I’ve mentioned several problems with the King James Version in previous posts. Arguably the most significant set of problems has to do with the text that the translators were translating. The brief reality is that in the early 17th century, Greek editions of the New Testament were based on very few and highly inferior manuscripts. Only after the King James was translated did scholars begin to become aware of the existence of older, and far better, manuscripts.
The manuscripts of the New Testament (and of all books from antiquity) were copied — prior to the invention of printing — almost always by scribes who did their best to make faithful reproductions of the copies they were copying, and many of them did a remarkably good job. Others did a not-so-good job. Since mistakes can get replicated over time, and introduced over time, in general it is a good idea to consult the *earliest* manuscripts for determining what an author of a book wrote. The later manuscripts tend to be worse (that’s not an *absolute* rule, but a relatively good one).
As we saw in the previous post, the first edition of the Greek NT to be published after the invention of printing was by the Rotterdam humanist Erasmus, whose 1516 edition went through several revisions over the years. Other publishers based their own editions on Erasmus, rather than doing a careful study of the surviving manuscripts themselves. Eventually it became such a standard text that it came to be known as the Textus Receptus (the “received text” – that is, the text everyone used). Erasmus’s edition was based just on the few Greek manuscripts at his disposal, which were late medieval and that had the typical kinds of mistakes that one can find in late medieval manuscripts.
As a result, translations into English of the Greek New Testament, based on Erasmus’s editions and those that replicated, more or less, his text, include translations of passages that were almost certainly not originally in the New Testament, but that had come to be added later by scribes. The most famous of all is …the so-called “Johannine Comma,” a reference to 1 John 5:7-8, the only passage in the New Testament that explicitly affirms the doctrine of the Trinity.
In the Latin Vulgate – the Bible of Western Christendom for centuries – 1 John 5:7-8 states that “there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit. And these three are one.” This then is the doctrine of the trinity: there are three divine beings in heaven and even though there are three of them, they are actually only one. One God, in three persons – the doctrine of the trinity. Nowhere else in the NT is the doctrine explicitly stated (although Father, Son, and Spirit are mentioned in the same breath elsewhere. But not the doctrine itself, which includes the idea that: “these three are one.”)
When Erasmus produced his first edition of the Greek NT, he left that verse out, since it was not in the Greek manuscript he was using. What happened next is a matter of debate. Some scholars have argued that the account of events widely known in the scholarly literature is apocryphal. But the way the story normally is told is as follows: Church theologians were incensed that Erasmus had left the Trinity out of the Bible and attacked him for it. He explained that he could not find the verse in any of the Greek manuscripts he had consulted, and what he was producing was, after all, a Greek New Testament. He did agree, though, that if someone could show him a Greek manuscript that had the verse, he would include it in his next edition. And so, someone (literally) produced a manuscript – adding the verse by translating it in its proper place from the Latin.
And so Erasmus was true to his word, and included it in his next edition. It was this subsequent edition that was used by other publishers of other editions of the Greek NT, and these were the editions used by the translators of the King James. And so you will find the verse in the King James.
As more and more manuscripts were discovered, it became clear that in fact the verse was not part of the original text of 1 John, and so modern translations do not include it. When these translations started to appear at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, there was considerable uproar when it was recognized that they did not include the leading proof text for the Trinity, and translators were roundly accused of being anti-Christian, liberal, untrustworthy, and even demonic tools of the Devil. But they were in fact simply translating the text as it had been handed down in the textual tradition. Sometimes readers don’t want the Bible as it was originally written, but only the Bible as they are familiar with it.
That is why those who insist on following the King James version insist that the story of Jesus and the Woman taken in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11) and the final twelve verses of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:9-21) were originally in the NT. They weren’t. They are *terrific* stories, but, well, they were added by later scribes.
The KJV has lots of other problems like this. Like the later additions to the text, it too is powerful and moving. But that doesn’t mean it is accurate, if what you want is to know what the authors themselves actually wrote.