One of the highlights of my summer trip to Oregon was Powell’s Books. I was 17 the last time I was there. It’s got SO many books that I actually got tired of looking at books. My wallet was thankful.
One book I picked up there was D. A. Carson’s The King James Debate: A Plea for Realism. Carson, a prolific Evangelical New Testament scholar (this is one of his early books), examines the arguments of the “King James only” school of thought. These exegetes argue from many angles: that the KJV is based on the best manuscript evidence available, that modern textual criticism denigrates the authority of Scripture, that the KJV is the most accurate and literal translation available. Carson refutes these arguments one by one. He introduces the reader to textual criticism and the principles of biblical translation along the way.
Having never studied textual criticism before, some of the facts in this book amazed me.
In no instance do we possess the autograph […] what we possess is something over 2,100 lectionary manuscripts, more than 2,700 miniscules [smaller cursive script], just over 260 uncials [capital letters], and about 80 papyri. To keep things in perspective, it is important top remember that the vast majority of these 5,000 or so manuscripts are fragmentary, preserving only a few verses or a few books. Only about 50 of these 5,000 contain the entire New Testament, and only one of these 50 is an uncial (codex Sinaiticus). (17-18)*
Carson goes on to describe the different text-types, or manuscript families, that textual critics use to establish the biblical text. When textual criticism was in its infancy and Erasmus put together the Greek text (the “Textus Receptus”) used as the basis for the KJV, he based it on a very small number of later Byzantine manuscripts. Contemporary textual critics, by contrast, prefer an eclectic approach, using all the manuscript evidence available and resolving manuscript differences on a case by case basis. Carson reviews many passages where the Textus Receptus falls short of modern eclectic texts. He refutes point-by-point the argument of some KJV-only advocates that the Textus Receptus is better than the results of modern scholarship.
I was more intrigued by Carson’s comments on translation. In the second half of the book, he argues that the KJV is not the most accurate, literal, or doctrinally orthodox translation available. He points out the obvious: that no translation can be “literal” or “objective.”
Take, for example, the Hebrew word nephesh. It can mean “soul, heart, life, man, beast”; it sometimes takes the place of a pronoun … and if idioms are considered, it can mean “neck, throat, and desire.” (91)
I can’t recall any English word that conveys all these nuances. Carson also takes to task the view that the King James Version is more suitable for God because of its lofty language.
In the first century, books written for the literati were still written in Attic Greek. Is there something to be learned from the fact that the New Testament documents were written by men who, moved by the Holy Spirit, chose rather the colloquial Hellenistic Greek? (98)
I found this book useful because it condensed many different areas of scholarship to make a cogent point. It’s clear that Carson wasn’t crazy about writing this book or engaging with the writings of people outside the pale of responsible scholarship, but he engages with charity and never resorts to ad hominem attacks. He does not say that we should stop reading the KJV — he understands that it is meaningful and beautiful to many people. But he does say that it shouldn’t be the only translation used in congregations, and that if we are looking for accuracy we should look elsewhere.
*This book was written in 1979 — doubtless more have been discovered since then!