The KJV vs. the NIV on I Samuel 8:16
A Case Study in New Version Alterations

This article is an adaptation of a response which I gave to a site visitor some time back. He had emailed me about the KJV-Only position taken by this website. As part of the ensuing discussion, he emailed me a quote from the book How to Read the Bible For All It's Worth, by the modernist textual critic Gordon Fee, asking me what my response to Dr. Fee's arguments would be. My answer forms the body of what is below. In the excerpt from Dr. Fee's book, we see a more or less typical argument which is forwarded by textual critics who wish to support various of the new versions over the KJV. This argument is essentially built upon the rejection of the doctrine of the preservation of Scripture, and the belief that man's textual criticism has to "reconstruct" what the words of God really were. Of course, arguments such as Dr. Fee's are usually assumed by other textual critics (and the students in the seminaries) to be true, prima facie. However, as I hope to show, these arguments need not be considered the only alternative for explaining differing readings between textual sources.


"The text of the NIV "Best of your cattle" comes from the Septuagint, the usually reliable Greek translation of the Old Testament made in Egypt around 250-100 B.C. The KJV follows the medieval Hebrew text reading "young men", a rather unlikely term to be used in parallel to "donkeys". The origin of the miscopy in the Hebrew text, which the KJV followed, is easy to understand:

"The word for 'your young men' in Hebrew, was written 'BHRYKM', while 'your cattle' was 'BQRYKM'. The incorrect copying of a single letter by a scribe resulted in a change of meaning. The Septuagint was translated some time before the miscopy was made, so it preserved the original, 'your cattle'. The accidental change to "your young men" was made later affecting medieval Hebrew manuscripts, but too late to affect the premedieval Septuagint".


Frankly, I have to admit that I find Dr. Fee's reasoning on this matter less than convincing, for a number of reasons.

First, let us look at the various textual and other contemporary evidences. To begin, there is the fact that this reading is based upon the Septuagint. Despite what Dr. Fee says about the LXX being a generally good translation, the fact of the matter is that it is not. In some portions, the LXX is fairly decent. In others, it is absolutely terrible. Usually it falls somewhere in between, which in my estimation does not give it enough authority to use it to interpret or suggest supposed "scribal errors" in the Hebrew. This is especially true given the INTENSE efforts made by the Jewish Masoretes and their forebearers in preventing scribal errors. This same sort of effort was not made with the Greek LXX. In many places, the LXX reads more like a targum than a verbal-literal translation.

Anywise, the LXX is an inferior product. In fact, it is reported that its rendering of the book of Daniel was so bad that a 2nd century AD scholar named Theodotion actually RE-translated Daniel into Greek, and it is HIS translation which we find currently in the LXX (thus, Daniel at least is most certainly not tracable to 250-150 BC anymore). In fact, the earliest copies of the LXX which we have date to the 3rd century AD, so we cannot say for sure that the LXX said the same thing when it was first translated as it says now.

Indeed, certain early patristic writers from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD at various times quote the Old Testament in Greek, but several of their quotations are much different from the LXX, even to the point that they on occasion quote verses which do not even appear in the LXX (or the Hebrew, for that matter). What this suggests is that the earlier Greek OT was at many points different from the present text for the LXX which is available to us now. This further suggests that the LXX was changed over the time of the first few centuries of the early church. This is additionally supported by the fact that the apocryphal books appear in the LXX, even though there is no record of them having been translated by the Jewish rabbis during the LXX's translation period (many of these books did not even EXIST during that period!). These apocryphal books were never considered canonical by the Jews, even those in Egypt, and thus were not included in the original Greek translation. Yet, they appear there now. This suggests addition later during the 3rd century or so of the Christian era, likely by an Origen or other textual critic who favoured them.

All this means that the reading of the LXX on any point is at least somewhat suspect, and certainly is not grounds to overturn a reading well-established in the multitude of Hebrew manuscripts.

But this is not all of the evidence against Dr. Fee's position. We need also to understand that what he say about the Hebrew readings being medieval (and thus late, thus giving them supposedly less weight than the LXX) is incorrect. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which span a period from roughly 200 BC - 68 AD, witness to the antiquity of the Hebrew Masoretic style of text. Among the Hebrew texts there, we find that the large preponderance of them are Masoretic in text-type. In fact, the exemplary scroll of Isaiah, dated around 100 BC or so is practically a word for word clone of the Masoretic underlying the KJV. There ARE other Hebrew text-types represented in the scrolls, but they are mostly eclectic (can not really be fit into a discernable body of texts) and nowhere near as numerous as the Masoretic types. Hence, the so-called "medieval" Masoretic seems to have as much age as Dr. Fee's Septuagint (even assuming that the original LXX were the same as today's LXX).

Further, we see that the witness of the Latin Vulgate is in favour of "young men". The Vulgate contains at this point in I Samuel 8:16 the term iuvenes optimos, which means "best young men". Now, one might argue that this means little, since the Vulgate was translated by the Christian patristic Jerome at the end of the 4th century AD. BUT, we need to keep in mind that according to Jerome's own testimony, he sought out the guidance of Jewish rabbis to help him translate and understand the Hebrew so as to produce the OT part of the Vulgate. He did not use the Greek OT because he felt it inadequate and corrupt. Hence, his use of iuvenes optimos shows that bachur was in the Hebrew texts of his time. Also, this shows that, if "cattle" existed in the LXX at this time, Jerome still rejected it as a valid reading.

Additional evidence also comes to us from Flavius Josephus, who lived in the 1st century AD. In his "Antiquities of the Jews", Josephus covers the history recorded in I Samuel 8:10-18. At one point, he says,

"When Samuel had heard this, he called the Jews early in the morning, and confessed to them that he was to ordain them a king; but he said that he was first to describe to them what would follow, what treatment they would receive from their kings, and with how many mischiefs they must struggle. "For know ye," said he, "that, in the first place, they will take your sons away from you, and they will command some of them to be drivers of their chariots, and some to be their horsemen, and the guards of their body, and others of them to be runners before them, and captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds; they will also make them their artificers, makers of armor, and of chariots, and of instruments; they will make them their husbandmen also, and the curators of their own fields, and the diggers of their own vineyards; nor will there be any thing which they will not do at their commands, as if they were slaves bought with money." (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 6.40-41)

This is interesting, because Josephus mentions that the king would take their sons and do all the things mentioned in vv. 11-12, about being warriors and armourers and so forth. But he also expands on this greatly, including some material which is not explicitly covered in the biblical passage, such as their being his husbandmen, and curators of the fields and diggers of their vineyards, even to the point that they would be like his slaves. This is not found in the passage explicitly, but could very well be understood as an expansion based upon a reading of I Samuel 8:16 saying that the "young men" would be taken and "put to his work". Josephus would seem to be applying his description also to v. 16, not just vv. 11-12.

Indeed, Josephus (6.41) does also state that the king "would give the herds of your cattle to his servants". BUT, this doesn't really support Dr. Fee for two reasons: 1) these herds are not being put to work, as I Samuel 8:16 says they should be, they are merely being confiscated and given to the king's friends. 2) the word translated as "cattle" here is not the boukolia found in the LXX (which SPECIFICALLY means "cattle"), but rather the word boskematon, a general word which refers to anything that is herded or fattened, and this could very well be a reference to the sheep that the king would take, per v. 17.

Let us now also look at the literary issues which Dr. Fee brought up. He stated that "young men" is an unlikely reading because it does not fit into a parallel structure with the "asses" in this passage. This is not a very compelling argument, though, because there is really no reason why we would expect a parallel structure for this verse. The parallelism so common to Hebrew literature is largely a poetic device. It is found in strict poetry (such as many of the Psalms) or in poetic prose (like Job or many of the Proverbs). Our passage, however, is neither of these, but is just a simple narrative. We would not expect there to be poetic parallel here any more than we would expect it in an account of war against the Amalekites or in the account of Nehemiah rebuilding the wall.

The phrase "your menservants, and your maidservants" does not indicate parallelism in this passage. This phrase is actually pretty programmatic in the OT, and appears together regardless of the type of literature it is in. I suspect that it was some sort of Hebrew idiomatic phrase. See, for example, Exodus 20:17, where the commandment against coveting includes your neighbour's "manservant, nor his maidservant".

Let us now turn to the logical aspect of the readings, and ask what the context would better seem to demand. The context of our passage is that Samuel is warning Israel of all the dangers and ills that would occur from setting up a monarch over themselves. It would be logical to assume that a centralised state produced by such an arrangement (and remember, the tribes seem to become much less important as individual entities after the monarchy began) would act to conscript the "goodly young men" for service both in the army and in corvče. This is what all the other monarchies around Israel in the ancient Near East did. Indeed, this is exactly what our passage shows would happen. Vv. 11-12 warn against conscription to the army, and, if we understand it as "young men", then v. 16 is speaking of the corvče, the putting of men to work building public works and whatnot (which the Bible indicates most certainly happened later on). The evidence of other nations around them as well as what actually happened in Israel from the Biblical testimony, suggests that this dual purpose conscription was going on, which would be absent if we understand v. 16 to say "cattle".

Indeed, the taking of cattle from the people would not be anything especially troublesome that Samuel would have to warn the people about. In the theocracy, the people were ALREADY losing a lot of cattle due to the needs of the sacrifices mandated by the Law. If Samuel warned the people that they would lose their cattle to a king, they probably would just yawn it off. BUT, the taking of servants and donkeys and their sons would be a new phenomenon which the people of Israel would not have endured before, thus making Samuel's warning meaningful. If v. 16 is understood to say "young men", then it makes sense that this would have been thought by Samuel to be a dire warning, but if it is understood as "cattle", then it wouldn't seem to have been all that much a deterent to the people's monarchic ambitions (which was the whole point to Samuel's speech).

Lastly, I want to address the most important evidence against Dr. Fee's position, and that is the theological evidence. God promises to us numerous times that He would preserve His Words for us (see Psalm 12:7, Isaiah 40:6, Matthew 5:18, Luke 16:17, John 10:35, I Peter 1:25). Jesus indicated in Matthew 5:18 that this preservation was going on in His day, with the Hebrew, when He said that "not one jot or one tittle" would pass from the law". Greek has neither jots nor tittles. Jesus also certainly seemed to indicate that the Hebrew texts He read in the synagogue (see Luke 4:17-21) were authoritative, which presumes their preservation and lack of "scribal errors". Note that these scrolls He would have been reading from would have been copies of the originals, which (for Isaiah at least) would have been produced nearly six centuries earlier.

God has promised to preserve His Words, and thus I do not really see then why we should buy into an argument which seeks to replace the Hebrew reading with a reading from the Greek, especially when the Greek source is so problematic.

Yes, individual manuscripts may become corrupt through errors, but God's promise extends to the body of Words as a whole, and transcends individual manuscripts. Dr. Fee argues that b.q.r may have been corrupted to b.ch.r, and thus "young men" replaced "cattle". Why not the other way around, though? Hypothetically speaking, why not b.ch.r being corrupted to b.q.r, and thus being translated from a corrupt manuscript into the Greek boukolia, thus propagating an error into the LXX (after all, we've seen that there is no reason to really believe that the LXX is older than the Masoretic)? Dr. Fee's argument is essentially self-serving, I believe. He is a modernistic textual critic who has a preference for the LXX over the Masoretic, and thus, when he finds something like this, he will naturally assume that the Greek *must* be right and the Masoretic *must* be wrong, and find a way to justify this conclusion.