How We Get Our Bible

Jason Dulle

There is a movement today that has been termed the KJV Only movement. Their main tenant of belief is that the KJV is the inspired, inerrant English translation, and that all other English versions are part of a conspiracy to pervert the Word of God.

I am not a KJV Only advocate. I am not against the KJV, but upon examining the extant Greek manuscripts, studying the historical transmission of the text, and textual theory, I am not convinced that the KJV is the only valid translation of Godís Word in the English language. I am aware that the KJV Bible has been a long-time favorite of millions of people across denominational lines. It is not my purpose to attack or defend the translation of the KJV here, but to explain how it, and all other versions came to be.. This article will focus on how we got our Bible, and the problems translators incur when attempting to determine what is in fact the Word of God.

Most people are completely unaware of the origin of the Bible, or why various translations of the Bibles differ from one another in certain areas. Some people seem to have the notion that the apostles and prophets wrote the Bible in English. Others have the concept that the apostles compiled the first Bible, which is now sitting in a museum somewhere, and all we have to do is translate this one document into the English language. Whenever the various English translations differ from one another, then, it is viewed that they are changing the Word of God. Such is not the case. There are many Hebrew manuscripts and thousands of Greek manuscripts, none of which are the originals penned by the apostles and prophets, and most of which date hundreds of years after the writing of the originals. There is not one uniform reading among the manuscripts, but several different readings. The task of making any translation of the Bible into English does not begin with merely translating the Hebrew or Greek into English, but with deciding which of the various readings in the extant manuscripts we possess today contains the original reading as it was penned by the inspired authors. In this process we must distinguish between Scripture (original documents penned by the apostles), the transmission of Scripture (copies), and the translation of those copies into the English language.

To begin this discussion it needs to be clear that there is no such thing as an inspired English translation of the Bible. The only inspired Bible is the original manuscripts penned by the holy prophets and apostles. Neither the King James Version, the New International Version, nor any other English version has the copyright on infallibility. All English translations are exactly that: translations. A translation comes from copies of the inspired texts, but the receptor language's translation is never inspired.

The reason for the variations between the KJV/ NKJV, and most all other English translations from the Hebrew and Greek, is twofold. The first reason has to do with the texts the translators chose to base their translation from. This is particularly true of the NT. There is no one book that has existed from the days of the apostles called The Holy Bible. The Bible in the form as we know it today did not come to be until the fifth-century AD. All of the documents had been written by the death of the last apostle, but they were not collected into one "Bible" of 66 books as we know it until the fifth-century. The collection and formation of the OT and NT differ significantly. Because the NT documents are more problematic I will only focus on the text on the NT here.

The NT letters and gospels circulated in the early church, and were copied time and time again by various scribes. We do not possess the original document of any OT or NT book. All we possess are copies. Whenever a document is copied over and over again, mistakes will be made, no matter how careful one is. The copies of the original manuscripts of the Scripture are no exception. It is only the originals that were inspired, not the copies produced from the originals. Currently we possess ~5700 extant Greek manuscripts of the NT. Many of these manuscripts only contain portions of the NT, or even portions of a particular book. Each of these documents differ from one another in some area, no matter how small the variation may be (e.g. punctuation, spelling, addition of words, deletion of words). There is no one manuscript which completely agrees with another. The two manuscripts that are closest in agreement to one another differ in six to ten places per chapter. The realization that the manuscripts from which are translations are derived differ among one another allows one to see that many of the differences found in the English translations arise, not because of some conspiracy, but because different translators base their translation off of different Greek manuscripts. The Greek text underlying the modern versions is fairly uniform, differing less among themselves than from the Textus Receptus (from which the KJV is translated).

Without going into much detail here, it should be known that there exist four textual "families" of Greek texts. Families are determined by noticing that there are a pattern of identical variations in a group of texts. Variations found in one extant manuscripts will commonly appear in many other manuscripts as well at the same places. These manuscripts are then grouped together according to similar characteristics (in families). The four text-families are: Alexandrian (a.k.a Minority Text, Critical Text), Byzantine (a.k.a Majority text), Western, and Caesarean. The Western text readings are not all that frequent, and many times read much different than the other family types. The Caesarean text seems to be a blended reading between the Alexandrian and Western texts. The Caesarean and Western texts are usually not given as much attention as are the Alexandrian and Byzantine because they are not seen to be as reliable.

The Alexandrian readings are among the earliest manuscripts found, while the Byzantine are much later. The earliest text which reads like the Byzantine is from the fourth-century, but the readings do not begin to be common until the ninth-century AD. The Alexandrain readings are generally shorter than the Byzantine. The Byzantine commonly contains words the Alexandrian does not, and changes personal pronouns to the referents for which they stand.

The Byzantine Text is often referred to as the Majority Text because the majority of all manuscripts contain that certain type of reading. The Alexandrian Text contains much fewer manuscripts, but this is primarily due to the fact that they are older, written primarily on fragile papyri, and thus more susceptible to perishing. Because the Byzantine Text is a later text, and thus closer to our time, it is only logical that we would possess more of these manuscripts. Because the Byzantine readings are found in much later manuscripts, this indicates that at one time the Byzantine Text was not in the majority at all. It seems that the Alexandrian Text (Minority Text) was the predominant early text, which only became the Minority Text as the Byzantine readings were copied over and over again in later times, and spread throughout the Mediterranean.. The battle of the manuscripts is not fought simply by determining which reading has the majority of manuscript evidence, nor by determining which reading has the earliest textual evidence. All of the evidence must be weighed equally among all manuscripts.

To demonstrate the above, let us imagine that we have two documents (A & B) which have some discrepancies between them, but both were copied from one common document. Over a period of four days document A is copied in a copier-machine 20 times; document B is copied 400 times over a period of two weeks. After twenty years, 6 documents of A are lost, and 49 documents of B are lost. Now we have 14 documents which read like A, and 351 which read like B. When trying to establish the original reading we do not say that 351 is greater than 14, so the reading of document B must be correct. There are two readings based off of two original copies, each of which has been copied in various quantities during a certain period of time. The question is which of these two types of readings most likely reflects the original, not which reading has more manuscripts supporting it.

The KJV is based off of a Greek text compiled by Erasmus in the sixteenth-century, edited by Stephanus, and finally by Theodore de Beze. Erasmus used a mere six Greek manuscripts to compile his text, all of which reflected Byzantine readings. Of these six, not one of them contained the entire NT, so for determining the original text of each NT book, he usually did not have all six texts to work from. The earliest text he possessed was from the tenth-century, but he did not rely on this text because he was suspicious of its readings. The text he produced (later known as the Textus Receptusó"received text") was an eclectic text (one which selects elements from a variety of sources). Erasmus, using the limited resources he had, performed textual criticism (critically examining the different texts to determine the original reading) to the Greek texts he possessed to come up with what he thought the original reading may have been.

What is important to note here is that the Greek text the KJV is based off of does not exist in any one document. It is an eclectic text from Erasmusí different Greek copies. The NIV, and all other modern translations do the same, but now we possess ~5700 manuscripts which we can compare in attempt to determine the original reading, not a mere six. Approximately 400 of these manuscripts predate the earliest Greek manuscript used by Erasmus to produce the Textus Receptus, and ultimately to translate the KJV. Many of these manuscripts are much older than the manuscripts used for the translation of the KJV. Old is not necessarily better, but the documents that the newer translations are based on come from a time period which is closer to the actual writing of the original documents.

KJV Only advocates are not always unaware of the differing textual witnesses and variations. Many times they are very aware of them. What is most interesting is the way they handle these variations. Whatever texts disagree with the translation of the KJV they claim are corrupt. If corrupt means having mistakes and differences, then all the Greek manuscripts are corrupt! If corrupt means differing from the majority of witnesses, then the KJV will not always be correct, because the KJV was based on of the Textus Receptus (TR), which is not identical to the Byzantine Text (Majority Text [MT]). According to Daniel Wallace, a Greek scholar, the MT disagrees with the TR in over 1838 places. Even the manuscripts used for the translation of the KJV did not agree with each other in every place. Does this mean that the KJV is corrupt then?

There is no doubt that some manuscripts are more reliable than others, and that some manuscripts should be considered corrupt, but the fact remains that all manuscripts contain some measure of error. The KJV Only advocates have labeled the manuscripts which disagree with the MT, TR, or KJV as being corrupt. This is labeling, not proving. If the other side does the same, all we end up with are assertions, but no proof. Assertions do not determine truth; evidence determines truth.

In case the idea of discrepancies among the Greek texts we possess leads you to believe that the Bible we possess today is corrupt, or that we have no way of knowing what the Word of God is, let it be known that of the New Testament's 138,162 words, there exists approximately 300,000 to 400,000 variants in the ~5700 manuscripts, but they only occur in approximately 1/2 the New Testament text. How do they impact the text? Westcott and Hort said that only about 1/8 of the variants carried any weight. 98.33% of the Greek text is settled.2 Philip Schaff estimated that there were only 400 variants that affected the sense of the passage, and only 50 of these were actually important.3 A.T. Robertson said that the real concern regarding textual variants amounted to but "a thousandth part of the entire text."4 This must be understood before examining the different versions. Of all ancient documents, the Bible has been preserved best. No other ancient document can boast of such textual certainty, especially considering the vast amount of copies we possess. For with the greater amount of copying, there always arises more room for error, but the Bible has proven to be, for the most part, textually certain.

The second reason for the differences among the versions is an offshoot to the above fact. Different scholars have different theories as to how to ascertain the original reading of a passage when they encounter a discrepancy among the manuscripts. There are two main theories for determining which readings hold more weight. Although I will not go into detail, the first theory (which stands behind the Byzantine Text) is that the reading of the majority of manuscripts will usually indicate which reading is correct. The second theory (which stands behind most all other English translations) believes that the earlier the copy of the text, the more likely the reading is to be true. The first theory believes that scribes had the tendency to leave out words, not add them to the text. The second theory believes that the scribal tendency was to add more text for clarification, because when text is deleted, it is usually self-evident because the passage usually will not make sense. So the reason for many of the differences between the KJV and other translations is due to the underlying text that the translators believed was the original text, or as close to the original as they could get.

This study has only been introduction to the topic of how we get our Bible. Books could be written, and have been written, to examine the subject at length. Even these cannot do full justice to the topic. Although this study has been brief, it serves as an introduction to the topic to demonstrate the problem scholars and translators are faced with when making a translation of Godís Word for us today. Hopefully this study has also awakened in you an awareness of the reason the translations differ from one another, and as a result you would not judge any one particular translation to be the only valid translation, but would evaluate a translationís validity upon the evidence at hand.


1. Daniel B. Wallace, "The Majority Text and the Original Tex: Are They Identical?"; available from; Internet; accessed 24 January 2001. <back>
2. Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek (Harper and Brothers: 1882), 2, as found in James R. White, The King James Only Controversy (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 39. <back>
3. Philip Schaff, Companion to the Greek Testament and the English Version (Harper: 1883), 177, as found in James R. White, The King James Only Controversy (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 39. <back>
4. A.T. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Broadman:1925), 22, as found in James R. White, The King James Only Controversy (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 39. <back>

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