Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book Write-Up: The King James Version Debate

D.A. Carson.  The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism.  Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.

D.A. Carson is a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  This book is his response to Christians who argue that the King James Version is the only legitimate Bible version that Christians should use.

Carson focuses his energy on the New Testament manuscripts, since it is mainly in that area that the debate takes place.  Carson, like many text critics, believes that one can group New Testament manuscripts into text-types on the basis of common features.  There is the Byzantine text type, which is the basis for the King James Version, and of which the majority of New Testament manuscripts are a part.  There is the Alexandrian text type, which is earlier.  And there is the Western text type.

Carson’s text-critical problems with the KJV-only viewpoint are that (1.) the Byzantine text is late and probably dates back to the mid-fourth century C.E., (2.) the Byzantine text is not used by the ante-Nicene church fathers, who do use the Alexandrian and Western texts, (3.) the Byzantine text draws from the Alexandrian and Western texts, showing it is more steps removed from the original, and (4.) the Textus Receptus behind the KJV came about when Erasmus (fifteenth century) made a manuscript using late Byzantine manuscripts and supplementing missing pieces of Revelation with a Latin text.  According to Carson, the fact that most New Testament manuscripts out there are consistent with the Byzantine texts is not due to divine providence favoring that version, as some KJV-only advocates maintain, but has other explanations: that the Byzantine Empire spoke Greek long after other parts of the world stopped doing so and thus produced more Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, that Emperor Constantine sought to standardize the versions, and that John Chrysostom popularized the Byzantine text.  Even if the Byzantine text has the most copies, Carson maintains that this does not make it the most reliable text.

As I read further into the book, particularly the appendix, which Carson warned would be complicated, I learned that things are a bit more complex.  There actually are times when ante-Nicene fathers appeal to distinctly Byzantine readings, but those occurrences are very rare.  In addition, ante-Nicene fathers appear to refer to the content of I John 5:7, which is Trinitarian and in the KJV but which many scholars believe is not original to the text.  Carson says on page 61, however, that “the words are not cited as Scripture, but…probably arose as allegorical exegesis of the three witnesses.”

I found this book, especially Carson’s fourteen theses, to be a decent and lucid introduction to the KJV debate.  I still find that I need to learn more about textual criticism, specifically why certain criteria are valid or useful at helping us get at the now lost original text.  For that, I may consult Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, which even some conservatives say can serve as a good introduction to text criticism, or Bruce Metzger’s authoritative work.

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