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Where Did the King James Bible Come From?

What were the King James Bible translators actually translating?  You may not have known it from the previous two posts – but that is what I have been getting at, when talking about the first published edition of the Greek New Testament by Erasmus, and the subsequent editions.    The King James is deservedly considered of the greatest classics ever produced in the English language.  There can be no doubt about its enormous influence on English literature and the English language itself.  But as a study Bible, it is problematic – in part because of the Greek text (for the NT) that underlies it.  Here is how I explain all that, going back to my discussion yesterday about Erasmus.


The larger point I am trying to make, however, is that all of these subsequent editions of the Greek New Testament  – those of Stephanus included – ultimately go back to Erasmus’s editio princeps, which was based on some rather late, and not necessarily reliable, Greek manuscripts – the ones he happened to find in Basle and the one he borrowed from his friend Reuchlin.  There would be no reason to suspect that these manuscripts were particularly high in quality.  They were simply the ones he could lay his hands on.

And as it turns out, these manuscripts were not of the best quality: they were, after all, produced some 1100 years after the originals!  For example, the main manuscript that Erasmus used for the Gospels contained both the story of the woman taken in adultery in John and the last twelve verses of Mark, passages that did not originally form part of the Gospels.

There was one key passage of Scripture that Erasmus’s manuscripts did not contain, however.  This is the famous account of …

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Leading up to the King James Translation
The First Greek New Testament



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  January 18, 2017

    But Mel Gibson included the Woman Taken in Adultery scene in The Passion of the Christ, so it must be true.

    Speaking of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, Dr. Ehrman, does it bug you that Gibson had all the gentiles speaking Latin, when, with the possible exception of Pilate himself, they all spoke Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2017

      Not really — I think they probably would have spoken Latin (certainly not Aramaic; and the soldiers probably didn’t know Greek). What shocked (OK, amused) me was how Jesus could break into fluent Latin at will. Huh???

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        godspell  January 20, 2017

        There were criticisms at that time to the effect that Greek was still the lingua franca of Europe by then, and many of the soldiers wouldn’t have come from Italy, but from other parts of the empire. Since I’m not into sadomasochism myself, I never watched the film to form an opinion about it, other than the rather commonplace observation than the guy who made it is nuts.

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    Judith  January 18, 2017

    This is so good.

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    godspell  January 18, 2017

    The judge who presided at the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial in Tennessee, in 1925 was named John Raulston, who attended what is now Tennessee Wesleyan University, and had served in the legislature. At that trial, the prosecution offered in evidence a King James Bible. The defense objected that this was not the original text, that there were many earlier versions, which shocked many present. Raulston ruled in favor of the King James, which for him was the only bible. For American evangelicals that was and to some extent still is the Textus Receptus. It’s hard to advocate for a literal interpretation of a text when you can’t agree on the text itself.

    Nobody ever gets so excited over which translation of Don Quixote people use. I will admit, I am sympathetic in the main towards creative translations of great books, because the most important thing is to be readable, to get the spirit of the work across, at least as much as the letter. I wish it was that simple with the Old and New Testaments.

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      clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 20, 2017

      Interesting tidbit about the Scopes Monkey Trial: in a “Science and Religion” Philosophy course I took a few years ago at a public university, a reputable history of the event said that the trial was in large part a publicity stunt by the city Fathers, with the knowing cooperation of Scopes, in order to put the city on the map in the face of an economic downturn. I hope this doesn’t sound condescending but it sounds so very American and in an ultimately humane sort of way – at least compared to the tone of many fundamentalists today.

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    Tom  January 18, 2017

    This thread has really been interesting and informative.

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    ddecker54  January 18, 2017

    That’s pretty amazing! Manuscripts “built to order”. The inspired inerrant Word of God indeed!

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    hmltonius  January 18, 2017

    I was told the KJV was the only choice because it was “written in the original Greek” and to beware any other translation as that’s where the devil is.

    Do adherent’s to this view try to resolve your point on the KJV being based on inferior, late manuscripts by saying the revised KJV disposes of this concern by reviewing much older manuscripts and how can anyone claim inerrancy with a revised edition or even with the first KJV edition without the actual, physical first written manuscripts?

    I don’t understand how any KJV translator/textual critic who also claims inerrancy can continue to be credentialed and held in respect amongst fellow scholars (as they apparently are), despite what encyclopedic knowledge in their field they undoubtably possess, if at the same time they demonstrate a fundamental inability to be persuaded by contrary evidence, as by claiming inerrancy they are announcing their ultimate conclusion prior to their initial investigation. A criminal investigator announcing to the judge having formed their conclusion prior to arriving at the scene wouldn’t be an investigator long.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2017

      No, they claim that hte later manuscripts are more accurate than the earlier ones!

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        smackemyackem  January 20, 2017

        I have actually heard that before.

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      Robby  January 20, 2017

      In Christian circles I ran in, the claim of inerrancy was for the original autographs, not for any copies created after. Of course without the originals, the burden of proof falls on them to show that – which of course cannot happen.

  7. TWood
    TWood  January 18, 2017

    Four short ones:

    1. Is there a difference between the ‘critical text’ and the ‘eclectic text’? It seems like they are synonyms, but I’m not sure.

    2. The best mss now (that make up the likes of the NRSV)… I know they rely on Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, etc… but do they also take into account fragments like P52 (it seems they do… but I want to confirm)?

    3. Do you know how many Gr. mss Erasmus used (over 5,000 known now… did he have 5, 50, 100)?

    4. Did Erasmus know about any important early codices/fragments that he was unable to use (did he know his sources were not the best)?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2017

      An eclectic text is one way to make a critical text. Yes, the printed Greek NTs take all mss into account. I indicate how many mss Erasmus used in my post.

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    jhague  January 18, 2017

    Both the NIV and NRSV have footnotes regarding Mark 16 and 1 John 5. The NRSV has a footnote regarding John 8 but the NIV does not appear to mention anything regarding this verse.
    I’m assuming that most conservative Christians today ignore the footnotes regarding these verses?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2017

      Yes really conservative Xns do.

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        jhague  January 19, 2017

        Based on what I see in the community style churches, they all for the most part are considered really conservative, right? It’s interesting because the community style churches are not generally fundamentalists and the members are generally not evangelical at all. The community churches seem to be more modern with worship service than other churches that we call liberal. But as far as I can tell, most all community style churches state that the Bible is inerrant, the world was created in six days, there was a flood, an exodus, a virgin birth, etc. Most of the community church members that I know, if I told them that Mark 16, 1 John 5, John 8 or any passage was not original to the Bible, they would think I was crazy. I do not know anyone in the community churches including the pastors who talk about any of issues discussed on this forum. They would all run away from this forum and warn others to stay away from it. What I’m rambling about is that churches that we consider to be liberal seem to lean toward traditional worship services but the community churches have very progressive modern worship services yet they are very conservative, closed-minded and backward in their thinking regarding the Bible.

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    Petter Häggholm  January 18, 2017

    To readers who prefer an oral presentation, I can highly recommend this presentation on the King James Bible that some erudite fellow gave a few years back: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehnEZtqj2Mo

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2017

      Ha! That was an unusual talk for me, and a fun one to prepare for.

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    wostraub  January 18, 2017

    At last I know where the King James version came from. Thank you, Dr. Ehrman.

    You also mentioned some of the issues surrounding the notion of the Trinity, which were also helpful. I’ve always looked upon the Holy Spirit as the Peter Tork or Ringo Starr of Christianity, as he (it?) doesn’t have much in the way of gospels or books to back up his membership in the godhead. I suppose Christians today tend to look upon the Holy Spirit as the necessary third leg to a divine milking stool.

    As a retired physicist and one-time Christian, I once viewed the Trinity as I do the electromagnetic field, which was unified by James Clerk Maxwell in 1864. Until that time, electricity and magnetism were viewed as separate phenomena, but today we know them as different manifestations of the exact same thing. As for the Trinity, I used to see it the same way, but in the sense of the three mesons (mu-zero, mu-plus and mu-minus), all essentially the same quantum particle. Grasping at straws? Yes, indeed.

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    RolloMartins  January 18, 2017

    I have read these points before (probably from Dr. Ehrman himself), and I wonder if these points are corrected in the *New* King James. I am supposing that the New edition has inserted a footnote. Is the NKJ a better, a corrected, version?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2017

      Not much better. All it really does is update the language a bit (getting rid of the the thee’s and thou’s, e.g.)

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    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 18, 2017

    So is the TR was the basis of not only English translations of the Bible (KJV) but also of other (European) translations, eg, German?

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    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 18, 2017

    Doesn’t it seem bizarre that the TR would be used so widely for 3 or 4 centuries without any basic attempts to improve it, especially since it was a rush job without any attempt to consult a wide range of manuscripts much less the oldest and best? I suppose there were a limited number of Biblical scholars who had limited opportunities to consult the oldest and best manuscripts and to do so in a systematic way. And maybe those scholars had interests that were much more important to them than improving the text. It’s just that it seems like the TR became almost sacred mainly because it came first, perhaps like the Vulgate seems to have been for the Catholic Church.

    Would part of the explanation be that the KJV was based on the TR and no one wanted to supersede the KJV, because it was so much a part of the culture of English speaking countries? And didn’t Luther translate the Bible into German, presumably using the TR? Did that translation have a life similar to that of the KJV?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2017

      There were attempts to improve it, but none really took hold until 1881. But no, the adherence to the TR was not because of the KJV, since a lot of the textual scholars were European and had no ties to English Bible translations.

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    Tempo1936  January 18, 2017

    It’s surprising the KJV doesn’t have many more errors like the “Johannine Comma” since the church was all powerful at that time.

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    Helmut  January 19, 2017

    Were the Erasmus editions also used by Martin Luther for his translation of the Bible into German?

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    RonaldTaska  January 19, 2017

    Really fascinating material. Thanks

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    SidDhartha1953  January 19, 2017

    With or without the Comma (I’m assuming that term applies only to the spurious insertion) 1John 5:6-8 makes little sense to me. To what do the blood, the water, and the spirit (I’m addicted to the Oxford comma, as you can see) testify? Are there any plausible interpertations?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2017

      Possibly to the event of Jesus’ side being pierced by a spear.

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    rburos  January 20, 2017

    Half way through reading this post I grabbed my Zuercher Bibel you had recommended to check the comma. When it was missing, I momentarily doubted my abilities, but then I was confused because “Wort” and “Vater” aren’t words for advanced students. Then it hit me–no comma in this edition. Thanks for the scare.

    You’ve had some great threads before, but this one exceeds.

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    Jana  January 23, 2017

    I’m way out of my depth here .. this is all new information. So forgive the simplicity of my question. If it is known that Erasmus’s Greek Manuscript selection were not of high quality. why isn’t it or wasn’t it possible for someone else to accumulate better quality? It reads to me as haphazard. Would I be correct in interpreting the process as haphazard?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      Ah, no, that’s the point I’m eventually heading toward. The Greek editions available today are far superior to what Erasmus produced, and these are almost always the basis of modern English translations.

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    ClaudeTee  January 24, 2017

    Is it not also the case that the stilted, formal English used in the KJV had more or less died out by the early 1600’s, but that King James thought it “sounded” more profound than the vernacular English of the day? And might that have impacted on the process of translation?

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