. You've Probably Never Seen the Real King James Version

You’ve Probably Never Seen the Real King James Version

Everyone knows the KJV was translated in 1611, but almost no one has read a 1611 KJV. Not only do the great majority of KJV editions actually come from a 1769 revision (one of a series of revisions), but even the “1611” editions available online are not perfect representations of the intentions of the KJV translators.

In an era before computers, typographical errors were introduced into the very first printed editions of the King James Bible. Subsequent printers and editors over a century and a half built up their own patina of miscellaneous, minor alterations on top of the KJV, until the text we now generally use was established by Oxford’s Benjamin Blayney almost 250 years ago.

If you want to know what the KJV translators really intended, you need the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible. Editor David Norton, like F.H.A. Scrivener before him, dedicated years of his scholarly life to blowing away “thousands of specks of dust from the received text.” He looked at the personal diaries of KJV translators. He learned Hebrew. He went to Oxford’s Bodleian library and studied the surviving notes from the translators’ work—particularly their scrawls on unbound copies of the Bishop’s Bible, which they were instructed to revise. Norton performed his task with excessive care: to call him “detail-oriented” would be like calling Paul “an influential theologian” or calling Spurgeon “good with words.”

Even though Cambridge University Press, one of two historic centers of work on the KJV, authorized Norton’s text-critical work, it has not achieved the traction it deserves. It’s been treated with suspicion by the people who might most have welcomed it, KJV-Only Christians—and ignored by most everybody else.

Those reactions may have been predictable, but they’re both wrong. Those who are KJV-Only will love the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible if they give it a chance, and through it others might just rediscover the beauty and importance of an historic English Bible translation.

Why you need the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible

All English Bible readers can benefit from the NCPB. Those who believe the KJV is the only acceptable English Bible translation should get the real deal.

And if others are going to read the KJV—and I do use it for study and comparison nearly every day—they, too, should know what the original said. Benjamin Blayney’s 1769 revision work was excellent and has become the standard KJV; the same ought to now happen with Norton’s work. Norton rightly praises Blayney’s efforts, but it’s rather arbitrary that an 18th-century revision of the KJV is the one that stuck.

Everyone who uses the KJV, and knows that that’s what they’re doing, ought to use the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible.

Making the KJV as readable as possible

People trust the KJV. I don’t treat that trust lightly, and I happen to believe that the KJV translators did excellent work. I even see significant advantages for the church—and even for the culture—when one translation rises far above the rest. But English has changed a lot in 400 years, often in subtle ways that English speakers can’t be expected to recognize. Therefore, anyone who publishes a KJV edition bears responsibility to make it as readable as possible.

Many Bible publishers don’t do this, but Norton, working with Cambridge University Press, did. His careful philological work revealed that the KJV translators, like all writers of their day, were inconsistent in their spelling practices. So he conformed spelling to contemporary norms, but without changing archaic words. “Spake” is now “spoke.” “Shew” is now “show.” (“Saith” did not become “says,” however—that would be a major alteration of the character of the language.) This spelling update honors the authorial intention of the KJV translators while eliminating unnecessary distance between us and them, a distance which makes reading unnecessarily difficult for contemporary readers. Reading a first-edition KJV with its Gothic type and (to us) odd spelling is very distracting:

The seventeenth and eighteenth century editions themselves updated KJV spelling—witneffe became witness, commeth became cometh, loue became love—and I think we can all be thankful they did. Why not update that spelling just a bit more? No words are being changed. Here’s Norton at that same verse:

As you can see, Norton also gave careful attention to typography. That’s a big reason why his work is called a “Paragraph Bible” (the other is that he is following in the tradition of F.H.A. Scrivener’s 1873 Cambridge Paragraph Bible, another excellent scholarly edition of the KJV and a book Logos worked very hard to release in our format). Norton’s text is presented in a single-column layout which, as I’ve often argued, facilitates contextually sensitive reading. He added in paragraph breaks where the KJV lacks them (he notes that “one of the curiosities of the KJB is that there are no paragraph marks after Acts 20 [and] only one in Psalms” [49]). He laid out the poetry as poetry rather than as paragraph chunks.

Other things being equal, this layout, with both poetic lines and elegant paragraph divisions…

…is easier to read than a layout with no line or paragraph divisions, or the more common KJV layout in which every verse (an arbitrary division already) is made into a separate paragraph.

Norton also added quotation marks, a seemingly small change which is nonetheless a profound help to today’s readers. He eliminated the confusing custom of using italics to mark words supplied by the translators—a practice that, Norton argues persuasively, obstructs readers and looks like emphasis to modern eyes when that was not the KJV translators’ intent (if you think those italics are beneficial, Norton has some wise reasons to reconsider; 49, 162–163).

The KJV was itself a revision of a revision of a revision: the KJV translators were instructed to revise the 1568 Bishop Bible, which in turn revised the Great Bible, a revision of Tyndale. On the very first page the KJV proclaims that it was produced “with the former translations diligently compared and revised.” And today, nothing short of a genuine revision will make the KJV as readable as the NIV or even the ESV—which is a revision of a revision of a revision of the KJV—but Norton did everything within his power to make the text accessible to contemporary readers without revising it. The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible is a beautiful, useful volume. If Bible readers prefer the KJV, this is the edition they should read. If Bible students wish to study the KJV, this is the edition they should turn to.

The best tool for the job

I love the KJV and always will. I memorized countless verses and phrases from it as a child. But it is no longer a vernacular Bible translation and never again will be—a claim I hope to back up in an upcoming Lexham book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

But I don’t wish to escape the influence of the venerable King James Version, even if it were possible. I am genuinely thankful for its outsize role in English Bible history. I think it has had profoundly positive effects (as any good Bible translation in any language will do, because they are God’s words). It is natural and understandable that such a Christian monolith will take time to replace. And while it still has a hold on English-speaking Christianity, we should make the KJV as accessible as possible. The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible is the best tool for that job. Both in print and in digital formats, it ought to become the new standard edition of the King James Version.

The Logos edition is currently on pre-pub, which makes it very affordable to add to your Logos library. When it comes out it will have all the functionality of a Logos Bible: morphological tagging; Bible-text-only reading; highlighting; labeling; powerful, fine-grained searching. Theological writers who cite the KJV ought generally to cite this edition. Pastors who for various reasons preach from the KJV will want to use it as well. There are tiny, minor variations within printed and electronic copies of the KJV. The NCPB is the new standard.

Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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  • When I was still preaching from the KJV (just last year), I had switched to the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible. I don’t remember how I came across it, but I love it. In fact, my former church bought copies for most every family.

      • None to my knowledge. I did promote the New Cambridge Paragraph to several people across the country and gave away a few copies. But I don’t personally know of anyone who uses it regularly or when preaching.

  • Great write up. The challenge I have is that I WANT to have available the original version (as close as possible to the initial 1611). the Cambridge paragraph is a great one, otherwise. I don’t want to see the intent, I want to see the initial revisions/results.

  • Seems to me like both ways are trying to be had here. If one is going to produce a “real” KJV (original), then your statement, “anyone who publishes a KJV edition bears responsibility to make it as readable as possible” should be rejected outright. Rather, anyone who publishes a self-proclaimed original KJV bears responsibility to stick with original spellings (and errors) as much as possible. The biggest problem I have with the KJV-only crowd you cite in the post is their inconsistency in dealing with editions while being dogmatic about some mythical single book. (That’s why they don’t like this one, by the way.) But steering them toward this as the original won’t be helpful. They need to be steered toward the original, original. (That’ll fix a few of their wagons…maybe.)

    Now, what this author has done is a fine thing to do, but don’t sell it as “the real” KJV, but another edition.

    Interesting article on an interesting edition. Thanks, Mark.

    • The biggest problem I have with the KJV-only crowd you cite in the post is their inconsistency in dealing with editions while being dogmatic about some mythical single book.

      I’m with you. The rhetoric that claims absolute perfection, not a syllable out of place, both for the Greek New Testament and for one particular English Bible, is not helpful. The KJV translators themselves did not think they were making a perfect translation, but thought they were making (as they said) “a good one better” (xxxi).

      The question is this: how do I help laypeople, Christ’s sheep, whose consciences have been inappropriately bound by their leaders to this one translation? I think I do the very best I can to lead them toward the most readable edition of this translation that they’ll accept. I want to be as careful as I can with people’s consciences.

  • Very interesting, Mark. I hv the Cambridge Paragraph Bible by Scrivener in my logos library. A bit reluctant in using it, because I’m not sure of the beneficial difference. In my younger years i memorized KJV verses, then for many years I use NKJV n last one is ESV. Btw, English is not my mother tongue. So, what is the difference between the Cambridge Paragraph by Skinner n the one by Norton? How much or how significant? Would it help for textual study? Thanks.

    • Gerald, what makes you happy with the 1769 revision as opposed to other editions of the KJV? Just curious!

      And I think the point Norton makes is that none of the “1611 KJVs” on the market actually reflect the full intentions of the translators.

  • Quote “The seventeenth and eighteenth century editions themselves updated KJV spelling—witneffe became witness, commeth became cometh, loue became love—and I think we can all be thankful they did. Why not update that spelling just a bit more? No words are being changed.”

    I enjoy this advantage compared to the version of 1611!
    For my personal devotion I dislike the “advantage” of the modern basic UBS text in any translation, although I also use the NKJV, NASB, RSV, NIV, etc. for research

  • Just a lighthearted side note: any photographic copy of any of the “original” KJV 1611 editions can stop an argument by a “Shakespeare couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s plays because he was so badly schooled that he signed his own name three different ways in his will” sort in its tracks. The simple fact is that until spellings actually hardened slowly via consensus in printed dictionaries spelling itself was a free-for-all. The idea of a correct spelling for a word, like anything involved in printing, has its disadvantages as well as advantages. Many people today can’t deal well, say, with William Faulkner’s use of dialect spellings like “Cunnel settin thar on th’ poch” for “Colonel sitting there on the porch.” Please note that I here quote Faulkner from memory and have certainly committed at least one typographic error myself in doing so.

  • It seems to me in the gothic letters is an “s” at the end of a word like the “s” we use today (like the greek letter sigma at the end), but at the beginning or inside a word it looked more like an “f”, although it was not (sigma in a word looks also different). Compare with the letter “f” in the word “of” or “after” with the “s” in “saying” or “witness” and you see the difference.

  • It used to be that one trained in Bible in order to do some kind of work for God. If in this case you have to study anyway, as opposed to just read, then you can still do no better than the tried and true KJV.. Any version of it.. The trouble is not with the Bible version.. The trouble is with the abundance of lazy “scholars”, who think that they are Bible critics… You can do no better than “study to shew yourself approved” etc. 2nd Tim. 2:15.. “Be diligent to” does nothing for me.. Should I be diligent at listening to others preach and teach what ever they studied for themselves so that I can know what to repeat to others.. I believe the old KJV… it puts the onus on whom it should be while telling me the what and how and so on… The rest is commentary.. Nothing more..

  • I have found the Logos bible software to be a VERY powerful and useful tool. Im just a student but I can see how it could even help a pastor prepare a sermon in half the time as normal.

  • Having done some transcription of Fraktur script for graduate work, one must be careful to differentiate between an “f” in which the horizontal stroke is on both sides of the upright stroke, whereas what Unicode calls the “Latin Small Letter Long S” (U+017F) places the horizontal stroke only on the left side of the upright stroke or omits it altogether, as it does here: ſ. Therefore, “witneffe,” is better set as “witneſſe.” While Wikipedia is not an altogether trustworthy source, it can offer some trailheads to chase if you would like to learn more. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_s

    • Scott, this is excellent.

      I will point out that I purposefully wrote “phenomenologically.” That is, I assumed a readership that (like me) so utterly rarely encounters witneſſe that it will intuitively register those careful ſ’s as f’s. The actual “spelling” of witneſſe has only changed by one letter between 1611 and today, but the “orthography” or perhaps just the “letter forms” have changed drastically. Subsequent editors of the KJV over time felt free to move with the orthographic times. We should feel the same liberty and yet still be able to call what we’re reading “the KJV.”

      • Between you and Scott, Mark, I think you’ve pretty much said what should be said about the technicalities involved with the f=s.. Why that printing quirk stayed alive so long as the 18th century, especially as a double “ss” in some nongothic fonts is unsettled. Best answer or guess, in my opinion, would be the economics involved in wood block fonts: a double s could easily be made in a single printing letter (which would look like two letters to the reader). The single letter double-s would be stronger and more smash-resistant in the actual printing process–more like the capital H.
        I’m not a scholar of printing-publishing history. But I have been a volunteer proofreader for Project Gutenberg.it for a few years and recently worked on a Latin text by Bartolomaeus Paginellus printed in 1492 in Italy (still in pre-production) and so have recently dealt with the complexities of early mixed fonts and smashed type. H in that instance was easily readable amid smashed type.

  • I appreciate the work Dr. Norton did on the Paragraph KJV. I wished he would have kept the italics in place, but then again, his goal is making the KJV readable and perhaps the italics may take away from that. I do like my 1769 edition, Cambridge KJV Bible. I know of one man who is seriously looking to edit an American edition of the KJV. Dr. Jeff Voegtlin of Fairhaven Baptist Church. You can Google his name and see his blog and checkout his paragraph edition (currently still a work in progress). I use his materials for public Scripture reading during our church services. I am a KJV-only proponent however, I am no Ruckmanite nor Ripligner supporter. I would be closer to Dr. Edward F. Hills, Dr. Donald Waite, and Pastor Thomas Strouse, and Pastor Kent Brandenburg (who in 2006, wrote and edited a Biblical Theology on the Preservation of Scriptures, essientially KJV-only but I do believe the represent a reasonable and Biblical positon amongst the KJV-only crowd).
    Getting back to Dr. Norton, he also wrote a couple of books explaining his reasonings and finds for the KJV Paragraphed Bible, and the other one on the textual history for the KJV. Very interesting reads! Naturally, I still think highly of Burgon’s works on textual criticism, and others like Van Bruggen, and Van Kleeck (must be something about the “Van” names, ha!).
    Finally, thank you, Dr. Ward. I was just skimming through your article, but I sure look forward to carefully reading it. So much to gain from you here. Thank you!

Written by Mark Ward