Are There Critical Text Readings in the NKJV after All? A Nerdy and Detailed Response to a Set of Fair Questions.
Sometimes it takes people with the skeptical eye provided by a minority viewpoint to see things the majority cannot, comfortable as it is in its unquestioned worldview. Who questions what all “sane” people believe? We actually need a few conspiracy theories out there, and a few Cassandras. (Actually, a lot of Cassandras, I think.)
My recent post charging KJV defenders with sin because they 1) repeated the claim that the NKJV includes critical text readings and yet 2) never produced any evidence for that claim—that post has been answered by someone holding a minority viewpoint. It was KJV-Only leader Kent Brandenburg, someone who is (shall I say) skeptical of the mainstream views of textual criticism and Bible translation. My spam filter caught his comment, but it was later brought to my attention, and I’ve now approved it. He has presented me with a list of apparent critical text readings in the NKJV. He says (and I certainly believe him—he also said this years earlier) that he himself initially accepted the NKJV preface’s claim in their preface, “The editors decided to retain the traditional text in the body of the New Testament.” But, he says, he has since discovered evidence to the contrary.
What shall I do?
And here is what I will do: I will speak truth. I have to explore publicly whether what I said in that previous post is the truth, now that I have been presented with Kent’s counter-evidence. He presents a list of fifteen deviations from the TR, which amount to fourteen fair questions from the NT and one from the OT. Wisdom that is from above is open to reason (James 3:17).
When I first got that list, I assumed I was in trouble. After I had seen the list, but before I went through it, I wrote the following, and I was prepared to post it:
Let me acknowledge forthrightly: the discovery of critical text readings in the New King James Version—which, according to my own diligent researches, no KJV defenders had yet produced—has successfully shot down that recent post of mine. I have in fact taken it down, with hopes that I can revise it in time to come. My opponents, the KJV/TR defenders, win on this point. And, like dominoes, a not-insignificant element (though not the central point) of my argument in Authorized, goes down with it. I cannot now say, without an asterisk, that the NKJV “uses precisely the same Greek New Testament text as the KJV” (117).
Now, even if my supporting point about the NKJV goes down, my central case stands: the KJV is no longer fully intelligible, because English has changed over 400+ years in such a way that modern readers not merely don’t but actually can’t fully understand the KJV. KJV defenders should obey 1 Corinthians 14 and either make or use a vernacular translation of the Bible based on whatever Hebrew and Greek texts they prefer.
But the availability of the NKJV provides two important, practical supporting points for me: 1) The fact that my KJV-Only brothers have rejected it for almost 40 years tends to suggest that what they’re really trying to preserve (whether they realize it or not) is the KJV, not the TR—and therefore I can safely ignore the issue of textual criticism and focus on English translation. 2) And it matters to me that I can encourage brothers and sisters in Christ whose consciences are bound to the TR, “Feel free to use the TR: just go to your local Christian bookstore and get an NKJV [or MEV] so you can understand it all.” I think this is the first step KJV-Only institutions should take when they start to realize that retaining the KJV stands in tension with 1 Corinthians 14.
I am still right
But I have now gone through Kent’s list, and it is my belief that I do not have to retract anything—not my blog post, and not my above-quoted statement from Authorized. I am currently enjoying that delicious internet feeling of I am still right, with only a tiny dash of he has a point. [Update: Kent made further comments which have made the dash more than tiny.] I will, as a result of this exchange, add a footnote to that line in my book because of that point [Update: and I will change one word!], one I will explain in due course. But I will not change the statement. The NKJV New Testament still, to my knowledge, does not use any critical text readings [Update: I stand by this statement.].
Sadly, I don’t think my discussion below will persuade Kent, or any other KJV/TR defenders. Some interpretation of the evidence is required, and some belief in the good will of people of whom they are suspicious. But for my nerdy friends who look to me for help in this arcane area, I do have answers. (Indeed, I got help from some nerdy friends—Matt Postiff and Duncan Johnson—in working through the passages. Them I thank.)
It is my belief that all of the New Testament examples below are translation issues and not textual ones. The Old Testament example is sort of a textual issue, depending on how you look at it—but it’s complicated. See the discussion below.
Let’s go right through Kent’s list (which I edited slightly for clarity).
1. In Matthew 22:10, the CT has “ους” (“whom”) and the TR has οσους (“as many as”) and the NKJV follows the CT with “whom.”
The KJV itself translates οσος (osos) with the relative pronoun “who” in Hebrews 2:15. “All as many as” is awkward English; the NKJV translators chose a gloss for οσος (osos) that made for better English. One might disagree with their choice, but this passage does not show that the NKJV translators were following the CT rather than Scrivener’s TR.
2. In Luke 1:35, the NKJV follows the CT in leaving out “εκ σου” (“of you”) unlike the KJV.
Update (this stuff gets so nerdily complicated): in my original post, I mistook a note in my BibleWorks copy of the NKJV as one provided by the NKJV translators; it appeared to acknowledge that the English text omitted εκ σου—but not that it followed the CT. I now believe that the NKJV translators either 1) omitted to translate the phrase because it is redundant and unnatural (though certainly not impossible) in English or 2) followed Stephanus’ 1550 TR instead of Scrivener for reasons they do not give.
3. In Luke 5:7, the TR has “τοις” (“which”) and the CT doesn’t have that word; the NKJV follows the CT, while the KJV does not.
The NKJV once again went with natural English, not with the CT. “Their partners, the ones in the other boat,” is not natural. The KJV itself sometimes omits to render τοις when English does not require it—such as in Matthew 6:5, “They love to pray…that they may be seen of men [lit., “the men].”
4. Luke 6:9, the TR has a plural “σαββασιν” and the CT has a singular “σαββατω”; the KJV is plural, “Sabbath days,” and the NKJV is singular, “the Sabbath.”
The NKJV, like the KJV often does with this very word, went with natural English. The KJV itself renders plural forms of σαββατον with a singular in 11 out of 19 opportunities. In Matthew 12 alone the KJV renders the plural (“Sabbaths”) with singulars twice and with plurals three times.
5. John 10:12, the CT leaves out the last word, “προβατα,” sheep, and the NKJV follows that, while the KJV follows the TR, which has that word, “προβατα,” sheep.
The NKJV uses natural English word order—producing an anaphoric rather than a cataphoric pronominal reference, because the former is easier to follow—rather than what a woodenly literal English translation might require. If the NKJV followed the CT, it would not have “sheep” anywhere in the last clause (see NASB, ESV, NIV).
6. John 19:10, the CT leaves out a second “εχω” (“have”) and the NKJV follows that, not the TR, differing than the KJV.
This example is simply wrong; the CT has two instances of εχω, just like Scrivener’s TR. In fact, the NKJV follows Scrivener’s word order with “crucify” and then “release,” rather than the CT’s order with “release” and then “crucify.”
7. Acts 15:23, the NKJV follows the CT in omitting “ταδε (tade),” or “after this manner.”
The NKJV did not omit ταδε; they simply rendered it with “this” instead of “after this manner.”
8. Acts 17:14, the NKJV omits “as it were” (ως) and thus once again follows the CT.
“Ως” is not missing in the CT; rather “ε” is present—thus “εως,” meaning “until” or “as far as.” The NKJV clearly does not render εως here; it simply omits to represent ως with one English lexeme. It opts for more natural English, just like the KJV does in John 19:33, when for the sake of smooth English they omit to render ως and instead “add” an “and” that isn’t in the Greek text (one they do not italicize).
9. Acts 19:9, the NKJV follows the CT in omitting “τινος.”
This is a matter of English style and not of text; we no longer say “one Tyrannus,” or “a certain Tyrannus” except in highly formalized situations. If this decision happens to match the CT (and it does), this is no proof that the NKJV used the CT.
10. Acts 19:39, the NKJV follows the CT in “περαιτερω” instead of “περι ετερων.”
I believe this example is simply incorrect. The NKJV seems to me to be consistent with KJV here. If the NKJV were translating the CT, one would expect some idea of “further” or of information “beyond” their original inquiry—as CT-based translations such as the NIV and ESV do.
11. Romans 14:9, the CT leaves out the first “και,” which is translated “both” in the KJV and left out in the NKJV, following the CT.
To use “both” here would be ungrammatical in contemporary English; “both” is now limited to introducing lists of two items (I confirmed this in Chicago and in M-W). The NKJV omitted to render και not for reasons of text but in order to produce grammatical English.
12. Colossians 3:17, the CT does not include “και,” as does the NKJV.
This is the strongest objection in the list of fourteen New Testament examples. I believe it is possible to view the NKJV’s rendering as a translation decision, not a textual one (and my friend Michael Aubrey, the proprietor of Koine-Greek.com, agrees)—because in the TR this is a textbook example of the Granville-Sharp construction: article + singular substantive + και + singular substantive. But to translate it the way such a construction is normally translated sounds awkward: “giving thanks to the God and Father by [Jesus].” So if a Granville-Sharp construction communicates the “unity” and even the “identity” of the two substantives (see Wallace), perhaps the NKJV translators felt that natural English communicating this identity would omit “and.” Now we have the normal “God the Father” instead of the apparent possibility of two different beings, “God and the Father.” Even the KJV doesn’t opt for a fully literal rendering: they move the article: “giving thanks to God and the Father by [Jesus].” But that, to my mind, is awkward, too. (And note: the Majority text actually omits και here.)
I must acknowledge that it is at least equally possible that, for a reason they do not share, the NKJV translators decided to follow the CT here. Later I’ll explain why I lean against this view.
13. Jude 1:3, the NKJV includes “our” (“ημων”), following the CT.
The KJV itself sometimes translates articles as pronouns when it doesn’t have to: “She is loosed from the law of her husband [του ανδρος]” in Romans 7:2 could be “She is loosed from the law of the husband.” The KJV translators removed the article and replaced it with what is more natural in English.
However, this passage appears to me to be the second strongest example in the list. It is at least equally possible that, for a reason they do not share, the NKJV translators decided to follow the CT. Later I’ll explain why I lean against this view.
14. Jude 1:19, the CT omits εαυτου (“themselves”), as does the NKJV.
This is certainly a translation choice and not a textual one. The NKJV translators rendered “the ones who separate themselves” as “[those] who cause divisions.” One may disagree with their philosophy and insist on a more literal rendering, but they did not purposefully “omit” a word.
15. Isaiah 9:3, the NKJV changes the Hebrew text behind the KJV by leaving out the “not” (“לא”) with OT textual criticism, the difference being that joy is increased instead of not being increased.
The NKJV has a footnote here explaining that they followed the Qere reading. I am not an expert in Old Testament textual criticism, and at first it seemed to me that Kent might have a point here. The NKJV translators don’t claim in their preface to follow the exact text behind the KJV in the Old Testament, so maybe here they didn’t follow it. According to that preface, they followed the 1967/77 BHS. But James D. Price, former professor at Tennessee Temple and head editor of the NKJV Old Testament, very specifically says that he personally ensured that in the eight places in the entire Old Testament in which the BHS fails to match the Bomberg text used by the KJV translators, the NKJV went with Bomberg and not with BHS. Evidently, Price does not consider this choice in Isaiah 9 to be a textual-critical one. Indeed, to call a reading supplied (or suggested—we simply don’t know) by the medieval Masoretes, long before the advent of critical scholarship, the result of “textual criticism” seems like a confusion of categories. And the KJV translators themselves have what is essentially a textual note here in the margin. All the NKJV did was swap the two:
On balance, I don’t think I’ll alter what I’ve written in the past in my book or in articles. But I’ll be ready with this asterisk (and will likely add this footnote to my book if I get the chance): “In Isaiah 9:3, the NKJV match the KJV’s marginal reading rather than its text.”
The NKJV translators said they used “the traditional text” for the New Testament. In several places Kent mentioned—especially two of them, in my view—it is possible but not certain that they used a critical text (CT) instead. There are three options I see for explaining all this:
- Option 1: The NKJV translators lied. They secretly incorporated random, insignificant variants from the CT into the NKJV, for reasons of spite (?) or humor (?) or something perhaps nefarious. This is the conclusion of the KJV-Only movement.
- Option 2: The NKJV translators made mistakes. They accidentally picked up the wrong GNT at a few random places. Or they remembered CT readings and didn’t realize they were using them.
- Option 3: The NKJV translators told the truth, and their apparent deviations from the TR are due to the exigencies of translation—style, euphony, clarity—and not text.
Why do I adopt the third explanation? First, because I looked at the passages myself and believe I’m right.
Second, because I am skeptical of conspiracy theories. It is the nature of conspiracy theories to see significant, malign motivation behind actions that are better described as minor, or coincidental, or thoughtless. To the conspiracy theorist, enemies loom larger than real life; they have insidious plans and secret powers. If I may edit Chesterton (and please bear with the long quote—it’s been so valuable to me over the years!):
The [conspiracy theorist]…generally sees too much cause in everything. [He] would read a conspiratorial significance into…empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass [by a man walking with a cane] was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels [by that same stranger across the street] was a signal to an accomplice. If the [conspiracy theorist] could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of [a conspiracy theory], knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a [conspiracy theorist], it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections…. The [conspiracy theorist] is not the man who has lost his reason. [He] is the man who has lost everything except his reason. (Orthodoxy)
Okay, so in a number of random places, none of which seems to have any doctrinal significance—or mean anything different from what the KJV means—the NKJV translators are supposed to have meddled with the true text of Scripture? “Our salvation” vs. “the salvation”? “A certain Tyrannus” vs. “Tyrannus”? Why bother sneaking in such meaningless variations—if it was done for textual critical reasons at all? A little good humor—and, most important of all, a little charity—could change the whole picture for TR defenders in an instant. They could see, I think, that when the evidence could point either way, it’s best to show charity toward one’s opponents and believe that they are telling the truth. They would see that the NKJV translators had nothing to gain by following the CT in obscure places.
And if, somewhere, Kent can find an example that simply cannot be explained as a translation decision, then it is more charitable to resort to the explanation of finiteness than to fallenness. Only inspired people make no mistakes. As the KJV translators themselves said,
Whatever was perfect under the sun, where Apostles or apostolic men, that is, men endued with an extraordinary measure of God’s Spirit, and privileged with the privilege of infallibility, had not their hand? (xxviii)
The KJV translators did not believe their work was perfect. Maybe the NKJV can still be useful even if it doesn’t reach perfection either.
Quite obviously, I wouldn’t have taken the time to respond to Kent if I didn’t believe this discussion mattered. I took his list very seriously, and I’m glad I did. I learned a few interesting things about the NKJV and KJV. I also wouldn’t have taken this time if I didn’t value my ability to urge KJV-Only brothers toward the NKJV.
So let me urge them again: my brothers in Christ who insist on the exclusive use of the King James Version, pick up the NKJV. Write in a “not” in Isaiah 9:3 if you must; add “one” before “Tyrannus” in Acts 19:9. [Update: change “gone out into the world” to “entered into the world” in 2 John 1:7.] But 1 Corinthians 14 tells us that edification requires intelligibility, and the NKJV is noticeably more intelligible than the KJV. This is not due to any fault in the KJV or its translators; nor is it due to any fault in modern readers. It is due solely the dead words and “false friends” produced by language change. If you’d like to learn more about this, here’s a short book to read, and here’s an infotainment documentary to watch.
It is not true to call the NKJV a “critical text Bible,” as many KJV-Only leaders have done. Doing so poisons the well for a simple Christian who has no capacity to evaluate their claim. If someone’s conscience (or official doctrinal statement) limits him to using the Hebrew and Greek texts underlying the KJV, then the NKJV is still the best choice I know of for private and pulpit use.