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Textual Problems with the King James: The Trinity

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.   Here I’ll stick with what I know the most about, the text of the New Testament.   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.  For those of you who have read Misquoting Jesus, much of what follows will be a brief review.

Before the invention of printing, the NT (and all other books) circulated in manuscript form (the word manu-script literally means “written by hand”), as scribes copied the text by hand, one page, one sentence, one word at a time.   All scribes copying long texts made mistakes; and anyone who copied a manuscript that had mistakes replicated the mistakes and made some of his own, and this process went on for centuries.   I should stress that most scribes 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).

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.

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An Important and Relevant Textual Variant in Luke 2
More King James Curiosities



  1. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  January 14, 2013

    Since we are mentioning manuscripts, any new news on the early (maybe the earliest) Mark fragment?

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    AmenRa  January 14, 2013

    Would it correct to suggest that the various versions of the Bible are human creations based on political bias rather than an purely objective desire to ascertain the original rendering of God’s word delivered through Jesus’ apostles?
    I asks this because in Seminary (DTS) Textual Criticism is presented as an objective non-political historical quest of men guided by the Holy Spirit to present the text of the original autographs, which in fact though non existent but in theory exist in the many manuscripts (5000). And if we apply proper principle of texual criticism we can derive at that original text. Based on your work, I am understanding this original autograph never existed or at least can’t be known. Therefore the Textual Criticism cannot be separated from the political economic machinations of church men designing a book to control the unlearned.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 15, 2013

      My view is that the very notion of “purely objective” or “pure objectivity” is a modernist myth. It’s intersting that places like Dallas — historically borderline fundamentalist and currently heavily and very conservative evangelical buy into this myth of the Enlightenment, whereas the faculty at institutions of higher learning that would be called “secular humanist” do not! (And the idea that objectivity is gained by being guided by the Holy Spirit is so highly ironic that one doesn’t even know where to start! 🙂 )

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    Adam  January 14, 2013

    Its remarkable how adamant and loud the KJV-only group is even today. Many (many of the fundamentalist baptists) still believe the KJV is the only true translation and that all others are from those inspired by the devil.

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    Yentyl  January 14, 2013

    Oy vey. What a mess. Thanks for sharing.

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    hwl  January 14, 2013

    Did the idea of the Holy Spirit, as an entity distinguishable from the Father, first emerged in the pre-Christian period? If it was originally a Jewish idea, when did the rabbinic Jews started to stamp out the idea?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 15, 2013

      Well, it’s hard to say. The Spirit of God does appear in the Hebrew Bible, and seems to be separate from God. (Starting in Gen. 1) But traditionally this Spirit was not considered to be an entity both equal with and distinct from God as a member of the Godhead; it was more like God’s emanation on earth and was not closely or clearly defined..

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        bamurray  January 15, 2013

        From the writings of the early Christians, does this portrayal in the Hebrew Bible appear to be the source of their concept that became the Christian Holy Spirit in the Trinity? Or is therenot enough evidence to say?

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    wisemenwatch  January 15, 2013

    “Sometimes readers don’t want the Bible as it was originally written, but only the Bible as they are familiar with it….”

    I’ve read somewhere that both Catholics and Protestants viewed the King James Bible, when it was originally published, as biased toward the opposing sect, even though the King tried to throw bones to both of them. He did, however, bias it in favor of monarchy and the divine right of kings.

    I think today its pretty much viewed as the Protestant’s official bible. It says Authorized right on the cover.

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    Christian  January 15, 2013

    Is there a modern English translation of the Bible/OT/NT whose copyright has expired or never covered by a copyright? In French, I know of the translation of Louis Segond, early 20th century.

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    Adam  January 15, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman, do any early (2nd-3rd century) non-canonical texts explicitly mention the trinity? In other words, when do scholars tend to think this concept became part of proto-orthodox belief?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 15, 2013

      The term “trinity” first occurs in Tertullian in the early third century. A great work of his to read is “Against Praxeas,” where he is the first to develop a (relatively) significant doctrine of the trinity against a modalist monarchianist. Maybe I’ll post something on the blog about that view at some point soon.

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    toddfrederick  January 15, 2013

    I have a question that relates to your previous entry on “The Invention of Heaven and Hell”….that is, the issue of “The inherent immortality of the soul.”

    I have been discussing the idea of the term “soul” with friends, that is translated as soul from various Hebrew and Greek words particularly nephesh and psyche. Neither of these seem to indicate the existence of an entity called the soul that is inherently separate from the body either in the Hebrew of Christian scriptures.

    From looking into this, it seems the notion of the soul as a separate immortal entity begins to develop around the 3rd century and seems to have become established in the Roman Catholic Church early-on, being passed on to the Reformation church down to our times in the popular Christian thinking.

    This notion, to my knowledge does not appear in the Nicene Creed which re-asserts the resurrection of the dead.

    Perhaps you can address this issue in a future blog article as it relates to the scriptures and to its development in the writings of the church fathers.

    I think this is important since the general belief in the separation of the soul from the body at death, as in the Hellenistic understanding, seems to be the primary way most contemporary Christians view immortality, and use the Bible to establish this view.

    Also…regarding the current Trinity article entry.: The trinity as a doctrine has been an abrasive concept to me for considerable time. I have viewed this doctrine as a bit of a mind game played by the Nicene fathers to establish a meaningful doctrine from a hodgepodge of isolated concepts in the New Testament. I appreciate your thoughts on this in the current article.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 15, 2013

      Interesting comments. Yes, I think the sepraation of soul and body at death is derived more from Greek thought than Jewish; the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish apocalyptic worldview out of which Christian thinking originally emerged did not subscribe to the idea of this kind of separation.

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    toddfrederick  January 15, 2013

    The serious problem on a practical level is that the Greek view is what is nearly universally believed. Since we won’t know the answer until we’re dead (maybe) I vote for the Greek view :))

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    hschick  January 17, 2013

    Thank you for a possible explanation of the martyrdom of Servetus by the Genevans. As I understood it he was burned at the instigation of Calvin for his non-trinitarian and ant-infant baptism views in 1553. Servetus time in Basel in 1530 would have overlapped with Erasmus. Although by that time Erasmus had already published his later editions without the Comma Johanneum, it is extremely tempting to conclude that time in Basel turned the Comma into Servetius exclamation point?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 17, 2013

      I don’t know about the martyrdom of Servetus. But it was in Erasmus’s later editions (not hte earlier ones) that he included the Comma.

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        hschick  January 18, 2013

        Yes, I also noted that if there was contact it was after Erasmus’ early editions. Another tidbit was that Servetus worked at a printer as a proofreader while in Basel. Was it Erasmus’ printer? Wikipedia, again supplies an excellent synopsis of Servetus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Servetus
        I first heard of him as a student in the 60s. It was one of several things that I learned that convinced me that often the Reformation wasn’t much better than what it “reformed”.

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    Mohy  March 3, 2014

    this is a quote from The Preface to the Revised Standard Version(2nd ed., 1971):
    The Second Edition of the translation of the New Testament (1971) profits from textual and linguistic studies published since the Revised Standard Version New Testament was first issued in 1946. Many proposals for modification were submitted to the Committee by individuals and by two denominational committees. All of these were given careful attention by the Committee
    Two passages, the longer ending of Mark (16.9-20) and the account of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 7.53-8.11), are restored to the text, separated from it by a blank space and accompanied by informative notes describing the various arrangements of the text in the ancient authorities. With new manuscript support, two passages, Lk 22.19b-20 and 24.51b, are restored to the text, and one passage, Lk 22.43-44, is placed in the note, as is a phrase in Lk 12.39. Notes are added which indicate significant variations, additions, or omissions in the ancient authorities (Mt 9.34; Mk 3.16; 7.4; Lk 24.32,51, etc.). Among the new notes are those giving the equivalence of ancient coinage with the contemporary day’s or year’s wages of a laborer (Mt 18.24,28; 20.2; etc.). Some of the revisions clarify the meaning through rephrasing or reordering the text (see Mk 5.42; Lk 22.29-30; Jn 10.33; 1 Cor 3.9; 2 Cor 5.19; Heb 13.13). Even when the changes appear to be largely matters of English style, they have the purpose of presenting to the reader more adequately the meaning of the text (see Mt 10.8; 12.1; 15.29; 17.20; Lk 7.36; 11.17; 12.40; Jn 16.9; Rom 10.16; 1 Cor 12.24; 2 Cor 2.3; 3.5,6; etc.).

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    Dennis  April 29, 2014

    Ive been told that these references below are evidence the doctrine pre-dates our johannian comma problem. Is this true?

    “The Didache
    “After the foregoing instructions, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living [running] water. . . . If you have neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Didache 7:1 [A.D. 70]).

    “Ignatius of Antioch
    “[T]o the Church at Ephesus in Asia . . . chosen through true suffering by the will of the Father in Jesus Christ our God” (Letter to the Ephesians 1 [A.D. 110]).
    “For our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived by Mary in accord with God’s plan: of the seed of David, it is true, but also of the Holy Spirit” (ibid., 18:2).

    Justin Martyr
    “We will prove that we worship him reasonably; for we have learned that he is the Son of the true God himself, that he holds a second place, and the Spirit of prophecy a third. For this they accuse us of madness, saying that we attribute to a crucified man a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all things; but they are ignorant of the mystery which lies therein” (First Apology 13:5–6 [A.D. 151]).

    Theophilus of Antioch
    “It is the attribute of God, of the most high and almighty and of the living God, not only to be everywhere, but also to see and hear all; for he can in no way be contained in a place. . . . The three days before the luminaries were created are types of the Trinity: God, his Word, and his Wisdom” (To Autolycus 2:15 [A.D. 181]).

    “For the Church, although dispersed throughout the whole world even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and from their disciples the faith in one God, the Father Almighty . . . and in one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit” (Against Heresies 1:10:1 [A.D. 189]).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 29, 2014

      Yes, they probably do. But none of them expresses the doctrine of the trinity. (The doctrine of the Trinity is a specific way of understanding the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: simply mentioning the three could lead to all sorts of various views, trinitarian and non-trinitarian).

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    walstrom  February 12, 2015

    If the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers quote (or paraphrase) lines subsequently omitted in the Westcott and Hort texts, or even the Textus Receptus, which holds the greater weight or verisimilitude with scholars?
    For instance, if Polycarp quoted 1 John 5:7, would that be sufficient to counterbalance the absence of this text in the manuscript copies?
    I suppose I’m asking the relative gravitas of all the sources on a scholarly greyscale.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2015

      Such issues are always considered on a case-by=case basis. If Poycarp *were* to have quoted the passage (obviously he doesn’t) then it would show that it existed by the early second century. Whether it were original or not is a different question, which would have to be answered by considering all the (many data) of which this would be (an important) one!

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    Jondee209  August 19, 2015

    Dont “Oneness penecostals” have the Johannine Comma in their King James Bibles & if so , how are they able to put up a fight by rejecting the Trinity but still having this strong passage in their book ?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2015

      I suppose they *interpret* it in a way that coincides with their views (if you say “these three are one,” it does not *necessarily* mean the traditional doctrine of the trinity)

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    drussell60  April 5, 2016

    I don’t understand how fundygelicals cannot see the very frail ground upon which this doctrine is built. It’s right in front of them like someone in a gorilla suit, but they cannot see it, but then again, they’re not looking for it.

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    Kazibwe Edris  April 12, 2016

    if god creates through someone doesn’t that imply that god is in control of the person he is creating through?

    if god gives light through the sun, then doesn’t that imply that the sun is dependant on gods control?

    so trinitarians are saying that the son person in trinity is controlled by the father?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2016

      Trinitarians would say that the Father and the Son are completely united in will, intent, and purpose.

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    HawksJ  September 28, 2017

    The theological reasons for wanting to make Jesus and God equal/one are obvious. In your opinion, What is the theological reason for wanting to include the Spirit?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2017

      Partly it was based on John 14 and 16, and the fact that the Spirit seems to be a divine element distinct from both Jesus and God, for example at Jesus’ own baptism.

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