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The Value of New Textual Sources to the King James Bible

TitleThe Value of New Textual Sources to the King James Bible
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1983
AuthorsLundquist, John M.
Issue Number8
Date PublishedAugust 1983
KeywordsDead Sea Scrolls; King James Bible; Qumran Scroll; Translation

Many ancient texts and sources discovered in recent decades permit us to double-check the texts used by the King James translators.


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The Value of New Textual Sources to the King James Bible

By John M. Lundquist

Many ancient texts and sources discovered in recent decades permit us to double-check the texts used by the King James translators.

The Bible commissioned by King James in 1604—the one familiar to Latter-day Saints—was not intended to be a fresh, original translation. It was simply to be “with the former translations diligently compared and revised.” (See the title page of the King James Bible.) The scholars chosen by the king to do this work had access to numerous earlier translations, including the Tyndale, Geneva, Bishops, Rheims, and Luther German translations. Tyndale’s translations of the 1520s and 30s, and the Geneva Bible of 1560, particularly exerted great influence upon the King James translators. (See J. R. Branton, “Versions, English,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols., New York: Abingdon Press, 1962, 4:760–70.) In addition, and most importantly, the King James translators had access to many of the ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin writings from which the Bible was translated.

Perhaps the earliest edition of the Hebrew Bible available to the translators was the Old Testament published in the Italian town of Soncino in 1488. Martin Luther used a Soncino edition published in 1494 in preparing his translation from Hebrew into German. (See The Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. S. L. Greenslade, 3 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963, 3:49–50, 99.)

Another Hebrew Bible printed during this period and still influential today is the famous Rabbinic Bible, published by the Christian printer Daniel Bomberg at Venice in 1525. (Ibid., pp. 52–53.) A Jewish rabbi named Jacob ben Hayyim edited a manuscript of the Old Testament for this printing.

The type of Hebrew text which the Bomberg, or Rabbinic, Bible represents is what scholars refer to as “Masoretic.” The Masoretes were a group of Jewish scholars who, possibly as early as the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, established centers of learning in both Babylon and Israel. One of the major purposes and achievements of these men was to rule on the proper spelling of words in the text and in general to serve as guardians of the text’s integrity and transmission. (See B. J. Roberts, “Text, OT,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4:585–86.)

We know from the study of the Dead Sea (Qumran) scrolls as well as from the study of the ancient Greek, Latin, and Aramaic translations of the Old Testament that there were different versions of the Hebrew scriptures in circulation in antiquity. This means that not all texts contained the same content for certain verses and sections. Latter-day Saints are familiar with this concept from their study of the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price. The Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon, for example, which came from the Brass Plates, diverge in a number of significant instances from the text of Isaiah in the King James Version of the Bible and in the Masoretic text. This means that the text of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon presupposes a different text tradition than that of the Masoretic Hebrew from which our Bibles today are translated. One of the results of the Masoretic scribal activity during the Middle Ages was the unification and correlation of the Hebrew Bible, leaving divergent text types to slowly disappear. Thus the sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century translators basically had only Masoretic Hebrew Bible texts to work with.

From the days of the Elizabethan translators (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) to the time of the discovery of the Qumran texts (the Dead Sea Scrolls) in 1947, scholars advanced their understanding of the Hebrew text through their discovery of earlier, and in some cases, more accurate Masoretic Bible manuscripts. For example, the earliest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible known to us now is the Masoretic Aleppo Codex, written in about A.D. 900 by Aaron ben Moshe ben Asher.

Scholars were also able to make advances based on the discovery of earlier and more accurate manuscripts of the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint), and a deeper understanding of the relationship of the Hebrew to the Greek. An understanding of this relationship is important because the sixteenth-century translators believed the Septuagint had been mistranslated and corrupted by the Jewish tradition and this belief colored their perceptions and thus their translations. (See The Cambridge History of the Bible, 3:56; also M. H. Goshen-Gottstein, “The Aleppo Codex and the Rise of the Massoretic Bible Text,” The Biblical Archeologist, 42 (1979), pp. 145–63.)

Long before the discovery of the Qumran texts, therefore, scholarly research and archaeological investigations in the Middle East led to discoveries which have greatly increased our understanding of the Old Testament. These discoveries date from approximately the middle of the nineteenth century, with the now famous Ebla tablets being only the latest addition to this long line of achievements. (The Ebla Tablets are clay tablets inscribed in the ancient cuneiform language of Mesopotamia. They were discovered recently at the site of Tell Mardikh in northern Syria. These tablets, dating from about 2300 B.C., contain accounts of people, customs, and events of the ancient city of Ebla. Some scholars feel that some of the information contained on the tablets could possibly be correlated with parts of the book of Genesis.)

There have been at least three major areas of biblical research during the past 130 years:

  1. Textual study. This includes examining and comparing ancient Bible manuscripts and studying the scribal process by which these texts were transmitted over the centuries.
  2. Study of ancient inscriptions. Most inscriptions have been in Hebrew and related languages and have served to throw background light on Old Testament episodes, personages, customs, and language.
  3. Study of the Qumran scrolls. Perhaps the most important biblical discovery in recent times (discovered in the caves near the site of Khirbet Qumran, on the northwest side of the Dead Sea), the Qumran scrolls have yielded ancient manuscripts and fragments of every book of the Old Testament except Esther. The date of these scrolls, between about 200 B.C. and A.D. 100, pushes back by over one thousand years the date of our earliest Hebrew Bible manuscripts. The manuscripts also reflect a pre-Masoretic text type and give us a glimpse of the kinds of manuscripts being read before the work of the Masoretes succeeded in unifying the various text types. (D. Barthelemy, “Text, Hebrew, History of,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, supplementary volume, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976, pp. 878–81.)

Following are specific examples which demonstrate benefits to Bible understanding from each of the three areas of research. All examples given relate to the Biblical period between Solomon and Malachi (1000 to 400 B.C.).

Textual Study

In the King James Version, 1 Kings 10:28 reads [1 Kgs. 10:28]: “And Solomon had horses brought out of Egypt, and linen yarn: the king’s merchants received the linen yarn at a price.” The New American Bible translates this passage: “Solomon’s horses were imported from Cilicia, where the king’s agents purchased them.” The Interpreter’s Bible translates it: “And Solomon’s import of horses was from Egypt and Ku’e, and the king’s traders received them from Ku’e at a price.” The new LDS edition of the King James Bible has the following footnote to this passage: “heb [that is, Hebrew] from Kue (Cilicia). The name of this country is mistakenly translated to be ‘linen yarn.’”

The crucial word here is the Hebrew word miqvé, which appears as “linen yarn” in the King James Version. This word has caused problems to several generations of Bible scholars, as evidenced by the commentary found in the 1846 edition of the famous Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (ed. Samuel P. Tregelles, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1957). This word is defined as meaning “a host, or company of men” (p. 503), and the relevant passage in 1 Kings is translated: “and the company of the royal merchants (out of Egypt) took the troop (of horses) at a price” (p. 503).

Nineteenth-century scholars, however, came to see in this word, not “linen yarn,” but the name of a place in Asia Minor (Turkey). The Septuagint rendered this passage: “Solomon’s horses came from Egypt and from Thekoua.” Thus, the earlier Greek translators also saw in the Hebrew word misqvé the name of a place, one in Palestine, namely Tekoa, the birthplace of the prophet Amos. The ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew, known as the Vulgate, renders the Hebrew word in question as de Coa, “from Coa,” and it is this translation which provided one of the main keys for the present interpretation. The Latin Coa is seen as the place name Kue or Cue in Cilicia, Asia Minor, an area about which much is known from the time of Solomon. Solomon was thus buying horses from Kue, in Cilicia, as the note in the LDS edition of the King James Bible states.

The suggested changes to the King James translation of the passage in 1 Kings 10:28 [1 Kgs. 10:28] will not be seen as highly significant by most readers, but it does show how Bible scholars go about their work. Many other examples could be given, a number of which would reflect major changes in the meaning of the Bible passage. (For further study of this approach, see Roberts, 4:580–94.)

Ancient Inscriptions

A significant example of the contribution ancient inscriptions have made to our understanding of the Old Testament is the Moabite Stone, also known as the Mesha Inscription.

Mesha, king of the Moabites, those distant cousins of the Israelites who lived on the east side of the Dead Sea, is introduced in the Bible in the third chapter of 2 Kings [2 Kgs. 3] as a vassal to the King of Israel, about 849 B.C. With the death of Ahab, Mesha rebelled against this relationship. This prompted Ahab’s son, Jehoram, to engage the alliance of Jehoshaphat, the King of Judah, and the King of Edom in a military campaign against Mesha. With the help of prophetic advice from Elisha, the alliance was able to gain a victory over the Moabites. Mesha retreated behind the walls of his citadel, Kir-hareseth, and it was there, upon one of these walls, that he sacrificed his first-born son as a burnt offering in order to invoke the wrath of his god, Chemosh, against Jehoram’s army. The Bible tells us that the Israelites were so horrified by this act that they returned home. (See 2 Kgs. 3:27.)

This ends the biblical account of Mesha, and if it weren’t for the discovery of the Moabite Stone in 1868 by a German missionary, the story would have ended there.

The Moabite Stone is an inscription in the Moabite language, a Semitic language closely related to biblical Hebrew. The inscription, of about thirty-five lines, was chiseled into a piece of black basalt measuring about three feet tall by one-and-one-half feet wide. That inscription, dated approximately 830 B.C., was set up by King Mesha in a temple at Dhiban to commemorate his “victory” over the Israelites. The Moabite Stone, in fact, gives King Mesha’s side of the story. As such it provides a rare glimpse from a genuinely ancient but non-biblical source of an incident in biblical history.

The overriding theme of the inscription is very familiar: that the deity, in this case Chemosh, guided Mesha in his trials and finally gave him victory. The inscription states that Chemosh had allowed King Omri of Israel to oppress Moab for many years because of the Moabites’ sins. (See Near Eastern Religious Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. Walter Beyerlin, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978, pp. 237–40.) During this time, Omri and his followers had taken much land in Moab and fortified it. (The Bible itself does not mention these campaigns by northern kings—with the exception of the account already quoted from 2 Kgs. 3.) At that point, Chemosh turns his favor toward Mesha and instructs him to defeat the Israelites. Mesha follows instructions, defeats the Israelites, and then uses Israelite prisoners to make repairs on the temple of Chemosh at Dhiban.

From a historian’s point of view, Mesha’s account of his successful rebellion against Israelite domination can probably be given credibility. As we have already seen, the Israelite—Judahite—Edomite coalition against him in 849 B.C. was successfully rebuffed by the human sacrifice which Mesha offered to Chemosh on the wall of his citadel. (See 2 Kgs. 3.) What’s more, if the date of 830 B.C. for the setting up of this monument is accurate, then Mesha’s statement about the fate of the house of Omri would also be accurate, since we know that Omri’s royal line was wiped out by Jehu in about 842 B.C. (See 2 Kgs. 9.) Thus, Mesha no doubt saw himself and his god, Chemosh, vindicated by events.

The fact that Israel’s neighbors viewed their gods in the same light as Israel viewed the Lord, and the fact that certain biblical customs should also be found among some of these neighbors, should in no way disturb anyone. Perhaps the Moabites and others borrowed these customs from the Israelites, or, more probably, since the Moabites are descendants from Abraham’s nephew Lot through the latter’s daughter (see Gen. 19:37), there would be much in the way of religion and culture that they would share in common. One of the sobering facts that we learn from a study of the Bible during the period of the united and divided monarchies is that sometimes the worship of idols such as Chemosh appears to have been more popular among the Israelites than the worship of the Lord himself. (See 1 Kgs. 11:7; 1 Kgs. 19:18; 2 Kgs. 17; 2 Kgs. 21; 1 Ne. 1:19–20.) The Moabite Stone gives us a picture of such an idol as one of his native adherents would have viewed him.

There are a number of other ancient inscriptions that have provided valuable insights into biblical history from a non-biblical perspective. Among these are the Gezar Calendar, the Samaria Ostraca, the Siloam Inscription, the Lachish Letters, and numerous Phoenician and Aramaic inscriptions. (These can be examined in translation, with reference to the originals, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard, 2nd ed., Princeton: Princeton University, 1955, pp. 320–24; 3rd ed., 1969, pp. 653–62.) Among the most important of these are the royal inscriptions of the Assyrian and Babylonian kings. We have inscriptions of the Assyrian kings Sargon II and Sennacherib describing their sieges of Samaria in 721 and Jerusalem in 701, respectively, as well as inscriptions relating the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s conquests of Jerusalem in the latter years of Judah’s existence before the exile. (See Pritchard, 2nd ed., pp. 284–88; 3rd ed., pp. 563–64.)

What value have such inscriptions added to our understanding of the Bible? In addition to providing new perspective, they “pinpoint events and … supply a wider view of the biblical past, discovering phenomena in ancient Israel not preserved in its literature.” (See Gaalyahu Cornfeld, Archaeology of the Bible: Book by Book, New York: Harper and Row, 1976, p. 122.) Latter-day Saints will be familiar with this latter concept from the book of Moses and the book of Abraham, which preserve accounts of Enoch and Abraham not contained in the Masoretic Hebrew text nor, correspondingly, in the King James Bible.

Qumran Scrolls

Although a great many scrolls and fragments have been recovered from Qumran, many have not yet been published. (See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Dead Sea Scrolls, Major Publications and Tools for Study, Missoula: Scholars Press, 1975.) The two great Isaiah scrolls and the commentary on Habakkuk were published in the 1950s, other fragments of Bible books and commentaries produced by the Qumran sectaries have appeared since 1956 in the series Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, published by Oxford University Press. (A convenient and up-to-date translation of many of the Bible passages and commentaries can be found in G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 2nd ed., New York: Penguin Books, 1975.)

Readings from Qumran Bible manuscripts have already had a strong impact on Bible translations, as can be seen in both the Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible translations. The Revised Standard Version has included at least thirteen changes in its translation of the Book of Isaiah based on readings in the first of the two Qumran Isaiah scrolls. (See Roberts, 4:581.)

The changes in the Qumran scrolls were of various sorts. For example, Isaiah 49:5 [Isa. 49:5], as contained in the Qumran Isaiah scroll, points up an interesting and pervasive scribal error. The phrase in question comes in the middle of the verse “Though Israel not be gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord.” It is widely recognized by Bible scholars that certain “small, common words,” such as the negative particle (no, not), the word for and, and the prepositions to, for, and many others, “were easily inserted into the text” by scribes in order to change the meaning. Even small words such as these can dramatically alter the basic meaning of a passage. In many cases these and other changes, both insertions and deletions, may have been made by the scribes deliberately, desiring to influence the text’s meaning. (See Ernst Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979, pp. 108–9.)

In the passage from Isaiah 49 quoted above the only difference between the Masoretic and King James reading and the Qumran Isaiah scroll is one letter. The translation of the verse thus reads in the New American Bible (which reflects the Qumran Isaiah scroll reading): “For now the Lord has spoken who formed me as his servant from the womb, That Jacob may be brought back to him and Israel gathered to him; And I am made glorious in the sight of the Lord, and my God is now my strength!” [Isa. 49] (Italics added.) The passage thus translated fits much better into the theme of the entire chapter.

It is changes of this kind which represent a high percentage of those that the Prophet Joseph Smith was inspired to correct in his work on the Bible. An example, one of many found in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, is Jeremiah 30:12 [Jer. 30:12]. The King James Version reads “For thus saith the Lord, Thy bruise is incurable, and thy wound is grievous.” The Joseph Smith Translation reads “For thus saith the Lord, thy bruise is not incurable, although thy wounds are grievous.” (Italics added.) This demonstrates that not only could these small words be inserted into the text, they could also be removed by ancient scribes.

Of course, we cannot compare the work of the Prophet Joseph Smith with that of scholars. Scholars, many of whom are well intentioned, work under the full burden of human frailty, attempting to master imperfectly known ancient languages, and applying such knowledge to the rags and tatters of ancient Old Testament manuscripts that we possess today. The result is relatively minor changes or emendations. We learn from the Book of Mormon, though, that ancient scribes “have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious.” (1 Ne. 13:26; italics added.) The Prophet Joseph Smith, working without the benefit of scholarly learning but under inspiration from the Lord, was able to restore large and significant sections of scripture as well as the one- or two-word changes just described.

Furthermore, his work often contained significant doctrinal concepts entirely missing from the Bible. The Prophet’s contributions have taught Latter-day Saints that “many parts” truly are missing from the biblical text and that the Bible is the word of God to the degree that “it is translated correctly.” (See A of F 1:8.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the study of the Qumran scrolls is the glimpse they give us of text types different from the Masoretic, as well as the process by which Bible texts were molded, over time, into the Masoretic pattern. The two Qumran Isaiah scrolls possibly provide striking evidence of this process. The first Isaiah scroll (so-called because it was unrolled first) is an older scroll, dated by scholars to the second century B.C. It shows marked divergences from the Masoretic text of Isaiah, exhibiting a freer, more expansive, less tightly controlled text. (See Scrolls from Qumran Cave I, ed. Frank Moore Cross, et. al., Jerusalem: The Albright Institute of Archaeological Research and The Shrine of the Book, 1972, p. 3; also Barthelemy, pp. 880–81.) The second Isaiah scroll is dated later than the first, although not later than the 60s of the first century A.D. This text is remarkably close in spelling and other criteria to the Masoretic text. (See Wurthwein, p. 144, quoting B. J. Roberts.) It exhibits the tightly controlled, homogeneous, unexpansive text that characterizes the Masoretic tradition. Remarkably, the earlier Isaiah scroll shows evidence of having been corrected a number of times, in several cases by a later scribe. (See Roberts, p. 581.) These corrections seem to point to an editor with Masoretic leanings, bringing this “wayward” manuscript into line with the official text. The corrections thus would probably have originated in the 60s A.D., the final years of the Qumran communities’ existence.

Is it possible that we have here a model for the process described in 1 Nephi 13:26 [1 Ne. 13:26]? No doubt the process would have taken place much earlier, perhaps in the time of Ezra (about 458 B.C.) or even earlier. (We can relate this process to the passage in Jeremiah 8:8 [Jer. 8:8], which reads, in the New American Bible translation: “How can you say, ‘We are wise, we have the law of the Lord’? Why, that has been changed into falsehood by the lying pen of the scribes!”) The process of “correcting” that we see at Qumran may simply be the last vestiges of the eradication of those text types that disagreed with the official point of view.

However, the Book of Mormon indicates that the “record of the Jews” went forth “in purity” from the Jews to the Gentiles; it was after the Gentiles received the record that “many parts … plain and most precious” were removed. (1 Ne. 13:23–29). The time scheme indicated by the Book of Mormon agrees with the kind of scribal activity suggested here for the two Isaiah scrolls.

The Old Testament is a grand and inspiring book of scripture. We marvel today at the extraordinary achievements of the biblical translators of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, yet there is much that we can learn from the discoveries of modern scholarship, tempered and guided by the Spirit and by the statements of our living prophets. Indeed, we are most fortunate to have the LDS edition of the King James version, which provides us with much of the inspired translation work of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as well as many other tools and aids. All of these resources should be taken by us as opportunities to emulate the Prophet Joseph Smith, who said, “No man holds [the Bible] more sacred than I do.” (The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, Provo: Brigham Young University, 1980, p. 160.)

John M. Lundquist, instructor in ancient scripture and anthropology, Brigham Young University, is a Sunday School teacher in his Orem, Utah, ward.