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Many Christians believe that the King James Bible is the only correct translation of the word of God. And they say that all other versions of the Bible are not inerrant.

What is the historical origin of this way of thinking?

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Today's "King James-only" movement, and its argument that the KJV is itself inspired, does indeed have historical precedence, though it's debatable if the 20th-century movement can claim a strong link to similar thinkers in previous centuries.

There are two major precedents to today's movement, so we'll look at those first:

  • Pre-KJV elevations of particular translations (Septuagint, Vulgate, and Luther's Bible)
  • Nineteenth century elevation of the KJV
  • Late 20th-century KJV-only movement

Pre-KJV

Before the KJV was completed in 1611, several other translations of the Bible enjoyed particularly high status, with some groups going so far as to identify them as inspired in and of themselves. Three frequently cited examples are the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and Luther's Bible.

The elevation of the first, the Septuagint, dates back as far as 100 BC, in the Letter of Aristeas. Much of the letter is rejected as fictitous, but it does describe supernatural guidance in the writing of the Septuagint, and a curse laid on any who dared edit it. In the early first century, Philo describes how all the translators of the Septuagint independently came to have the exact same text:

They, like men inspired, prophesied, not one saying one thing and another another, but every one of them employed the self-same nouns and verbs, as if some unseen prompter had suggested all their language to them. (Works of Philo Judaeus, III, 82)

Philo's account influenced early church fathers like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, and they defended the accuracy and even inspiration of the translation.

Much later, in 1546, the Vulgate was similarly recognized by the Council of Trent, which said that "no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever." When Erasmus published his own critical Latin text, he was opposed by Martin Dorp and Petrus Sutor (a.k.a. Pierre Cousturier), the latter of which said:

If in one point the Vulgate were in error the entire authority of Holy Scripture would collapse. (Quoted in Preston and Jenkins, Biblical Scholarship and the Church, 27)

And similarly, some advocates of Luther's German translation of the Bible, completed in 1534, considered it inspired:

Some indiscreet friends of the reformer, impressed by the beauty of the translation, imagined they could recognize in it a second inspiration. (History of the Reformation, III, 337)

So we see then a very early tendency to elevate particular translations, and thus it shouldn't surprise us that something similar happens in English.

KJV onlyism in the 19th century

The KJV enjoyed dominance in the English-speaking world for many years after its publication, and was not seriously challenged until the 19th century, when the Revised Version was prepared. This new translation was not undertaken without major debate, during which the "inspiration" argument was adopted by many opponents of a new translation. Many authors briefly note the existence of such arguments, such as:

  • Henry Alford, 1866: "Yet this is the version which some would have us regard as infallible, and receive as the written word of God!" (Commentary on Hebrews)
  • Around 1840: "Some had gone so far as to pronounce the Bible as translated by the distinguished forty-nine, a perfect work!" (Life of Spencer Houghton Cone, page 355)
  • Armitage, 1850: Some "hinted" that the KJV "had come down from heaven in about its present shape, printed and bound" (History of the Baptists, I, 901)

Thus the idea of perfection of the KJV itself has existed for a long time, at least as early as the mid-19th century.

KJV onlyism in the 20th century

Roy Beacham and Kevin Bauder, opponents of KJV onlyism, provide more historical details than I have, and conclude that "no traceable connection exists between those of the nineteenth century who held such a view with those of the later part of the twentieth century" (One Bible Only?, 44) They find the modern movement's origin to a book published in 1930:

That book, Our Authorized Bible Vindicated, was written by Seventh-Day Adventist missionary, educator, and theologian Benjamin G. Wilkinson (1872–1968).

Wilkinson opposed the English Revised Version, Beacham and Bauder say, because "it robbed him of several favorite Adventist proof texts," but his book was uninfluential until it was discovered by James Jasper Ray, who published a derivative work, God Wrote Only One Bible, in 1955. And this work, in turn, inspired David Otis Fuller and Peter Ruckman, two highly influential KJV-only proponents. Ruckman's The Bible Babel (1964) and Fuller's Which Bible? (1970) both rely on Ray, and in 1978 Fuller founded the Dean Burgon Society to promote KJV onlyism. Both argue that the KJV is an inspired translation and absolutely authoritative, and Ruckman has bombastically claimed that the KJV has new revelation, above and beyond the original scripture.

According to Beacham and Bauder, all notable KJV-only proponents, like Jack Chick, D. A. Waite, Jack Hyles and Gail Riplinger can be linked "back to Fuller or Ruckman or both," though they admit the existence of at least one scholar loosely associated with the movement, Textus Receptus proponent Edward F. Hills, who ws uninfluenced by them.

Conclusion

The history of the modern KJV-only movement can be traced primarily to Benjamin Wilkinson and his 1930 book. But to do so would ignore a long history of claims of inspiration for the KJV and other translations, stretching back as far as the time of Christ. As the Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America says:

As an identifiable entity, the King James Only movement is rather young, overwhelmingly Baptist, and thoroughly American. While its ideological roots stretch back to nineteenth-century Britain and the first calls to revise the KJV, the movement is properly a product of the second half of the twentieth century. (source)

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Sorry to be so late with this, but my e-mail was backed up, literally, for a year. Hopefully, this will still be useful to someone.

The question is less the "inerrancy of the King James Bible" than it is the reliability of the Word of God. One either believes that God is God, that He, in effect, "manufactured" us and that the Bible is the "owner's manual" for how to properly maintain the life He gave us, or one does not.

Assuming we do so believe, we are faced with the problem that there is no "original Bible." What we have is a pile of fragments, written in some fifteen ancient languages: hand-copied renderings of the Epistles and Gospels, passed around from place to place throughout the entire Roman Empire, painstakingly preserved, collected and copied in the underground scriptoria of a Church which was still largely in hiding.

The Council od Nicaea, in 325 AD, was the first time all the bishops of Christendom were able to meet openly, and bring their scrolls of Scripture (at that time a "Bible" was a collection of parchment scrolls carried about in several segmented baskets) with them for comparison. Miraculously (literally), the consistency between these was remarkable, and from them the Canon of Scripture was determined and later confirmed at the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397 and 419) that the 46 Books of the Old Testament and the 27 Books of the New Testament were finally declared the Canon by the whole Church.

This is not to say, as the secularist Modernists do, that the Bible was "still being written" all this time. What it was, was a matter of collecting, translating, sorting and ordering what had been written some four hundred years past, copied and re=copied and transported all over the Roman Empire by foot, camel, ship and donkey cart, painstakingly preserved by a Church that had been under persecution for much of that time.

We call these early autographs the "fragments:" some whole books, some partial, lovingly and painstakingly copied letter-by-letter to ensure accuracy (it's where our expression, "letter perfect" comes from).Tis became the standard for the great monastic scriptoria that emerged in the Fifth Century.

Up until the Fifteenth Century the Bible was only available in the universal languages of the Roman Empire: Greek and Latin. As the Empire faded, these languages were only known by the few who studied them and the vast majority of the people didn't. One of the objectives of the Reformation period was to make the Scriptures universally available, and this involved translating them into the vernacular.

In the matter of English, the KJV was preceded by the Geneva Bible and the Bishop's Bible. Both of these relied mainly on the Latin Vulgate (both were preceded by the translations of Tyndale and Hus, directly translated from the Vulgate, but which were underground affairs that got them burned at the stake).

In 1604 the English Bishops approached King James and asked him to subsidize a version of the Bible that would be researched from the ancient autographs of the New Testament. The result was the Authorized King James Version of 1616. Twelve years in the making, it was the result of one of the most monumental scholarly efforts ever launched on behalf of anything. It has stood the test of time, and has become recognized universally as the "gold standard" of Bible translations.

Its high, poetic English comes closest to capturing the highly-nuanced Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in which the earliest fragments were written, and so enables the reader to fulfill God's purpose in delivering the Scriptures to us in the first place: to enter into a relationship with them, rather than "just reading" them.

Variants of he KJV have included the Revised Standard Version, which has been interfered with in the publication of the NRSV, which many believe to accommodate Modernist political tendencies, and the New King James Version, an excellent and faithful rendering of the KJV in modern, but a very high modern, English that retains the poetic flavor.

I'm an Orthodox priest, and the Orthodox Study Bible New Testament uses the NJKV. I went to Roman Catholic undergraduate seminary and grad school, and in both the KJV was spoken highly of. In fact, at grad school at the University of Steubenville we had Fr. Francis Martin, a universally-recognized Bible scholar, as our Scripture prof. We used the Oxford Study Bible, which uses the KJV.

Bottom line: it is the Word of God in Scripture which is considered infallible. The KJV is recognized by most as the most accurate English-language rendering of the ancient autographs.

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    Forgive me, Father, but the question is exactly about the inerrancy of the King James translation, which a few Anglophone Protestants hold onto (see, for instance, this question — which is linked to the question we are answering now). It is a pity, because this is a very thoroughly researched answer for a slightly different question. – Wtrmute Mar 21 '17 at 19:25
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    @wtrmute, I'd say it's good enough as a basis of an answer for why people like the KJV so much - ignorance of what I believe is a belief shared by a fairly small minority doesn't necessarily disqualify someone from answering the question. This is just another angle, but I agree, a stellar answer would have something to do with them. – Peter Turner Mar 21 '17 at 21:28
  • //Up until the Fifteenth Century the Bible was only available in the universal languages of the Roman Empire: Greek and Latin. // I think there were Bibles in languages as per the order of all the local Church though the world, e.g. Ge'ez, Coptic, Old Slavonic, &c. – Thomas Rasberry Mar 21 '17 at 23:37
  • Hi, Thomas--I meant in the West. Sorry for the confusion. – Fr.James Rosselli Mar 22 '17 at 22:37

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