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What Kind of a Text is the King James Bible?

Introduction: On January 24, 2013, the traveling exhibition Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible opened at the William H. Hannon Library at Loyola Marymount University. The keynote talk for the opening: “What Kind of a Text is the King James Bible? Manuscripts, Translation, and the Legacy of the KJV” was presented by Dr. Bart Ehrman, James A. Grey Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill and New York Times bestselling author.

In this lecture by Dr. Bart Ehrman, a leading authority on the New Testament and New York Times bestselling author, you will hear why the KJV has received such praise and adoration over the centuries, and then turn to consider aspects of the translation that also need to be considered when assessing its greatness and value:  the archaic language that at times can confuse modern readers; the inferior ancient manuscripts on which the translation was based; and the theological biases that occasionally led the translators to make the biblical text say something other than it originally meant.

The exhibition, which was created to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first printing of the King James Bible in 1611, tells the story of the origins, creation, and impact of one of the most influential books in history. Manifold Greatness not only highlights the dramatic history behind the making of this great book, but also includes its influence on English and American literature, and its multifaceted impact on culture and society to the present day. Even many of those whose lives have been affected by the King James Bible may not realize that less than a century before it was produced, the very idea of the Bible translated into English was considered dangerous and even criminal. Many may also be unaware of the meticulous work of some four dozen of England’s top scholars, who labored for years to complete the translation, now named “the King James Bible” after its royal sponsor, James I.

Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible was organized by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., and the American Library Association Public Programs Office. It is based on an exhibition of the same name developed by the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, with assistance from the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas. The traveling exhibition was made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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In this video, Bart explains why the KJV has received such praise and adoration over the centuries; he then turns to consider aspects of the translation that also need to be considered when assessing its greatness and value: the archaic language that at times can confuse modern readers; the inferior ancient manuscripts on which the translation was based; and the theological biases that occasionally led the translators to make the biblical text say something other than it originally meant.


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    reedm60  February 26, 2013

    Awesome! Thank you!!

  2. Avatar
    Yentyl  February 26, 2013

    Can you tell me what is the oldest manuscript where the word “easter” appears in Acts 12:4 instead of Passover as interpreted everywhere else the word is used? Thanks! Thanks for sharing the video and article. Awesome!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 26, 2013

      The Greek word is PASCHA (= Passover). To my knowledge, the word “Easter” (whatever that word is in Greek) never occurs in any manuscript.

      • Avatar
        Yentyl  February 26, 2013

        Thank you! Talk about an agenda! Was this translated “Easter” because the translator hated Jews? Of course, you know this is the same word as Ishtar, the fertility goddess. And do you know which translation first had it translated as Easter? Thanks again.

        My husband and I just watched the video. So awesome. Thank you so much for sharing it.

        Have a great week.

  3. Avatar
    dallaswolf  February 26, 2013

    Great fun. Thanks for sharing this, Bart.

  4. Avatar
    Cygnus_X1  February 26, 2013

    Great video, much appreciated.
    One thing that I’ve always assumed is that people turned to Christianity because they believed if they accepted Jesus into their heart they would go to Heaven when they died. In ancient times that probably comforted a lot of people who didn’t have any quality in their lives and I imagine it was a very good selling point for Christianity.
    I’m wondering where that idea came from? Is it from the Old Testament or the New Testament or is it one of those things that came about afterwards, like the Trinity?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 28, 2013

      It’s a great question where “asking Jesus into your heart” came from. My uninformed sense is that it is purely an Americanism and came about in teh second half of the 20th century, but I’d love to hear if anyone actually knows.

  5. Avatar
    lfasel  February 26, 2013

    In your discourse on Theological bias of the Translators you fail to mention Jn1. Since as you say 92% of Tyndales bible was used. In his 1526 version he translates: Tyndale New Testament (1526)
    Book of John

    1 In the beginnynge was the worde and the worde was with God: and the worde was God. 2 The same was in the beginnynge with God. 3 All thinges were made by it and with out it was made nothinge that was made. 4 In it was lyfe and the lyfe was ye lyght of men. You’ll note there are no pronouns. Of course by that time the concept of the Trinity was firmly established. In your opinion do you think they purposely chose what has now become fixed.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 28, 2013

      I think the issue is that the word LOGOS (= word) is masculine in Greek not neuter. And so translators today prefer to use a masculine pronoun (“he”) rather than a neuter pronoun (“it).

  6. Avatar
    dtilley  February 26, 2013

    Great lecture, Dr. Ehrman! If I’d known you were going to be at LMU, I would definitely have been there for this lecture. The KJV certainly had a profound impact on my youth. I memorized numerous portions of it, and fell in love with its elegant prose and lofty poetry. It inspired me to try to learn Greek and Hebrew in my teens so that I could read the Scriptures in their original languages. Even to this day (I’m now an agnostic), when I think of Scriptural pasages they’re invariably in the King James version.

    Don Tilley

  7. Avatar
    seeker_of_truth  February 26, 2013

    Very good video!

  8. Avatar
    Walid_  February 26, 2013

    what a great man, I wish you could come to teach in England, I would take a flat just outside the campus.

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 26, 2013

    This was delightful – thanks for giving us access!

    I’m wondering about something. Years ago, I looked at The Teaching Company’s course on the Old Testament, taught by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine. I don’t remember much from it, but I do think I’m recalling this correctly.

    About that passage in Isaiah, “A Virgin shall conceive, etc.”? I’d already known “Virgin” was a mistranslation. I think I was hearing for the first time that it wasn’t meant to refer to the Messiah, in any case. But as I recall, Dr. Levine went on to say more – that it was someone else’s later addition to Isaiah. It was meant to be understood as referring to…a king named Hezekiah?…and was written during his lifetime, by an admirer. Is that generally accepted?

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 27, 2013

    A really great lecture. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

  11. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  February 27, 2013

    From the goddess Eshtar…..Eggs and rabbits are a representation of fertility

  12. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  February 27, 2013

    My mistake….Ishtar goddess in Babylon

  13. Avatar
    nautis  August 30, 2013

    I wonder how or why the Isiah 7:14 passage was mistranslated from ‘young woman’ to ‘virgin’? This is also raises a point that I never considered: the original authors of the gospels may not have been able to read Hebrew. If they could read Hebrew, it seems like they would not have used a Greek translation of Isiah. Any thoughts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 31, 2013

      I posted a few times on this question: just use the search engine on the blog (top right magnifying glass icon) and look for “virgin,” and you’re sure to find them.

  14. Avatar
    jbjbjbjbjb  April 3, 2016

    Dear Bart, thank you for sharing this… I watched it having also just read your most recent book on memory where the question of gospel authorship came up again. It often does.

    My question to you is, do you have any ideas as to why the tradition might have tagged the names Mark and Luke to their respective gospels (rather than Peter or James, for instance)? In Jesus before the gospels and elsewhere you point out that motivation is unlikely to be deceit. Is it possible then that these early gospels (although by no means the earliest, as Luke explicitly makes clear) were assigned titles upon a tradition that was truly believed?
    With my thanks and hope for a future mailbag entry.
    John

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2016

      I have a lengthy discussion of this in my book, but the short story: they wanted to tie these two Gospels in particular to the two great apostles Peter (Mark’s teacher) and Paul (Luke’s).

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