Is the King James Version of the Bible accurate?

Darrell Shortt

In verses like 1 John 5:7 it seems like the King James Version is different than other more contemporary versions. Is the King James really accurate?

It is very important to know the difference between various versions of the Holy Bible so that you can make a more knowledgeable choice as to which versions you should be reading and studying. The key to understanding this is the word translation. The KJV New Testament (or Authorized Version) is a translation of the Greek Textus Receptus (meaning "received text"). The authors (translators) used their knowledge of the ancient Greek language to translate (or convert) the Bible into English literally — word for word. Not all translations of the Bible are literal. Some translations try to carry across the authors' meaning as opposed to the actual words used. This creates less accurate translations but they are often easier to read.

To illustrate this, let's look at 1 John 5:7. Look at this verse in each of these various translations:

- 1 John 5:7 "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." (King James Version, KJV)

- 1 John 5:7 "For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one." (New King James Version, NKJV)

- 1 John 5:7 "There are three that testify:" (New Revised Standard Version, NRSV)

- 1 John 5:7 "For there are three that testify:" (New International Version, NIV)

- 1 John 5:7 "For there are three that testify:" (English Standard Version, ESV)

- 1 John 5:7 "And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is the truth." (American Standard Version, ASV)

Comparing this verse in the various translations, we can see basically two different versions. To understand what is happening here, however, we need to look at the next verse. 1 John 5:8 "And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one." (NKJV) As you can see, what some of these translations have done is to combine verses 7 and 8 instead of repeating the same words in both verses. Take a look at verses 7-8 in a literal word-for-word translation of the original Greek:

- 1 John 5:7 "that three are the ones witnessing in the heaven the father, the word and the Holy Spirit and these the three, one are"

- 1 John 5:8 "and three are the ones witnessing in the land, the spirit and the water and the blood, in the three into the one are"

As you can see above, it can be very difficult to read and understand verses when they are taken word-for-word from the Greek. So, translators have to interpret or take an educated guess at the meaning, and arrange the words in the best format to help us understand. Different translators get different visions of how the verses should be. In this case it seems that certain translators decided against repeating themselves even though that is the way it was written in the original language. This can be bad because in the Bible repetition of an idea gives weight and strength to the idea.

The issue here is not how accurate the King James Version is. The fact of the matter is that the King James Version is just about as literal a translation as you can get (or at least it was in 1611 when it was originally written). The prose that it is written in is beautiful and flowing. However, that same beautiful language can make this version very difficult to understand for modern readers. Also, the more literal translations tend to be more convicting of sin which tends to put many people off who struggle with their sin.

Another possible issue with the KJV is that our language has changed over the last 400 years. What I mean is that some words no longer exist in our vocabulary (eg. phylactery). Some words now mean different things than they did back then. Some words even mean the exact opposite! Take Luke 19:13 for instance. In this verse (KJV) a nobleman tells his servants to, "Occupy till I come." Today, the word "occupy" means to basically "sit on your rump." In the 1600s, however, the word actually meant to "do my business". So, the nobleman was in reality telling his servants to stay busy working while he was gone (an accurate translation). But, we wouldn't know that today reading the same words.

You should always choose literal translations for any Bible study as you need to know what God's word says, not what some "expert" thinks He intended. If a Bible is not literal, then it is, in effect, a commentary. Commentaries are experts' opinions of what God is trying to say. Commentaries can be helpful in trying to understand difficult passages. However, never rely on them for truth. The only truth is the Scriptures. For an accurate translation, we recommend the New King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible. Each of these versions is clear, in modern English, and yet they are true to the original Greek.

Image Credit: Garry Wilmore; "Original KJV page, early 17th century"; Creative Commons

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Published 1-28-14