Dan Wallace on Textual Criticism

I just finished listening to three dozen half-hour lectures by Dan Wallace on textual criticism. They were masterful, absolutely superb. And they’re free online at Credo House.

Wallace is an engaging lecturer with incomparable (among evangelicals) direct experience with the study and practice of textual criticism. All Christians owe him a debt, even the crazy guy who once told me that the only thing Wallace’s grammar is good for is for target practice…

Wallace will educate you and increase your faith in Scripture, a faith he shares. He goes toe-to-toe repeatedly with Bart Ehrman and KJV-Onlyism in particular (left toe against Ehrman, right toe against KJVOs). Highly recommended.

In Which I Answer a Friendly KJV Defender Who Is Not KJV-Only AND REVEAL THE COVER OF MY NEW BOOK!

The following is a comment I recently wrote in response to someone who prefers the KJV but does not insist on its exclusive use. He clearly has good education—from Southern Seminary, I believe. He also prefers the TR.

[William,] your argument that study Bibles and commentaries are just as good as using multiple translations is the first serious attempt any KJV-defender has ever made to answer my simple argument from experience, namely that checking multiple translations has helped me understand Scripture countless times. I’m afraid, however, that it “was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation” (to quote Chesterton =), because I plan to write my next book on this very topic. In other words, you make a fair argument, and I hear you.

I’m still unclear, however, and I’m genuinely curious as to what you’ll say, on what actual problems stem from the use of multiple translations in a church. It seems to me that if the pastor cannot answer the question, “But how come MY Bible says…?” then he didn’t get enough training. Such a question may require some time in the study, but if he doesn’t have the tools to answer it, he doesn’t have the tools to preach, either. I LOVE to get such questions, because I can always, always explain.

The punctuation in the KJV is not “uncommon.” It is “archaic.” It is therefore confusing to modern readers. Ask 100 lifelong KJV readers what the KJV punctuation means, and 100 of them will stare at you blankly. I’ve been reading books with contemporary punctuation conventions out loud my entire life, and I’ve never once struggled to know when to pause. William, I’ve reached the point of dismay as I write, and that’s not a good place to be, because I don’t want to offend a good brother. But I say with all my heart, you’re too smart to be saying what you’re saying! Do you honestly think that the KJV’s placement of colons and semi-colons is a bigger help for public reading than using words people actually know? And again, I don’t deny that the thees and thous are helpful in Luke 22:31–32. That’s a good example. But to take just one counterexample, do the thees and thous in the KJV really help us understand as often as quotation marks and em dashes in the ESV/NIV/NASB help us understand? And I put to you again the same question I asked earlier: what evidence do you have that the KJV translators deliberately brought thee and thou back for the sake of clarity? Did they say this? I think it’s equally possible to argue that they simply didn’t want to go to the trouble of manually replacing nearly 19,000 instances of thee, thou, ye, thine, or thy in a Bible (the Bishop’s Bible of 1568) that they were only supposed to be revising as necessary, according to Richard Bancroft’s instructions.

As for the profit motive being the reason we have so many contemporary translations, again I’m dismayed, just grieving deep in my heart. Remember, you are talking about fellow Christians here. Was Vern Poythress, an ESV translator and a very respected client of mine and influence on me, unduly motivated by profit? Was Crossway Books, run by your brothers and sisters in Christ, unduly motivated by profit in making the ESV? Is the laborer worthy of his hire—should Bibles be given away for free? Is Doug Moo, top commentator on Romans and head of the NIV translation committee, motivated by profit? What kind of car does he drive? What evidence do you have that your brothers and sisters are motivated by money rather than by love of God and love of the church?

I bring a little passion to my questions because I love the truth, and the upshot of your viewpoint is that many individual words of God are taken out of the hands of people who need them, who have a right to them. Very few people have the good theological education you’ve been given. They need a Bible in their language. I actually believe the KJV has some life left in it, too. I don’t want to be over the top. But somehow after years of TR-only guys rejecting other TR-based translations, I just can no longer believe that they’re taking an honest look at the alternatives. And then, ultimately, I can no longer believe that what they really care about is the TR. I do not call them liars. I think they are not able to see through their tradition, a sin of which we are all at times guilty.

The other day I was raked over the coals by some commenters at the Logos Talk Blog for questioning the practice of capitalizing deity pronouns. I got BRUTAL comments (a few of which I had to delete) accusing me of giving in to all sorts of demonic wickedness. You tamper with people’s traditions, and they will lash out at you like a wolverine in a trap. It’s scary to me, because I have to wonder how often I’m doing the same thing. I hope I’m not; my life is a continual effort to reform my traditions by Scripture. But I have come to the conclusion that all defenses of the modern use of the KJV are examples of making void the word of God by tradition. That word tells us, especially in 1 Cor 14, that intelligibility is key to edification. And though the KJV is still largely intelligible, it is—through no fault of the KJV translators but merely because of the inevitable process of language change—unnecessarily unintelligible in countless little places. You’re going to have to make time to read my book. =) I will prove this assertion.

And now a bonus for those of you who made it this far. I just got the cover for my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. Details on how to pre-order it will be coming soon, Lord willing. My friend Bryan Hintz here at Faithlife did a fantastic job, I think (he also produced an ingenious cover design for Andy Naselli’s recent No Quick Fix—and used my handwriting!). Without further ado:

KJVOism, Fanatacism, and Epistemology

Alan Jacobs offers a “useful definition of fanaticism”:

No matter what happens, it proves my point. That is, true believers’ beliefs are not falsifiable: everything can be incorporated into the system—and indeed, the more costs true believers have sunk into the system, the more determined and resourceful they will be….

In general, and on most issues, it’s fair to say that if you cannot imagine circumstances that would cause you to change your mind about something, then you may well be the victim of the power of sunk costs.

Naturally, I read this and I think of King James Onlyism, which has again been absorbing my attention because of my work on an upcoming book with Lexham Press, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. (The book is not about KJV-Onlyism, per se, but it naturally comes up—and I do not believe all fans of the KJV are fanatics.) But one reason I think of KJVOs is that I can’t seem to find a single person in all of KJV-Onlyism who has ever publicly asked the question, “How do we know when English has changed so much that the KJV will need to be revised or updated?” They don’t seem interested in imagining circumstances in which their viewpoint is overturned.

But who does? I had to ask myself while reading Jacobs, what would it take for me to be persuaded of the King James Only position? That’s a difficult question, in part because I’m not sure what the position is.

The Mainstream KJV-Only Position

I think the mainstream KJVO view can be boiled down to three points, and I do not have a tongue in my cheek as I write:

  1. We should use whatever family of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts God has used the longest and therefore apparently blessed.
  2. Multiple English Bible translations cause confusion rather than edification.
  3. The KJV is the best English translation of the Bible.

In order for me to believe these things, I’d have to have:

  1. A Bible verse telling me to watch out for textual variants and adopt the texts God has used the longest.
  2. A Bible verse telling me that multiple same-language Bible translations cause confusion rather than edification.
  3. A Bible verse telling me that once a given vernacular translation is well established it should be permitted to remain so without revision (after the sixth revision); or a Bible verse telling me to look for the golden age of any language and make sure I use a Bible translation made during that era.

I’m doing my best, however good that is, to come up with a counterfactual situation. And as is always the case when I write about KJV-Onlyism, I am laboring not to be snarky. I could genuinely imagine the Bible containing statements like the three I’ve just mentioned.

KJV-Only folks will plead that I’m ignoring verses that do, in effect, say some of these things. They will point to verses which appear to promise perfect, word-for-word preservation of all that God has revealed in Scripture. If we are to live by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” and if “not a jot or a tittle will pass from the law,” then we’ve got to have all the words, all the jots, and all the tittles.

KJV-Onylism and Sources of Revelation

Now, the Bible is my ultimate source of divine authority; and it’s the only perfect verbal source. So if these verses teach perfect preservation of Scripture, I must believe it. But—and bear with me on this—the Bible is not my only source of divine authority. Creation and providence, the Bible itself tells me, are sources of truth as well (Psalm 19, Romans 1). And it isn’t as simple as saying, “The Bible tells me how to interpret the general revelation of creation and providence.” That’s certainly true. But creation and providence are also necessary for interpreting the Bible. On the very simplest level, I can’t know what a “sycamore tree” is until I look at one. And that’s true of much more important biblical words and images such as “sheep” and “shepherd,” even “love” and “hate.” I have to experience these things before I can grasp them in Scripture. And I can’t know the meaning of any words in Scripture from Scripture alone. I need lexicons, which themselves rely on a tradition going back to a time when there were native speakers of Koine Greek, as well as on studies in papyri and inscriptions and other sources of ancient Greek usage. Again: I must take into account God’s authority in Scripture and in creation and providence.

As I look at creation, I notice a limitation in man: man is not a computer. No person alive can copy a lengthy document by hand without making some unnoticed errors.

As I look at providence, I notice minor differences—typos, as it were—in the manuscript traditions for both the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. If we have one perfect text of the Greek New Testament, I don’t know which one it is. God hasn’t told us in the Bible. So how can I know? The KJV-Onlyites look at providence, too, and they say that the text used by the greatest number for the greatest time must be the right one; it’s blessed. But I have one question: which TR? If God truly intended to preserve his words perfectly and exhaustively and to let us know where he did so, why are there differences among editions of the TR? Which one is the right one? In other words, I look out at the world God providentially gave us, and I see something perfectly consonant with what I just said I see in creation: Bible manuscripts with typos in them, some of which are easily corrected, others more puzzling. Almost all very minor. Even if I did have a verse telling me to look out for the Greek textual family God used and blessed the most, that wouldn’t give me 100% certainty about every jot and tittle. I would still have to perform some kind of textual criticism.


Back to my initial question: what would have to happen before I would become KJV-Only? I answered that question with regard to the mainstream KJV-Only position, but when I speak to men who hold this position, I regularly smell the other major KJVO view, the Ruckmanite view. It happened the other day in a phone call I had with an earnest and godly young man, a teacher at a KJV-Only Bible college—and someone who explicitly distances himself from Ruckmanism. But as we discussed the possibility for an update or revision of the KJV, due to its antiquated language, he said, “But you cannot alter the word of God.”

I said, “Woah, wait a minute. That’s Ruckmanism right there.”

“Wha…?,” he said. “I’m baffled that you would say that given how clearly I disavowed Ruckmanism mere minutes ago.”

I tried to get him to see that if you think revising the KJV is equivalent to altering the word of God, then you’re a Ruckmanite. You’ve confused text and translation; you’ve equated a translation with God’s word at the one point where they can’t be equated, namely the ultimate point.

So what would it take for me to be persuaded of Ruckmanism? An illness, perhaps. Or a blow to the head. (No, no snark… Sorry.) To hold this view, which I take to be that God re-inspired the KJV, I’d have to have a Bible verse telling me that there is one translation for every recognizable language—and it might help to have some Bible verses telling me how to distinguish recognizable languages. (The line between “dialects” and “languages” is not always clear.)

I’m struggling to come up with circumstances in which I could become a Ruckmanite.


So does that make me an anti-KJV fanatic? No. I still genuinely love the KJV. Its words trip off my tongue more readily in conversation than do those of any other translation. I grew up with it. I will always love it.

But I put the question to any KJV-Only folks who stumble across this post: can you imagine circumstances which might make you change your mind? Imagining how you could become someone you disagree with is a helpful self-critical exercise. I tried. I tried.


In my first version of this post, which just published a few hours ago, I ended here. But I was listening this morning on the bus to an edifying and challenging book by Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, and he said this:

In an age when anyone with a smart phone can publish dirt on anyone else, we must know that spreading antagonistic messages online with the intent of provoking hostility without any desire for resolution is what the world calls “trolling,” and the New Testament calls “slander.”

The phrase that stuck out to me was “without any desire for resolution.” And I want to make absolutely sure I communicate in this post that I do have a desire for resolution with my brothers and sisters inside KJV-Onlyism. I have genuine respect and love for many people who are influenced by this teaching that, yes, I believe is erroneous. But I don’t demand that they come to all my views on bibliology in order to have a smooth and edifying friendship with me.

I think what I would like to suggest to my KJVO brothers and sisters is that they would see the number of judgment calls involved in their viewpoint and explicitly give me and others liberty to make different judgment calls. This is happening to some degree; I have recently spoken to numerous KJVO Bible college professors, and every one of them was gracious to me (there was only one exception, a man who refused to talk—but who wasn’t nasty). One of them referred to our disagreement over the KJV as a “Paul and Barnbas” situation. The rhetoric driving the movement, however, is not so gracious. It is not possible to achieve resolution when even the most gracious KJVO books, such as Ouellette’s A More Sure Word, are basically calling the Bible translations read by most Christians Satanic ploys.

So, again, I say: resolution is possible here, and I want it. I’m not a troll. I’m asking my brothers and sisters to stop casting suspicion on my motives for encouraging the use of multiple Bible translations. I’m asking them to stop making the KJV a source of division between Christians. And I’m willing to stop short of insisting that they stop reading or preferring the KJV. I’m willing to believe the best about their own motives.

KJVParallelBible.org Needs Your Help

Training Video

I’m working on a textual critical project aimed at laypeople, and I need help from volunteers. I want to show English speakers, using English, the differences between the Textus Receptus and the Nestle-Aland text.


Differences between the TR(s) and the various critical texts are locked not only in Greek but in complicated textual apparatuses which don’t give anyone but the most attentive readers a good overall picture of the actual differences between the texts. I want to put those differences on display in an accessible way.

And in a neutral way. I believe my brothers in Christ within KJV-Onlyism are wrong in their preference for the TR and wrong in their insistence on the exclusive use of the KJV, but I believe in God’s power to sanctify their thinking on this issue. He can use authorities and arguments, and he does. But he can also use a simple presentation of the facts, without any arguments and interpretations.

That’s what I’ll provide (though the About page will carry some brief interpretations from me and from a TR advocate): in one column of KJVParallelBible.org will be the KJV as it stands in the 1769 Blayney edition most people use; in a parallel column will be the KJV as if someone had gone back in time and given the KJV translators an NA28. All differences between the two resulting texts will be bolded.

I am aiming the project at KJV-Only Christians, but the tool could be useful for teaching textual criticism to any layperson (or even as a cheatsheet for those of us who ought to be using our textual apparatuses). I have nothing to hide from them: a TR-Only school should most definitely be using my site to try to teach TR-Onlyism to their students. Let those students see how big and how significant the differences actually are. A critical text advocate should be able to use the site to show students how big and how significant they actually aren’t. I hope people will conclude that my side is right, but I won’t force them. The site is just the facts, ma’am.

If people who cannot read Greek look at the New Testament in an ESV and in a KJV, they have no way of knowing which differences between the two are due to textual variants and which are due to any number of other factors: changes in English, advances in Greek understanding, differences of translation philosophy or interpretation, variations in style. Into that huge gray area of totally understandable ignorance (why should nonspecialists know these things?) comes a totally understandable fear: are modern translations changing the Bible?

As long as the facts of textual criticism remain locked in Greek, everybody with an opinion on the matter is forced to trust someone else who can read Greek and has formed an opinion. However, most people in pews don’t have easy access to such a person. They have pastors, but my impression is that most pastors are stuck trusting authorities, too: namely their peers, their crowd, their Bible college professors, their favorite writers, etc. The problem is that everybody has to have some kind of opinion, even implicit, if they’re going to pick up a translation at all, because every translation has a base text. And basically, you’re going to use the TR (KJV, NKJV, MEV, KJ2000, etc.) or the critical text (ESV, NASB, CSB, NIV, NET, etc.).

I am looking for people to help me complete the New Testament. I’ve done about ten chapters, and I have a new friend at a KJV-Only Bible college who is doing the book of John. That leaves over 200 chapters to be worked on. I have made a training video for you, and I will share with you a Dropbox folder with text files for whatever portion of the Bible you want; you just need Logos or BibleWorks and copies of NA27/28* and Scrivener’s 1881 or 1894 TR (which are textually identical). Your job is basically to indicate which differences show up in translation by bolding them.

I will also need checkers to look over the work of others. There is plenty of work to do.


* I know the NA27 and NA28 texts are slightly different, but I know where they’re different and will run a check. I am using the NA27 as the base for a few practical reasons.

Something I Am Embarrassed to Say I Just Learned

I knew that English Bible translators have access to a computerized linguistic corpus—an unbelievably massive collection of English texts—to help them do their work.

What I didn’t know, what I just learned, is that I do, too.

What you’re about to learn, if you didn’t already know it, is so do you.

So I chose to get involved in some online discussion about the KJV, and I’m glad I did. I was talking to some intelligent guys who kept me on my toes. I pointed out to them, in a broader argument about the readability of the KJV, that “dropsy” (Luke 14:2) is an archaic word liable to cause today’s readers to draw a blank. The word is very old, first citation 1290—though, of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s archaic (sack is also very old, but not archaic). But my sense was that “dropsy” just doesn’t get used today.

One of my interlocutors pointed out, and touché for him, that my beloved ESV uses the word, too, however! (He could have added that the NASB uses it as well.) I had not realized this, and I was initially surprised.

However, being a denizen of the Internet and therefore rarely being one to admit fault, I determined to do some poking around. Standard contemporary dictionaries weren’t enough help. Merriam-Webster told me only that “dropsy” means “edema.” American Heritage said the word is “no longer in scientific use,” but didn’t elaborate. Is it archaic? Should the ESV and NASB have used it? I didn’t know yet. Even if the word has dropsied right out of science, maybe it has landed in the speech of the common man.

So I checked Google’s NGram Viewer, and this is what I found:

Right after 1900, “edema” clearly changes places with “dropsy.” I’m not sure why there are massive spikes, and a big drop in the “edema” line starting sometime before the year 2000. I’m also not sure how much to trust Google NGram Viewer—I simply don’t know whether the corpus it’s searching (Google Books) is a truly representative sample. I’m not confident that I’m interpreting the graphs correctly. Perhaps the relative difference is huge, but the actual difference is not. Stats are tricky.

Then it hit me: I wonder if there’s an online English corpus available freely, designed for precisely my question, and focused on contemporary English—the kind of corpus I’ve heard Doug Moo talk about, which he used for the NIV. I searched for “english corpus,” and as they say in Telugu, voilà. I discovered BYU’s Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). It provides a massive, curated database balanced of different types of American speech and writing. It’s composed of roughly equal parts spoken, fiction, magazine, newspaper, and academic English. Wow.

There are actually multiple English corpora at the site, and they “allow research on variation—historical, between dialects, and between genresin ways that are not possible with other corpora.”

So, COCA, what’s a more common word in contemporary English, “dropsy” or “edema”? There’s a very clear winner. But if I give you a fish you’ll only eat for today. Go see if you can figure it out yourself.