An Evaluation of the Work of Charles Surrett on the New King James Version
I love my brothers and sisters in Christ who insist on the exclusive use of the King James Version, because we have a “like precious faith” in the biblical gospel—and because certain of those brothers and sisters showed great love to me in high school. They continue to do so.
I wrote Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible to appeal to the great majority of people who use the KJV and no other Bible translation—people who, in God’s good providence, have no facility with Greek or Hebrew and little or no direct knowledge of textual criticism, Bible translation philosophy, or other difficult topics caught up in debates over English Bible versions.
But some Christians who insist that the KJV is the only truly trustworthy English Bible have studied the original languages; they’ve also done some reading on translation philosophy and textual criticism. They put forth some serious points and have cited Scripture in favor of the Textus Receptus underlying the KJV, and against contemporary translations which are based on other editions of the Greek New Testament. They deserve to be answered.
One such man is Charles (“Chuck”) Surrett, longtime pastor at various churches and longtime professor and Academic Dean (now retired, he just told me via email the other day) at Ambassador Baptist College in Shelby, NC. I’ve had several brief correspondences with Surrett, and in each case he has been gracious, clear, and straightforward (Ambassador students who have mentioned him to me always speak of him with respect). He has made key distinctions between his viewpoint and a truly KJV-Only viewpoint. To him, the text is the issue. God promised a “certain” text (Prov 22:20–21 and other verses), and the TR is it. Other English translations might be made from the TR, in his view, but the KJV is still the best available.
I have been asked several times to provide an evaluation of Surrett’s work. I have indeed read both of his books on bibliology, and have listened to two chapel sermons he gave at Ambassador on the topic. I am not aware of any other publicly available writings from him on this topic.
Nearly all advocates of any form of KJV-Onlyism have two separate strands of argument, and it is essential that these be kept separate: text and translation. The most important arguments Surrett has made are biblical, and they are about preservation of the Hebrew and Greek texts. I hope to tackle those arguments in another (shorter) article.
But I wish to keep that discussion completely separate from the topic of this lengthy article (which at one time I considered turning into a small ebook—hence the length; sorry!). The topic here is translation, specifically Surrett’s evaluation of the New King James Version.
Surrett is, by far, the one “KJV-Only” brother I know of who has done the most careful work evaluating the NKJV. He has taken the time to sit down and look at the NKJV rather than dismissing it. He knows that it is based on the same Hebrew and Greek texts as the KJV, and he knows that, given his “the text is the issue” viewpoint, it should be theoretically possible for the NKJV to take over the place of the KJV in the English-speaking church.
Now, I did much of the work below almost two years ago. I sent it to brother Surrett and did not hear back. And then I sat on it. I don’t like appearing to go after people. I have to underscore that I’ve always seen Surrett as different from the run-of-the-mill KJV-Only leader. More careful, more knowledgeable, more gracious. He even worked with me in the construction of KJVParallelBible.org when pretty well every other strong TR defender I talked to ignored my courteous pleas. He’s also an older man with a faithful ministry track record, and the Bible gives me special obligations toward him. I am not to rebuke him but to encourage or exhort or entreat or appeal to him (1 Tim 5:1), depending on what translation you look at! I’d actually prefer a different sparring partner, in good part for this reason.
But I don’t have anyone else to interact with when it comes to KJV-Only critiques of the NKJV, and answering such critiques is an important part of my overall case, which is that because of changes in English over 400-plus years, the excellent KJV is no longer fully intelligible to today’s plow boy. If someone prefers to use an English translation based on the Textus Receptus, the NKJV meets the standard of Scripture: edification requires intelligibility. It uses contemporary English.
But the NKJV is almost universally dismissed in the KJV/TR world. KJV/TR defenders either lump it in with the critical text Bibles (which simply isn’t true; I note that Surrett doesn’t do this), or they reject it because it includes marginal notes that show how the critical text of the New Testament reads (which is odd considering that the KJV translators themselves included textual variants in the margins of the KJV). I don’t know anyone in the KJV-Only world who has done the amount and kind of work Surrett has done on the NKJV. I want to interact with the very best proponents of a given position. When it comes to opposition to the NKJV, Surrett is it.
I will focus on the book in which Surrett spends the most time on the NKJV: Certainty of the Words. I regret any confusion this may cause, but in my evaluation of Surrett’s work I will actually structure this piece by the arguments he made in a related talk he gave at Ambassador Baptist College (one based on the same research).
Certainty of the Words
The promotional description of Surrett’s book promises
an exegetical evaluation of the old King James Version compared with the NKJV, showing by a study of every word in the books of Genesis, Romans, and Revelation, that the old KJV is a superior translation to the NKJV.
With this conclusion all KJV-Only Christians agree. Why? Shouldn’t we expect that some TR defenders would prefer the KJV and some the NKJV? Why are they not happy with a translation of the TR into contemporary English—if the text is the issue?
Because, they say, the NKJV isn’t as accurate as the KJV. And when you ask for examples, these examples trickle down from someone like Surrett. Surrett, too, is “KJV-Only”—in the qualified sense that he believes the King James Version is the “most accurate rendering of God’s original words” and that other versions are “inferior.” He says, in a kind of thesis statement for his book,
The King James Version, as the best English translation of the TR, should not be abandoned, nor replaced by inferior versions which sacrifice accuracy for readability. (Kindle loc. 91)
And in his book (and that talk) he attempts to prove this viewpoint in the most responsible way possible—in what is ultimately the only responsible way possible: by discussing actual examples. I applaud Surrett, because few people have the patience to do this very difficult and time-consuming work. Let me tell you, this work gets tiresome for everybody. But patient examination is the only way a translation can be evaluated fairly: only by discussing a sufficient sampling of the tens of thousands of choices that go into a translation can you form an accurate generalization about them. Shouldn’t this point be obvious? I’m afraid it frequently isn’t. But Surrett understands it.
Now what counts as a sufficient number of examples? I’m not precisely sure; perhaps the 7% or so of the Bible that Surrett looked at—Genesis, Romans, and Revelation—is indeed enough. It’s certainly a far bigger sample size than those taken by anyone else I’ve ever seen in the KJV-Only movement. And in his talk he gives examples from outside those three books. Surrett did many hours of homework, and again I applaud him.
But I disagree with Surrett’s ultimate assessment of the New King James Version. I don’t think the NKJV is less accurate than the KJV, or vice versa. I think the only significant, generalizable difference between these two versions—really, the NKJV is just the second-latest (to the MEV) revision of the KJV—is that they translate Scripture into two different English dialects.
I will now pause to note that all of the speakers of one of those dialects are dead.
I also disagree with what I take to be a key underlying premise of Surrett’s work, namely that there’s got to be one best translation of the Bible into English. Indeed, many of the examples Surrett gives are not clear “wins” for either the KJV or NKJV. There are good reasons to take each option. Translation is not a zero-sum game. In quite a number of Surrett’s examples, I don’t really care to pick a clear winner, because each translation is valuable for helping readers understand what God has said. Indeed—why can’t readers use both the NKJV and the KJV? Who’s stopping them?
The answer is: people like Charles Surrett and the institutions he represents (when he wrote Certainty of the Words, he was Academic Dean at Ambassador). Surrett is not responsible for all of the sometimes wild claims made within KJV-Onlyism. But he is a key pillar holding up a system in which the KJV is the only acceptable translation. Many people who haven’t done the work to evaluate the NKJV rely on his authority when they warn in dark tones about the errors and dangers of the NKJV. I have heard them do it.
Surrett himself concludes his talk with this comment:
Although the New King James has the advantage of using more modern English, I think it is a decidedly inferior translation to the old King James.
Who wants to use a “decidedly inferior translation”? Surrett’s message (in book and talk) seems to be that the NKJV is too faulty to be worthy of people’s trust.
My plan in this long article
I want to evaluate a number of of Surrett’s examples. How many do I myself need to discuss in order to demonstrate that I have given his work a responsible evaluation? Do I have to discuss all of the examples he mentions in his own short book? That would make for a full-length book, because many of his examples appear in chart form with no explanation.
So I decided to let Surrett choose a representative sample of his own work. Below I examine all but three of the passages Surrett felt were important enough to include in that talk he gave on the contents of Certainty of the Words. He gave fourteen examples of the KJV’s superiority over the NKJV, then listed seven more “samplings” very briefly. (The three I skip are minor, and I give an explanation below.)
If Surrett felt this was a sufficient sample size to be persuasive and just in that talk, then for the purposes of this article, I will, too.
I do believe that this sample will prove to be of sufficient size to question Surrett’s conclusion and methodology. I think the NKJV is a fine translation that my TR-Only brothers and sisters ought to be happy with. And yet because I refuse to play a zero-sum game, I don’t see why the KJV has to be set aside and fully “replaced” by the NKJV: I still use the KJV all the time in my personal Bible study. What Surrett and those who follow him should not do is ignore or dismiss the NKJV. They should take it as what it is, and what the KJV is: a good but not perfect gift of God.
1. “He” vs. “he” (Psalm 37:23)
The first passage Surrett cites in his talk to show the superiority of the NKJV over the KJV is Psalm 37:23. The NKJV interprets the text for the reader by uppercasing “He” and therefore making God the subject of the clause:
- KJV: The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD: And he delighteth in his way.
- NKJV: The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, and He delights in his way. (NKJV)
Surrett disagrees with the interpretation assumed by the NKJV here—and, to pick up a theme that comes up repeatedly in his work, he doesn’t like interpretation inside a translation more generally.
Many of the observed differences [between the KJV and NKJV] can be explained by the fact that the NKJV translators often told what they felt the passage meant, rather than strictly translating what the original languages said. It is not that the NKJV should be considered heretical, because it does not teach false doctrines. It could, however, be seen to be considerably less accurate than the KJV. It is supposed to be a Bible, not a commentary. (loc. 976)
So he acknowledges that the NKJV’s interpretations are (generally) not wrong, at least in a doctrinal sense. But he thinks translations should stay out of the interpretation business.
If all I get is one Bible translation, I actually side with Surrett in the particular case of Psalm 37:23. I’d want my one translation not to capitalize deity pronouns (I think that “rule” has lived out its useful life) so that it wouldn’t require itself to make an interpretation in a verse like this.
We have a case, then, not of good vs. bad but of inspired ambiguity
Another note, however: Surrett is assuming that interpretation in a translation is bad; and yet he came up with these examples by looking for places where the NKJV differed from the KJV. So, yes, it may be that many of these examples are instances in which the NKJV is more interpretive—but he’s assuming that wherever the KJV and NKJV agree, interpretation is absent. Do you follow? Just because the NKJV is more interpretive in some instances doesn’t mean the KJV avoids interpretation.
Pick up a book like Dave Brunn’s One Bible, Many Versions and you’ll see that the KJV can be a good deal more interpretive than the capitalization of a deity pronoun. “God forbid” is the classic example, but Brunn offers even more. In general, however, the KJV and NKJV are both widely considered to be fairly literal/formal.
So why not give me both the KJV and the NKJV (and a few other translations), and give me a little training as an English Bible reader in how to spot and then weigh “interpretation”? I myself have benefited from all kinds of translations, and I’ve done so countless times.
Again I ask: why do we have to have one best translation? Why not multiple useful ones?
2. “Repent” vs. “Relent” (Matthew 21:32)
Here’s the second example Surrett chooses in his talk: in Matthew 21:32, Surrett doesn’t like the NKJV’s use of relent to translate μεταμέλομαι (metamelomai). (Actually, in the talk, he said the word was μετάνοια (metanoia), but I presume he misspoke. It’s μεταμέλομαι in both Scrivener’s TR and in the critical text. Surrett gets this right in his book.)
- KJV: For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.
- NKJV: For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.
Surrett says, “Relent is a much weaker concept than repentance.” His argument feeds into a narrative already existing in the minds of his KJV-Only hearers in which the modern translations are all part of a conspiracy to “weaken” the teachings of the Bible. I’m not saying he believes this conspiracy; though I’m confident that his audience largely does—and I’m equally confident that he knew this.
But what does μεταμέλομαι (metamelomai) mean? The standard dictionaries all say it means “regret,” not “repent.” “Relent” is a fine translation.
And it has now taken us only us till example no. 2 to see Surrett tripped up by a “false friend,” the key concept in my book. In 1611, repent didn’t always mean what we mean by it today. The OED has this for sense 1 of repent:
To review one’s actions and feel contrition or regret for something one has done or omitted to do; (esp. in religious contexts) to acknowledge the sinfulness of one’s past action or conduct by showing sincere remorse and undertaking to reform in the future. Formerly also in weakened sense: †to change one’s mind (obsolete).
You can see this weaker-but-now-obsolete sense of repentmore clearly in other passages in the KJV:
And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt. (Exodus 13:17 KJV)
The NKJV uses “change their minds” here.
Or look at this one:
Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders. (Matthew 27:3 KJV)
Did Judas really repent? Or was what he did weaker than the full concept of NT repentance? The word here in Greek is not the standard word for repentance, namely μετανοέω (metanoeo). It’s μεταμέλομαι (metamelomai) again, just like Matt 21:32. The NKJV uses the word “remorseful.” I think the NKJV was right here.
But, to be clear, I think the KJV was right, too. They were translating for a different dialect of English than the NKJV, for a different set of English speakers. They used the senses of the word repent that were available to them, including the stronger and weaker senses it had at the time, senses that had to be discerned from context. The NKJV translators didn’t have the weaker sense of repent when they did their work in the 1970s and early 80s; that weaker sense doesn’t exist anymore. And modern readers can’t be expected to realize that repent used to have a weaker sense long before we were born. We shouldn’t ask English Bible readers today to learn such obscure philological factoids in order to read their Bibles with understanding. People need the Bible in their English, not someone else’s.
And Surrett fails to apply his analysis back to the KJV. The KJV says “early will I seek thee” in Psalm 63:1. The NKJV sticks with the same wording, but most other translations say “earnestly” instead of “early.” The NASB and ESV, then are “stronger,” because earnestly is more intense than early. Are the KJV and NKJV “weakening” the verse? No. Both choices are legitimate; the Hebrew can be translated accurately either way. Bible translation is not a competition.
Comparing Bible translations is hard work that requires knowledge not just of Greek and Hebrew but of English. Bring the KJV into the discussion and you’ve introduced a new level: a different dialect of English that one must master in order to make a just judgment.
3. “Comforter” vs. “Helper” (John 14:26)
Surrett says something similar about John 14:26 that he said about 1 Corinthians 6:9. He says that Comforter is “a whole lot stronger term than Helper.”
- KJV: But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things.
- NKJV: But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things.
I’m not sure either word is “stronger” than the other. And again I’m wondering: what does the original Greek word (parakletos) mean? Turns out this is a tough one. The major English translations go different directions. And as long as I’m not straightjacketed by the quest to find The One True Translation of the Bible, I’m free to benefit from all the renderings out there. If gifted, trained, godly people chose different options, perhaps I have something to learn from them. Perhaps parakletos is a rich term whose riches I’ll access best through multiple English angles—provided by multiple English Bible translations.
And I think that’s precisely the case. Translation requires judgment calls. There isn’t always a “right” and a “wrong” choice. Both “Comforter” and “Helper” have something to teach us about the Holy Spirit. And there are more options, too. “Advocate” draws on the use of parakletos in legal contexts. So, perhaps, does “Counselor.” I’ve also seen translations go with “Friend” and “Companion.” I don’t know off the top of my head why certain Bible translations went with those options. I do know that the scholars who chose these renderings were not dummies; they had cogent reasons for their choices, even if, sometimes, I end up disagreeing. A little digging in commentaries and study Bibles will help me find those good reasons, and will increase my knowledge of what Christ was trying to communicate, perhaps even by displaying the ambiguity Jesus chose to use. Is Christ allowed to use a word that can’t be translated easily into one English word? He is Lord of all; he’s allowed.
It’s tempting to believe that there’s only one possible accurate translation of any given passage. Maybe certain Christians feel as if allowing variations in translation will crack the Bible into a million pieces, make it say anything the translators want. But this simply isn’t the case. One sentence in a language is capable of multiple accurate translations, each saying the same thing in slightly different ways. The same can be true of one word, like parakletos. And inside those differences there are insights to be had.
4. “Godhead” vs. “divine nature” (Acts 17:29)
Next up, Acts 17:29.
- KJV: Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.
- NKJV: Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.
Surrett argues, “You and I have the divine nature, according to 1 Peter. But this is not talking about us; it’s talking about God.”
I’m having a little trouble following his point here. I think I can see that someone who isn’t reading carefully could possibly conclude that “Divine Nature” is a reference to humans, since humans are mentioned in the previous part of the verse (“since we are the offspring of God”). And it’s true that this misreading is much less likely in the KJV.
But it isn’t the NKJV’s fault that an accurate translation of the word θεῖος (theios) could possibly be misread. Good translations don’t guarantee perfect interpretation. “Godhead” isn’t a common English word. “Divine nature” is a lot more accessible. And what does “Godhead” mean, according to the OED? “The character or quality of being God or a god; divine nature or essence; deity.”
I can’t see Surrett’s objection as anything but what the KJV translators called a “cavil.”
5. “Require” vs. “Request” (1 Corinthians 1:22)
Here’s another one Surrett brings up, 1 Corinthians 1:22.
- KJV: For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom.
- NKJV: For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom.
Surrett sees here another “weakening” of the Bible. But Surrett got tripped up here by another “false friend,” one I hadn’t noticed until he brought it up—I speak the same version of English Surrett does and have had to train hard over years to notice false friends in the KJV; I still regularly miss them. Require in 1611 in a context like 1 Cor 1:22 just meant “ask,” not “demand.” And the Greek word here, αἰτέω (aiteo), is indeed most commonly translated “ask,” not “demand.” (See OED, s.v. ask, sense 2.)
To see places where require in the KJV meant only “ask” and not “demand,” you just do a word search. For example, Ezra says in Ezra 8:22, “I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy.” Priests within captive, subjugated nations don’t “require” kings to give them things in the modern sense. Ezra was talking about “asking,” “requesting.” To make matters more complicated, a number of modern translations do go for “demand” at Ezra 8:22, while others stick with “ask.” It’s about evenly split. But this is yet another judgment call, not a matter of right or wrong. The KJV translators themselves included alternate translations in the margins. Why is it so bad for two translations to choose different viable options? At the very least, it is not necessary to declare a clear “winner” here at Ezra 8:22—and not at 1 Cor 1:22 either, once you realize that by require the KJV translators meant request.
6. “Effeminate” vs. “Homosexuals” (1 Corinthians 6:9)
The sixth example of the NKJV’s superiority that Surrett attempts to adduce in his talk is actually a good example of a less-than-fully-literal translation in the KJV—something Surrett, in my judgment, doesn’t account for in his book or his talk. It’s 1 Corinthians 6:9.
- KJV: Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind.
- NKJV: Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites.
The most literal translation of μαλακός (malakos) would be “soft.” That’s how the word gets translated at its two other occurrences in the KJV, Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25, where Jesus speaks of “a man clothed in soft raiment.” But when the word is put in a pairing with (Paul’s new coinage) ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoites), it refers to the passive male partner in a homosexual pairing, the man taking the feminine role in a sexual encounter.
No doubt, such a person is effeminate, at the very least in that respect. But the choice between “effeminate” and “homosexual” is a judgment call; I’ve studied it in some detail (I wrote a paper on ἀρσενοκοίτης for a little colloquium of Bible PhDs) and I could go either way. “Effeminate” is definitely legitimate: it’s the gloss chosen by BDAG, the standard Greek-English lexicon. But the word chosen by the NKJV arguably makes it clearer to modern readers what Paul is really talking about. In a way, the NKJV is “interpreting,” but so is the KJV. Each interpretation has pros and cons. It’s not a zero-sum game in which one wins the title “accurate” and the other goes home in shame with “inaccurate” stamped on its cover.
(And don’t forget the next phrase: I think the KJV’s “abusers of themselves with mankind” is a lot less clear to modern readers than the NKJV’s strong and blunt “sodomites”).
7. “Heretick” vs. “Divisive Man” (Titus 3:10)
Another passage Surrett discusses is Titus 3:10.
- KJV: A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject.
- NKJ: Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition.
Here Surrett got tripped up by the appeal of using an English cognate, because the Greek word is αἱρετικὸν (hairetikon), the etymological source of our word heretic. He assumes that the transliteration of the word (he mentions this explicitly) is necessarily a more literal and accurate translation.
But our word heretic has taken on a very specific meaning that it didn’t have in Paul’s day. Today heretic means, “a person believing in or practicing religious heresy,” or “a person who differs in opinion from established religious dogma.” In Paul’s day the related Greek word meant something more general, “pertaining to causing divisions, factious, division-making” (BDAG). The same root shows up elsewhere in the NT speaking of the “party” or “sect” [αἵρεσις, hairesis] of the Pharisees or Sadducees.
It is possible that Paul meant the specific heretic here and not the more general divisive man. The famed Theological Dictionary of the New Testament goes that direction; it thinks the word was a technical term (i.e., heretic) from the first, even in the NT. But other authorities go a different direction, and given that we have only one NT occurrence to go on, I lean pretty strongly toward the NKJV—and other English Bible translators are with me overwhelmingly.
Nonetheless, seeing both options is valuable. Neither one has to be the winner when we all have easy access to both. God chose to use a word whose meaning is not exhaustively certain. The KJV translators themselves say in their justly famous preface that this is precisely the reason why they offered alternate translations in the margins. And that’s all the NKJV is in this case. It is not inferior and perhaps not even superior, just different.
8. “Satan” vs. “Accuser” (Psalm 109:6)
- KJV: Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand.
- NKJV: Set a wicked man over him, And let an accuser stand at his right hand.
Hebrew allows for a double meaning here, but English requires the translator to choose between the proper name Satan and the word satan’s literal meaning, an accuser. By siding with Satan over an accuser, Surrett again feeds a narrative in which the modern translations are all trying to soften the teaching of the Bible—here, I suppose, they’re undermining the reality of Satan?
But it just isn’t so.
The modern translations interpret the text as speaking of a court room, which makes a lot of sense in context. In fact, here Surrett is standing with the KJV against every major English translation in existence, including some such as the Geneva that are older than the KJV. At the very least this ought to lead to humility and not a clear “score” in the KJV column.
Surrett is staking out a rather lonely position in which the “votes” of dozens of scholars don’t count for much. He repeatedly expects me to trust his judgment over theirs. He does explain his judgment in many places, but frequently when I dig in to his explanations I discover that I disagree, or that the matter is more complicated than he makes it seem. He is a gracious man, but let’s get something clear: when he says that the NKJV “weakens” a given rendering, he’s not talking about a nameless and faceless object, an NKJV Bible. He’s talking about people, about the brothers and sisters in Christ who sat down and did the work to create the NKJV. A person—a person who attends a church not wholly unlike Surrett’s—made that decision. So to say the NKJV “weakens” the message of the Bible is to charge a fellow believer with that sin. This is serious stuff.
Second, he’s building up to an application: the NKJV is “inferior” and suspect; it ought not generally be used. The official policy of Surrett’s institution says that the school must “use only…the KJV translation in our classrooms and chapel services.” But in the case of Psalm 109:6, if you can’t read Hebrew and yet use only the KJV, you will likely miss what’s going on here. The only way an English reader can get the possible double meaning is by having both options. Maybe a reader will conclude that, indeed, the KJV is better capturing the intent of David in Psalm 109:6. But maybe not. Translations are not perfect or inspired.
9.“Generations” vs. “History” (Genesis 2:4)
Genesis 2:4 is the first of eleven occurrences of a much discussed and debated “toledoth formula” that the Moses uses to structure his book: “These are the generations of…” The KJV renders them all the same way; the NKJV varies them a little. All but two are rendered with “genealogy.” The first last are rendered with “history”:
- KJV: These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth.
- NKJV: This is the history of the heavens and the earth.
The NKJV footnotes the KJV rendering and calls it “literal.” It is indeed literal, but there are two big reasons not to use it:
First, it’s a fairly classic example of a literal rendering that doesn’t mean anything to the average English speaker. To some readers it probably means the wrong thing. “Generations” are periods of time, or groups of people living in those periods: “the Boomer generation”; “a change that took four generations.” “Generations” in English aren’t what they are in Hebrew: the genealogical line generated by a given figure (see Ex 6:16; Num 1:20). In order to understand the special use of this word, you’re going to have to do some study, no matter which translation you use. And for that reason, I think the KJV’s “generations” is fine. They could have called them “toledoth” and left all interpretation up to the reader.
Second, what follows Gen 2:4 and 37:2—the first and last occurrences of the formula—are not genealogies but histories. So translators are justified in concluding that toledoth must have a broader meaning than “genealogies.” And it’s in precisely these two places that the NKJV translators do in fact opt for that broader meaning. “History” is a perfectly acceptable rendering.
I think I myself would prefer the KJV’s approach if I had to make one and only one choice. I’d rather translate the Hebrew word with the same English word each time it appears in these key moments in Genesis. I’m willing to put a little more burden on the reader in a place that’s tough already—if by doing so I can actually make it more possible that he or she will get the meaning without more help (from commentaries or teachers or such like).
But I don’t have to make only one choice. I can do what the NKJV translators did: help more casual readers in the text and help more serious ones (or those same casual readers when they decide to enter a specific study) in the footnotes. And I can use the KJV and the NKJV; I don’t have to use only one. Both can be “right.”
I relied heavily on Kenneth Mathews’ discussion of this matter on pages 26ff. of the first volume of his NAC commentary on Genesis. I looked in vain—I even read all the footnotes in Certainty of the Words—for any indication that brother Surrett checked commentary literature to access the reasoning that may have influenced the NKJV translators. His description of his methodology mentioned only lexicons, but lexicons may or may not hint at the reason why toledoth might be rendered differently in Gen 2:4 and 37:2 than it is elsewhere.
10. “Help Meet” vs. “Helper Comparable” (Genesis 2:18)
Genesis 2:18 is the one place where Surrett got the most seriously confused, I’m afraid.
- KJV: And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
- NKJV: And the LORD God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”
I want to quote Surrett’s book here (he says basically the same in his talk):
In Genesis 2:18, where the KJV speaks of the woman as an “help meet” for her husband, the NKJV calls her a “helper comparable” to him. The quoted portions show each version’s rendering of one Hebrew word, עזר, which means “helper.” The KJV emphasizes that this helper is “meet,” or sufficient for the man, but the NKJV seems to reveal a desire for “political correctness,” attempting to focus on the equality of the man and woman. There is no reason to see this word as indicating “comparable,” especially since it is used many times in the Old Testament to refer to God as man’s Helper. In each of those cases, it is very clear that God is a “sufficient” Helper to man, and not “comparable” to him. There is certainly no justification from the Hebrew language for this change being made in the NKJV.
This is all rather confusing, because Surrett made a basic error here: “help meet” and “helper comparable” are not translating just one Hebrew word. They are translating two Hebrew words: 1) עֵ֖זֶר ( ‘ezer), which means “helper,” and 2) כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ (kenegdo), which means “corresponding to him” or “comparable to him.” Literally, it’s “as before him,” which is meaningless when translated literally. So all translations, including the KJV, interpret it. The KJV’s meet is now what I call a dead word. We don’t use it anymore (the verb meet, as in I’m about to meet my wife, is a different word entirely). In 1611 in a context like this, meet meant “suitable, fit, proper for some purpose or occasion.” That’s what the NIV and many other translations go with: “suitable.” My best guess is that the NKJV translators are leaning a little harder on the context: the animals Adam named didn’t match him; Eve did. I prefer the KJV (and NIV) over the NKJV here, but there is certainly no egalitarian plot involved in the latter. When I’m studying an important passage like this carefully, I want to see all the viable options among my Bible translations. The truth is that we don’t know with perfect certainty what kenegdo means. And the KJV translators themselves said that in cases of uncertainty, it’s better to have options in the margin—or, in this case, in another edition.
(I must also point out that in the midst of Surrett’s unfortunate confusion, he cites an argument I’ve only ever heard coming from gender egalitarians, namely that God is called a “helper.” I can’t make any sense out of the conclusion he draws from this, because he’s confused the terms of the argument by apparently thinking that “help meet” is rendering one Hebrew word.)
In my document right now I’m at 9,200 words. I’m going to skip three minor examples here that Surrett didn’t spend much time on, because I am tired. Ok?
- “His” vs. “It” (Genesis 4:7)
- “By sevens” vs. “Seven each” (Genesis 7:2–3)
- “Asher” vs. “Nimrod” (Genesis 10:11)
14. “City of Rehoboth” vs. “Rehoboth-Ir” (Genesis 10:11)
Now Genesis 10:11, part of a somewhat obscure passage full of genealogies.
- KJV: Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth.
- NKJV: From that land he went to Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir.
Surrett doesn’t offer guesses as to why the NKJV translators would make this revision, but in fact all the major modern translations go for Rehoboth Ir. There must be a good reason, and before I go discover it, I’d like to point out that when a lot of smart evangelical Bible scholars do something I don’t understand, I tend to default to assuming that they had a good reason for it that I will discover via further study. I think that’s healthier than the maximum skepticism KJV-Onlyism nearly always shows toward contemporary English versions. As I listened to Surrett and read his book, I was frequently left with the impression that the NKJV translators were making unaccountable, inexplicable changes just for their own sake. Why in the world would they change “city of Rehoboth” to “Rehoboth Ir”? Why indeed? Does it advance some liberal cause? Are they just playing around with the Bible? Isn’t it possible that they had good reasons?
The standard evangelical commentaries do offer reasons. I did go and look this up—and it’s so complicated that I’m tempted not to get into it here. I’m going to just quote a standard evangelical commentator and let you decide whether to bother with the complexity:
Rehoboth Ir poses another problem for translators since, if taken as a place name, the city is unexplained. This has prompted alternative readings of the Hebrew (rĕḥōbōt ʿîr). It can be translated “open places [plazas] of the city,” referring to Nineveh’s public squares (see NIV text note). The plazas would refer to various districts in the environs of the city (cf. the circuitous travels of the prophet Jonah). Or the phrase, if taken as a parallel usage to the Akkadian expression “open spaces in a city” (rēbît ali), can be understood as unbuilt areas around Nineveh. A related option is taking the phrase as a superlative, rendered “broadest among individual cities,” which would correlate well with the final phrase, descriptive of Calah, “that is the great city.” Another recommendation is taking Rehoboth Ir as an interpretation of the Sumerian name (AŠ.UR) for the famous ancient city “Asshur,” which one would expect in this catalog of Assyrian cities. It would seem best to take the Hebrew as the place name, as we find in the LXX [Septuagint] tradition (Roōbōth polin), since it occurs in a sequence of sites and all are introduced by the direct object marker ʾet, which in the case of Rehoboth Ir should not be explained away as some have.
“That is the great city” concludes the verse, but its antecedent is uncertain since it may refer to the immediate Calah or to the earlier Nineveh. Many prefer Nineveh due to the same report in Jonah (1:2; 3:2–3; 4:11), yet the expression is used of other citadels (e.g., Gibeon, Josh 10:2). K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 452.
Surrett in his book and in his talk didn’t hint at any of this; did you catch it all? If you did, I think you’ll agree that this passage does not provide a clear “win” for anyone. Both options are viable. Clearly, however, neither of them could fairly be called “inaccurate.” There doesn’t have to be a winner.
If the NKJV translators can’t even get away with a tiny, insignificant change that only the most attentive reader would ever notice, one that has no bearing on any conceivable doctrinal issue, one begins to think that the deck has been stacked against them.
At this point in his talk, Surrett shifted to seven very quick “samplings,” including a few New Testament passages (in Romans, the one NT book he checked in his study of the NKJV).
I’ll try to keep my comments brief on these as well. Also, I am still tired. I’m on a flight that just took off after a four-hour delay!
I think, also, that if you’ve lasted this far with me, we’ve established together some categories we can use.
- Gen 14:15 “north of Damascus” (NKJV) vs. “on the left hand of Damascus” (KJV). Surrett says of the NKJV, “Far too often it’s interpreting rather than translating.” And I just have to ask: does any English speaker ever say “on the left hand of” to indicate cardinal directions? And Surrett fails to note (I never saw him note this regarding any passage, though it happens several times among the examples he chose) that the NKJV footnotes the KJV’s more literal rendering.
- Gen 18:11 “Sarah had passed the age of childbearing” (NKJV) vs. “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (KJV). Does anyone in English ever say what the KJV translators said? Is it really so wrong to translate Hebrew phrases into English phrases rather than make up something one might call Hebrewlish? And, once again, Surrett does not note that the NKJV footnotes the KJV’s more literal rendering.
Finally we move to the New Testament.
- Romans 2:26 “the righteous requirements of the law” (NKJV) vs. “righteousness of the law” (KJV). The NKJV, Surrett says, is again interpreting and not translating. The word “requirements” is not present in the text. But I’d argue that the KJV rendering is a classic example of a translation that is so accurate that it is meaningless in the target language. I have a hard time being upset about a little interpretive help. By comparing the KJV and NKJV, I’m liable to come up with a good interpretation.
- Rom 2:27 “written code” (NKJV) vs. “letter” (KJV). The NKJV footnotes the KJV’s more literal translation. And “letter” is an obscure enough metaphor (a metonymy) that I wouldn’t actually be quick to call the NKJV’s rendering “interpretive.” It’s a viable translation.
- Rom 3:25 “by his blood through faith” (NKJV) vs. “through faith in his blood” (KJV). Surrett says, “The old King James emphasizes that the faith has to be in his blood.” Surrett is assuming that the order of phrases in Greek must be retained in order for the translation to be accurate, but this simply isn’t so. Both translations are viable. Surely the fact that Christ’s bloody death propitiated the wrath of the Father is just as essential to the gospel message as the idea that we must have faith in that bloody death.
- Rom 4:18 “descendants” (NKJV) vs. “seed” (KJV). If I have to make only one choice, I’d prefer retaining the metaphor as the KJV does. But each translation is legitimate, and many contemporary translations opt for explaining the metaphor rather than giving it. This is a standard issue in translation, one that every translator must face—and this has always been true in every translation from any given base language to any given receptor language. Surrett is giving a lay-level discussion, but he still ought to have acknowledged this. Neither choice is “wrong.” Both are right.
- Rom 7:7 “lust” (NKJV) vs. “covetousness” (KJV). This is an odd example to pick, because it’s the New King James that upholds the principle I thought Surrett would prefer, the principle of “concordance.” Two instances of the epithum- root occur in this verse: one noun (“covetousness”), one verb (“you shall not covet”). The KJV misses an opportunity I believe they usually take to translate the same Greek root with the same English one. They go with “lust” for the noun (which is perfectly fine) and “covet” for the verb (which is perfectly fine). Neither the KJV or NKJV is inaccurate here. The KJV is just a little less “literal.”
A Concluding Surprise
At the very end of Charles Surrett’s book, tucked in an appendix evaluating the NKJV’s handling of Romans, I found this rather surprising summary paragraph:
There are 163 discrepancies between the two versions [the KJV and NKJV]. Of these, 91 times the Greek supported the KJV, and 72 times it supported the NKJV. Thus, 56% of the time, the KJV is superior, despite the fact that many of the cases where NKJV is preferred are due to antiquated English words. If adjustments are made for “antiquated” English terminology, the percentages change to 63% in agreement with KJV and 37% in favor of NKJV.
And I say, after all my wading through his examples, wha…? The KJV is superior just over half the time in Romans? Might it be a good idea to revise the KJV in those places, in such an important doctrinal book?
And should adjustments indeed be made to the stats to correct for (scare-quote alert) “antiquated” English terminology? Surrett hasn’t convinced me of this. In fact, his work shows that he’s tripped up by archaic terminology just like readers who don’t teach Bible at Bible colleges. He didn’t spot the “false friends” I pointed out above.
And now I want to know: even under Surrett’s criteria, what might the ratio of “accurate” to “inaccurate” be if you compare the KJV and NKJV in the Gospel of John, or Hosea, or Deuteronomy, the books he didn’t check? Could any of them be at 70/30 in favor of the NKJV? Should we switch out the KJV books for the NKJV’s in those places?
Evaluating Bible Translations
The work of evaluating Bible translations is exceedingly complex and tedious. There are so many factors to consider. Fair consideration of these factors requires five things:
It requires expertise in at least three languages—1) Greek, 2) Hebrew, and 3) English. (And if you’re including the KJV, don’t forget 3a) contemporary English and 3b) Elizabethan English.) And it requires 4) using all that knowledge to actually sit down and evaluate a given translation in numerous places in order to form an accurate opinion of it. Then it requires 5) using that knowledge to evaluate multiple other English translations in numerous places in order to form accurate opinions of them.
And all this means—I find I keep having to say this—that very few people in the church have the capacity to make just judgments about the relative quality of English Bible translations. That means that everybody else has to trust somebody. I’m loathe to say, “Don’t trust Charles Surrett.” Again, he seems to me like a gracious Christian man. I will not guess at Surrett’s motives, as if it’s impossible for a man representing a KJV-Only institution to make honest arguments. I do believe Surrett has made honest arguments; I do not question his integrity. But I will point out that his position is not fully gracious toward other people with Greek and Hebrew knowledge—in fact, with more knowledge than he possesses (Surrett’s terminal degree is pastoral and not academic; he humbly said this to me himself in an email exchange just last week as I write). He keeps guessing at their motives: they’re trying to soften the Bible, they’re trying to insert human judgments rather than letting God speak, they’re trying to introduce feminist ideas into Scripture.
This I see constantly in the King James Only movement: people speaking confidently about the alleged errors of the work of men with more, even far more academic training. But—and I say this straightforwardly, without any joy or arrogance—every last one of the NKJV translators has more training that every last one of the professors at all the KJV-Only Bible colleges in existence. I’ve actually, personally, obsessively done the research on this, and if you want to see it I’ll send it to you. This obvious educational disparity in itself does not mean that the KJV-Only folks such as Surrett are wrong. But it means they ought to be extra humble. I frequently disagree with people who are smarter than I am—evolutionary scientists; political theorists; economists; even theologians and biblical scholars. But I tread more and more lightly 1) the further their intelligence or education rises above mine, and 2) the more judgment calls are involved in our disagreement.
And I can’t think of many fields where more judgment calls are required than in Bible translation. So many literary, contextual, lexicographical, grammatical, euphonic, and other considerations go into the translator’s choices. Inevitably, translators will end up finding different solutions to the translation difficulties they come across. This is all a good reason to be humble, to look for the good reasons someone may have before we dismiss their work.
But I have never seen an attitude of deferential humility in KJV-Onlyism; I have never seen a KJV-Only brother say, “Admittedly, I don’t have the Greek and Hebrew and English expertise of the NKJV translators, but I’m still compelled to disagree.” Surrett is among the humblest and best-trained KJV-Only brothers I know, but in case after case he seems unable to charitably place himself in others’ shoes. The NKJV translators aren’t permitted to come honestly to different conclusions than the KJV translators did: they have to be motivated by something malign. At one point Surrett speculates that the NKJV translators of Genesis 2:18 were “womens-libbers.”
Philippians 4:5 says that we should let our “reasonableness” or “moderation” or “gentleness” be known to all men. One commentator glossed the phrase as “meeting people halfway.” Surrett did do this by openly acknowledging places where the NKJV was superior to the KJV. But overall, I must sadly say that he failed this test.
A Winner-Take-All Champion
I’ve tried to show in my review of Surrett’s work that fair consideration of the issues related to English Bible translation also requires not expecting (or, certainly, not anointing) a winner-take-all champion before doing the work. And where I think I can demonstrate that Surrett has erred is in assuming that there must be ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL in the English Bible wars. These wars shouldn’t exist in the first place. Why can’t Christians use all the good English Bible translations there are for their Bible study? If the NKJV is more accurate than the KJV in some places—as Surrett himself says—then why does Ambassador Baptist College insist on exclusive use of the KJV in “classrooms and chapel services”? Could the NKJV be used in classrooms and chapel services at those places where Surrett himself thinks it’s better than the KJV? Over and over again throughout my adult life I have understood the Bible better because I used multiple contemporary translations. Why cut Christian students at a Bible college off from this embarrassment of riches? Why not help them access it instead?
The KJV translators said in their wise and even astounding preface, which is the greatest set of arguments against King James Onlyism ever written,
Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgement not to be so sound in this point. For though ‘whatsoever things are necessary are manifest’, as St Chrysostom saith, and as St Augustine, ‘In those things that are plainly set down in the Scriptures all such matters are found that concern faith, hope, and charity’: yet for all that it cannot be dissembled that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from loathing of them for their everywhere plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God’s Spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, and never scorn those that be not in all respects so complete as they should be, being to seek in many things ourselves, it hath pleased God in his divine providence here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain), but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we will resolve, to resolve upon modesty with St Augustine (though not in this same case altogether, yet upon the same ground), ‘Melius est dubitare de occultis, quam litigare de incertis’: it is better to make doubt of those things which are secret than to strive about those things that are uncertain. There be many words in the Scriptures which be never found there but once (having neither brother nor neighbour, as the Hebrews speak), so that we cannot be helped by conference of places. Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts and precious stones, etc., concerning which the Hebrews themselves are so divided among themselves for judgement that they may seem to have defined this or that, rather because they would say something than because they were sure of that which they said, as St Jerome somewhere saith of the Septuagint. Now in such a case doth not a margin do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatise upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgement of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as St Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded.
Surrett does say in his chapel talk, “There are a few times when I felt that the NKJV was superior.” This is commendable. I’ve never heard any other KJV-Only brother say this. But in the end he calls it “decidedly inferior” to the KJV. I couldn’t find a place in his book or his talk in which he concluded—as the KJV translators say they did—that a given translation issue is a toss-up, that there is more than one viable option. It seems as if, in his mind (as in the minds of every other KJV-Only brother and sister I have known) one translation has to win—in each comparison passage, and overall. If brother Surrett could only eliminate this one idea, his more-refined and careful and gracious brand of KJV-Onlyism might give way to a proper liberty, a freedom to use all the good English translations God has given to the church.
No Translation Is Perfect
The KJV translators also said,
Things are to take their denomination of the greater part…. A man may be counted a virtuous man, though he have made many slips in his life, (else, there were none virtuous, for in many things we offend all) [James 3:2] also a comely man and lovely, though he have some warts upon his hand, yea, not only freckles upon his face, but also scars. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it. For 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?
In other words, no translation is perfect. And it’s best to judge something by its predominant character, not its exceptions. I would suggest to Surrett that he adopt the KJV translators’ magnanimous approach toward the NKJV. Charles Surrett and Ambassador Baptist College should give liberty to their students and teachers to use the NKJV. It uses precisely the same textual basis as the KJV, and it’s a good translation into current English.
My brother in Christ, Charles Surrett, does not like the textual critical principles that gave us the modern critical text of the Greek New Testament. I am happy to agree to disagree with him. I really don’t mind if he prefers to use one of the twenty-eight printed Textus Receptus editions out there.
My brother in Christ, Charles Surrett, also does not like the NKJV, even though it uses the very same Greek New Testament he prefers (Scrivener’s TR). I do not follow his judgments.
So I conclude with an appeal. Brother Surrett is trusted and respected in the Ambassador Baptist College community, and in the KJV-Only world more generally. Might he take his list of places where the NKJV is superior to the KJV and use it to help me and as large a team as possible of biblical scholars make a revision of the KJV that uses understandable, contemporary English? My book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, says not one critical word about the choices of the KJV translators. They are not my opponents but my friends. My book, however, makes the very case that they made: the case for revision.
Surrett is dismissive of my viewpoint (though to be fair to him, when he wrote/spoke, my book wasn’t even a gleam in my eye). He says, “[The KJV] is not too difficult for us to understand, even today, dumb as we are.” But English has changed in the last 400-plus years. The KJV is littered with what I call “dead words” and “false friends”—words we know we don’t know like besom, chambering, and emerod; and words we don’t know we don’t know, like halt, commendeth, and remove.
And 1 Corinthians 14 says that edification requires intelligibility. People need, they deserve, to have God’s words translated into their own English, not someone else’s. If the NKJV doesn’t satisfy my TR-Only brothers such as Charles Surrett, I urge them to check out the Modern English Version—or to make their own new revision, using whatever texts they prefer, into fully intelligible, contemporary English. I’ll happily help.