No, Mr. Eichenwald, The King James Was Not Translated from Latin

Speaking of the King James, I think it’s worth revisiting the Kurt Eichenwald fiasco from last Christmas (because, you know, it’s August and we can).

Michael Brown did an extraordinarily patient and kind interview with Kurt Eichenwald in January. You absolutely should listen to the whole thing here.

There were a number of interesting moments, but one of the more inexplicable moments was this exchange between Eichenwald and a caller:

So, Eichenwald (1) insists that the KJV was translated from Latin and then (2) uses Hebrews 11:11 to explain why it matters. We’ll look at each of his two claims in turn.

1. The King James Bible was translated from Latin

Mr. Euchenwald is emphatic on this point:

The King James version of the Bible was translated from Latin. … And so when they were working off that and they found conflicts between the Latin and the Greek, they assumed that the Greek was incorrect, that it was a copying error. And so they went with the Latin. This is true. Now whether you want to believe that or not, that is a fact.

With all respect to Mr. Eichenwald, his “fact” is completely and demonstrably false. Even a cursory reading of any book on the subject would prove it –even if it was just a glance through the very lengthy Wikipedia page.

For example, in his bestselling account of the KJV Translators, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James BibleAdam Nicolson describes the translation team that was gathered for the New Testament:

Barlow and his team were to translate the New Testament epistles. Four other companies, two from Oxford and two from Cambridge, were to be chaired by the King’s Professors of Hebrew (for the Old Testament) and of Greek (for the Apocrypha and the rest of the New Testament) in each place (p. 80)

(I should also mention that Nicholson explains the translation was done from Hebrew and Greek in the second sentence of his preface).

Gordon Campell, in his expert explanation of the KJV’s history, Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011, throughout his book, explains the painstaking processes with which the translators examined the Greek text, but he also explicitly says,

Scrivener was a textual conservative, and a believer in the Textus Receptus (the Greek text on which the New Testament text of the KJV was based), and that made him an admirer of the KJV. (p. 178)

Beyond that, in his own article, Mr. Eichenwald introduces textual scholar, Dr. Bart Ehrman as, “a groundbreaking biblical scholar and professor at the University of North Carolina who has written many books on the New Testament.” and then quotes p. 90 of Dr. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. Yet in the section that precedes Mr. Eichenwald’s quote, Dr. Ehrman himself carefully explains that the New Testament of the KJV was translated from the Greek text first compiled by Erasmus (Misquoting Jesus, pp. 72-83).

In other words, Mr. Eichenwald’s go-to scholar for textual history says that the King James New Testament was translated from Greek a mere 7 pages before Mr. Eichenwald quotes him.

But forgot Adam Nicholson, Gordon Campbell, and Dr. Ehrman, we can actually ask the translators of the King James themselves.

The original 1611 King James Bible (you can buy a gorgeous reprinting for yourself here) included a flowery dedication to King James, but it then included a lengthy apologetic explaining the reasons, method and precedent for their work (you can read both here). Deep in that explanation, the translators describe which texts they used for translation:

If you aske what they had before them, truely it was the Hebrew text of the Olde Testament, the Greeke of the new. These are the two golden pipes, or rather conduits, where-through the olive branches emptied themselves into the golde. Saint Augustin calleth them procedent, or originall tongues; Saint Hierome, fountaines. The same Saint Hierome affirmeth, and Gratian hath not spared to put it into his Decree, That as the credit of the old Bookes ( he meaneth of the Old Testament) is to bee tryed by the Hebrew Volumes, so of the New by the Greeke tongue, he meaneth by the originall Greeke. If trueth be to be tried by these tongues, then whence should a Translation be made, but out of them ? These tongues therefore, the Scripture wee say in those tongues, wee set before us to translate, being of the tongues wherein God was pleased to speak to his Church by his Prophets and Apostles.

And they go on to say that they didn’t really consult the Latin or any of the translations

Neither did wee thinke much to consult the Translators or Commentators, Chaldee, Hebrewe, Syrian, Greeke, or Latine, no nor the Spanish, French, Italian, or Dutch; neither did we disdaine to revise that which we had done, and to bring backe to the anvill that which we had hammered: but having and using as great helpes as were needfull, and fearing no reproch for slownesse, nor coveting praise for expedition, wee have at the length, through the good hand of the Lord upon us, brought the worke to that passe that you see. (From the Translators to the Reader, pp. 9-10 of Campbell’s edition)

Meaning, not only did the KJV Translators use the Hebrew and Greek, they did so because that’s what was used in all admirable translations that had preceded their effort. And they intended to make it a (mostly) fresh work. That’s not to say they never consulted the Latin translation, but it is to say that their intent was to translate from Hebrew and Greek.

That, of course, explains why the marginal notes throughout the 1611 KJV make reference to the original Hebrew and Greek as I’ve already listed here.

In fact, Gordon Campell quotes Rule 6 which was written in the commission of the KJV:

6. No marginal notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek words which cannot, without some circumlocution, so briefly and fitly be expressed in the text. (p. 37)

Therefore, marginal notes were only allowed when explaining translation difficulties from the Greek text.

All this shows is that if we pick up any popular or credentialed book on the King James translation (including the KJV itself and including Dr. Ehrman’s book form which Mr. Eichenwald himself quoted) we would see that the 1611 KJV was translated from Hebrew and Greek.

I do not at all want to be nasty towards Mr. Eichenwald  by claiming that I “know” the truth, so I’ll let him come up with a good word to evaluate this first point:

“Completely divorced from provable reality.” If Mr. Eichenwald doesn’t mind, I would like to accept that definition.

And we’d be remiss if we didn’t note that this was the reporter to whom Newsweek turned to write their cover story on the Bible for their Christian edition. That might explain why certain Christians were so up in arms.

2. Prior to the 1960s, Hebrews 11:11 claimed Sarah had semen

Mr. Eichenwald’s prooftext that supposedly demonstrates the early English translations are based on other translations (rather than compiled manuscripts) is Hebrews 11:11 which reads,

Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised. (KJV, emphasis added)

Dr. Michael Brown (who holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University) does a fine job of briefly explaining the semantic range of both zerah  and sperma (in Hebrew and Greek respectively).

But what I do want to point out is that Mr. Eichenwald’s argument is red herring.

NOTE:You can read the transcript  of Eichenwald’s argument by clicking here

KURT EICHENWALD: The King James version of the Bible was translated from Latin. And when they found portions of it that were in conflict with the original Greek –and again, they didn’t have the original Greek; they had copies of copies of copies. And that’s not a surprise; they didn’t have methods of preserving paper for hundreds and hundreds of years. And so when they were working off that and they found conflicts between the Latin and the Greek, they assumed that the Greek was incorrect, that it was a copying error. And so they went with the Latin.

This is true. Now whether you want to believe that or not, that is a fact.

Now then you have what most people –some people will read the King James Bible and at that I’ll say, ‘Okay, you’re pretty much done.” When you go further, and you get to some of these newer Bibles –take one very, very important verse in terms of –for many reasons. This will be a little graphic, but it’s right out of the Bible. It’s Hebrews 11:11

Back in the time of– back in Biblical times, people believed (including by people like Hypocratese) it was believed that women produced semen just like men. And in the original Greek, in Hebrews 11:11, it talks about how Sarah gained the strength to produce– to conceive a seed. And it goes on and that stays in the Bible, it’s in the earliest translations. It was in the Geneava Bible in 1516. And it wasn’t until the 1960s, when it became very clear that what was known forever –well, not forever, what was known for hundreds of years that this belief from Biblical times was scientifically wrong, that in the 1960s to the 1980s, that these words were just dropped!

And so you end up with a scenario, Are people who are reading the Bible, when they get to Hebrews 11:11, unless they’re reading the King James version, they are not reading what the Bible said from Greek to Latin to English. They’re reading a new variation where people who were confronted with a difficulty– and it is a difficulty that is scientifically wrong– when they were confronted with a difficulty, they dropped it.

They have no footnotes. They have no indications that they dropped it….

By carefully listening to his flow of thought, we see that Mr. Eichenwald argues for the translation of the KJV from Latin by pointing to supposed scientific contradiction that disappeared in later translations. So his argument goes like this:

  1. The KJV was translated from Latin
  2. Hebrews 11:11 says sperma in Greek
  3. All early Translations say “Seed” until after the 1960s
  4. Therefore, unless people are reading the KJV, they aren’t reading what the Latin says

Did you follow that? Yeah, me neither. The argument about scientifically disproven assumption disappearing from modern translations is interesting, but it has nothing to do with whether or not the text of the KJV was translated from Latin instead of Hebrew or Greek. It’s a red herring.

And, as Dr Brown explains, the issue in Hebrews 11:11 is a translation issue, not a scientific one. We can prove this by simply pointing out that there is an early English translation that doesn’t translate sperma as seed: it’s Tyndale’s translation, the very first English translation of the New Testament from Greek (using the same Greek text the KJV Translators used). It reads,

Thorow fayth Sara also receaved stregth to be with chylde and was delivered of a chylde when she was past age because she iudged him faythfull which had promysed. (Tyndale, emphasis added)

For those of you keeping score at home, Tyndale, in 1534, translates sperma as “child”, not “seed” –just like Dr. Brown says it can be and just like the modern translations do.

So not only is this argument fallacious, it’s also wrong on the facts.

Now, to wrap this point up, let’s grade the argument:

  1. The KJV was translated from Latin – FALSE (the KJV Translators say otherwise)
  2. Hebrews 11:11 says sperma in Greek – TRUE (although it contradicts #1)
  3. All early Translations say “Seed” until after the 1960s – FALSE (Tyndale doesn’t)
  4. Therefore, unless people are reading the KJV, they aren’t reading what the Latin says – FALSE (we haven’t proven the KJV is a translation from Latin)

In my experience, scoring 25% hasn’t been a passing grade. And trust me, as one who has received many non-passing grades, I know what they look like.

Doubling Down

Amazingly, the next segment of the interview –even after Dr. Brown explains that the Hebrew and Greek word for seed can mean offspring and that early English translations were based on Hebrew and Greek, Mr. Eichenwald doubles down, insisting that, prior to the KJV, “The Latin is the closest thing we have to the Greek.”

I think everyone reading this would be greatly informed about Biblical history if we would spend some time appreciating Codex Sinaiticus. It is a fourth-century codex containing the Old and New Testament hand-copied in Greek.

So it’s simply not true that the Latin is the closest thing we have to “the GreeK’ prior to the KJV when we have a 4th century Greek text. In fact, you can buy a facsimile of the codex for yourself here. It’s over $700, but you can get it if you really want it.

Speaking of buying copies of Greek, if the Latin is the closest we have to the Greek, I’d be curious to know what I am to make of the following volumes also available for purchase at Amazon.com:

  • Click here for the Greek New Text that underlies the KJV New Testament
  • Click here or here for the Greek New Testament that underlies modern translations
  • Click here for the Byzantine Priority Greek text

I’m going to go out on a limb and say those four Greek texts are the closest thing we have to the Greek.

Take-Away

This is yet one more example of why Eichenwald’s explanations of Christian and Textual history are so head-scratching-when-not-aggravating. It’s not that I think Eichenwald is stupid or malicious or ill-intentioned (I don’t think any of those things are so), it’s that Kurt Eichenwald holds to ideas about the Bible’s histories that or flat wrong. And wrong in a way that is easily demonstrated with basic research available to any layperson.

Normally, that wouldn’t matter. If people want to hold to wrong ideas, that is their prerogative. But Eichenwald took to a major news magazine and then to a radio show and emphatically propagated falsehoods to a country already confused on the subject.

That is a reckless and harmful enterprise to both the public and Christianity and it militates against Eichenwald’s expressed intention to raise literacy and dialog.

As Eichenwald passionately proclaims, American cultural is groaning under the weight of their Christian illiteracy. But the only way to fix that is to clearly and winsomely articulate the documentable truth. It’s tough, but it’s doable. And if we can’t, then we should humbly shut up until we can.

So here is my plea to everyone (including me): Don’t say it unless you can prove it. 

This is the beauty of non-fiction and research writing: You don’t have to say anything. Everyone is at liberty to not speak. The proverbs give us this wry observation, “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.” (Pro. 17:28 KJV). And as a tactical move, we can follow the sage council of Sun Tzu by picking battles we can win.

This is especially true based on the comments to Mr. Eichenwald’s piece from Christmas. I appreciate that there are impassioned people who can get on Facebook and shout, “THAT’S NOT TRUE!!!” But, friends, that’s not helpful.

We must be diligent and demonstrate our reasons and evidences for what we know. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time (trust me, these posts take forever to write), but it’s worth it. It’s worth it to work towards a community of faithful Christians who are both literate and articulate.

That’s what Mr. Eichenwald wants; that’s what I want; that’s what we should all want.

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