There is a meme that has been circulating for a while on social media that purports to expose problems with the King James Version that make Christians look foolish. It lists several facts that supposedly undermine the reliability of the KJV, and, therefore, the Bible as a whole. (Critics like to attack the KJV, presumably because they believe it is the version used by Christians as a whole. In reality, Christians use all kinds of versions, and none is without its flaws)
Let’s take a moment to fact-check the statements in this meme.
The King James Version of the New Testament was completed in 1611 by 8 members of the Church of England.
False. There were six panels of scholars who worked on the KJV: three for the Old Testament, two for the New, and one for the Apocrypha (for those who didn’t know, the Apocrypha was included in the KJV until it was dropped in the 1800s). In total, forty-seven scholars worked on the version.
There were (and still are) no original texts to translate.
True. However, we must qualify this by saying that we have no original documents of any composition written in the ancient world. The KJV is based on the Textus Receptus, a family of manuscripts dating back to the Medieval period. More modern versions use texts that date back as early as the second century. These two families of manuscripts are very similar with only slight differences, although the majority of scholars agree that the oldest texts are the most reliable.
The oldest manuscripts we have were written down hundreds of years after the last apostle died.
False. The oldest manuscripts date several decades after the apostles died. So far, the earliest manuscript is the John Rylands Papyrus (P52), a fragment which includes several verses from John 18. This manuscript dates to approximately AD 125-135 – roughly four decades after John is thought to have died. There is a big difference between “decades” and “hundreds of years.”
There are over 8,000 of these old manuscripts, with no two alike.
There are approximately 5,800 manuscripts, not 8,000. The inflated number could be a mistake stemming from basic unfamiliarity with the subject. And it is true that the manuscripts do differ in minor respects, although this is far from the claim of contradiction we find at the end of this meme. The way some critics use the term contradiction seems to be, “any disagreement, no matter how slight or insignificant.” A true contradiction is where one statement opposes another – something we don’t find among the biblical manuscripts.
The King James translators used none of these, anyway. Instead, they edited previous translations to create a version their king and Parliament would approve.
Mostly False. Whoever wrote this meme is unfamiliar with the Great Preface, which was included in the first editions of the KJV but was later dropped (it’s available online). This document makes it clear that the KJV was, in fact, more of a revision than a translation. King James instructed the scholars working on the KJV to use earlier translations—specifically the Bishops Bible—as a guide but to make changes wherever the original language dictated. There was a concern about having a version that did not undermine either the monarchy or the current ecclesiastical structure in the Church of England, but this did not cause translators to shape the final product in such a way that it went against the originals.
So, 21st Century Christians believe the “Word of God” is a book edited in the 17th Century from 16th Century translations of 8,000 contradictory copies of 4th century scrolls that claim to be copied of lost letters written in the 1st Century.
False. There’s a lot to unpack here. No, Christians do not believe that the KJV is the “Word of God” in itself. It is only God’s Word in the sense that it accurately represents the original words of the biblical authors. And again, the 8,000 number is way off. As far as the “contradictory copies” comment goes, anyone who has spent any time studying the issue knows that the textual variants may include nothing more than a simple misspelled word, an accidental omission, or swapping two words (e.g., one text having “Jesus Christ” while another has “Christ Jesus”). There are many different kinds of variants, but almost none of them has any bearing on scholars’ understanding of the text. None of them affects any theological position. It appears the creator of our meme doesn’t know much about textual criticism.
Finally, the date of “4th Century” is thrown out there for no apparent reason. There are copies dating to the second and third century. What our critic may have done is used the date of the earliest complete version of the Bible, which is Codex Sinaiticus (c. AD 350; then again, the creator called the texts “scrolls” when he should have said “codices”). We have to remember that even dating 250 years after the death of the last apostle, Sinaiticus is still closer in time to the originals than any other composition from the ancient world. The earliest copies of works by Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Julius Caesar and others often date 600-800 years—and some as much as 1,000 years or more—after their composition. That makes the New Testament the best-attested document in antiquity – something of which our critic seems to be completely unaware.
We know that a position is faulty when a person has to deliberately misrepresent the opposition, as has been done with this meme. It will no doubt get the applause its creator desired from those who share his beliefs. But it is an enormous oversimplification—a false portrait, actually—of actual scholarship. This meme reveals the heart of some who criticize Christianity. The characteristics of this kind of shoddy work include a lack of accurate factual information, a deliberate caricature of the truth, reliance upon faulty arguments, and zero interest shown in learning anything about the issues raised.