Addressing the Myths: Is the King James Bible the Product of an Evil, White Man?
Updated: May 1
Myth #2: You do know that the KJV was authorized by a questionable man and it's filled with all kinds of additions and omissions. What’s up with that?
Contrary to what some believe, when many Blacks think of the name King James they don't think of the machine of a basketball player that plays for the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, you might find King James in many Black homes. He's on grandma’s coffee table, right next to the couch with plastic on it that no one ever sits on. Pick up King James and you might find pieces of paper in him with significant dates, birth announcements, and other family milestones. For others, he's the anti-theft device in the car window to deter potential thefts.
The King Reigns
Yes, I'm talking about the King James Version (KJV) bible. Today, the King James Version of the Bible reigns over all other translations and is still is the most popular Bible sold. And that number skews higher in Black communities. In fact, Lifeway conducted a survey some years back. Among respondents who said they had never read the KJV bible, only 14 percent of African-Americans said they hadn’t. So here’s the truth. Black folks love us some King James.
The Surprise Supporters
In the African-American community, there’s always been opposition from Black brothers and sisters who call the King James version the White man’s Bible. We’ll get to them soon enough. For this post, I’ll start with the Hebrew Israelites. And I'm actually going to lay off of them little bit. A few things of note here, though.
First, most Hebrew Israelites actually use and accept the King James Version of the Bible as they work through passages of Scripture that trace their lineage back to a tribe in Israel’s history (the tribe thing is another post for another time). But here’s the rub with them. Many of them call the KJV of the Bible the authorized version because they believe it translates word-for-word the original Greek and Hebrew text of the Old and New Testament. Well, that’s not entirely true.
Not to get too much into it, but the KJV was a translation of a Byzantine Greek manuscript (remember I told you the NT was written in Greek) that dates later than other original Greek manuscripts in what scholars call the Alexandrian family (these manuscripts were used and cited by early church fathers, which is huge). Now you may have said, “What did he just say?” In simplest terms, the KJV used a good Greek manuscript from a guy named Erasmus, but thousands of other earlier Greek manuscripts have produced some word-for-word versions that reflect some better language choices.
I say all that to say there is no ONE authorized translation of the Bible. There are several English translations. Some are better than others when it comes to being closest to the original text. If you’d like, take a look at my list of the 5 Bibles (http://johnrichardsjr.com/5-versions-of-the-bible-i-read/) I read in terms of their accuracy. At the end of the day, here’s the good news. Many of today’s English translations are sound theologically and communicate the gospel in a way that shows that Jesus came, was crucified, died, and rose again on the third day.
Second, and this is very interesting, many Hebrew Israelites sincerely believe King James was a Black Hebrew Israelite. This is one of those fake news items I don’t want to spend too much time on. I think the fact that he was an English monarch in the 17th Century will tell you that England wasn’t ready for a Black king. Contrary to what some Hebrew Israelites will tell you, King James was not England’s version of Obama. There are too many historical accounts for me to even address this outlier in Hebrew Israelite thought with more than a few words.
Now, let’s get to the real opposition. There are some Black anti-Christian adherents out there who mock and shame Black Christians who read the King James Version Bible. Why? First, they write a revisionist account of how the KJV came to be. Let me explain.
Some say, “Well, this dude called other dudes together so he could chop and screw the Bible like he was from Texas” (that’s me paraphrasing). While it’s true that King James called a meeting of clergy around 1604, the meeting initially had nothing to do with a new Bible translation. The question of a new translation was randomly raised at the conference, and King James then authorized a group of men to work on it. Yes, he appointed 50 or so linguistic scholars to work on the translation.
The way some talk about the KJV was as if King James sat down and translated it himself. That’s hardly the case. It took these linguistic scholars seven years, sitting with biblical manuscripts they had to complete the task and it was published in 1611.
Some cite King James’ personal life as reasons to mock the translation. It’s such a strange argument. That's like me saying I won't buy an iPhone because Steve Jobs was a godless atheist. I'll be doggone. I love Apple products. Why? Apple products are fantastic because Job hired people who knew what they were doing to design them. In the same way, Jobs hired people who knew what they were doing, King James recruited real linguistic scholars and theologians to translate the Hebrew and Greek text they had into English. So if some folks tell you that King James sat down and translated the Bible into English himself, let them know you’ve got some swampland in Florida to sell them.
A Long Way From Jesus
The second reason some used to mock the use of the KJV Bible is its publication in 1611. That’s like, what, over 1500 years after Jesus walked this earth. A lot of stuff could have been lost in translation, right? What they fail to realize is that the KJV was not the first translation of the Bible. Many of them are unaware that Jerome’s Latin Vulgate was published in 405 A.D. Martin Luther’s German translation and William Tyndall’s also pre-date the KJV translation. So the KJV is certainly not the first translation of the Bible. For that matter, it wasn’t the first translation of the Bible into English.
Even so, today we have thousands (and I mean thousands) of manuscripts that scholars have used (using a crazy academic, dry process called textual criticism) to yield some fairly accurate word-for-word translations. And, for those of you so inclined, the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament are remarkable accurate from a text-critical perspective (like they are the actual words the writers wrote in Hebrew and Greek text form…pretty cool, eh?).
In fact, we now have more manuscripts (about 5600 copies) of the Greek New Testament written/copied within 50 years of Jesus’ time on earth than works on the life of Caesar and Homer’s Illiad. And guess what? They all say pretty much the same thing! So if we’re going to sit and read about Caesar’s life and accept those historical accounts or assign Homer’s Illiad to kids in high school English as writing attributed to their authors, then certainly we have to look at the manuscript evidence of the New Testament and take it seriously.
Whew. Okay, let’s take a deep breath. I know we just did some heavy lifting on Bible translations, but remember, you have to be able to give a reason for the hope that is in you. You have to answer questions about footnotes that say “this verse is actually included in the original manuscript and omitted here” or “this passage does not appear in the original manuscript” in the KJV. Those footnotes don’t say that verses were removed or added from the KJV to be deceitful. No. In fact, it’s being honest and textually faithful. They let the reader know that manuscript evidence suggests that the manuscripts used to translate the KJV weren’t the earliest, most reliable copies. But it’s OKAY! The longer ending of Mark’s gospel (see Mark 19:9–20) in the KJV does nothing to dispel the notion that Jesus came, suffered, died, and rose from the grave. Absolutely nothing. In fact, it the verses are found in other gospel accounts.
So there you have it. The KJV Bible isn’t evil. It’s not the White man’s Bible. And it certainly isn’t misleading. It’s a translation that communicates the one message this world needs to hear. We’re broken and in need of a Savior, even if it does it with a few poetic thees and thous.
Up Next: Reconciling Slavery and the Black Experience