During the season of Advent, churches will read from the Gospels, directly referencing Old Testament prophecies, as being fulfilled at Christmas, with the coming of Jesus as Messiah. One of the most familiar prophecies is found in Micah 5:2, which is said to predict that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, which is confirmed by Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, by Matthew (Matthew 2:1-6) and Luke (Luke 2:1-7). Such prophecies can stir up controversy, even among those who claim to be Christians, as I will point out.
Skeptics of the Christian faith will reject such predictive prophesies. For example, the well-known critic, Bart Ehrman, focuses on the problems of Jesus’ birthplace, contending that it was really Nazareth and not Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Erhman claims that the Gospel writers invented the Bethlehem birth story to make it all fit within Micah’s prophecy. This objection has been answered elsewhere (here by apologist Tim McGrew). But there is actually another problem, brought on by misguided thinking propagated by King-James-Only advocates, that only complicates things unnecessarily.
Let me first set the record straight: I do love the King James Version (KJV). Some of my friends simply prefer the KJV, and I can appreciate why. In several ways, modern translations have yet to improve upon the old trusty KJV. However, I also believe that other, more modern translations can help us to better understand God’s Word, expanding upon what the KJV gives us.
“King-James-Only” advocates, on the other hand, believe that only the KJV translation can be trusted, and that all modern Bible translations are the works of the Devil. I read a great book this past summer, Mark Ward’s Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, that I reviewed, that gently shows why some over-enthusiastic fans of the KJV can go completely overboard. Sadly, such King-James-Only folks can ironically raise unnecessary doubts in the minds of some Christians, as to the Bible’s trustworthiness, particularly among those who are new to the faith, regardless of which translation someone uses.
Here is a sample of the rhetoric from YouTube sensation, Steven Anderson, who cites the NIV (New International Verision) translation as denying the pre-existence of Jesus. For Anderson, the very Bibles most Christians use today actually undercut the doctrine of the Incarnation, that Jesus as God experienced a human birth in Bethlehem :
You can pretty much substitute “NIV” with just about any other modern English translation, and you get the power of Anderson’s rhetoric: “Do not believe modern English translations of the Bible, because they are lying to you!”
Here is how Anderson’s argument works. First, let us contrast how the KJV and the ESV (another modern translation) handle Micah 5:2:
- But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah,
- though thou be little among the thousands of Judah,
- yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me
- that is to be ruler in Israel;
- whose goings forth have been from of old,
- from everlasting. (KJV)
- But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days. (ESV)
Here we see, in both versions, that one shall come from Bethlehem, to be ruler in Israel, which explains why Matthew and Luke have such an interest, showing that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. Anderson’s argument is that the KJV teaches that Jesus is from “everlasting,” his “goings forth,” thus emphasizing Jesus pre-existence as a non-created being, whereas translations like the ESV, that have “ancient days,” suggest that Jesus was created in time, his “coming forth,” or “origins” (in the NIV), and therefore, is not pre-existent.
In other words, please put your ESVs and NIVs in a pile and burn them, according to Anderson.
But worse than that, such varied readings of Micah’s prophecy can make some think that no Bible translation can be trusted. That is; if a modern Bible translation can not be trusted, then why trust something older, like the KJV?
Sadly, Anderson leaves out some really important details. First, Anderson makes it a big deal that “everlasting” is the correct translation of the Hebrew here, and not “ancient days.” However, the KJV uses the very similar term “ancient of days,” three times in the Book of Daniel to refer to God Himself. I am not aware of any King James Only advocate who would call for a rejection of the KJV, for using such terminology, “ancient of days,” to refer to the pre-existent, non-created God. If the KJV is okay with identifying “ancient of days” with God in other places, why should we be bothered here in Micah 5:2?
Secondly, Anderson does not reveal why modern translations generally favor “ancient days” over “everlasting.” From the prior verse, Micah 5:1, we see that the former might be more accurate, with respect to the immediate context:
- Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops;
siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike the judge of Israel
on the cheek (ESV).
This would indicate that Micah has in mind that the one coming from Bethlehem (v.2) is associated with the judge of Israel (v.1). This judge of Israel is thought to be the ruler of Israel, none other than a king from the line of David. Therefore, Micah has in mind that the one from Bethlehem is a son of David, an heir to the Davidic kingly throne, which chimes in with the Gospel of Luke’s insistence that Joseph, the husband of Mary, was in the line of King David (Luke 2:4 ESV).
Mmmm…. So, why do “King James Only” people neglect to tell you these things?
Well, one of the main characteristics of conspiracy theories, such as King James Only-ism, is a propensity to only tell you part of the story, and then assign the worst possible motives to your antagonists, in this case, the majority of modern, evangelical Bible scholars.1
Here is some background: As Old Testament professor Claude Mariottini shows, the translation of “ancient days” ties the one coming from Bethlehem to a promise given within earthly time (Micah 7:14). Note that the covenant made with David, that there would be someone from the line of David, who would rule Israel, was made at a particular point in Israel’s history, in earthly time. In this context, there is no need to make the reference back to eternity (1 Chronicles 17:11-14).
So, does this mean that the King James Version was simply wrong to translate Micah 5:2 with “from everlasting,” instead of the more modern “from ancient days?” Not necessarily.
The debate among scholars today points more to a “BOTH/AND” answer, as opposed to an “EITHER/OR.” There were no earthly kings reigning in Israel prior to Saul and David, a fact that favors the “from ancient days” translation. And yet the translation does not preclude one from saying that God’s covenant with David was an expression of God’s larger, eternal purposes for His people, “from everlasting.”
While the immediate context of Micah 5:2 suggests that the Old Testament prophet has the connection with the Davidic covenant in mind, established from the “ancient days,” there could be a broader understanding in view as well, that ties this one from Bethlehem to having some “origin” from beyond created time, stretching back into eternity. The Hebrew phrasing here could just as well be interpreted as referring to a divine or eternal origin.2
Which is it then? Did Jesus come “from everlasting,” or “from ancient days?” The best answer is “YES.”
In other words, a good case can be made for both views, that Micah 5:2 refers to the Davidic covenant, established in time, and the pre-existence of the Messiah, established in eternity, that points us towards Jesus, who is not only the promised son-of-David, the king of Israel, from days of old, but also the very revelation of God, in human history, pre-existent from all eternity.
So, despite the rather misguided thinking that some King James Only-ist promoters like to push, modern Bible translations can be trusted. While there are different opinions among scholars as to what constitutes the best translation, there is no conspiracy here. No, the purveyors of modern translators are not trying to deny the Trinity. Instead, they are trying to find the most accurate way of rendering the original text for the contemporary reader.
A Christian may prefer the KJV. Someone else may prefer the NIV. I prefer the ESV. All of that is fine. But better yet, having access to more than one Bible translation can actually help you better understanding the full meaning of Holy Scripture.
It is very easy to browse the Internet, and find plenty of King James Only websites, or YouTube channels, that try to bombard you with pious sounding arguments and half-truths, that would cause you to doubt the reliability of modern Bible translations.3 They often raise some very good points, but sadly, they rarely tell you the full story.
1. What you typically hear from King James Only advocates is that modern Bible translations have some type of nefarious theological agenda, bent on undermining the doctrines of the Bible, in their efforts to move beyond the King James Bible. What King James Only advocates do not tell you, on this point, is that the modern Bible translations are mainly following the latest archaeological and literary research to try to produce more accurate Bible translations. For example, in 1 John 3:1, the old KJV has: “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.” Compare this to a more modern translation, like the ESV, that has: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” Notice how the ESV adds a supposedly new phrase, “and so we are.” Does the addition of this phrase indicate some type of wicked, theological agenda, reinforcing the idea that Christians really are children of God? Does it even make sense to contend for the reverse, that the KJV removed the phrase, in order to minimize the theological truth that we are children of God? No, there is no corruptive theological agenda here, going either way. It is simply that the latest research on ancient biblical manuscripts indicates that the oldest manuscripts have the phrase “and so we are,” whereas the more recent manuscripts do not. Medieval scribes were not always perfect in making copies of the Scriptural text. In other words, the supposedly “new” addition of “and so we are” in the ESV is not “new” at all! See the notes in the NET Bible, for 1 John 3:1 (note 3), for additional explanation…. Oh, and by the way, the word for “children” in the ESV is a translation of the gender-neutral Greek word “tekna,” which is more accurate than the gender-specific “sons of God,” as found in in the KJV. ↩
2. The controversial Hebrew phrase being debated in Micah 5:2 is mimei olam qedem. The mimei is understand as “from the days,” but are they temporal or eternal? From Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Messianic? (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), p. 98: “…Micah predicted that this king’s origins would be from eternity past. The two Hebrew temporal nouns used can speak of eternity when they stand alone, although this is not always the case. Used chronologically, qedem, ‘antiquity,’ can refer to ancient times as in ‘long ago,’ to the earliest imaginable times as when the mountains first came to be (Deut 33:15), or to the ‘eternal’ God and His eternal dwelling place (Deut 33:27; Hab 1:12; Pss 55:19; 68:33). The second term ‘ôlām, ‘eternity,’ usually refers to the distant or unending future (although sometimes within the context of one’s lifetime). But it is also used of ancient times in the past (Ps 24:7) or of the beginning of creation (Ps 25:6; Joel 2:2) or before. According to Ps 93:2, God’s ‘throne has been established from the beginning [lit. ‘from then’]; / You are from eternity.’ And Ps 90:2 declares, ‘Before the mountains were born, / before You gave birth to the earth and the world, / from eternity to eternity, You are God.’ When qedem and ‘ôlām are used together, however, as in Prov 8:22-23, they always denote eternity past (cf. Deut 33:27). In Mic 5:2, these words are placed together to emphasize the ruler’s true origin, being far earlier than his arrival in Bethlehem or even antiquity. Rather, he comes from eternity past.” See the NET Bible notes on this passage for more analysis and this answer from Dr. Michael Brown. Consult Fred Sanders, et.al. for a very technical discussion. ↩
3. The Internet is filled with a plethora of King James Only propaganda, that while intended to honor the great value of the King James Version, has the unintended negative consequence, of causing uninformed persons to doubt the validity of the Scriptures altogether! What a sad tragedy! Robert Plummer, a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary, explains why the thinking of King-James-Onlyism is so misguided: ↩