King James Bible History

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Why Does The New Testament Need To Be Continually Updated?

Why Does The New Testament Need To Be Continually Updated?

New editions of the Greek NT come out on a pretty regular basis. Over 1,000 different editions have been printed since 1516. Is this because the text of the NT that we have can’t be trusted? Is it because publishers just want to steal more of your money? Like an IPhone update that changes almost nothing but charges you an arm and a leg? Actually, it’s exactly the opposite.

We don’t have the original autographs of any of the NT documents. What we do have is later handwritten copies, (we call handwritten copies “manuscripts,” or mss. for short), all of which differ slightly from one another, because of errors and alterations made by each individual copyist. We use these to reconstruct the original wording of the original NT books as best we can. This “reconstruction” is known as “textual criticism” or NTTC. This data is then complied into an eclectic, printed text of the Greek NT, from which translations are then made. For the *vast* majority of the text of the NT, no “reconstruction” is necessary, because essentially all of the mss have exactly the same wording. The questions come in the small places where the mss have different wording. Even in those places, it’s not as though we’ve “lost” the Word. It’s just that we sometimes have two or more different wordings of the passage as found in various mss., and we aren’t always sure which represents the original wording, and which is a scribal alteration.

So why do these printed NT texts continue to constantly be updated? Several factors come into play;

Factors Relating To Why The NT Needs Regularly Updated

  • One is the discovery of new manuscripts. Newly discovered manuscripts mean more data, which gives us a better picture of the wording of the original text of the NT. It would be irresponsible not to take into account this new data as it is discovered, even if it takes some time for data from newly discovered manuscripts to filter into editions of the Greek NT, and then from them into English translations.
  • Another is a more accurate reading of the data in the manuscripts we have. For example, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus is an important fifth century palimpsest manuscript that we’ve had for a long time. But no one was able to decipher it, so its text-critical data couldn’t be accessed or evaluated. Until a bright young scholar named Constantin Tischendorf launched his NTTC career in the 1840s by carefully examining the manuscript, deciphering its readings, and publishing the results. The manuscript had been there for a long time, but we had to get a more accurate reading of it. We continue to get better and better at reading ancient manuscripts, even those whose data seems hidden below the surface. Digitization has helped this factor immensely. We can see readings more clearly now than we once did in mss that we’ve had for a long time (and sometimes the mss. decay, making them less readable – another reason that digitization like that of Dan Wallace, the CSNTM and their mission to preserve the Word of God is so important).
  • Another is the further collating of the manuscript data that we’ve always had (it’s an ongoing process – Philemon, Jude, and Revelation are the only NT books where all of the manuscript data has been completely collated). Collating is what happens when we examine every single letter of a ms. against another text to note where they differ. Every single difference of a single letter is known as a “textual variant.”
  • But finally, as all this data grows, the relationships between the data are examined again and again. And our understanding of those relations continually gets tweaked by new data and continued study of old data.
  • Thus, new insights are discovered, and text-critical methodology thus matures. As it matures, in slight ways, edits are made to the final text that is produced by that methodology using all that data.

A Brief History Of Updating The New Testament

Erasmus of Rotterdam

The 1535 “Annotations” of Erasmus of Rotterdam.

All of these factors have been at work since 1519. Erasmus printed a Latin/Greek diglot in 1516. It had his revision of the Latin Vulgate on one side, and the Greek text which he rather haphazardly created simply to substantiate his revisions of the Latin on the other side. While the Greek column wasn’t all that important to him, it was the first Greek NT to ever be published. And it quite literally changed the world. He added over 1,000, Annotations (like endnotes), many of which explain the many text-critical decisions he had to make when his data differed from one another. He explained how he was often not sure which reading was original. And he explained why he sometimes preferred the reading of the Latin Vulgate over his handful of Greek Mss (for example, in Acts 9:5-6, I John 5:7, and dozens of other passages). His text was a hodge-podge mixture of mostly Byzantine readings, scores of Latin Vulgate readings, and numerous minor editorial errors that wouldn’t be noticed for several hundred years (like this one in Rev. 1:8, where he accidentally deleted “God” from the text, and it didn’t get fixed till the 19th century).

But he continued to amass more data, continued to study the relationships of manuscripts to each other, and matured in his NTTC approach. Thus, another edition was required in 1519, another in 1522, then in 1527, up until 1535, when he published his final edition. His annotations pointing out textual variants and orthographical data had at least doubled in size by then, and were now printed as their own separate volume. His various editions can all be accessed here. Scrivener shared (and corrected) the evaluation of Mill about the changes in his editions (data now set out more accurately in the 10 ASD volumes);

“He estimates that Erasmus’ second edition contains 330 changes from the first for the better, seventy for the worse…that the third differs from the second in 118 places… the fourth from the third in 106 or 113 places, ninety being those from the Apocalypse just spoken of….The fifth he alleges to differ from the fourth only four times, so far as he noticed…but we meet with as many variations in St. James’ Epistle alone.

– Scrivener, A Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament, Fourth Edition,  2:187.

In his Annotations, we can watch on as Erasmus begins to develop the principles of NT Textual Criticism. In fact, many of the principles of modern textual criticism find their genesis in his work, as Jan Krans points out. His work was far from perfect. But he birthed the discipline, which was still in its infancy when he published his final edition. He is clearly the father of modern New Testament Textual Criticism.

Robertus Stephanus and the Editio Regia

While starting with Erasmus as a base, Stephanus also continued to improve the text. He had more mss data than Erasmus. He ultimately included data from 16 Greek mss, including those used by Erasmus, in his apparatus (a system of abbreviations that lets an editor present mss data very concisely). This basically doubled the data Erasmus had. And the discipline matured in his handling of textual variants (reflected in his apparatus more than the text itself). Four different editions were the result, in 1546, 1549, 1550, and 1551 (see the 1550 Edito Regia here). His was the first printed Greek text to use an apparatus. Thus, while Erasmus published the first eclectic Greek text, Stephanus can be credited with printing the first critical apparatus. Scrivener notes the differnces between each edition; “My own collation of the [first two editions] gives 139 cases of divergence in the text, twenty-eight in punctuation. They differ jointly from the third edition 334 times in the text, twenty-seven in punctuation” (Scrivener, A Plain Introduction, 2:189). Stephanus’ editions can be accessed by anyone here.

Theodore Beza

Portrait de Théodore de Bèze

Theodore Beza, the son in law of John Calvin and his successor in Geneva, took the discipline forward with his numerous marginal notes (see on any page of his works). Beza went through the same process, adding a little more mss data (he ultimately included data from 19-25 Greek mss, if we count those of Erasmus and Stephanus as well, which he had access to via the collations of Stephanus), re-evaluating textual variants, and maturing the discipline of textual criticism (again, mostly seen in his notes rather than the text itself). Thus 11 different editions (by one count) were forthcoming from him. Each edition can be accessed here. And the discipline matured a lot at his hand, as we see in his various editions and their notes. Careful study of his textual method, specifically, his conjectural emendation, is displayed by Jan Krans here. Scrivener, again, noted that early estimates of the differences between his editions were too low.

The KJV Translators As Textual Critics – Meddling With Men’s Religion

In 1604, King James I of England commissioned a revision of the 1602 edition of the Bishop’s Bible. Rule 1 specifically stated that the Bishops’ Bible taken as a base was to be revised as little as possible: “The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the Original will permit.” See an early copy of the rules in the British Library viewer for MS. BL. Add. 32092, f. 204r-v here. That revision is what we now call “The King James Bible.” (See title page in BL viewer here).  The Translators made use of a handful of the numerous texts that had been produced by these three “giants” and fathers of the discipline of NTTC (they relied most heavily on the 1598 Beza, but sometimes followed Erasmus, and occasionally the Stephanus). The data they had should have made them aware of perhaps a few thousand textual variants. But they didn’t spend much time in the “scholia” (the footnotes to the printed texts explaining those variants). The more academic questions about textual criticism raised in those notes wasn’t their primary concern – producing a revision of the English Bible was.

But that doesn’t mean textual issues were totally unknown. They did note scores of textual variants in the marginal notes of the 1611. And they might have noted more if not for the King’s order against notes. One of the translators, John Bois, was something of a linguistic legend. He spoke Hebrew at the age of 5, and learned Greek and Latin shortly thereafter. His mind was the stuff of legends. He exclaimed during the revision process in frustration, “Read the Greek Scholia!” He was a rare voice that thought they should be giving more attention to the text-critical issues raised in the notes of Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza.

He also took notes during one stage of the work at Stationer’s Hall (in this room here, image 39), and they can be read today. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with them. They are laced with references to Beza and Erasmus and the text critical questions they raised. They reveal the KJV translators doing their own text-critical work that created the Greek text behind the KJV, often disagreeing with one another (he sometimes records who disagreed with who). Bois of course had his own disagreements, and published a 2-volume work evaluating the text-critical choices of Beza’s edition (which the KJV translators opted to follow more closely than any other). That is to say, he was at times critical of the textual choices that ultimately created the KJV. And he wasn’t the only one. For example, one of the greatest Hebraists of that age, Hugh Broughton, was very upset at how often the KJV chose to depart from the Hebrew Masoretic Text of the Old Testament and correct it with the Latin Vulgate and LXX.

Nonetheless, as they made numerous text critical decisions where their data differed, they ended up creating a new Greek NT text, which they never printed or published. Thus, the precise Greek text behind the KJV had never existed anywhere at that point except in their own minds.

In 1881, during the official Revision of the KJV, the Revisers were asked to set out in the margins all the places where the Greek text resulting from their textual choices differed from the Greek text behind the KJV. But his was hard to do, first, because they ended up making more changes than they had planned, and second, because the Greek text of the KJV had never been printed before, as Scrivener noted in his preface.

Ironically, this means that the Greek text behind the KJV was only ever published because of the Revised Version, and it was created by the Revisers as a companion volume to the 1881 RV. Contrary to some of the slander sometimes raised against them, no one would even have a copy of the Greek text behind the KJV had it not been for the integrity of the Revisers of 1881 and their determination to fulfill their obligations. This text was reprinted again a half-dozen times. This text stands behind, for example, Strong’s Concordance of the Bible, (Strong himself worked on the Revision as well), and all other such tools that refer to the Greek text of the KJV NT. Scrivener explained in his preface (which can be read here) what this text was and where it came from. “The special design of this volume is to place clearly before the reader the variations from the Greek text represented by the Authorized Version of the New Testament which had been embodied in the Revised Version.”  He continues,

The Cambridge Press has therefore judged it best to set the readings actually adopted by the Revisers at the foot of the page, and to keep the continuous text consistent throughout by making it so far as was possible uniformly representative of the Authorized Version. The publication of an edition formed on this plan appeared to be all the more desirable, inasmuch as the Authorized Version was not a translation of any one Greek text then in existence, and no Greek text intended to reproduce in any way the original of the Authorized Version has ever been printed. In considering what text had the best right to be regarded as ‘the text presumed to underlie the authorized Version,’ it was necessary to take into account the composite nature of the Authorized Version, as due to successive revisions of Tyndale’s translation.

F.H.A. Scrivener

He notes further; “It was manifestly necessary to accept only Greek authority, though in some places the Authorized Version corresponds but loosely with any form of the Greek original, while it follows exactly the Latin Vulgate.” That is, sometimes the KJV translators ignored all of the Greek data they had to instead follow the Latin Vulgate (the Latin Vulgate thus influenced the text of the KJV at numerous stages; its influence on the Byzantine manuscripts, Erasmus’ incorporation of numerous Vug. readings into his text, and the KJV translators’ additional incorporation of even more Latin Vulgate readings). Since Scrivener refused to “back-translate” the English into Greek where none of the Greek sources the translators used had that Greek reading, even the text of Scrivener is not exactly the text behind the KJV. No such text technically exists anywhere.

And it’s worth noting, no one has ever done for the OT what Scrivener did for the NT, and so the original language text of the KJV OT has never existed in print. They deviated from their edition of the Hebrew Masoretic text in hundreds of places. Their OT text disagrees with every Hebrew Manuscript in existence, and, “to this day, no printed edition of the Hebrew Bible contains the exact Hebrew words behind the English words of the King James Version of 1611″ (James Price, King James Onlyism, pg. 254).

Why Claims Of Perfection For The KJV Or The TR Don’t Work

Sadly, some folks like to dishonestly claim that this Greek text is identical to “thousands” of Greek manuscripts (it actually differs from every single Greek manuscript in existence that’s of sufficient size to contain any textual variants), and promote it as the verbally perfect “preserved” words of the inspired original. Obviously, the very preface to the work by its editor poses a problem for such a position. So one publisher thus published an edition of the 1881 Scrivener TR which omits his preface, which has become the standard Greek text in KJV Only and TR Only circles. This “preface-safely-omitted” edition was the text used at the Fundamentalist Bible College I graduated from, which claimed in its doctrinal statement that this text and the KJV it translates were “the very words God inspired” now providentially preserved for all English speakers. But as John Kohlenberger noted in his lecture at the SBL commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the KJV (Kohlenberger, John R. III. “The Textual Sources of the King James Bible.” In Translation That Openeth the Window: Reflections on the History and Legacy of the King James Bible, edited by David G. Burke, 43–53. SBL: Biblical Scholarship in North America 23. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), “It is safe to say that, given their resources, the KJV translators worked from an eclectic text. Certainly they did not exclusively follow any one text. Nor did they, as some noncritical writers claim, limit their choices to what could be found in the texts that would later be called the Textus Receptus (TR).” David Trobisch noted (Trobisch, David. “The KJV and the Development of Text Criticism.” In The King James Version at 400 Assessing Its Genius as Bible Translation and Its Literary Influence, edited by David G. Burke, John F. Kutsko, and Philip H. Towner, 227–34. Society of Biblical Literature, 2013) in a similar vein, “Obviously, the translators of the KJV had created their own eclectic Greek text, a text that followed neither a specific manuscript nor a specific printed edition.”

Anyone who wants to claim that this text is perfect is free to do so. But such a claim requires the belief that the KJV translators were inspired by God with new revelation in their text-critical decisions. And such a claim is incompatible with a claim that this same text is the “preserved” word of God (however commonly these two words are used together by some who refer to this text). To preserve means to keep something the same, not to make it different. The Greek text of the KJVNT didn’t exists until 1611, and didn’t exists in print until 1881. If it is the verbally perfect Greek text, then this demands that God didn’t finish giving his Word until 1611. This is why I ultimately abandoned the belief that the English translation of the KJV was perfect, which I was raised on, and then abandoned the belief that the Scrivener TR was perfect, which I had been taught in Bible College.

Every form of such a position demands the belief that the KJV translators were supernaturally moved by God with new revelation.

But I was compelled by the evidence rather to the position that God had preserved his Word – not magically re-inspired it in 1611. Thus, as I often put it, I left the Shire I had been raised in (or was kicked out of it – both are sort of true).

I sometimes compare TR Only positions to the Emperor’s New Clothes. Those who hold these positions “ooh and aah” about how their position is more intelligent than their cousins who believe God inspired the English of the KJV. But they too must believe that God inspired the KJV translators with new revelation, and some kid in the crowd is bound to point out that the Emperor is still naked.

Textual Criticism Improves Beyond The KJV

But the maturing of textual criticism didn’t stop with the data from the manuscripts which informed the printed Greek texts used by the KJV translators, and their textual decisions based on that data. In fact, the KJV translators made it quite clear that they wanted revision to continue. We kept discovering more, kept looking more closely at what we already had, and kept maturing the discipline as a result. A major step was made in 1675 when data from some 80 mss was published in a new Greek text by Bishop John Fell – the most ever compared at that time.

John Mill And The Fight – Certainty Against All Evidence? Or Confidence Based On Evidence?

1707 was a landslide moment in the discipline. John Mill published his landmark text in 1707 (see here), now collating data from 100 (or some say 80) mss. The data had grown more than a hundredfold. We were now aware of some 30,000 textual variants. This created quite a stir. In reaction to what felt like the loss of certainty about the text, conservatives like Pastor Daniel Whitby and some others essentially enshrined the 1550 Stephanus text, claimed it should never be altered, and refused to consider any new data that would correct it. And, as often happens, the fear-based reactions of hyper-conservatives against historical data provided the ammo for radical skeptics to attack the faith. Skeptic John Collins immediately stepped up, using the arguments of Whitby to claim that the Christian faith was now undermined. As Tregelles later explained;

And thus in 1713 Anthony Collins, in his ‘Discourse Of Free Thinking,’ was able to use the arguments of Whitby to some purpose, in defense of his own rejection of the authority of Scripture. This part of Collins book ought to be a warning to those who raise outcries on subjects of criticism. If Mill had not been blamed for his endeavors to state existing facts relative to the [manuscripts] of the Greek Testament, and if it had not been said that thirty thousand various readings are an alarming amount, this line of argument could not have been put into Collins’s hands.

– Tregelles, 1854, An Account Of The Printed Text Of The Greek New Testament, pg. 48.

But we had so many textual variants not because the text was suddenly less stable – but because we had so much more data. Meaning the text was that much more stable. Enter classicist Richard Bentley to the fray, who explained this in 1713 very well. He rightly saw the danger of both ditches; the rejection of all evidence in favor of unfounded certainty championed by Whitby, and the skepticism unconvinced by the evidence championed by Collins. He preferred instead a confidence based upon the evidence. “Bentley had to steer clear between two points, — between those who wished to represent the text of the NT as altogether uncertain because of the variations of copies, and those who used this fact of differences to depreciate critical inquiries, and to defend the text as commonly printed against all evidence whatsoever” (S. P. Tregelles, 1854, “An Account Of The Printed Text Of The Greek New Testament”). He pointed out that our faith was founded on historical evidence, and that Christian faith is always vindicated by historical data. “Depend on’t,” he said, “no truth, no matter of fact fairly laid open, can ever subvert true religion.”


If there had been but one manuscript of the Greek Testament, at the restoration of learning about two centuries ago, then we had had no various readings at all. And would the text be in a better condition then, than now we have 30,000? So far from that, that in the best single copy extant we should have had some hundreds of faults, and some omissions irreparable. Besides that the suspicions of fraud and foul play would have been increased immensely.

It is good therefore, you’ll allow, to have more anchors than one; and another MS to join with the first would give more authority, as well as security. Now choose that second where you will, there shall still be a thousand variations from the first; and yet half or more of the faults shall still remain in them both.

A third therefore, and so a fourth, and still on, are desirable, that by a joint and mutual help all the faults may be mended; some copy preserving the true reading in one place, and some in another. And yet the more copies you call to assistance, the more do the various readings multiply upon you; every copy having its peculiar slips, though in a principle passage or two it do singular service. And this is fact not only in the New Testament, but in all ancient books whatever.

’Tis a good providence and a great blessing, that so many manuscripts of the New Testament are still among us; some procured from Egypt, others from Asia, others found in the Western churches. For the very distance of places, as well as the numbers of books, demonstrate, that there could be no collusion, no altering nor interpolating one copy by another, nor all by any of them.

….where the copies of an author are numerous, though the various readings always increase in proportion, there the text, by an accurate collation of them made by skillful and judicious hands, is ever the more correct, and comes nearer to the true words of the author.

….And so it is with the Sacred Text: make your 30,000 as many more, if numbers of copies can ever reach that sum: all the better to a knowing and serious reader, who is thereby more richly furnished to select what he sees genuine. But even put them into the hands of a knave or a fool, and yet with the most sinistrous and absurd choice, he shall not extinguish the light of any one chapter, nor so disguise Christianity but that every feature of it will still be the same.

 – Richard Bentley, 1713,  Remarks Upon A Late Discourse of Free ThinkingPg. 92-113.

Dean John Burgon went back to Bentley and his brilliant assessment of the textual situation a century later when he noted;

But I would especially remind my readers of Bentley’s golden precept, that, “The real text of the sacred writers does not now, since the originals have been so long lost, lie in any [manuscript] or edition, but is dispersed in them all.” This truth, which was evident to the powerful intellect of that great scholar, lies at the root of all sound textual criticism.

– John Burgon, 1896, The Traditional Text Of The Holy Gospels Vindicated And Established, pg. 26.

Moving Forward By Going Back To Erasmus

But both Bentley and Burgon were actually simply echoing the principles of textual criticism that had been laid out by Erasmus. Erasmus faced a great deal of opposition to his “updating” of the text in his own age, especially because he often claimed that the long-trusted Latin Vulgate needed to be updated. But he adamantly maintained that we should follow the historical data wherever it leads, and that this will never jeopardize the Christian faith. He, like Bentley, recognized that the demand for textual certainty even in the face of opposing evidence was based upon an ungrounded fear, and a weak view of the Christian faith;

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam

Do you intend to overlook all this and follow your own copy, though it was perhaps corrupted by a scribe? For no one asserts that there is any falsehood in Holy Scripture (which you also have suggested), nor has the whole question on which Jerome came to grips with Augustine anything at all to do with the matter. But one thing the facts cry out, and it can be clear, as they say, even to a blind man, that often through the translator’s clumsiness or inattention the Greek has been wrongly rendered; often the true and genuine reading has been corrupted by ignorant scribes who are half-taught and half-asleep. Which man encourages falsehood more, he who corrects and restores these passages, or he who would rather see an error added than removed? For it is of the nature of textual corruption that one error should generate another. And the changes I make are usually such as affect the overtones rather than the sense itself; though often the overtones convey a great part of the meaning. But not seldom the text has gone astray entirely. And whenever this happens, where, I ask you, do Augustine and Ambrose and Hilary and Jerome take refuge if not in the Greek original?

…There are men who do not like to see a text corrected, for it may look as though there were something they did not know. It is they who try to stop me with their authority of imaginary synods; they who build up this great threat to the Christian faith; they who cry ‘the church is in danger’ (and no doubt support her with their own shoulders, which would be better employed in propping a dung-cart) and spread suchlike rumors among the ignorant and superstitious mob…I see nothing here that much affects the genuineness of the Christian faith. If it were essential to the faith, that would be all the more reason for working hard at it. Nor can there be any danger that everybody will forthwith abandon Christ if the news happens to get out that some passage has been found in Scripture which an ignorant or sleepy scribe has miscopied or some unknown translator has rendered inadequately.

– Erasmus, Letter to Dorp, EP 337, CWE 71.

It was clear by 1707 that the discipline needed an overhaul in light of the data growing by such margins. Erasmus’ principle of continuing to revise the text in light of ever-growing data needed to be applied again, and so it was. 1707 marks a major turning point, but so on the development went, through Tregellas, Tischendorf, Hort and Westcott, Scrivener, Burgon, Aland, etc., through the major shift made in the 26th edition of the Nestle-Aland text, all the way to the present NA 28 (or the RP 2005 preferred by some). Now, we have GA numbers for 5,874 Greek NT manuscripts (the current INTF count, though the actual number of manuscripts is slightly lower). That’s an astounding amount of data compared to the few dozen or so Greek NT manuscripts that loosely formed the basis for our earliest English translations.

But we keep discovering new relics. Several of what are now the oldest papyri manuscripts for a few books of the NT have just been published within the last year. And we keep looking more closely at what we already have. And we keep plotting textual relationships in increasingly sophisticated ways, as the newer data is incorporated. And thus we keep maturing the methods and principles of NTTC in light of all this ever growing knowledge. Of course, not all scholars see things the same way. There is sometimes vigorous debate about the methods of NTTC. But we undeniably have more data than at any prior point in history, and thus more confidence about the text. As Scrivener put it in his 19th century introduction to textual criticism;

[The Quality and abundance of the manuscripts of the NT] present us with a vast and almost inexhaustible supply of materials for tracing the history, and upholding (at least within certain limits) the purity of the sacred text: every copy, if used diligently and with judgment, will contribute somewhat to those ends. So far is the copiousness of our stores from causing doubt or perplexity to the genuine student of Holy Scripture, that it leads him to recognize the more fully its general integrity in the midsts of partial variation.

– F.H.A. Scrivener, 1861, A Plain Introduction To The Criticism Of The New Testament, pg. 4.

To put it into perspective, I often point out that when the KJV translators made their text-critical choices which created the text behind the KJV, they were working with only a small percentage of the Greek manuscript data we have available today. And they stood at what was really the infancy of developing NTTC methodology. These limitations notwithstanding, they still created an excellent translation that is sufficient as the Word of God, and still in use today. In fact, I often say that every single English-speaker should own a copy. (I don’t think anyone should only use a KJV). But the discipline has matured in massive ways since then. NTTC is still exactly the same *thing* it was in 1516. We are still doing today exactly what Erasmus was doing then. The “DNA” is identical, so to speak. It has just matured such that comparing them is somewhat like comparing a small child and that same child as a grown man. Same person; just much more mature.

And at each stage texts and translations of those texts were produced which evidence the hand of NTTC at that stage. Sadly, for the first several hundred years of textual criticism, the impact of the increasing knowledge upon English translations wasn’t as great as it should have been. There was early on a bit of a disconnect between NTTC and English translations. Fortunately, that’s not as much the case today. What’s really odd though is when some folks demand that we only use the KJV, the product of 16th-17th century NTTC. The eclectic Greek text behind the KJV was the result of exactly the same kind of NTTC as that which stands behind the NA 28. There is not a single Greek Manuscript which contains the exact Greek text that stands behind the KJV.

Not one.

Not even close.

Its eclectic text is undeniably the product of NTTC – it’s just based on far less data, and is a product of the science in its infancy. Yet some act as though all the various works of a mature Picasso should be forfeited in favor of a stick figure drawing he produced as a child.

The Stability Of The New Testament Text

But perhaps most astounding, and most important, is the realization of how strikingly similar the products of each age of NTTC are to one another. Take a 1526 Tyndale NT, the first English translation of the Greek NT (a beautiful photo-facsimile is available here) and hold it next to a 2016 ESV. Compare them carefully and the thing that should most strike you is how amazingly alike they are. It’s simply astounding how 500 years of growth in NTTC has made so little change to our NT text. Not because NTTC hasn’t grown and matured. Is surely has. But because the text of the NT really is that stable and trustworthy. The more data we compile, the more textual variants we discover. The count is now somewhere around 400,000. Though this must be kept in perspective. The vast majority of these textual variants (something more than 99% of them) relate to spelling changes that in no way impact the meaning of the text, or errors that are immediately obvious as such to anyone who can read. Exactly two of these textual variants relate to passages of Scripture that are 12 verses long. A few dozen more of these textual variants relate to 1-2 whole verses of biblical text. All of the remaining textual variants are smaller than a single verse, and concern phrases, a phrase, or, most often, a single word of the text. 500 or so of them are listed in Metzger’s textual commentary, and those essentially make up the whole of most textual discussion today. In an entire sea of confidence, these reflect only a few insignificant drops of uncertainty.

The significant textual variants in the NT manuscripts are like tiny drops in the sea of confidence which the transmission tradition gives us for the text of the New Testament.

The number and type of textual variants that exists don’t mean we are less confident of the wording of the original text. On the contrary, we are more sure of it than ever before. And it’s absolutely amazing how stable and trustworthy the transmission of the NT text is now found to have been through the millennia. Whatever minor discrepancies can be found in every manuscript, everyone who ever read any Greek NT manuscript (and anyone today who uses anygood translation of the text) still has possession of a trustworthy and sufficient copy of the Word of God, which still proclaims the same message, and the same doctrines. Given 2,000 years of transmission history under every conceivable condition, that reality is, I think, a clear mark of the providential concern of God to preserve the text.

What’s most astounding about the updates of textual criticism over 500 years is how amazingly little the printed text of our NT has needed altered. The NT text is simply amazingly stable.

But minor details continue to be tweaked. Thus, updates will continue to be required if scholars want to be accurate and careful with the exact words of the text. And those who respect Scripture as God’s Word should be especially concerned to give attention to every single word of the text.

The Scope Of Continued Updates

These updates are now typically incredibly minor compared to the “landmark” shifts of a few centuries ago. And barring some unforeseen astounding new discovery, will continue to be rather minor. Even the radical skeptic Bart Ehrman (who has risen to fame as North America’s most well-known skeptic because of the doubt he raises about the text of the New Testament), has admitted that the text of the New Testament is for all practical purpose rather settled at this point, and won’t likely ever receive another massive overhaul unless unforeseen extraordinary data comes to light. While he might express himself differently today, in a major scholarly publication in 2012, he acknowledged;

“Textual scholars have enjoyed reasonable success at establishing, to the best of their abilities, the original text of the New Testament. Indeed, barring extraordinary new discoveries or phenomenal alterations of method, it is virtually inconceivable that the character of our printed Greek New Testaments will ever change significantly.”

(The Text Of The New Testament In Contemporary Research, 2nd ed., pg. 825).

There’s simply not likely to be any rather radical changes. For example, the differences between the NA 27 and the NA 28 amounted to only 30+ changes to the actual text of the NT which it printed.

But of course, we could always assume, as a few have, quite vocally at times, that none of this is true, and that new updates are just a way to steal money out of your pockets. An odd (and perhaps slanderous) claim, given that the German Bible Society now makes the NA text freely available online. Giving something away free isn’t usually the best strategy for stealing money out of someone’s pockets.

Scholars continue to have slightly different opinions about how to put the data together. This is why rather than just one Greek text, there are several that are employed by different scholars of different stripes. Like the RP one here (which has gained little traction among scholars), the standard one here, or the relatively new one here. I would love to see good English translations made of each of these modern texts, which would then reflect better in English the kind of difference of opinion that modern textual critics sometimes have about the shape of the original text. Most English translations today are from the NA text. But in any case, minor updates will continue to be made to the text of the NT, for all of the reasons above. Not because we are trying to get further away from the original New Testament, but because we are trying to get closer and closer to the original wording of the original text, and the small gap between what they wrote and what we read gets increasingly smaller with every new generation.

These updates then are not a bad thing. They don’t undermine our faith in the NT. Rather, they simply make us all the more confident that we have the very word of God. They help us tweak our understanding of those words and our printing of them in the minor ways. And thus they help us print the original text of the New Testament with greater and greater precision and confidence.

Daniel 3:25 And “The Son Of God” In The KJV

Daniel 3:25 And “The Son Of God” In The KJV

We all know the story of the three Hebrew children thrown into the fiery furnace in Daniel chapter three. In fact, some of you are singing “I’m Rack, I’m Shach, I’m Benny!” even as I mention it. (Shame on you vegetable lovers!) Surely, the image of the fourth man in the fire is a continually comforting one to the believer enduring trials. When three faithful Hebrew refused to bow to an idolatrous image, King Nebuchadnezzar followed through on his threat to throw them bound into the fiery furnace. He knew he only threw three men in, bound. But he found four men, unhurt, and unbound.

Who Was This Fourth Man In The Fire?

The text reads;

“Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king.Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.” Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.”

(Daniel 3:13–30 ESV)

The KJV, differing from the ESV quoted above, claims that, “the form of the fourth is like the Son of God” (Dan. 3:25 KJV), which is a direct statement about Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, being in the fire with the Hebrew children. On the other hand, the NIV, and most other modern translations, read something like, “and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods (Dan. 3:25 ESV).”

I regularly see comparisons of Dan 3:25 NIV/KJV in my news feed. A meme comparing them seems to go around every so often in “seasons.” One form suggests that the NIV has “taken Jesus out” of Daniel 3:25, and that this is a “big deal.” I even recall hearing one pastor tell me that this passage is “the” reason why we should all use the KJV instead of other translations, because the KJV points to Jesus, and all the others have “removed Jesus” from the passage! Examples are easy to find with a simple google search, variously claiming that the NIV promotes Thor worship, denies the deity of Jesus, or is “satanic garbage” as a result of its reading in Dan. 3:25;






What is really going on here? Which translation is right? Who really was the fourth man in the fire? Is this really such a big deal? And is it a matter that justifies the kind of language in such memes?

First, I’d say to those sharing sharing memes like that one, or raising the question, in one sense, thank you for sharing the post. I think comparing translations like that can be very helpful. The King James translators, (in their preface defending the practice of placing thousands of alternate translations in the margins) noted that,

Therefore as St. Augustine saith, that variety of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good, yea is necessary, as we are persuaded.

Augustine knew that there is no perfect way to translate much of Scripture, and had suggested that the wise reader always compare different translations to make sure that he understands the sense of Scripture, not just the interpretation of the translator. The KJV translators quite agreed, as do I. So again, thank you for sharing. I think it’s important to understand why translations differ in any particular instance, so that we can understand what’s at work behind the scenes.

There are actually two different questions at issue when we come to the questions of this passage. The first is the theological one – that is, who do we understand the “fourth man in the fire” to have been? We might call this the question of theological interpretation. The second is the related, but distinct, matter of how to translate the phrase the King uses to refer to him. This might be considered the question of who the King regarded the being to be, and which perspective should be reflected in an English translation of the phrase, or the exegetical interpretation.

Who Was In The Fire? – The Question Of Theological Interpretation

As to the first question, “Who was in the fire?”, it may surprise some readers to know that this is a highly debated matter among commentators. There is a long tradition in Christian history of identifying the “fourth man” as a theophany, or, more particularly, what is sometimes called a “Christophany” (an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ). This interpretation of the text goes back a long way in church history, and for many conservatives, it is probably the only understanding of the passage they are familiar with. But there is an (even longer) tradition of Jewish commentators (and Christian commentators who follow their lead) that identify the being with some other angelic being or form of divine presence or agent (often along the lines of the common “Angel of the LORD” found at various points throughout the OT). James Montgomery, in the Older ICC volume, notes that, “As to the theological interpretation of the son of God, the Jewish commentators identify him simply as an angel…”. But he also notes that, “Early Christian exegesis naturally identifies the personage with the Second Person of the Trinity…But this view has been generally given up by modern Christian commentators” (ICC, Daniel, pg. 215).

Goldingay, in the more recent WBC volume, notes that the phrase, “might for Nebuchadnezzar suggest an actual god. Similarly God’s aide [the angel of the Lord] might signify in effect God himself; cf. Yahweh’s [angel], e.g., Exodus 3:2. Isaiah 43:1-3, indeed, has promised God’s own presence when Israel walks through the fire. Nevertheless to Jews [the Hebrew phrase son of the gods/Son of God/Divine being] would indicate a subordinate heavenly being. Cf. the supernatural watchman…of [Daniel] 4:10, 14, 20 [13, 17, 23], and the humanlike heavenly interpreters and leaders of chapters 7-12. In such a context God’s [angel], too, will denote a non divine heavenly being” (Goldingay, John, WBC “Daniel,” pg. 71).

Tremper Longman puts an even finer point on the question.

That God rescued the three Jews no one is in doubt, but who was that ‘fourth [who] looks like a son of the gods” (v. 25)? As in chapter 2, Nebucadnezzar is moved from anger to praise toward God and his followers. In his concluding speech, he again mentions the mysterious fourth person. When he first saw the figure, he labeled him ‘a son of the gods’; now he calls him God’s ‘angel’ (v. 28). His dual description has launched a debate that continues to the present day…we must remember that the narrative places these two descriptions in the mouth of Nebuchadnezzar, who is not an Israelite theologian. Relying on his words, we are thrown into a quandary: was this God himself as ‘son of the gods” might lead us to believe, or an angel? In one sense, it does not make any difference. Even if the fourth figure was an angel, it was God’s angel; God is still the redeemer. Even Nebuchadnezzar recognizes this. He further acknowledges that the three have been right to obey this God rather than a king like him.

– NIVAC, Daniel, Pg. 102-103.

He later takes up the question again, and asks,

Where does the Christian…find the moral and religious strength to make such a courageous stand? From Jesus Christ. Jesus himself was put on trial for his religious claim that he was the Messiah. Facing death himself, he refused to capitulate, dying on the cross (cf. Matt. 27:11-14). But was Jesus at the heart of the hope of the three friends as they faced death  in the furnace? It is difficult to say how specifically their hope focused on the coming Savior, the Messiah. They trusted in the saving power of God, but it is provocative to reflect on the way God choose to deliver the three from the fire. Calvin pointed out that if God wanted, he could have extinguished the flames of the fire in order to save the three men. He saved them in the fire, not from the fire. They were in the very jaws of death. Moreover, he could have saved them without further fanfare, simply having them walk out of the fire unscathed, but instead chose to save them by the presence of a ‘fourth [who] looks like a son of the gods” vs. 25).

Was this ‘fourth’ being Jesus, as many interpreters from the earliest Christian times have suggested? It is impossible to be dogmatic unless one insist that every incarnate appearance of God must be the second person of the Trinity. It is safer to say that what we have here is a reflection of Immanuel, ‘God with us.’ God dwelt with the three friends in the midst of the flames to preserve them from harm. In this sense, the Christian cannot help but see a prefigurement of Jesus Christ, who came to earth to dwell in a chaotic world and who even experienced death, not so that we might escape the experience of death but that we might have victory over it.

– NIVAC, pg. 112.

How Should We Translate The Phrase? – The Question Of Exegetical Interpretation

When we approached the theological question, we asked only who was actually in the fire, from our later and more mature vantage point. And it turns out, that’s a controversial question, and we can’t say for sure, though we can be sure that the point of the text is the same either way – God walks with us through the fire. But even if we concluded that it was in fact the pre-incarnate Christ who was in the fire (a position I lean towards), that does nothing to settle the second question. That is, how should the phrase referring to this fourth man be translated in our English Bibles? The reason this is so is because it is generally agreed that the purpose of a translation is to give the meaning of the text as understood by its original author, not as it came to be interpreted in later Christian times. Let me explain.

Translating The Text

The text being translated by both the NIV and the KJV at this passage is exactly the same. It is an Aramaic section of the Masoretic text. The KJV translators were using the 1525 Bomberg edition of the Hebrew text, the NIV was using the more modern BHS, but both are identical at this point (and almost all others). The text reads a simple three-word phrase;

דָּמֵ֖ה לְבַר־אֱלָהִֽין׃ ס

Or, literally, “like a son of the gods.” The word for “God/gods” is elohin, the Aramaic (Chaldee) equivalent of the Hebrew Elohim. The word is plural, not singular, so grammatically speaking the NIV is being more literal by translating it with a plural (“gods”) rather than a singular (“God”). But sometimes, when used of the one true God, the word can be plural in form but singular in meaning (somewhat like what’s known as a “plural of majesty”). Although it has been argued that such a singular sense is actually grammatically impossible here in this instance (see the note in Goldingay’s WBC commentary, pg.67). More often it is a true grammatical plural, referring to “gods.” HALOT, the standard Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon for biblical studies, notes that the word can refer to “the God of Israel” but also can refer (2ba) to “the gods of other nations (in Daniel always Babylonian gods)” and notes that the Masoretic Text has it as a plural here, “preferring the idea that Nebuchadnezzar was a polytheist,” and they note that in this passage it refers to “a divine being, an angel.”

One can see several uses of this word in this very passage, to get a sense of the difference. For example, in 3:14 the KJV translates the same word “gods,” then in 3:17, the same word as “God,” and again in 3:18, it is “gods” in the KJV. All of these are the same word. Both “God” and “the gods” (and even “angel”) are legitimate translations at times. Probably either is possible here. The context and intent of the speaker is the key.

So what is the context, and who is the speaker? It is important to remember, as Tremper Longman pointed out above, that verse 25 is not in the mouth of Daniel as a narrator and biblical writer. This is not Daniel’s description of what he sees in the fire. Rather, the words are on the mouth of the pagan King, Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel (who is not present in this story, but nonetheless narrates it as an inspired historian) is a good historian. He reports what happened accurately, without embellishment, and without exaggeration. So what happened historically? The King saw another being in the fire with the three children, and spoke of it according to his own viewpoint, from his own limited understanding. From his viewpoint, what he saw was, “a son of the gods.” This common phrase simply meant an angel or “divine being” of any kind (see Goldingay, WBC, pg. 64). Daniel makes clear in verse 28 that what Nebuchadnezzar thought he saw was just such a being;

Then Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent *his angel,* and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God.

The king thought it was an “angel” or a divine being, what he would refer to as “angel” or a “son of the gods.”

Tracing Historic Translations Of The Text

Thus, for example, the Coverdale Bible of 1535 translated the phrase in verse 25,

“and the fourth is like an angel to loke vpon.”

The Geneva Bible rendered the text;

“and the forme of the fourth is like the sonne of God.”

but left a study note that explained that this actually was just another way to refer to an angelic being of any kind;

For the Angels were called the sonnes of God, because of their excellencie: therefore the Kīg called this Angel, whome God sent to comfort his in these great torments, the sonne of God.

The Matthew’s Bible of 1549 that revised it likewise read,

“and the fourthe is lyke an angell to loke vpon.”

The Bishop’s Bible, likely following the Geneva Bible, had changed this to,

“and the fourme of the fourth is like the sonne of God.”

The KJV is itself simply a revision of the 1602 Bishop’s Bible, which reads as above, “like the sonne of God,” but adds a marginal note to clarify what is meant, “That is, an angel of God.” Normally, when revising the Bishops text, they just left the text the same. But here, they chose to remove the marginal note, leaving “sonne of God” in the text without capitalization.

The 1611 KJV reads essentially the same as the Bishop’s Bible here, and clearly means the same thing, but without the clarification of its note. That is, the 1611 KJV intends to teach that this was an angelic being, not that this was Christ. But they removed the marginal note of the Bishop’s text which made this clear. This created an ambiguity that a later editor missed. At some point (after 1638, the latest old edition I checked, but before the Scrivener 1873 Cambridge Paragraph Bible), the meaning of the phrase “son of God” as an angelic being was lost, and “Son” was capitalized, thus making it a reference very directly and specifically to Christ.

These translations from Bible’s preceding the KJV should do away with any slanderous claim that the NIV is attempting to “remove Jesus” from the passage here. Jesus wasn’t in the passage in English in the KJV in 1611, and wasn’t in the passage at all in English Bibles until a later editor misread the KJV!

Note that Daniel reported what was actually said historically, not our later and more accurate theological interpretation of what was actually taking place. Today, as Christians, we can look back with a full Bible and a full revelation, and we understand a doctrine called the Trinity. We know that the one true God is a three-in-one Being; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But this was not yet revealed in Daniel’s time (in a later vision for example, Daniel sees “the Ancient of Days” or God, and “the Son of Man,” a different mysterious figure who Jesus later revealed prefigured Himself). God’s revelation unfolds over time. The revelation that the single God Yahweh has a Son who shares fully in His Divine name would not take place until Jesus came in the incarnation, and it didn’t come first to a pagan King. If Nebuchadnezzar had actually said, “Look! The one true God has a Son who is also God!” then God would have been giving revelation about himself to a pagan King that he wouldn’t even give to His own people until some 500 years later. I think it rather unlikely that such a pagan King had a higher revelation from God (and in any case, verse 28 in the KJV makes clear that he did not). As Christians with full revelation, we can know Who was in the fire. But as translators, one could make the case that we should respect Daniel’s own intentions as a biblical writer. Daniel was a good historian, and we should not, in my opinion, create an instance of him being a bad historian (interpreting rather than reporting what the King had said).

John Calvin took a similar track as the Geneva note listed above, understanding that “son of a god/God” was simply a way of referring to an angelic being, and arguing that Nebuchadnezzar could not have understood otherwise. He explained;

John Calvin

But Nebuchadnezzar says, four men walked in the fire, and the face of the fourth is like the son of a god. No doubt God here sent one of his angels, to support by his presence the minds of his saints, lest they should faint. It was indeed a formidable spectacle to see the furnace so hot, and to be cast into it. By this consolation God wished to allay their anxiety, and to soften their grief, by adding an angel as their companion. We know how many angels have been sent to one man, as we read of Elisha. (2 Kings 6:15.) And there is this general rule—He has given his angels charge over thee, to guard thee in all thy ways; and also, The camps of angels are about those who fear God. (Ps. 91:11, and 34:7.) This, indeed, is especially fulfilled in Christ; but it is extended to the whole body, and to each member of the Church, for God has his own hosts at hand to serve him. But we read again how an angel was often sent to a whole nation. God indeed does not need his angels, while he uses their assistance in condescension to our infirmities. And when we do not regard his power as highly as we ought, he interposes his angels to remove our doubts, as we have formerly said. A single angel was sent to these three men; Nebuchadnezzar calls him a son of God; not because he thought him to be Christ, but according to the common opinion among all people, that angels are sons of God, since a certain divinity is resplendent in them; and hence they call angels generally sons of God. According to this usual custom, Nebuchadnezzar says, the fourth man is like a son of a god. For he could not recognise the only-begotten Son of God, since, as we have already seen, he was blinded by so many depraved errors. And if any one should say it was enthusiasm, this would be forced and frigid. This simplicity, then, will be sufficient for us, since Nebuchadnezzar spoke in the usual manner, as one of the angels was sent to those three men—since, as I have said, it was then customary to call angels sons of God. Scripture thus speaks, (Ps. 89:6, and elsewhere,) but God never suffered truth to become so buried in the world as not to leave some seed of sound doctrine, at least as a testimony to the profane, and to render them more inexcusable—as we shall treat more at length in the next lecture.

John Calvin and Thomas Myers, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Daniel, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 230–231.

That’s not to say I’m demanding that we “correct” the modern KJV here. Far from it. The KJV in its modern printing is explaining quite accurately the theological truth of the Trinity. The KJV does not accurately present what Daniel intended when he wrote, but it does accurately reflect an Anglican, orthodox understanding of the Trinity, as developed and expressed long after Daniel’s time. Probably, one could read the verse from the KJV, and just read vs. 28 to clarify what the King thought he saw, and Who we know was really there. But at the least, the NIV should certainly not be attacked here for translating the same text in a more literal way grammatically, and for representing Daniel as being an accurate historian who didn’t creatively interpret what he recorded, but accurately wrote what was said, rather than putting words in someone’s mouth that they likely didn’t utter.

Both translations should by understood for what they intend to do, and neither deserves censure at this point, (contra the memes that go around suggesting that this difference is a “big deal” or is “removing Jesus”). The NIV is translating what the King actually said. If one wants their translation to reflect the intent of the original biblical author, the NIV is spot on at this point. The KJV is interpreting that statement not as it was originally spoken but as it came to be understood by later Christian theologians. If one wants their translation to reflect later theological formulations from the 17th century, the KJV is spot on at this point. Both can be valid in some ways.

But Didn’t Nebuchadnezzar Adopt Jewish Monotheism?

An interesting article making similar points as I have made here can be found at KJVOnly.org here. An attempt to defend the KJV reading, which I think quite fails, can be read at the KJV Today site here. Note that it is essential to that defense that the King did not mean to say that the fourth man in the fire was Jesus. So the KJV Today article is no support for an attack on the NIV for “deleting Jesus” or any such thing. However, the KJV Today article attempts to claim that since Nebuchadnezzar uses the phrase, “the most high God” in verse 26, he must of necessity have been referring to the monotheistic understanding of the Jewish God. This would still miss the point that Jewish monotheism is not Christian Trinitarianism, but even as much as it says is not technically accurate. Goldingay points out,

The title ‘God Most High’ (vs. 26) is another expression at home on the lips of either a foreigner (3:32; 4:14; 31 [4:2, 17, 34]; Gen. 14:18-20; Num. 24:16; Isa. 14:14) or a Jew (Dan. 4:21-29 [24-32]; 5:18, 21; 7:18-27; Gen. 14:22; Deut. 32:8; Psalms), though its nuances for each would again differ. To both it suggests a God of universal authority, but of otherwise undefined personal qualities. For a pagan [like Nebuchadnezzar], it would denote only the highest among many gods, but as an ephitet of El it was accepted in early OT times and applied to Yahweh, so that for a Jew it has monotheistic (or mono-Yahwistic) implications.

– WBC, pg. 71-72.

And Baldwin, among many other voices, likewise agrees, noting;

This title for God is often found in the mouth of non-Jews (Gen. 14:19; Num. 24:16; Isa. 14:14). There is nothing unlikely in the edict, which does no more than declare legal in the empire the religion of the Jews.”

– Baldwin, J. G. (1978). TOTC Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 23, p. 118). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

What Does The Story Say To Us Today?

Regardless of how we answer both of the questions above, the point of the passage remains the same for us as believers. Daniel is writing his work near (or just after) the end of the Babylonian captivity of the children of Israel. This surely was one of the more difficult experiences of their existence. And Daniel knew that they would need reminded that even in their chastisement, God was never apart from them. And so he recounts for them the story they had told already for a generation. A story of the proto-typical time, in their recent memory, when God had shown that he never abandons his children to face the fire alone. He walks with them through it, just as he had promised (Is. 43:1-3). As Calvin noted, he saved them in the fire, not from it. And this has always been his way with his children who suffer in this broken and fallen world. He still saves in the fire. Goldingay notes,

The king who thought that no god could save the confessors from his power is the one who now perceives God’s intervention….The three have not been delivered from the fire, but they are delivered in the fire (c.f. Rom. 8:37) (Phillip). The life of blessing and success that is their destiny is reached, not by way of costless and risk-free triumph but by the way of the cross. They are free, looking as if they are enjoying a walk in the garden… It is four unbound (vs. 25) who contrast with three bound. The deliverance comes about through the presence of a fourth person in their midst. The divine aide who camps round those who honor God and extricates them from peril (Ps. 34:8 [7]) enters the fire himself to neutralize its capacity for harm by the presence of his superior energy. God’s promise, “I will be with you” characteristically belongs in the context of afflictions and pressure (Exod. 3:12; Isa. 7:14; 43:1-3; Matt. 28:20; see also Ps. 23:4-5). The experience of God’s being with his people not only follows on their commitment to him, rather than preceding it; it comes only in the furnace, not in being preserved from it…

– WBC, pg. 74-75.

Tim Keller points out, in words that can conclude our brief look at the text;

In perhaps the most vivid depiction of suffering in the Bible, in the third chapter of the book of Daniel, three faithful men are thrown into a furnace that is supposed to kill them. But a mysterious figure appears beside them. The astonished observers discern not three but four persons in the furnace, and the one who appears to be ‘the son of the gods.’ And so they walk through the furnace of suffering and are not consumed. From the vantage of the New Testament, Christians know that this was the Son of God himself, one who faced his own, infinity greater furnace of affliction centuries later when he went to the cross. This raises the concept of God ‘walking with us’ to a whole new level. In Jesus Christ we see that God actually experiences the pain of the fire as we do. He truly is God with us, in love and understanding, in our anguish. He plunged himself into our furnace so that, when we find ourselves in the fire, we can turn to him and know we will not be consumed but will be made  into people great and beautiful. ‘I will be with you, your troubles to bless, and sanctity you to your deepest distress.’

– Walking With God Through Pain And Suffering, pg. 9-10.

A Misguided Command To “Abstain” In The KJV (Part II)

A Misguided Command To “Abstain” In The KJV (Part II)

In our last post we examined the KJV translation of Paul’s command in I Thess. 5:22 as, “abstain from all appearance of evil.” We explained the idea found in some circles that in the realm of ethics, even if an activity isn’t inherently wrong, if it might appear wrong to others, it must be avoided. This idea has had disastrous consequences when this verse has been abused. We pointed out that Shogren explained that the KJV rendering here, “has been the basis for what is virtually a special branch of ethics, that a believer should refrain from any practice which might appear to be evil, typically to another Christian, although in theory, to any person whatever. This has led to the principle that one’s behavior should be guided by the perception of others…” (ZECNT, pg. 227). We then showed that this idea is in fact what the KJV translators meant to convey in their translation of the verse, not a misunderstanding of the KJV. We traced out two different broad categories of interpretation in history; what we have called the “ethical” and the “prophetic” interpretations. The KJV translation represents one small strand of the ethical interpretation.

But now we raise the much more important question – What did Paul actually mean?

What Was Paul Saying?

To understand Paul’s meaning, we will first zoom in on the word translated “appearance” in the KJV, discuss the arguments for the ethical interpretation, and then examine the context of the verse.

The Word “Appearance/Form/Kind”

We start with a close look at the word εἴδους (eidous), translated in the KJV “appearance.” BDAG, the standard NT Greek lexicon, provides three possible meanings for the word;

① the shape and structure of something as it appears to someone, form, outward appearance

② a variety of something, kind

③ the act of looking/seeing, seeing, sight

The first question is whether Paul has the first or second meaning in view (see also LSJ for other uses of this classical meaning). And even if he has the first meaning in view, one must still make a case that he intends the outward appearance to be something not corresponding to reality if one wants to arrive at the KJV. The KJV took him as referring to something that only outwardly appears evil, but is not inherently so. Note that this is only one shade of the first meaning. But it is far more likely, given the context, that he is talking about something that actually is evil, not something which only appears to be so. He is thus talking about forms or kinds of evil, not a mere “appearance” of evil. Moises Silva explains in the NIDNTTE;

The exhortation in 1 Thess 5:22… has traditionally been rendered, “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (KJV), but it is almost certain that here the term has its common class[ical] meaning, “kind, type, form”…

– Moisés Silva, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, pg. 97.

Dan Wallace, we saw last time, wrote an extremely helpful blog post on the passage (all quotes of Wallace here are from that post). Following a suggestion in Kittel, (and with some support from a few Apostolic Fathers) he argues that perhaps a more rare meaning of the word, “to mint a coin” is at play;

Significantly, the noun…(used in this verse) is sometimes translated “mint.”  Along these lines, what is interesting to note is that in the early church, the wording of 1 Thess 5:21 was more often attributed to Jesus than to Paul. And it was prefaced by the words “become approved money-changers.” This then was followed by the participial construction, “by abstaining from evil things and by holding fast to the good.” Thus, Paul may well be quoting from a previously unrecorded saying of Jesus in 1 Thess 5:21-22. If so, then these verses need to be rendered as follows: “Test all things; hold fast to the good, but abstain from every false coinage.” The idea then is that believers ought to stay away from that which is counterfeit–that is, false doctrines.

Ethical Interpretations Without The “Mere Appearance” Twist

Whether that intriguing proposal by Wallace is accepted or not, there is still no real reason to assume that Paul means to refer to behavior which appears evil but is not. The ethical interpretation can certainly be held without such a notion, and often has been. For example, Charles Spurgeon held to the ethical interpretation, but suggested that the KJV was wrong to translate the passage as referring to behavior which only appears evil. While doing a verse by verse exposition of the whole chapter, he wrote of this verse;

By which is not meant as some read it, “from everything that somebody likes to say looks like evil.” This would be to mar the Christian liberty. But wherever evil puts in an appearance, when it appears to be good, when it has been dressed out—for the word may refer to a Roman spectacle, or grand procession. Avoid evil even when dressed out in its best, when it comes on in all its gallant show to attract you. Avoid every species and kind of evil—that might almost be the translation—abstain from it altogether.

– C. H. Spurgeon, “Joy in Salvation,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 62, pg. 132.

What About The Lack Of Connectives?

In my opinion, the arguments for the ethical interpretation are weak and unconvincing. The one thing that might be said for an ethical interpretation is to note how sparse verbal connectives are in this list of commands by Paul, as though he meant them to be treated in isolation. Even so, we do have a clear one connecting verse 20 to 21, in the Byzantine and Standard modern texts at least. (It is absent from the Greek text of the KJV NT and all the TR editions I checked, perhaps one more factor which might have affected their misreading of the text.)

Beza 1598, I Thess. 5:14-23.

Beza, 1598, I Thess. 5:23-28.

As we saw last time, the KJV interprets and translates the verse as though it stood isolated from its surrounding context, I think quite mistakenly. But they cannot be alone blamed for this. When the Stephanus text first versified the NT, its editor had rendered exceptionally small verses in this entire section, treating the staccato commands here as unconnected to one another. Beza had followed suit in his texts, and so when verse divisions came into English Bibles, this exegetical decision had already been somewhat made for the reader. Gone now were Tyndale’s well-thought out paragraphs.

Tyndale 1526, I Thess. 5:6-20a.

Tyndale 1526, I Thess. 5:20b-28.

The Bishops Bible which the KJV revised had done the same thing, followed the same small verse divisions here, and printing each as a separate paragraph. The KJV Translators all had copies of this text in front of them as they did their revising work. The King had ordered 40 unbound copies of this text to be purchased from Richard Barker for them to work on. We still in fact have the receipt for the purchase today.

So, in a way, the visual layout of their text was already subconsciously affecting the way they read the text. It would have been quite an unexpected turn for them to have seen these commands as connected in any way, given their textual resources, and the patterns their eyes were already leading them to see.

1602 Bishops’ Bible, I Thess. 4:7-5:28.

But does the lack of connectives actually mean that Paul was intending to give a series of disconnected commands? Wallace explains in a footnote that this doesn’t in fact mean that Paul meant them to be read in isolation. Asyndeton (i.e., lack of connection), can serve a variety of functions in the NT. Sometimes such constructions are used to heighten the emphasis of the implicit connection. He notes the example of Phil 4:5, where Paul says, “Let your forbearance be known to all men. The Lord is near.” These two sentences are clearly connected. Also, Wallace notes, in Eph 4:4-5,

after Paul had just instructed the Ephesians about maintaining the unity of the Spirit, he says, “[There is] one body and one Spirit,… one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Is there no connection between vv 1-3 and vv 4-6?  On the contrary, vv 4-6 offer the theological basis and pattern for what Christian unity should be like. In 2 Tim 3:16, Paul reminds Timothy that “Every Scripture is inspired and profitable.” Such a solemn statement surely has a connection with v 15: “You have been acquainted with the sacred writings from your childhood.” Thus, asyndeton does not necessarily or even normally imply no connection. Often, it is used to heighten the connection with what was previously mentioned. We believe that that is the case in 1 Thess 5:19-22 as well.

In any case, even if one found the ethical interpretation convincing, there is no clear reason to take the “even the mere appearance” of evil form of this interpretation found in the KJV. Still less would there be grounds for the common use of this verse to build and bulwark hosts of unbiblical commands. God simply didn’t intend for you to lead your life held captive to the conscience of others, and still less to live your life more concerned about what they thought of you than what he did.

Keeping The Verse In Its Historical And Literary Contexts

The basic differences between ethical and prophetic interpretations of the passage are the result of whether or not the surrounding context shapes our reading of the verse. The peculiar “mere appearance” form of the ethical interpretation has virtually nothing to commend it, though broader ethical interpretations may have more weight. What ultimately convinces me (and virtually all modern interpreters) of the prophetic interpretation are the historical and literary contexts. Whatever one might think about the continuation/cessation of prophecy today, no one can deny its presence at Thessalonica in the NT era in which Paul wrote. As Chrysostom well said, “There were among them many indeed who prophesied truly, but some prophesied falsely,” and this reality created a need for a balanced response by Paul, which would neither denigrate prophecies nor accept them all gullibly.

This historical reality is precisely the issue Paul raises in the immediate literary context when he commands not quenching the Spirit/despising prophecies in verse 19-20, and specifically urges the testing of prophecy in verse 21. The connective δὲ (de), “but,” explicitly connects his command about “testing all” to the “prophecies” of verse 20.

Since the positive command to test all things stands in an antithetical relationship to the two preceding negative commands, the adjective panta (all things), as Ellicott…notes, “must thus have a restricted sense, and be limited to the spiritual gifts previously alluded to” …The contemporary application of this command may justly be extended to other aspects of the Christian life, but its original intent is restricted to the testing of all prophecies.

– Jeffrey Weima, BECNT, pg. 408–409.

That is, it is grammatically undeniable that vs. 20-21a raise the historical issue of prophecy and the need for a balanced approach that nether denigrates nor uncritically accepts prophecy.

Vs. 21b-22 clearly come together as paired commands. “Good” is the antonym of “evil” (and Paul’s regular use of this construction makes clear that he intends “evil” as a noun here – see Fee, NICNT). And while it is lost in English, the verbs “hold fast” and “let go of/abstain from” are in fact the same root with only a different prefix. Weima notes, “The two verbs used here, both having the same root and differing only in a prefix, are strong and express wholehearted acceptance of prophecy that is judged good and absolute rejection of prophecy deemed evil” (BECNT, pg. 410). This pair of commands very clearly explains the two-fold response to the “testing” of verse 21a. But as we just saw, that “testing” is grammatically tied to the “prophecies” of verse 20. This all but forces us to conclude that these paired commands explain how we should respond to the tested prophetic utterance. Weima explains;

These two final exhortations can and have been taken out of their specific context and turned into universal maxims that are applicable to any and all situations, even by those who recognize that the preceding verses deal specifically with Spirit-inspired utterances… But since this couplet is intended to specify the previous command to test all things (v. 21a), and this previous command is in turn intended to contrast with the preceding prohibitions about the Spirit and prophecies, there can be no doubt that in these closing verses Paul continues to be focused narrowly on the testing of these spiritual utterances.

(BECNT, pg. 410).

We could set this out visually like this;

  1. Despise not prophecy
  2. But test all things;
    1. Hold fast that which tests good
    2. Reject that which tests evil

The two minor questions that remain are,

  1. Why does Paul’s wording, somewhat awkwardly, not exactly mirror itself in the final couplet of vs. 21-22?
  2. Why does Paul use the longer phrase “every kind of evil” in the final command in vs. 22 and the simple singular “the good” in the command in verse 20?

The answer to the first question is likely that Paul has intentionally echoed the language of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT that he is using) of Job 1:8, where Job is described as an upright man, who “is a man blameless, true, godly, abstaining from every evil deed.” Fee explains that the Greek is strikingly close;


In answer to the second question, Fee notes, “The best explanation here would seem to be an older one, that in Paul’s view ‘good’ is singular, whereas ‘evil’ takes many forms. In any case, the context, and the verbal plays between the two final clauses, seems to demand that this final clause also refers to prophetic utterances” (NICNT, pg. 224).

Even if one doesn’t like those answers or can’t answer every question about the precise wording, what Paul is saying in verse 22, if we read it in its context, is nonetheless abundantly clear. Paul is addressing the reality that prophecy is genuinely from the Spirit and must not be quenched or disdainfully rejected, yet also must not be uncritically accepted. Thus, he urges testing all prophetic utterances. Once tested, the good should be received, and lived out, while the bad should be rejected. Wallace concludes;

1 Thess 5:22 is apparently talking about staying away from false teaching and has nothing to do with lifestyle per se. It should be translated, “Abstain from every form of evil” or “Abstain from every false coinage [i.e., false doctrine].” Further, to wield it as a weapon of legalism is against the general tenor of the New Testament and of the Lord’s life in particular. Ironically, to avoid every appearance of evil is far more in keeping with the Pharisees’ model of righteousness than with Jesus’! The Westminster Shorter Catechism starts off by noting that the chief end of man is to “Glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This capsulizes God’s goal for humanity well. We must not forget that there are two verbs in this brief answer.

Did Jesus Abstain?

One final point must be made against the “mere appearance” interpretation. Wallace notes that in order for this form of the ethical interpretation to hold true, three things must line up;

(1) “form” must lack correspondence to reality (like the word “appearance” seems to do in the KJV translation);

(2) v 22 must be interpreted in isolation from vv 19-21; and

(3) we would expect to see examples, in the life of Paul and others in the NT, of avoiding the appearance of evil.

It is this third point that Wallace finds especially lacking. The first two could be argued, grammatically and linguistically (we have argued against both above), but not the third, which “fails miserably.” That is, if Paul is forbidding even behavior that merely appears evil here, then both Paul, and, more importantly, Jesus, were in regular blatant sin against this verse. Wallace explains;

Paul was noted for becoming all things to all men (1 Cor 9:20-22) for the sake of the gospel. He often did things that certain sin-sniffers viewed as lacking propriety (cf. Gal 2). But he did them both because of his passion for the gospel and because of “our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus” (Gal 2:4).

But Paul is not the supreme example of one who did not avoid the appearance of evil. Jesus is. He spent so much time with tax-collectors and sinners that he was labeled a glutton and a drunkard (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). Indeed, his very first miracle was to change water into wine (John 2), enabling the festivities to keep going. The distinct impression one gets from the Gospels is that Jesus simply did not have the same scruples about his associations that the religious leaders of the day had. They avoided the appearance of evil at all costs; Jesus seems almost to have had the opposite approach to life and ministry (cf., e.g., Luke 7:39). Even his disciples had been oppressed by all the rules and traditions of men. But Jesus freed them from such nonsense. In Matt 15, the Pharisees were stunned that Jesus’ disciples did not perform the Jewish hand washing ritual before they ate. They hammered on the disciples and on Jesus for not obeying the oral commandments. Jesus did not say, “Sorry, boys. I didn’t mean to cause offense. It won’t happen again.” Instead, he very boldly pointed out that these religious leaders had exchanged the laws of God for their own self-made rules. He called them hypocrites who had no heart for God. The most remarkable verse in this whole pericope is verse 12: Jesus’ disciples came to their Master and said, “Did you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?” Didn’t they know that offending the Pharisees was part of Jesus’ job description!

…Oral traditions that heap requirements on people because of some outspoken individual’s overbearing conscience are an anathema to the Lord and to the evangelical faith. May ours be, once again, a robust faith and a life of enjoyment of God and of the good gifts he bestows on us.

“The distinct impression one gets from the Gospels is that Jesus simply did not have the same scruples about his associations that the religious leaders of the day had. They avoided the appearance of evil at all costs; Jesus seems almost to have had the opposite approach to life and ministry.”

– Dan Wallace

Conclusion – Internalizing Righteousness

When we take all this together, it becomes abundantly clear that Paul is talking in this passage about the testing of prophecies. Neither this passage (nor any other) gives weight to the “sin sniffer” who tries to legalistically impose unbiblical rules on others. And this passage gives no support to the externalizing of piety which is a plague in the church as old as the Pharisees.

One can’t help but wonder – if Christians were required to abstain from all appearance of evil, how much of Christian ministry would simply not have happened? Much of what Jesus did would have to be cut out of the New Testament. And what of modern workers like Jackie Pullinger, spending her entire life around prostitutes and their Johns, drug addicts and their dealers? Should we conclude that her whole life has been sin? Or should we perhaps be convicted by her breathless service to Christ, and be inspired to greater sacrifices for Christ in our own life? One does not take a prostitute on a date if they are following the KJV here. And a powerful demonstration of God’s love would have been lost had such a rigor been followed. The truth is, the “abstaining” principle is patently about an outward appearance of righteousness. And this is precisely the element of the Pharisees’ teaching that Jesus so often opposed, demanding that God’s concern was internal holiness, and that God’s transformation moves from the inside out, not the outside in (see Matt. 5:17-48).

In our social-media-saturated culture, the enticement of external appearance is a strong one. We shape carefully crafted tweets, impeccable Instagram selfies, and eminently editable Facebook posts. The right clothes, the right haircut, the right words – you have more control than ever before over your external “image”; an edited shell of the real you. This can bring its blessings, but it also brings its dangerous temptations.

The church does not need more Christians concerned to run their own PR campaign to promote their image as “godly.” Neither the example of Jesus nor this passage in Paul could ever be rightly used to support such an approach.

What the church needs today rather is counter-cultural Christians committed to true holiness – the kind that is authentic, internal, and deep – not weaklings seduced by the allure of building a skin-deep superficial image. May we see a revival of holiness so deep that it overflows into external behavior; so abundant that it can’t but transform how we live. May we never reverse that order. May the gospel of a crucified and risen Lord grip us and transform us into authentic holiness. And may we never settle for any cheap and shallow substitute.

The simple reality, difficult for some to swallow, is that the KJV is patently mistaken in how it translated this verse. They weren’t the first; they left this verse of the Bishop’s Bible which they were revising unchanged, and both the Great Bible and Tyndale before had, with different wording, provided the same interpretation. But the enduring effect of their translation has caused long and lasting damage in the church as a prop for legalism, and an externalized piety, sometimes with consequences that are nothing short of disastrous.

An Affront On The Doctrine Of The Sufficiency Of Scripture

At the end of the day, any creation of laundry lists of extra-biblical ethical rules is an affront to the liberty of grace (which Spurgeon noted above). But while it is not often realized, it is also an affront to the sufficiency of Scripture. Those who create such unbiblical rules are patently saying, “The commands the Bible gives us are not sufficient to regulate morality. We have to supplement them with our own rules.” It is here that the “Sin Sniffer’s” use of I Thess. 5:22 in the KJV to bolster such lists becomes most clear for what it is. In his popular Systematic Theology, after explaining the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, Wayne Grudem explains how such rules undermine that doctrine. We end this post with his plea to live out the sufficiency of Scripture by rejecting legalistic proliferation of rules;

With regard to living the Christian life, the sufficiency of Scripture reminds us that nothing is sin that is not forbidden by Scripture either explicitly or by implication. To walk in the law of the Lord is to be “blameless” (Ps. 119:1). Therefore we are not to add prohibitions to those already stated in Scripture. From time to time there may be situations in which it would be wrong, for example, for an individual Christian to drink coffee or Coca-Cola, or to attend movie theaters, or to eat meat offered to idols (see 1 Cor. 8–10), but unless some specific teaching or some general principle of Scripture can be shown to prohibit these (or any other activities) for all believers for all time, we must insist that these activities are not in themselves sinful and they are not in all situations prohibited by God for his people.

This also is an important principle because there is always the tendency among believers to begin to neglect the regular daily searching of Scripture for guidance and to begin to live by a set of written or unwritten rules (or denominational traditions) concerning what one does or does not do in the Christian life.

Furthermore, whenever we add to the list of sins that are prohibited by Scripture itself, there will be harm to the church and to the lives of individual believers. The Holy Spirit will not empower obedience to rules that do not have God’s approval from Scripture, nor will believers generally find delight in obedience to commands that do not accord with the laws of God written on their hearts. In some cases, Christians may repeatedly and earnestly plead with God for “victory” over supposed sins that are in fact no sins at all, yet no “victory” will be given, for the attitude or action in question is in fact not a sin and is not displeasing to God. Great discouragement in prayer and frustration in the Christian life generally may be the outcome.

In other cases, continued or even increasing disobedience to these new “sins” will result, together with a false sense of guilt and a resulting alienation from God. Often there arises an increasingly uncompromising and legalistic insistence on these new rules on the part of those who do follow them, and genuine fellowship among believers in the church will fade away. Evangelism will often be stifled, for the silent proclamation of the gospel that comes from the lives of believers will at least seem (to outsiders) to include the additional requirement that one must fit this uniform pattern of life in order to become a member of the body of Christ.

– Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine , pg. 132–133.

A Misguided Command To “Abstain” In The KJV

A Misguided Command To “Abstain” In The KJV

Until a few years ago, moral behavior in my life was often guided by long lists of extra-biblical rules and “principles” to help us figure out God’s will. One of the proof-texts that appeared on virtually every one of these lists was I Thess. 5:22, which, in the KJV, commands us to avoid even the mere “appearance of evil.” That is, even if an activity wasn’t inherently wrong, if it might look wrong to others, it was still a sin.

Why can you rent VHS tapes to watch at home, but not go to a movie theater? Well, because someone might think you were there to see a “bad” movie. Why is it ok to swim in the backyard, but never in a public pool? Well, because someone might see you, and know that you thought mixed swimming was ok. Why is it wrong to be in a bar, even if you don’t drink (or even, to walk by one)? Because of what others might think. Why can you wear shorts or pants at home but not in public? You get the idea. Who we could hang out with, where we could go, what we could do – all shaped, in part at least, by how it would look to others.

The Tragic Abuse Of “Abstaining”

This ethical “principle” finds its basis today in the KJV rendering of I Thess. 5:22, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” And while many may with sincerity use it to guide their own behaviors, genuinely seeking to follow God, others wield it like a weapon to impose legalistic and unbiblical rules on others. The sad result is that it ends up breeding a culture that is obsessed with the perceptions of others. In religious cultures focused on external appearances, the desire to live for God and do his will is slowly replaced with an obsession to make sure everyone else knows how godly you are. Appearing moral becomes as important, or even more important, than actually being moral. We became obsessed with protecting what we called our “testimony.” That’s an odd use of this word. Instead of referring to “testifying” to God’s grace, we meant it more in reference to building a monument to our reputation for godliness.

In religious cultures focused on external appearances, the desire to live for God and do his will is slowly replaced with an obsession to make sure everyone else knows how godly you are.

To be sure, the Old Testament (especially the Wisdom literature) speaks of the value of “a good name,” which usually means, a reputation of integrity, known for giving to the poor, which which leaves a lasting legacy (Prov. 22:1, 2, 4, 7, 9, 16; Ecc. 7:1). But the wisdom literature doesn’t extol this as some external perception contrary to internal reality, pursued through controlling how others perceive us. Quite the opposite. As master scholar of Wisdom Bruce Waltke sums up in his magesterial work on Proverbs, “a good name is the outward expression of the person’s inner wisdom” (NICOT,  Prov. Vol. 2, pg. 199).

We, on the other hand, developed an ethic focused highly (at times almost exclusively) on external perceptions. Virtually every kind of rule or law, which even the creators of said rule could acknowledge to be unbiblical, could be bolstered and supported with I Thess. 5:22 as a proof text. Even if the rule wasn’t necessary to prevent inherently sinful activity, it was needed to prevent what could be perceived as sinful behavior. Externalized piety became the name of the game. Gary Shogren highlights the dynamic that results when this happens;

The KJV translation, “abstain from all appearance of evil” is unfortunate, although I am not certain whether the translators of the KJV or the users of that version are to blame for a longstanding misinterpretation. Its rendering of 5:22 has been the basis for what is virtually a special branch of ethics, that a believer should refrain from any practice which might appear to be evil, typically to another Christian, although in theory, to any person whatever.

This has led to the principle that one’s behavior should be guided by the perception of others, even if no one has voiced an objection: “Well, you don’t think it’s wrong, and neither do I, and nobody has said anything about it, but to someone it might give an ‘appearance of evil,’ and therefore you must refrain from it.” Usually this interpretation of 5:22 is linked with not being a stumbling block to other people (1 Cor 8:13). This is not at all the gist of Paul’s command in 5:22. “All appearance of evil” must be laid aside in favor of “every sort” or “every kind” of evil, as the NIV and many other versions have. Paul is not speaking of “what appears to be wrong” but “evil, which shows its face in many ways.”

– Gary Steven Shogren, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, ZECNT, pg. 227.

One biblical scholar who has written detailed exegesis of the passage in his brilliant academic commentary on the letter recounts an example of the passage being abused. He, “received a letter from a well-known evangelical, who argued that the author should not appear in a conference with another well-known person, whose orthodoxy on a point was thought to be suspect.” The biblical reason given for avoiding the conference was I Thess. 5:22 in the KJV (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Fourth Edition, pg. 28–29). He suggests that this happened because good exegesis had simply been abandoned, and someone had become more concerned to use the Bible to their own ends rather than listening to the Bible to hear what the Spirit actually teaches. He uses this example to urge more careful exegesis that protects us from twisting the Bible to our own ends.


Dan Wallace (who speaks a little more strongly than I would myself) notes in a very helpful short blog post on the passage that in his time in a Christian liberal arts college, it was common for students to compile scores of little “oral traditions” that helped them obey God (all quotes of Wallace here come from this blog post). These lists intend to address so called “grey areas” for believer’s moral and ethical stance. The Bible doesn’t say anything explicit about them, so some rush to fill that gap with new rules that will correct the Bible’s insufficiencies. They are, in effect, “oral tradition that is extra-biblical, palmed off as though a mark of wisdom and maturity.” Wallace concludes;

The net effect of such lists is to cast the Christian faith in a negative light and to paralyze the saints from becoming involved in people’s lives. Now please don’t misunderstand: I am not advocating that one ought to live in the grey areas! …I am not talking about excess in the grey areas; I am addressing rather the occasional forays into them….Suffice it to say here that those who do not want other Christians to enjoy life use 1 Thess 5:22 as their ultimate weapon…

It is the sin sniffer’s catch-all verse.

I don’t think everyone who uses I Thess. 5:22 is a “sin sniffer” promoting legalism. Some are just confused about what the Bible teaches, and don’t have a clear and solid grasp on the grace of the gospel, or any robust experience of that grace in their lives. Others do have a more malicious agenda. There is such a thing as what one friend calls, “professional weaker brethren.” And this passage is surely one of their favorite weapons to abuse others. I suspect most of us have seen this kind of abuse.

Let’s take a moment to compare the verse in the KJV and other translations.

I Thess. 5:22 – The KJV vs. Modern Translations

While the KJV renders I Thess. 5:22, “abstain from all appearance of evil,” modern translations almost universally have a strikingly different translation, and clearly, a sharply different interpretation of the passage. For example;

  • (ESV): Abstain from every form of evil.
  • (NIV): …reject every kind of evil.
  • (NLT): Stay away from every kind of evil.
  • (NKJV): Abstain from every form of evil.

Two Interpretations – Ethical and Prophetic

We might suggests that there are two broad types of interpretations of the passage; those that take verse 22 in isolation as not related to its immediate literary context, and thus about ethics, and those that read verse 22 as connected to its context, and thus about testing prophecies (vs. 20). We could call these the “ethical” and the “prophetic” interpretations.

Interestingly, it is only one small subsection of the “ethical” interpretations that would go further and claim that not only is the passage speaking about what behavior to avoid, it is commanding the avoidance of any behavior that even appears evil. The difference between this narrow reading and all others can be put bluntly. Does the passage speak about things that appear to be evil but are not inherently so, or does it refer to things that appear evil because they arein fact evil? Much hangs on a single word and how it is translated. More hangs on whether the literary context matters or not. We will look at both issues in more detail in the next post.

Verse 22 has been taken by the KJV to stand on its own, without any real connection to its context. This is bolstered because the KJV (even in modern printings) typically prints every verse as its own paragraph, enforcing visually the isolation of the verse. And it has further more narrowly claimed that the behavior prohibited is that which merely appears evil.

Modern translations and interpreters, on the other hand, have had an increasingly tendency to read the verse as part of a larger context, which leads to the “prophetic” interpretation. Specifically, verses 19-22 are taken as a unit referring to the testing of “prophecies.” If this context is taken into account, verse 22 takes on quite a different meaning. While verse 22 may also have broader application, it is taken in its context to refer specifically to the rejecting of tested prophesies which are found false upon testing.

​In order to make this connection more clear, the NIV in fact renders verses 20-22 as a single sentence, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (NIV 1 Th 5:19–22). And the connective at the start of verse 20, together with the two neatly balanced clauses that follow, does argue strongly for such a reading. The NA 28 likewise, while printing each verse on a new line poetically, renders vs. 19-22 as a single sentence.

Prophetic and Ethical Interpretations in History

This is not some novel new idea. I suspect that both the broad ethical and prophetic interpretations can be found throughout history (I’m not sure when the peculiar “even the mere appearance of evil” strand of the ethical interpretation first arose). But undeniably the prophetic interpretation has strong historical support. John Chrysostom, one of the greatest preachers and exegetes of history, explained the passage along those lines, convinced, as he so often was, that we must read every verse in its context. He first urges that the historical context must be taken account of, for, “There were among them many indeed who prophesied truly, but some prophesied falsely,” just as at Corinth. This reality of good mixed with bad, he reminds us, is the very reason God gave us the gift of discerning of Spirits.

That’s why Paul takes this balanced approach here, urging unhindered use of the gift, but constant examination and investigation of the prophecies given. “What therefore he wishes here to signify is this, Do not, because there are false prophets among you, on their account prohibit also these, and turn away from them. Quench them not, that is, Despise not prophesyings.” That’s why all must be investigated. “Seest thou that this is what he means by, Prove all things?” Because Paul had said, Despise not prophesyings, he didn’t want them to think this meant anything goes, so he also said “prove all things.” And Paul tells us the two possible responses to the testing, “Hold fast that which is good. [Abstain from every form of evil]. Not from this or that, but from all. That you may by proof distinguish both true things and false, and abstain from the latter, and hold fast the former. For thus both the hatred of the one and the love of the other becomes strong, when we do all things not carelessly, nor without examination, but with careful investigation” (John Chrysostom, The Homilies of S. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistles of St. Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, pg. 453–454).

Hold fast that which is good, abstain from every form of evil, that you may by proof distinguish both true things and false, and abstain from the latter, and hold fast the former.

– John Chrysostom

It’s also worth noting, should someone claim that this reading is some modern charismatic desire to find “prophecy” behind every bush, that Chrysostom was himself a kind of cessationist (to my knowledge the first). He thought prophecy had ceased by his day. But he’s a responsible enough exegete to realize that it was active in Paul’s, when he wrote these words.

On the other hand, John Calvin was aware of the “prophetic” interpretation of Chrysostom and other fathers. But he, like most of the Reformers, had a tendency to interpret the gift of prophecy as simply another way of talking about normal preaching. He says of verse 20, “By the term prophecy, however, I do not understand the gift of foretelling the future, but as in 1 Cor. 14:3, the science of interpreting Scripture, so that a prophet is an interpreter of the will of God…..Let, therefore, prophecy in this passage be understood as meaning—interpretation made suitable to present use.” He admires Chrysostom’s attempt to read the passage as a coherent whole, but still, Chrysostom has, “not altogether hit upon what [Paul] intends.” The passage is rather about doctrine that appears suspicious. Influenced by the Vulgate translation of the word as specimen(appearance), he concludes,

the phrase appearance of evil, or evil appearance, I understand to mean—when falsity of doctrine has not yet been discovered in such a manner, that it can on good grounds be rejected; but at the same time an unhappy suspicion is left upon the mind, and fears are entertained, lest there should be some poison lurking. He, accordingly, commands us to abstain from that kind of doctrine, which has an appearance of being evil, though it is not really so—not that he allows that it should be altogether rejected, but inasmuch as it ought not to be received, or to obtain belief.

 – John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, pg. 302.

Luther, too, had come along and read the passage as dealing with outward appearance, and specifically in the ethical realm. Combining the passage with Phil. 4:8, he concludes,

The reference is purely to our outward conduct. Paul would not have the Christian think himself at liberty to do his own pleasure, regardless of others’ approbation. Only in the things of faith is such the Christian’s privilege. His outward conduct should be irreproachable, acceptable to all men; in keeping with the teaching of first Corinthians, 10:32–33, to please all men, giving offense neither to Jews nor to Gentiles; and obedient to Peter’s advice (1 Pet 2:12), “Having your behavior seemly among the Gentiles.”

– Martin Luther, vol. II, The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, pg. 52.

Ethical Interpretations without the “Mere Appearance” Twist

The ethical interpretation can certainly be held without such a notion, and often has been. For examples, Charles Spurgeon held to the ethical interpretation, but suggested that the KJV was wrong to translate the passage as referring to behavior which only appears evil. While doing a verse by verse exposition of the whole chapter, he wrote of this verse;

By which is not meant as some read it, “from everything that somebody likes to say looks like evil.” This would be to mar the Christian liberty. But wherever evil puts in an appearance, when it appears to be good, when it has been dressed out—for the word may refer to a Roman spectacle, or grand procession. Avoid evil even when dressed out in its best, when it comes on in all its gallant show to attract you. Avoid every species and kind of evil—that might almost be the translation—abstain from it altogether.

– C. H. Spurgeon, “Joy in Salvation,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 62, pg. 132.

Is This What the KJV Translators Meant?

Before we ask whether the “even the mere appearance of evil is wrong” form of the ethical interpretation of the passage is correct, we should first ask whether it is in fact what the KJV translators intended. Shogren expressed some doubt above. Even as respected and erudite a scholar as Michael Holmes has asserted that this is not what they intended, but results from “misunderstanding” the KJV. (NIVAC, 1-2 Thessalonians, pg. 189–190). What did the Translators intend? Is this a case of moderns misreading the KJV? Or is it a case of the KJV misreading Paul? The question has to do ultimately with the English word “appearance.” Some have suggested that the KJV translators meant, “any time evil appears, avoid it.” But is that what they meant by the word?

The Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary lists as its eighth definition of the word appearance,

The action or state of appearing or seeming to be (to eyes or mind); semblance; looking like. to all appearance: so far as appears to anyone.

This is the meaning that would suggest the “even if it merely appears evil” form of the ethical interpretation. And in fact, the OED goes on to specifically list this passage in both the KJV and the Great Bible as examples of this usage. That is, these masters of English are convinced that this is not a misreading of the KJV – it is what they intended to say.

The Translators Speak

In his exposition of the 10 Commandments, Lancelot Andrews, KJV Translator, and director of the First Westminster Company of Translators, zooms in on the command about vain speech and false witness with a host of wide applications. In one set of these applications, he comes to the question of “How to behave our selves in reproaches.” Under that heading, he proposes three rules. The third rule takes up “unjust reproaches,” where there is no grounds for the accusation in any way. The first takes up situations where there is some grounds for the accusation because you are guilty. The second one provides a kind of middle category, in which you might not be guilty of the accused sin directly, but still deserve the reproach. Why? Because, while not technically guilty, you have failed to follow the command to abstain from all appearance of evil. Your failure at this point has left you deserving of your reproach.

What’s fascinating is that Andrewes does not argue for this interpretation of the verse. The interpretation is so solid and universal as to be a given, from which he argues for a middle category of response to reproach. He has seen the verse as virtually creating its own special category of ethical and moral judgment;

Now in this case, either a man hath given some occasion, by carrying himself so, as may give some suspition of such a sin, though he never acted it, and then, because he hath offended in not avoiding all appearance of evil, he must know God hath by this means dealt lovingly with him, to make him more wary to avoid all appearance of evil for the future, and to keep him from wandring and pleasing imaginations of the sin in his heart, for it is sure, sin cannot be long in the heart, before it will come into action.

– Lancelot Andrewes, The Pattern of Catechistical Doctrine at Large…, Early English Books Online (London: Imprinted by Roger Norton, and are to be sold by George Badger .., 1650), 99.

Several other times in his exposition he cites I Thess. 5:22, always with the same interpretation, which requires not only curbing sin, but also restricting ourselves from things which only appear evil. We must even, “abridge [curtail] our selves of things lawful.” Not only fire must we flee, but, “we must flee from the smoak, abstain from all appearance of evil (as the Apostle speaks).”

Mark Ward wrote Authorized (which I summarized and reviewed here), where he explains how easy it is to misunderstand what the KJV means, because the language is often so dated and obscure, and because of the presence of what he calls, “false friends.” He told me that he had initially considered this passage an example of a false friend. That is, he thought this “mere appearance” form of the ethical interpretation resulted from misreading the KJV due to archaic language. However, as he studied the history and usage of the word, he too became convinced that this interpretation is actually exactly what the KJV Translators intended to convey.

Combined with the data from the OED entry, and the history of Protestant interpretation, I think the above makes it abundantly clear that this is not an accidental reading that someone has mistakenly foisted upon the KJV. It is rather exactly how the Translators understood the passage, and exactly what they intended their translation to convey.

So now the question becomes, is their reading what Paul actually intended? Is their translation accurate? That is the question we will take up in our next post.

“Authorized: The Use And Misuse Of The King James Bible” — A Review

“Authorized: The Use And Misuse Of The King James Bible” — A Review

If you love the King James Bible, or if it is the only (or primary) version that you use, you should read the new book “Authorized: The Use And Misuse Of The King James Bible.” The book can by purchased here. A video summary clip can be watched here.

An interview with the author about the book at Exegetical Tools can be found here. Mark Ward, Logos Pro, and PhD from Bob Jones University, has just published the marvelous little book. It approaches the question of whether the King James Bible is the only English translation that should be used by English-speaking peoples. This view is sometimes called “King James Onlyism,” a term that has the unfortunate disadvantage of lumping together a group of people who hold rather distinct views. I grew up holding such views, and I have a good number of friends who l love dearly and respect who still hold such views. (Some of you may even be reading this – Hello!) I find myself using the term “King James Only” often (KJVO for short), though I try to always be mindful of the differences, for example, between those who think the English words of the KJV improve upon the Greek words originally written by Paul, and those who say they only think that the KJV is the best translation currently available in English of what they consider a perfect text (sometimes called “Textus Receptus Only” or TRO for short). There are loads of other variations, and some far more moderate explanations from folks whom I would never give the “only” title to.

Is The King James The Only Right English Bible?

This is by no means the first book to touch on this touchy topic. And I usually recommend that folks read the best works from both sides of any issue they are considering. A few good books on the topic, disagreeing with a KJVO position, have been written by D. A. Carson, James Price, James White, and a handful of others. On the other side, literally scores of books have been written to defend a KJVO position. However, I could never recommend most of them to anyone, as many of them are among the most vitriolic, hateful, and often downright unchristian literature I have ever read in my life. It grieves my heart to see people who name the name of Jesus write such words. They have almost created their own genre of writing — an angry genre that has made bolded+underlined+all-caps words a kind of regular way of screaming at the reader in print the way some scream orally in the pulpit. One that uses slander and misinformation as the building blocks for much of what is said. One that strangely often adds literally zero information to the discussion, repeating the same things said in other KJVO works, occasionally almost verbatim.

But a few works are worth mentioning that do a better job than most of them at attempting an irenic approach – a hard if not impossible task, given their position on the topic. (After all, how can one be truly irenic when they believe they have the Word of God and everyone who disagrees with their position does not?)  For example, the work by R. B. Ouellette, (see my sadly unedited, but hopefully still helpful, review of Ouellette’s work here) and a few works by Vance, are both far better than most in presenting a Christian spirit of kindness and respect in their works. I am grateful for their works. These are the only ones I ever refer others to when trying to explain “both sides” of the issue. But this book is distinct from those works in a number of ways, which make me want to share and recommend it in a way that I have never wanted to broadly share or recommend those other works before.

What Makes This Book Unique?

I would suggest that three things make Ward’s book unique among books written about this issue.

Respect For The King James Bible

First, Ward is incredibly respectful of the King James Bible. He does not say a single negative word about the King James Bible in the entire book. He does not one time seek to correct the Translators, their translation work, or the Greek and Hebrew texts they were translating from. Not once. He shows nothing but a deep respect and appreciation for the time-tested and God-honored work of that group of godly men. You will not find here some angry rant about how everyone should throw out their KJV’s. Rather, he encourages it being read regularly. His chapter on, “Five Things We Lose as the Church Stops Using the KJV” is a marvelous call for the Church, and families, to retain the KJV in some ways, and to use it properly. I don’t know another work on the topic that shows such a level-headed position, from such a respectful stance. Perhaps my own life would have been different had I come across such a level-headed case for the KJV back when I was searching in my heart for some reason to hold on to my belief that the KJV was the preserved Word of God for the English-Speaking People.

Respect For People Who Only Use The King James Bible

Second, Ward is incredibly respectful of those who disagree with him. Even when they disagree sharply. He doesn’t think you should “only” use the King James. In fact, he firmly believes that no one should “only” use any one version. To even suggest such a thought is in some circles tantamount to apostasy, and members of such circles are often quick to throw such charges around. I know – I’ve been called an agent of the devil, an apostate, an unbeliever, and told that God should take my life for my “sin” of no longer defending the KJV (and daring to suggest to others that they shouldn’t be KJV Only either). And this was sadly mostly by people who I consider friends and family. Many who find such mud slung at them find it hard to resist the temptation to sling some back. Ward resists such urges and takes a higher and more Christian path. I am humbled (and convicted) by the clear fruit of the Spirit in his tone and demeanor. Love, understanding, respect, and compassion spills off of practically every page for all who only ever use the King James, and even for those who demand angrily that no one ever use anything else. I read most of the works I listed above while I was still KJV Only, and one of my problems with works like those has always been that they didn’t seem to fully understand what it was that we believed, and/or weren’t all that compassionate or irenic in their attempts to correct us. Some handle the issues themselves decently (like White, who’s work mostly responds to the extreme end like Riplinger), but simply aren’t understanding and compassionate in their approach to the very people they are trying to reach.

I no longer hold either a KJV Only or a TR Only position (as I explained here), and today I regularly use a number of good translations (reading most often at the moment from the ESV, but also regularly from the NIV, NLT, and KJV, as I recommended here). But I doubt any of the works I have seen written on this topic would ever by themselves have convinced me, while I did hold those views, to change my mind. (In fact, I was incapable of changing my mind until the Gospel first changed my heart – but that’s another story for another post. I explained the technical details of why I changed by mind at length in an article here.) I think Authorized is unique in this love, respect, and understanding of its audience.

An Easy And Enjoyable Read

Third, Authorized is utterly readable. Ward makes the point throughout that Paul linked together intelligibility and edification. There’s a biblical principle that we must first understand what is being said before it can edify us. “So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? (1 Cor. 14:9a KJV).” He thus sees no point in discussing Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, or the details of textual criticism, or translation technique. With rare exception, those who hold to any kind of position that demands the sole use of the King James Bible have a minimal knowledge of such issues (and sometimes see such a minimal knowledge as a virtue). Ward feels that discussions about such technical issues will ultimately end up being nothing more than a, “You trust your experts, and I trust mine” type of logistic standoff. So he doesn’t go there at all. No Greek words here. No Hebrew words. No images of impossible-to-read ancient manuscripts. Just plain, simple, enjoyable, easy-to-understand English. I think William Tyndale would be proud of how he has taken the complex and made it very simple. You will not find this book hard to read. You will probably find it quite enjoyable, whether you ultimately agree with the author or not.

So I’m claiming that the book makes its point very well. But what point exactly is it making? To figure that out, you’ll have to read the book. It’s an incredibly easy read. It’s quick. And it’s very inexpensive. I’m almost tempted to stop writing and just tell you to get it and read it! You won’t regret it, I assure you. But we live in a culture where we no longer even consider watching a movie until we’ve seen its preview, so here’s a basic synopsis of its seven brief, easy, and helpful chapters.

A Summary Of The Book

We can summarize the book and its major points as follows;

The KJV Will Always Have An Enduring Value

In the first chapter, the author points out the great enduring value that the KJV has and will have. He points out that if the Church were to abandon the KJV, it would lose much.

Much of English-speaking Christianity has sent the King James Version, too, to that part of the forest where trees fall with no one to hear them. That’s what we do with old translations. But I don’t think many people have carefully considered what will happen if we all decide to let the KJV die and another take its office. There are at least five valuable things we will lose — things that in many places we are losing and have already lost — if we give up the KJV, this common standard English Bible translation that has served us all since before the oldest family ancestor most of us know.

His list of reasons to retain the KJV is marvelous, and far more level-headed than the reasons typically given by those advocating that only the KJV ever be used. The first chapter alone is worth the price of the book for anyone who loves the KJV.

But Can The KJV Speak To The Man On The Street?


Having noted the enduring value of the KJV, he goes on to ask — Can the KJV actually attain its goal today of speaking to the man on the street? The Translators stated their purpose in the preface to the 1611 KJV: “We desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.”  They followed the intentions of William Tyndale to make the Bible understandable by the boy that drives the plough. But the question must be asked – Is the KJV understandable to the man on the street today?

Objections to the readability of the KJV are not beside the point. They are the point. We need to examine KJV English to discover whether its difficulties outweigh all the values of retaining it.

He explains that some words that were used in the KJV have today become archaic and obsolete. One might argue that such words could perhaps be looked up in a dictionary. That’s true, but if one can’t understand a book they are reading without regularly consulting a dictionary, does it really speak the vernacular language? And more to the point, the only dictionary that would fully and accurately describe the archaic moments of the KJV is the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, whose price tag is a bit prohibitive for most readers (not to mention that few have a spare U-haul to carry it around in). No, the 1828 Webster’s English Dictionary is not the standard dictionary of the English language, it is not the only dictionary that explains every word in the KJV, and it is not a sufficient tool (by itself) to help one in every instance know what the KJV Translators meant by their use of Elizabethan English. Ward points out, “You can’t use current English dictionaries to reliably study the KJV. You can’t even use Webster’s 1828 dictionary, which has been reprinted in recent years. You need the OED, the Oxford English Dictionary — the preeminently massive, exhaustive, authoritative, (and expensive) resource on the English language.”


False Friends

But a much greater problem than words that are in the KJV that we no longer use today are words that are in the KJV that we do still use today, but that no longer mean what they meant in 1611. Since we do know these words, we don’t know that we don’t know what they mean, and we misread the Bible as a result. “You can teach people to look up unfamiliar words, but the issue here is not words you know you don’t know; it’s words (and phrases and syntax and punctuation) you don’t know you don’t know — features of English that have changed in subtle ways rather than dropping completely out of the language.” Ward calls these words “false friends.” He notes, “The biggest problem in understanding the KJV comes from ‘false friends,’ words that are still in common use but have changed meaning in ways that modern readers are highly unlikely to recognize.” He doesn’t mean that these words themselves are false. He doesn’t think the KJV Translators were mistaken to use them. He points out repeatedly, “I’m not criticizing the brilliant KJV Translators in the least. I am not smarter than they. I presume they knew what they meant, and that their original readers did too.” These words all made perfect sense in 1611. But language changes, and the KJV Translators shouldn’t be faulted for not being prophets.

Let me provide an example (one that I didn’t see in the book, but which I think makes the book’s point well). I have many good friends who hold KJV Only or TR Only beliefs, whom I love dearly. A handful are sometimes willing to talk about the issue. Whenever I point out in such conversations that the English of the KJV is not easy to understand today, I am almost invariably told that we are not supposed to just read the Bible; we are supposed to study it. “After all,” my friends usually claim, “The Bible commands us to ‘Study to shew ourselves approved.’” They are of course invoking II Timothy 2:15, which reads in the KJV, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15 KJV).” But they are at the same time demonstrating the very point they contest. Because when the KJV Translators wrote the phrase, “Study to shew thyself approved,” they didn’t mean for it to be a command to study the Bible. We see the word “study,” and think of its modern definition, “To devote time and attention to gaining knowledge of (an academic subject), especially by means of books.” But the KJV Translators didn’t have that in mind at all when they wrote what they did, and Paul didn’t have that in mind when he wrote the passage originally. Rather, the word “study” is one of those “false friends” that Ward writes about. In 1611, the word had its now archaic meaning of, “to endeavor diligently,” “make an effort to achieve,” or, “Try deliberately to do” (Shorter OED 3). The KJV Translators used this word study with its now archaic meaning to translate a Greek word that means, “To be especially conscientious in discharging an obligation, be zealous/eager, take pains, make every effort, be conscientious” (BDAG 3). What the KJV Translators meant for Paul to say in the passage was, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved.” Or, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God.” These are the NIV and NKJV translations of the passage, which are saying the exact same thing that the KJV translation once said to its readers. But today, the KJV says something entirely different to a modern reader. And anyone who has ever referenced or quoted this passage as a command to study the Bible is revealing undeniably how easily the KJV miscommunicates today — through no fault of the Translators.

For example, William Grady in his book “Final Authority” has a whole chapter attacking the NKJV. He seems to suggest at points that it used a different Greek text than the KJV (or at the least, that it is an inferior translation). This is not true of course. One of his examples is this passage. He writes,“We still cannot find [in the NKJV] the command to ‘study’ God’s Word.” (pg. 311).” He seems to be making the accusation that the NKJV is part of some deliberate conspiracy to remove “the command to study God’s Word” from the Bible. In doing so, he is revealing a deep lack of knowledge not only of the Greek of the TR, but also in this case of how to understand the English of the KJV, (which he ironically claims to be easy to understand). The KJV Translators didn’t intend II Tim. 2:15  to be a command to study God’s Word. Even his use of this text as an example proves the point. He is trying to defend the KJV, but the English is archaic enough that he isn’t able even to read and understand what it says, and so he hurls false accusations at the good men who produced the NKJV. Perhaps basic Christian humility should cause us to be hesitant before throwing accusations at good and godly men like the NKJV Translators, especially if we really don’t know what we are talking about. Of course Grady should not be faulted for misunderstanding the KJV. It’s not his fault – and it’s not the KJV translator’s fault. Through no fault of theirs, the English language has changed. The KJV, at some points like this one, simply no longer represents the words “easy to be understood” that Paul so valued. Perhaps you think you are well-versed in the KJV’s language, and would never be impeded by such “false friends.” Take this quiz from Ward using just a handful of examples, and find out if you really do speak KJV.

How Readable Is The KJV?

Perhaps someone thinks, “But I’ve read that computer tests have shown that the English of the KJV is only at the 5th grade reading level?” (or 6th, or 8th, or 3rd). Claims like this occur in almost all literature defending the KJV. I’ve seen some claim that the KJV is easier English than the ESV, or even easier English than the NIV. I don’t know how someone says that kind of thing with a straight face and an honest heart, but I’ve seen them do it. So what about readability tests like the Flesch-Kincaid and others? What can they tell us about the readability of the KJV? Ward devotes a whole chapter to this question. In reading it, you will come to understand the ins-and-outs of what “readability” means, and what these tests are all about. If you have seen statistics that claim the KJV is easy reading for 5th graders, or have shared such stats yourself, this chapter will be in invaluable “inside look” at how these tests work, what they measure, and what they mean. Even if you plan to keep sharing and recommending such statistics, you should have some knowledge of what these tests are, and this chapter will fill you in.

Should The Bible Speak “Words Easy To Be Understood?”

Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

– 1 Cor. 14:6-11 KJV

In the next chapter, the author makes a strong biblical case that translation should be made into the vernacular tongue – the language of the common people. Agreeing with William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, the KJV Translators, and the authors of the NT, he makes the case that God always intended the Bible to speak the language of the man on the street, that translations of the Bible should do the same, and that the KJV, while it might have accomplished this goal in its own day, simply does not do so today. For those who respect the Bible as the Word of God, and who wish their attitude towards translations to be in line with both what God has done in history in giving His Word, and with what the Bible specifically has to say that impacts translations and their forms, this chapter may be the most important in the book.

If lots of Christians think the KJV is too hard to read, and if contemporary KJV readers can’t be expected to understand Elizabethan English because of ‘false friends’ and other difficulties, and if computers can’t come to the rescue, and if Bible translations — biblically speaking —  ought to be made into the vernacular, it is indeed right to ask whether the KJV ought to be allowed to decline in use, despite the valuable things we’ll lose if 55 percent [the number of Christians who currently use the KJV per the author’s given stats] becomes 5 percent. Because the one thing that outweighs all the values of retaining the KJV as a common standard is whether people today can be expected to understand its English. We should ask, along with Glen Scorgie, ‘If a translation is published but fails to communicate, is it really a translation?’ In countless places, the KJV does not fail to communicate God’s words to modern readers; I’m eager to acknowledge this fact, because I grew up on the KJV and it was God’s tool to bring me to new life. But in countless places, it does fail — through no fault of the KJV translators or of us. It’s somewhere between Beowulf and the English of today. I therefore do not think the KJV is sufficiently readable to be relied upon as a person’s only or main translation, or as a church’s or Christian school’s only or main translation.

In the next chapter the author takes up, graciously, compassionately, skillfully, and briefly, ten objections to the claims of his book. If you disagree already (just from this review) you should probably read at least this chapter before you argue. Some will agree with all of his counters to the objections. Others will agree with some of them, but remain unconvinced by some others. But either way, if you disagree at any point, it’s worth the read.

Is There One ‘Best’ Translation?

Finally, Ward asks, “Which translation is Best?” And he ends up pointing out the deeply flawed nature of this question. He explains the dangerous tribalism that has come to surround the issue of Bible translations. Naturally, we can see this in King James Only circles, where, if you don’t use only the King James, you und up cast into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But we also see it when some push their one “favorite” or “best” translation, and degrade other translations in the process. Some love the literal NASB and regularly hate on the NIV. Some swear by the ESV and see all others as pretenders. He notes,

But I believe the tribalism — the belief that a group’s chosen translastion is one of many marks of its superiority over other groups — needs to stop. All Bible-loving-and-reading Christians need to learn to see the value in all good Bible translations. People who use the NIV exclusively need to also see the value of the NASB. People who use the ESV exclusively need to discover the help the NLT can provide. People who are KJV-Only need to stop seeing the translation work of godly, careful brothers and sisters in Christ — such as Doug Moo of the NIV, Wayne Grudem of the ESV, and Bill Mounce of both — as threats, and instead as gifts. The existence of multiple English Bible translations is a benefit to us all, not a justification for banner-hoisting and wagon-circling. I hate to see Bibles becoming symbols of division: ‘I am of Crossway!’ ‘I am of Zondervan!’ ‘I am of B&H!’

In this, he is following the KJV Translators, who were convinced that even the poorest of Protestant Bible translations should still be seen as the Word of God and respectfully treated as such. They pointed out,

Now to the latter we answer, that we do not deny, nay, we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession (for we have seen none of theirs of the whole Bible as yet) containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, every where.


They also made the case for including alternate translations in the margins of their work (despite the King’s Rule to the contrary), because they were convinced that if one doesn’t read the original languages, then one must consult multiple translations in order to understand what the Bible is saying. Otherwise you just end up understanding the interpretation of one particular translation. You can read Ward’s excellent modern-English translation of the preface here, and his article explaining the importance of the preface for understanding the KJV translation principles here. They felt that “variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures.” They noted,

For as it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident; so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as S. Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good; yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded.

The Final Word

Ward concludes then by restating his ultimate point:

What do we do with the KJV in the twenty-first century? We don’t have to throw it out; I haven’t. It’s kind of hard to get rid of memorized verses — and why would I want to? No, twenty-first century Christians should use the KJV as one of many tools for understanding God’s message to humanity. Certain famous passages — Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps — should still be taught to children. Christians searching out the sometimes thorny translation questions God has given us should check the opinions of the highly gifted KJV translators. The KJV is still useful. But it is a misuse of the KJV to ask it to do today what it did in 1611, namely, to serve as a vernacular English translation. For public preaching ministry, for evangelism, for discipleship materials, indeed for most situations outside individual study, using the KJV violates Paul’s instructions in I Corinthians 14. The value of vernacular translation is so great that we must fight to protect it — even if that means letting that trend line from 100 percent [the amount of the English-speaking population who once used the KJV] to 55 percent [the amount of the English-speaking population who currently use the KJV per the author’s given stats] continue. Even if it means helping that trend line along. We need God’s Word in our language, not in someone else’s.

My Thoughts On The Book

I’m incredibly grateful for Ward’s work. I think everyone who uses the KJV should read it. Especially if they only use the KJV, and even more so if they are of the opinion that everyone should only use the KJV. I think he makes a strong, patently biblical case for why no one should hold such a view. His book is straightforward, biblical, easy-to-read, and avoids the kind of technical discussions that such a conversation can easily evoke. And it especially avoids the kind of unchristian tone that far too often characterizes discussion of this issue.


There are a few points I slightly disagree with. First, the book seems to suggest at points that the KJV Translators produced a vernacular version that spoke to the men on the street of their day. That they intended to do so is clear by their stated intentions. That they succeeded is far from clear, and is a matter of some debate among scholars. For example, Robin Griffeth-Jones, in a collection of essays quoted elsewhere in the book, brought up reservations to such a claim, and pointed out that many see the Translators as having fallen short of their aspirations for an English Bible that spoke the vernacular. He suggests that the plan for a vernacular translation in the KJV arrived stillborn, noting that, “the KJV was oddly archaic even in 1611.” The KJV, in regards to speaking the vulgar tongue,

Had feet of clay from the very start. The translators, heirs to William Tyndale, desired ‘that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar’; but the archaic, clumsy KJV fell short of its own translator’s ideals even at the time, and those translators would surely be appalled at its continued use today, after four hundred years of linguistic change, as an icon of ancient and true religion. It is the principles of the KJV translators themselves, giants on the shoulders of the giant Tyndale, that speak most clearly against the church’s ongoing use of their own translation.

Others would make a similar objection, like Leland Ryken and Alister McGrath. Ward notes this objection, admits that there is some truth to the point, and responds well in his chapter answering objections. But I would have leaned towared a little more explanation of the complexity at this point. The question is a difficult one, and I’m not sure I have the answers figured out. At one point, after reading the stated aims of the Translators in the preface, and feeling the difference in register between the preface and the text of the KJV, I made the claim regularly that the KJV was written in the vernacular of the day. But a more mature examination makes me less certain, and I now lean towards the position that the opposite is the case, and that the KJV is, quite accidentally, locked into the already archaic language of Anglican liturgy, since it revised an Anglican text, incorporated the Anglican tradition, and was translated by men who were, almost without exception, ordained Anglican priests. While we can clearly affirm that the KJV Translators stated that they meant to produce a vernacular version, I’m less confident that they succeeded, and would have more directly explained the complexity of this question.

The second minor issue involves Ward’s overall approach. I couldn’t be more grateful for his work and what he has done, including the way he has done it. His choice to ignore in his book the issues of textual criticism, manuscript history, and the history of the printed text, will likely cause his work to be far more helpful than it would be otherwise. It’s a bonus for most readers. However, I myself don’t see anything wrong with engaging such issues. It might be true that most defending the KJV are not capable of discussing such issues intelligently. It probably is true in fact. But unfortunately, they are already teaching, with an amazing dogmatism, about such issues. I do wish that his call to be humble in the light of ignorance were heeded, but there are a host of individuals teaching about Greek texts and manuscripts, saying things that are nothing short of nonsense. For myself, I plan to continue to point out when they speak what amounts to nonsense, especially when they raise that nonsense to the level of doctrine, and cause division in the body of Christ over it.

Several years ago I searched out the issue myself. Learning that I had been deeply misinformed about these technical details was essential in my own journey towards leaving those views, and the groups that held them, painful as it was to do so. I had to come to understand that no careful study of the Bible could sustain the claim that it taught what I was taught about the “preservation” of the KJV. And further, I had to learn that any claim that the KJV is both perfect and preserved is ultimately dishonest. Anyone can claim the KJV to be perfect. But it cannot at the same time be both perfect and “preserved” in some unique sense, because the word “preserved” means to keep something the same; not to make it different. But the one thing the KJV did not do is keep the biblical text the same. The English text is a revision of the 1602 Bishop’s Bible. It didn’t keep the Bishop’s Bible the same – it made it different. The Greek text doesn’t translate a Greek text that always existed, evidenced in thousands of manuscripts – it created a new, eclectic Greek text that had never existed anywhere, in any language, before 1611 (and never anywhere in print until 1881). This text disagrees with literally every Greek manuscript in existence. There are not thousands of Greek NT manuscripts that contain the exact text of the KJV NT as I was taught; there’s not one. Not even close. The KJV Translators, by their text-critical decisions (to say nothing of those of Erasmus and Beza who’s work they extended) created a new form of the text that had never existed anywhere until that point. One can claim that they were inspired to create a perfect restoration of the NT, if one so chooses. That is logically consistent at least.

And this is what any position that claims the KJV, or its original language texts, to be perfect ultimately demands, however much those holding such positions may protest that this is not what they believe. No one can claim honestly that the KJV, or its original language texts, are both perfect and preserved. That simply isn’t an honest use of language.

I think such technical details are still worth explaining. I wouldn’t have realized I was wrong without them.

But both of these objections are simply things I might have done a little bit differently had I written the book. And had I written it, it would no doubt be far less helpful and successful. I am quite glad, and deeply grateful, that Ward has written it. I wish I would have read this book 15 years ago.

So I say again, if you love the KJV, if it is the only version that you use, or if you have friends who only use it, then you should read this book.

Postscript – Noah Webster On The Archaic English Of The KJV


Most who defend the KJV in some kind of unique respect hold the Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language in very high regard. As Ward notes in his book, this is not a wise approach. The 1828 had great value in its day. But today, the gold standard of English dictionaries is the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary. While the 1828 is often sold to deceptive claims that it is the “only” dictionary to define every word of the King James Bible, the OED of course makes its treatment look like only a gloss. Nonetheless, Webster certainly did know the English language. I point this out for an important reason. One of the most common reactions to Ward’s book has been to argue against its basic premise; to claim that the English of the KJV is not archaic, and not hard to understand; that “false friends” either don’t exists, or aren’t that big of a deal. But I suspect that every single person making such a claim would acknowledge that Noah Webster, of the 1828 fame, knew English better than they do. So what would he think? What would his opinion of the thesis of Ward’s book be? Fortunately, we do not have to guess and wonder. He actually already affirmed Ward’s basic point, (another case of someone plagiarizing Ward long before he wrote). Webster actually produced his own revision of the KJV. He wasn’t interested in changing, altering, or updating the Greek and Hebrew texts behind the KJV. But he did feel that, even in his day (almost 200 years ago!), the English of the KJV had grown archaic and difficult to understand. So he created a very light revision, which sought only to update the archaic language. In his preface, he makes the same point Ward is making. And none can gainsay his command of the English language. No one today really has the right to tell him, “Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You just think the KJV is hard to understand because you don’t know it as well as I do.” Or, “You just think it’s hard to understand because you don’t know English very well, and have been dumbed down by modern society.” Webster simply isn’t open to such charges. And so I quote sections from his preface here at length, which can be read free here; making Ward’s basic point from almost 200 years ago. I have italicized sections were he makes exactly the claims that Ward has made, and against which, oddly, Ward has found pushback in a way that Webster would not. Here is the opinion of Webster on the matter;

Containing the Old and New Testaments, in the Common Version, with Ammendments of the Language by Noah Webster, LL. D.

The English version of the sacred scriptures, now in general use, was first published in the year 1611, in the reign of James I. Although the translators made many alterations in the language of former versions, yet no small part of the language is the same, as that of the versions made in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

In the present version, the language is, in general, correct and perspicuous; the genuine popular English of Saxon origin; peculiarly adapted to the subjects; and in many passages, uniting sublimity with beautiful simplicity. In my view, the general style of the version ought not to be altered.

But in the lapse of two or three centuries, changes have taken place, which, in particular passages, impair the beauty; in others, obscure the sense, of the original languages. Some words have fallen into disuse; and the signification of others, in current popular use, is not the same now as it was when they were introduced into the version. The effect of these changes, is, that some words are not understood by common readers, who have no access to commentaries, and who will always compose a great proportion of readers; while other words, being now used in a sense different from that which they had when the translation was made, present a wrong signification or false ideas. Whenever words are understood in a sense different from that which they had when introduced, and different from that of the original languages, they do not present to the reader the ‘Word of God’. This circumstance is very important, even in things not the most essential; and in essential points, mistakes may be very injurious.

In my own view of this subject, a version of the scriptures for popular use, should consist of words expressing the sense which is most common, in popular usage, so that the ‘first ideas’ suggested to the reader should be the true meaning of such words, according to the original languages. That many words in the present version, fail to do this, is certain. My principal aim is to remedy this evil…

These considerations, with the approbation of respectable men, the friends of religion and good judges of this subject, have induced me to undertake the task of revising the language of the common version of the scriptures, and of presenting to the public an edition with such amendments, as will better express the true sense of the original languages, and remove objections to particular parts of the phraseology. In performing this task, I have been careful to avoid unnecessary innovations, and to retain the general character of the style. The principal alterations are comprised in three classes [the first of which is the removal of words and phrases that “are wholly obsolete”]…


The language of the Bible has no inconsiderable influence in forming and preserving our national language. On this account, the language of the common version ought to be correct in grammatical construction, and in the use of appropriate words. This is the more important, as men who are accustomed to read the Bible with veneration, are apt to contract a predilection for its phraseology, and thus to become attached to phrases which are quaint or obsolete. This may be a real misfortune; for the use of words and phrases, when they have ceased to be a part of the living language, and appear odd or singular, impairs the purity of the language, and is apt to create a disrelish for it in those who have not, by long practice, contracted a like predilection. It may require some effort to subdue this predilection; but it may be done, and for the sake of the rising generation, it is desirable. The language of the scriptures ought to be pure, chaste, simple and perspicuous, free from any words or phrases which may excite observation by their singularity; and neither debased by vulgarisms, nor tricked out with the ornaments of affected elegance….Alterations in the popular version should not be frequent; but the changes incident to all living languages render it not merely expedient, but necessary at times to introduce such alterations as will express the true sense of the original languages, in the current language of the age

The Bible is the chief moral cause of all that is ‘good’, and the best corrector of all that is ‘evil’, in human society; the ‘best’ book for regulating the temporal concerns of men, and the ‘only book’ that can serve as an infallible guide to future felicity. With this estimate of its value, I have attempted to render the English version more useful, by correcting a few obvious errors, and removing some obscurities, with objectionable words and phrases; and my earnest prayer is, that my labors may not be wholly unsuccessful.

– N. W., 1833.

Psalm 12:6-7 And The Preservation Of The King James Bible

Psalm 12:6-7 And The Preservation Of The King James Bible

Psalm 12:6-7 has become a major proof-text for the doctrine of verbal plenary preservation. One would be hard-pressed to find many documents presenting the “TR and MT = The Divine Originals” position (or any other form of KJV – only position) that does not refer to it as a major support for the position. It is mentioned in many doctrinal statements on the issue, and it is referred to often in popular preaching.

I suspect that if most who hold a “TR = Divine Originals” position were pressed to give Scriptural support for why they believe they should only use and endorse the KJV, this is the verse they would most immediately quote. We will deal with the doctrine of preservation as a whole and the steps that must be taken to get from it to a KJV position after concluding multiple essays which examine each purportedly relevant passage in detail, but in this essay we must ask exactly what contribution this text in particular makes to the doctrine of preservation. What does it say about preservation? Let us examine it briefly.

To the chief Musician upon Sheminith, A Psalm of David.

Help, LORD; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men. They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak. The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things: Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us?

For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.

The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever. The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted.


If we accept the superscription, which will not be argued for here (they are part of the canonical text of the Hebrew Bible, and thus numbered as “verse 1” in most Hebrew texts, See WBC, Craigie, pg. 31), the author is David.


While the specific occasion in David’s life that brought the psalm forth is difficult to pinpoint, it seems clear from vs. 1 that godly and faithful men who are truth-tellers have become more and more scarce. David is surrounded by those who speak vanity and flattery from a double-heart (vs. 2). These lies and liars have become oppressive to the poor (vs. 4, 5).  Allen Ross notes, “Whatever the exact situation, the psalm indicates that there was a smaller number of people who were faithful to God – and they longed for deliverance from the corruption of the time. In this the psalm is timeless: the world today is still filled with liars and false flatterers so that the righteous do not know who or what they can trust. The psalm affirms that only God’s word can be trusted.” [1]


The purpose of the psalm is to strengthen the confidence of the people that God will deliver them from oppressive deception. The “FCF” is thus the tendency to feel hopeless in the midst of the overwhelming and oppressive deception of the wicked. The Grace of the Passage (or the theology and message of the text) is the promise of God to deliver the poor and the needy from that affliction.


The superscription shows that this was one of about 50 psalms composed for “The Chief Musician.” This collection of songs became a sort of hymnbook that the choirmaster would use in the congregational worship of the people. Thus, the general audience is worshiping Israel during the Davidic period, as they would gather together for worship and experience this psalm.


There is general agreement on the basic structure of the psalm, although some commentators introduce minor variations. Longman notes, “The Structure is a movement from prayer (vs. 1-4), to promise (vs. 5) to a renewed assessment of the present world (vs. 6-8).” [2] He lays the structure out in chiastic format as follows; [3]

A Prayer for deliverance (vs. 1-4)

B Promise of the Lord (vs. 5)

B’ Reflection on God’s Promise (vs. 6)

A’ Prayer for Deliverance (vs. 7-8)


Verses 1-4 – The Psalmist Petitions God for Help

“Help, LORD; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men. They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak. The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things: Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us?”

In verses 1-4, David complains that the godly and faithful (truth-tellers) have all but perished from the land. Deceit is rampant, and has begun to oppress the poor. Pride, flattery, and deception are the name of the game now. They speak from a “double heart” (meaning they think one thing, but say another.) They are so arrogant in their speech, that they have asserted that no one can stop them.

Verse 5 – God Promises to Protect those Oppressed by Deception

“For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.”

In verse 5, David presents the promise of God that assures the people that they will be protected in their affliction by deceit. When surrounded by deceit that oppresses the poor, David assures the people that God will arise to protect them. The intention of the whole psalm is to assure them of this promise. The means by which David does this is to showcase the promise itself, and then build confidence in God’s declaration. (God said he would protect, and He always does what He says.) The promise in verse five “I will arise…I will set him in safety” is thus the central declaration of the Psalm. Ross summarizes Hebrew scholarship when he says, “All commentators agree that this oracle is the focal point of the psalm.” [4] It is likely that this oracle would have been spoken by a priest or prophet in the midst of the singing of the psalm. [5] That is, the singing would be interrupted by a priest or prophet who would stand and echo the divine promise found in verse 5. This sort of “prophetic oracular reading” of a particular declaration of God was common in the psalms of Israelite worship, as in Psalm 46:10, where the oracle breaks in with the assurance of God. The same can be seen in Psalm 60, 81, and 95. Delitzsch notes of this central declaration, “The Psalm is a ring and this central oracle is its jewel.” [6]

Verses 6-8 – The Psalmist Praises the Purity of God’s Promise

“The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever. The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted.”

In verses 6-8, the psalmist reinforces the trustworthiness of the promise made in verse five by explaining that when God says He will do something, He does it. No questions asked, no doubts to be had. Like silver that has been purified through a metallurgical process, there is no impurity in God’s promises. If this is the character of God’s speech, then they can rest confident in the promise made to them that God will arise to set in safety the afflicted. David ends by noting that this does not mean that their troubles will disappear. On the contrary, wicked men will continue to be all around, but God will preserve them in the midst of that wickedness. Longman sums it up, noting, “Regardless of the circumstances of life, God’s children are assured of the special protection of their heavenly Father from the evil of the world in which they live. The wicked may turn the world upside down, but God will guard his own… The Lord will ‘keep safe’ and ‘protect’ his children as promised.” [7]

Impact / Genre

Because the superscription makes clear that this psalm would have been a part of a collection sung communally during public worship, we can identify it as a community lament. We must trace how this would have played out in their worship in order to appreciate the genre. One can only imagine the powerful impact that would have been had upon Israel through this text. Imagine them singing the first four verses to be allowed to express their doubts and despair of truth in the midst of oppression. The laments are designed to let Israel emotionally identify with and express the feelings they have that mirror the psalmist’s. They thus first address God Himself with their petition for help. As they sing the first four verses, they give voice to their deepest feelings of despair at the apparent disappearance of truth and the godly in the land. Then, in the oracle of verse five, they move from speaking to God, to hearing from God. When the priest or prophet interrupts the singing to read the oracle that contains God’s promise, they hear powerfully the Voice of God to them in the midst of their despair. This would no doubt have been an experience to remember.

This voice from heaven changes the entire tone of the meeting. No longer is there despair and hopelessness in a minor key; now there is praise, rejoicing, and excitement. What is the cause of rejoicing? God has made a promise to protect his people, and so they sing praises to the trustworthiness of God’s promises. The people begin to sing again, no longer with despair, but rather with excitement. The choral arrangement of praise in vs. 6-8 is designed to enforce the idea that what God has promised He will preform. This emotional shift would surely have implanted upon their hearts the confidence that God would deliver those oppressed by deception. Verse eight caps the psalm by explaining that while God had promised to protect his people in the midst of lies and liars, He does not promise that He will at this time remove them from the all wicked men. The CIT of the Psalm is something like “When deception is oppressive, God’s promise of protection is sure” or “When God’s people are oppressed by those they can’t trust, the God who never lies will keep His promise to preserve them.” Briggs, in a major exegetical treatment of the psalm, notes that, “Psalm 12 is a prayer, in which the congregation implores Yahweh to save them, for that faithful vanish away and liars prevail (v. 2-3); and to cut off liars (v. 4-5). Yahweh himself says that He will arise, and set the afflicted in safety (v. 6-7b). The congregation finally expresses confidence that Yahweh will preserve them from the wicked round about (v. 8-9).” [8]

Verse 6-7 in More Detail

The Words of the LORD

The word “words” here has occasionally been misunderstood. It is not a reference to “individual words” but rather to the “promises” that God makes. It refers especially to the promises of God (which is its referent in this text, where the direct referent is clearly to the promise of verse 5.) Note the BDB definition. While the verbal form can mean, “To say, say in the heart, promise, or command,” The noun form here (used in its much more rare feminine form) means,  “Utterance, speech, word.” BDB notes that it especially means, “Utterance, speech; especially saying(s), or word(s) of Yahweh (command & promise).” [9] The KJV often translates it as “speech.” Note that when it is found in the singular, [10] it is never a reference to an individual “word” (as a unit that makes up a part of a phrase), which might give it a verbal referent, but rather always refers to the whole speech or oracle. Thus, in the plural it is likely to mean multiple speeches or oracles, not multiple “words.” [11] A promise of verbal preservation isn’t likely to find much support is such a use.

However, it is also unlikely that one could find the canon as a whole being referred to here. When the psalmist describes the “words of the Lord” he is almost certainly not making an abstract statement about the canon as a whole. This concept would have been utterly foreign to his original readers / hearers. Some may have taken the phrase that way, but in the context, he is making a statement about the general character of God’s speech. This is why he uses the plural of this particular word; to say that, whenever God speaks, He will do what He says. He invokes this affirmation of the reliability of God’s speech for the purpose of referring to the promise of verse five that He “will arise” and “set the godly in safety.” In the context of the whole psalm, this is the only “word of the Lord” which he intends to describe. It is the only “word of the Lord” that the hearers are concerned about. It is the only “word of the Lord” found anywhere in the context. However, even if he were referring to the whole canon in verse six, the point of verse seven has still been sorely missed. I think the phrase here in its context clearly refers to the oracular promise of verse five, but even if it did refer to the whole canon, that still doesn’t affect the interpretation of verse seven. So what does verse seven teach?

“Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.”

The thrust of the Psalm as a whole is repeated in verse seven, where David reiterates the promise from verse five that God will protect His people. But now it is repeated as the confident declaration of a people emboldened by the promise of God. It is almost unthinkable in the context of the psalm as a whole that the verse could mean anything else. The text simply does not say, “God will protect his words.” There are elements of the verse that are disputed (especially the rendering of the last line “from this generation forever”) among commentators, but the idea of the pronoun “them” referring to the “words” of verse six is not even on the table for discussion among commentators. While there may be some out there, I’ve yet to read a commentary which even mentioned that as a possible option.[12] And realize that it is the job of a good critical commentary to examine every possible interpretation of the text. The referent of the pronoun is unspecified in the KJV. The translators simply did not write “thou shalt preserve thy words” and the Hebrew text simply does not say that. At best, one can suggest that the ambiguous English could perhaps be understood that way, though it is certainly not demanded by the English grammar, and is an almost impossible meaning of the Hebrew grammar, and is a poor fit with the context of the psalm as a whole, and especially of verses 6-7, which seek to reiterate and affirm the promise of verse 5. Some who were simply looking to support the theology they already held accidentally read that meaning into the text. The clear antecedent, even in English, is the poor and needy of verse five, and by extension the godly man and faithful men of verse one.

The words for “keep” and “preserve” both carry the idea that God will guard or protect the godly man.[13] Ross notes of the first word, “This idea of ‘protect’ (‘keep’ or ‘guard’) is used for the Lord’s protection of his people.”[14] David is saying that God will preserve his faithful people in the midst of the their affliction. Like the Cherubim guarding the tree of life (Gen. 3:24), God will guard His people in the midst of their affliction.

“Thou shalt keep them”

The Object of the verb “keep” in the first line is the 3rd person masculine plural suffix “ם” meaning “them.” Yet there is not a perfectly accurate way translate this into English, since we can’t retain gender in the plural in English. There is no English form “hims.” [15] In English, in a plural pronoun, we lose all sense of gender (In other words, “them” doesn’t specify male, female, or neuter.) Yet the Hebrew word for “words” (אִֽמֲר֣וֹת” ”) in verse 6 is in the feminine gender. While a masculine pronoun can at times be used to refer to a feminine antecedent, [16] it is less likely that the masculine pronoun refers to a feminine antecedent than that it refers to a similar masculine one, especially in the context of the psalm as a whole. It would be a case of pronoun – antecedent disagreement in gender. It is rather more likely that the “godly man” and the “faithful” (both masculine) of verse one and the “poor” and “needy” and “him” of verse five (both masculine) are the object of the promise. The most natural reading of the Hebrew text when coming to a masculine pronoun would be to look for an antecedent that is also masculine. Since the godly man and faithful have already been the context of the entire Psalm, no one reading the Hebrew would see anything else.

Further, pronouns in Hebrew are much more often personal than inanimate. That is, it is much more likely in terms of grammatical precedent that the antecedent is the personal “poor and needy” than the inanimate “words.” Waltke notes, “One special feature of the Hebrew personal pronouns is the extent to which they refer to persons rather than objects, or, more strictly, to animates rather than inanimates.” [17] This is clearly a promise that God will preserve his people, not a promise that He will preserve his words. Only in English translation is any ambiguity introduced.

“thou shalt preserve them”

The promise in the second line is even more explicit. “Thou shalt preserve them.” In this case the object of the verb is the 3rd person masculine singular suffix “וּ ” meaning “him,” not the plural “them.” [18] Thus the technically more “formally equivalent” translation of the MT is actually “Thou shalt preserve him.” In fact, this is precisely how the text was rendered in several English translations prior to the KJV. [19] The Geneva Bible had,

“Thou wilt keepe them, O Lord: thou wilt preserve him from this generation for ever.”

The Great Bible had,

“Thou shalt kepe them (O Lorde) thou shalt preserve hym from thys generacyon for ever.”

The Bishop’s Bible clearly understood the reference to be to the godly (and used a less literal translation in the first line which makes this clear), but had taken the pronominal suffix to be a collective reference to every one of the “hims” in view, and thus read,

“[Wherfore] thou wylt kepe the godly, O God: thou wylt preserue euery one of them from this generation for euer.”

The KJV is simply a revision of the Bishop’s Bible of 1602, [20] and they have retained this understanding, interpretation, and translation of the text. This is clearly the interpretation they mean for their translation to convey, but now putting in a marginal note the explanation that had been part of the Bishop’s Bible text, as we will see below.

This is clearly the promise of verse five reiterated that God will “set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.” It would be a case of pronoun – antecedent disagreement in both number and gender to take the singular pronoun here (KJV “them”) as referring to the plural noun, “words” of verse 6. While one or other of these is possible in certain special usages of the plural, [21] none of these special cases is unambiguously found here. It is thus not grammatically likely that the “thou shalt preserve them” of verse seven is a reference to the “words” of verse six. However, because the two lines of verse 6 are a parallelism, with the first one using the plural masculine (“Hims”) and the second using the singular (him), it is likely that what is intended by “him” is the distributive sense meaning “every one of the ‘hims’ of the previously mentioned group.” REBC notes that the alternation between plural and singular of the Hebrew text is an intentional device throughout the psalm to refer to the people, and is simply repeating the same alternation that occurs in verse one and verse five in reference to the people. “The suffixes on the verbs refer to the people first as ‘them’ and then individually as ‘him,’ just as the singular and plural alternated in vs. 1 and 5.” [22] In other words, in verse 1, notice how the psalmist employs both the singular and plural to refer to the people. The “godly man” is singular, while the “faithful” is plural. He uses the same device in verse 5, switching between the singular and plural and using both to refer to the people. Thus, “poor” and “needy” are both plural, but the object of the verb “set” (the pronominal suffix at the end of the preposition) is singular. This is why the KJV translates there, that God will set him in safety from him that, “puffeth at him,” which is the singular. This switch back-and-forth of the singular and plural is employed only of the people in the psalm. The “Words” of the Lord are referred to only in the plural throughout the psalm. They cannot therefore likely be the referent of the promise of preservation in verse seven, which employs the same singular-plural switch used only of the people.

The KJV translators themselves noted the same phenomenon in the margin of their translation, noting that while they rendered the text “them,” the Hebrew is more literally actually “him.” [23] They explain that it is likely that the distributive sense is in view, noting in the margin,

“Heb. Him, i.e., every one of them.”

(See a copy of the text of the 1611 KJV here, or see the cover photo). They have agreed with the translation of their base text (the Bishop’s 1602) but moved some of the expanded explanation to a marginal note, in the interest of being more literal in translation than the Bishop’s Bible was.

Understand what has taken place here with these two lines. The translators had to either choose, “them” and so maintain the number of the original, but lose the gender, or choose “him” and maintain the gender of the original but lose the number. The meaning in both cases is a plural group of multiple “hims,” employing first the plural then the singular in keeping with the psalmist’s pattern. But there is no form “hims” in English, so every translator must lose something of the original text in translating it into English. The point to note here though is that they clearly understood the referent of the singular suffix as being back to the alternating singular and plural in verses one and five, being a reference to the people. This is surely self-evident to anyone reading the passage in its context, and abundantly evident to anyone who reads the original translators notes (and even more so when they realize the origin of this particular note in the Bishop’s base text). If we had only continued to print these notes, and listened to the KJV translators themselves, so much bad interpretation could have been avoided. Maintaining today that the phrase is a promise to preserve God’s words in the KJV is to utterly disagree with what the translators themselves intended to convey, which, in a text now being adduced as support for their infallibility, seems odd at best.

Maintaining today that the phrase is a promise to preserve God’s words in the KJV is to utterly disagree with what the KJV translators themselves intended to convey, which, in a text now being adduced as support for their infallibility, seems odd at best.

Delitzsch notes the same connection and referent of the pronouns, stating, “The suffix em in Psalm 12:8 [the “them” of our vs. 7] refers to the miserable and poor; the suffix ennu in Psalm 12:8 [the “them” of our verse 7, rendered, “Him” in the KJV margin] (him, not: us [24], which would be pointed תצרנוּ, and more especially since it is not preceded by תשׁמרנוּ) refers back to the man who yearns for deliverance mentioned in the divine utterance of verse 6 [our vs. 5].” [25] Is this an invention of contemporary commentators? Not likely. While there is little in early church writings that refer to this psalm, [26] none of these references would support taking the promise as referring to “words” instead of to “people.” At a later time, Spurgeon apparently took the reference of both verbs in verse 7 to be to God’s people, noting, “The hero is… preserved for ever from the generation which stigmatized him.” [27]

“from this generation for ever”

The word for “generation” here can refer to “a period, age, or generation,” “men living at a particular time” or “a class of men.” [28] It seems most likely that the word is being used in its 3rd sense here. [29] The particular class of men (with stress on the character of men, rather than the time in which they live) being referred to is clear in the context – it is the arrogant liars of verses 1-4. Thus we should not read the entire phrase “from this generation for ever” as a statement of chronological duration. Rather, “from this generation” designates what it is precisely that the psalmist is now confidant God will save his people from. This is clear from the reference to “for ever” meaning “everlastingness, i.e. long duration,”[30] which by itself introduces the eternal time-frame. Thus, David is confident that God will protect his people. What will he protect them from? Clearly, it is this “generation” or this kind of ungodly men. How long will he do this?” Forever.

In summary, the passage in its context is clearly a promise that God will preserve his people, not His words. This is clear from the literary context of the passage as a whole, from the historical context that stands behind it, from the grammar of the Hebrew text itself, and even from the marginal notes of the KJV translators, making clear what they intended by the English of their translation.

Relation to Preservation

Verses 6-7 is the most common (and most explicit) text used to present the doctrine of verbal plenary preservation in the form which suggests that the TR is the pure Word of God and other texts are not. This presentation has been made over and over again. Yet when the psalm as a whole is examined, there is simply no real exegetical basis for suggesting that it teaches this view. Since it is a basic axiom of biblical exegesis that the Word of God can never mean to us what it could not have meant to its original readers, any exposition of the psalm in its context would nullify that understanding of these verses. A survey of biblical commentators both past and present reveals that a reference to preservation has never been a legitimate interpretation of the text. It is not just that when they list the options for the meaning of the verses they list it as the least likely interpretation – I mean they don’t typically refer to it at all as even a possibility because it is not a historically held or exegetically discoverable interpretation.

Consider the historical context behind the passage. Good exegesis always works with the understanding that the content of a passage is a response to its historical context. There is always something going on in the lives of the readers that necessitates the theology of the text, and the message of the text is always God’s loving response to the recipients’ need. In fact, the only way to ever really test our exegesis is to show how our interpretation of the content of the text works as a response to the historical context that occasioned it. But in what conceivable way could the original audience have been wrestling with whether or not the words of the canon were preserved for eternity? The written canon is not in view at all in the psalm. What historical figure could stand behind the text trying to convince them that God’s word had not been preserved? Or that because of textual doubts and uncertainties there was doubt about whether or not they actually had the words of the Lord? These are exclusively modern concerns that we have read back into the text. There is simply no conceivable scenario that fits the historical situation that would explain a reference to preservation as the original meaning of the text. Rather, the Israelites were faced with the rather pressing issue of whether or not God would keep his present promise to them in the midst of their troubles. They were concerned about the pressing concern that the godly seem to have almost ceased, as the psalmist cries in the first verse. God promised to preserve these godly men in verse 5. The FCF facing the Israelites was not whether or not copyist would later make scribal errors when they copied this text – it was weather or not God would keep His promise to preserve His people. This is what verses 6-7 addresses. The issue of the text is clearly one of fulfillment, not preservation.

But what if it didn’t? While the meaning seems clear in Hebrew, in the English translation there is some ambiguity, so if we want to, we can land on the side of a “preservation” interpretation, can’t we? I won’t argue if you do (though I find little exegetical basis for such an interpretation). But think what that ambiguity means. Ambiguity caused by the English translation should at best be allowed to suggest a particular interpretation as possible, not to demand it. Certainly doctrinal formulations shouldn’t be based on an ambiguity, which might possibly be an assertion of the verbal preservation of Scripture. This is all the more so when one is talking about doctrines that have had such a historical tendency to cause division and separation from so many other godly Christians. When the Bible speaks clearly and unambiguously about issues, we should stand with it, whomever that offends. But to take a debated and extremely unlikely interpretation of a passage (that has at best an ambiguous possibility of being interpreted as referring to verbal preservation), as the primary text for such a divisive doctrine may in fact move us far outside of the authority of Scripture. The more divisive a doctrine is, the more well founded it should be in Scripture. It shouldn’t be so that an examination of the most commonly purported foundational proof text for such a doctrine proves at best to be based on what is only a possible interpretation of that text.

But consider further, what if the passage was a clear assertion of the verbal preservation of Scripture? Would that then settle the text and translation issue? Not in the slightest. There is still nothing in the text that would say anything about how that preservation would work. Even if the passage were a clear and undeniable promise of verbal preservation, it would still lend no support to either side of the text and translation argument. When someone on one side says “I think all of God’s words are preserved in the whole of the manuscript tradition, and we should do textual criticism of the manuscripts to know which words are His,” and someone on the other side says, “I think all of God’s word must be preserved in a single text, together, in one place,” the text itself would lend no unique support to either position. It could just as easily support either view. And that is if it did directly teach verbal preservation. This essay has suggested that it most likely does not. Add to this the fact that if it did promise the continuing verbal preservation of the Hebrew text, this would disqualify the KJV from being the text referred to. As the further essay below will show, the KJV is not a “preserved” text. It is a recreated text that did not exist in that form until 1611. And in fact, as this passage would be a direct reference to the OT text, it should be noted, as we explain below, that the original language text behind the KJV OT, being similar to the Bomberg 1524 text, but with occasional intrusion from Kere readings, and occasional emendation from the LXX, the Latin Vulgate, the Aramaic Targums, has never existed in print. So if God were making such a promise here, of continual verbal preservation of the original language text, He simply lied. That is what such an interpretation would demand.

So what relevance does this text have for a “doctrine of preservation?” In my opinion, absolutely none. When someone continues to present this passage in their doctrinal statements on preservation and in their teaching about preservation, they are simply displaying an ignorance of basic exegetical principles.  One doesn’t have a higher view of Scripture by doing this. One rather reveals that they might not love Scripture as much as they claim to. If the passage is to be used in such a fashion, to support such a doctrine, someone must present an exegetical examination of the passage that can sustain that interpretation. Only after such a detailed exegesis can the passage legitimately be used as support for such a major doctrine. If such work has been done, this author has not seen it. All of the commentators in the present bibliography take the antecedent of both pronouns in verse 7 to be to God’s people. None of them even discuss a “preserved words” option of any kind.


This essay has examined the overall context of the psalm as a whole, noted its setting, and attempted a brief exposition of its meaning, while looking in particular at verses 6-7 in order to ascertain what contribution they make to the doctrine of preservation. What has been discovered is that David’s historical context, the historical context of the Israelite people for whom the song would be sung, and the literary context of the passage as a whole make it clear that the phrases are references to the preservation of God’s people, not his words. The syntactical and grammatical features have been noted which make it clear that the text is a reference to God’s promise to protect his people. Commentators both from past ages (including the KJV translators, though they are translators rather than commentators per se) and the present have affirmed that the phrase has historically almost always been taken in this sense.  The conclusion of this essay is thus that the text has nothing whatsoever to say about the preservation of Scripture, and certainly nothing to say about textual transmission, or the endorsement of one Hebrew or Greek text over another.

There is always in theological disputes the temptation to want to find a proof text on every corner as it were. We are prone to want to write a reference down, and so feel confident that what we hold is a biblical position. But as men committed to handling Scripture well, with integrity, we have a responsibility to look closely at every text before we assert boldly, “Thus saith the Lord.” To do less may be to dishonor the Word we so claim to love. This is certainly so in our preaching. And it is even more so in our formulation of doctrines that we will put into doctrinal statements, and divide from others over, and preach with such passion. If in the study of such texts, we find that they do not support our positions, the man who loves Scripture will resist the temptation to twist the Bible to support what he believes, and will instead twist what he believes to match the Scriptures. May each of us be willing to, in the words of Haddon Robinson, “Bend our thoughts to Scripture,” rather than “Using Scripture to support our thoughts.”



Briggs, Charles Augustus. “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms: Volume 1” in The International Critical Commentary Series (ICC). T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1976.

Broyles, Craig C., “Psalms” in the New International Biblical Commentary Old Testament Series (NIBC). Hendrickson, Peabody, 1999.

Craigie, Peter, “Psalms 1-50 (2nd ed.)” Volume 19 in the Word Biblical Commentary Series (WBC). Nashville, Word Publications, 2004.

Delitzsch, F. and Keil, C.F. “Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes: Volume V – Psalms” (KD).

Goldingay, John, “Psalms Volume 1: Psalms 1-41” in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (BCOTWP). Baker, Grand Rapids, 2006.

Longman, Tremper III, and Garland, David E. (eds.) “The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Revised Edition, Volume 5: Psalms.” In the “Expositor’s Bible Commentary Series (REBC). Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2008.

Murphy, James G. “Psalms: A Critical And Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms.” James Family Publishing, Minneapolis, 1977.

Phillips, John, “Exploring Psalms Volume 1: An Expository Commentary” in the John Phillips Commentary Series (JP). Kregel, Grand Rapids, 2002.

Ross, Allen, “A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1 (1-41),” in the “Kregel Exegetical Library” Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 2011.

Spurgeon, Charles. “The Treasury of David – An Expository and Devotional Commentary on the Psalms (Vol. 1)” Guardian Press, 1976.

Wilson, Gerald, “Psalms Volume 1” in The NIV Application Commentary (NIVAC). Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2002.

Lexicons / Grammars

Brown, Driver, Briggs, “The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon” (BDB). Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.

Clines, David, J. A., “Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew” Dictionary of Classical Hebrew Ltd.,  OakTree Software, 2009.

Waltke, Bruce and O’Connor, M. “An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax.” Eisenbrauns, 1990.

Seow, C.L. “A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew” revised edition, Abingdon, Nashville, 1995.

Pratico, Gary D., and Pelt, Miles Van. “Basics of Biblical Hebrew” (2nd ed.) Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2007.

Fuller, Russell T., and Kyoungwon, Choi, “Invitation to Biblical Hebrew: A Beginning Grammar” in the Invitation to Theological Studies Series. Kregel, Grand Rapids, 2006.

Peterson, David L., and Richards, Kent Harold. “Interpreting Hebrew Poetry” in the “Old Testament Series.” Fortress, Minneapolis, 1992.


[1] Ross, pg. 351.

[2] Longman and Garland, REBC, pg. 165.

[3] Longman and Garland, REBC, pg. 165. Delitzsch follows essentially the same chiastic structure, noting the central place of God’s promise and the psalmist’s reflection on it.

[4] Ross, pg. 351.

[5] See Craigie, pg. 137, and Ross pg. 352.

[6] Keil and Delitzsch, Pg. 198.

[7] REBC, Pg.168-169.

[8] Briggs, ICC, Pg. 94.

[9] BDB, pg. 57.

[10] Deut. 33:9; Ps. 119:11, 38, 50, 67, 103, 140, 158, 162, 172; Ps. 138:2; Isa. 29:4.

[11] This is not to impugn in any way on a doctrine of verbal inspiration, which rest on wholly other grounds. Rather it is to explain that this noun is not typically referring to specific words of a verbal character as much as to the speech or oracle as a whole. The plural should not be then pressed to demand a reference to verbal perfection, when that isn’t in sight with this word.

[12] One should note that my work has been with academic commentaries whose work is based on the Hebrew text. One could perhaps find a pastoral or devotional level commentary based only on the English text that might make that jump, though I’ve not seen them.

[13] See definition in BDB, pg. 1036, HALOT.

[14] Ross, pg. 358.

[15] The English language can retain gender in the possessive case, (his/hers), but not in the objective case.

[16] See Waltke-O’Conner, pg. 302.

[17] Waltke-O’Connor, Pg. 291.

[18] For the independent object pronoun functioning as the direct object of a clause, see Seow, pg. 99.

[19] I am indebted to Harold Bradley for this insight. It had not occurred to me to examine the previous English translations here until I read his excellent exposition of the whole passage in an unpublished paper he submitted to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, after which point I revised my paper to include this insight. I should also note (in this revised note) that his interaction with Strouse makes me realize I still need to emend several statements in this essay relating to the KJVO interpretation, which I had written before reading the article by Strouse.

[20] We will demonstrate this point more fully in Part II.

[21] Waltke-O’Connor Pg. 119-124. These conditions include plurals of extension and honorific plurals, among others. Although, if the plural in verse six is taken as a collective, it would be possible, since singular pronouns can refer to collective plural nouns. But even then, it would still be more likely to take it as referring to an actual singular.

[22] Goldingay, BCOTWP, pg. 201.

[23] See marginal note of 1611 KJV. In fact, in Psalm 12 alone, the KJV translators three times provide alternate translations of the text in the margins, and five times give a more literal rendering of the Hebrew text that would be necessary to understand the sense. This was their common practice. It was also their common practice to note textual variants in the places where they were aware of them. If they saw a promise that meant the words of the Greek or Hebrew text were to be preserved in a particular Greek text, or that the words of the KJV couldn’t be changed, they seem to have strangely contradicted it in their own notes, even in this very psalm.

[24] Delitzsch refers here to the variant reading “us” found in the LXX and some Hebrew manuscripts. This essay will comment only on the MT reading, which he defends.

[25] Keil and Delitzsch, Pg. 197.

[26] If one considers the great Athanasius, to whom we owe so much of our Christology, or Chrysostom, or Theodoret, Valerian, or Augustine, it appears that the early church never took the referent as being to God’s words. No one ever suggested anything else.

[27] Spurgeon, Pg.

[28] BDB, pg. 189-190.

[29] This is how Ross takes it, pg. 353, as well as many others.

[30] Clines, pg. 315.


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