King James for it. I challenge anybody to try and substantiate that claim. What most people do not realize is that the Reformed and Post Reformation divines would have written treatises against the ESV, because they did so for far less error than the ESV contains. The argument the Critical Text advocates are looking for is that they believe the translators of the KJV, the Reformed, and the Post-Reformed were wrong about their Scriptural convictions. That is a perfectly acceptable argument that one could try and substantiate. But to say that these men, who wrote treatises over far less, would actually adopt a modern translation is incredibly obtuse.
One might argue that with “newer and better” data the King James translators, Reformed, and those who came after wouldn’t hold such convictions, but that again is another argument, and a hypothetical one at that. What we have is solid historical evidence that the KJV translators, the Reformed, and the Post Reformed would not have accepted a Bible that excludes the passages that modern Bibles exclude. They even comment on the lack of quality of the manuscript, Codex Vaticanus, that the modern Bibles are generally based off of! Not only that, but the general opinion that these men held was that manuscripts that excluded such passages as Mark 16:9-20 were produced by enemies of the faith or perhaps careless copyists. So the argument that our data would have impressed them enough to change their mind is based on a smattering of incomplete manuscripts that looked just like the ones they often critiqued quite harshly.
I’ll end by quoting John Owen, who I think can be said to represent the orthodox view of the time well.
“(9.)Let them also be removed from the pretense, which carry their own convictions along with them that they are spurious, either,[…] Arise out of copies apparently corrupted, like that of Beza in Luke, and that in the Vatican boasted of by Huntley the Jesuit, which Lucas Brugensis affirms to have been changed by the Vulgar Latin, and which was written and corrected, as Erasmus says, about the [time of the] council of Florence, when an agreement was patched up between the Greeks and Latins; or, (10.) Are notoriously corrupted by the old heretics, as 1 John 5:7.”] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 16 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 366–367.
Sure, let’s set forth the absurd opinion that men who considered the form of modern bibles akin to those “notoriously corrupted by the old heretics” would have been just fine reading an ESV because they were fine with reading multiple Bibles. This is not a serious argument, and nobody that takes themselves seriously should make it.
The problem for most “KJV Onlyists” is not that Bibles exist other than the KJV. Sure, there is definitely a subset of people who we can all agree are in error that fall into the category of “KJVO,” but this argument isn’t just directed at them. The problem that the average KJV reader has is that modern translations have issues first with the underlying text. A modern translator could produce a translation that is as beautiful as the King James and the problem would still be there. That is not to mention that there are many translations that are simply not worth the paper they are printed on, even if you accept the base text as valid. There is a reason modern scholars advocate for reading all the translations, because none of them get it 100% right.
The only reason I can possibly imagine for this argument becoming so widespread is a long pattern of men intentionally misrepresenting the views of the Christian people during and after the time the KJV was produced. If you take anybody as your source for textual criticism and translation who makes this argument seriously, I would consider finding a new source of information, because people who make such claims are severely underinformed. The historical record shows, that even if the KJV had not attained such uniform adoption and perhaps some other translation rose to the top, the people of God at the time the KJV was translated would still reject modern translations. So if you wish to make the argument that the KJV translators weren’t “KJVO,” continue doing so I suppose. Just know it’s not particularly convincing and it certainly doesn’t support the use of modern translations.