The Use of Italics in the King James Bible
by Dr. David L. Brown
Why did the King James Bible translators use italics in the King James Bible? Was it because God miraculously gave the translators additional inspiration the same way He did as recorded in 2 Peter 1:21, “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost”? Or is it, as some have assumed, that these words were printed in this fashion for emphasis? The answer to both of these questions is, NO.
In fact, the words in italics in the King James Bible are words that were added by the translators to help the reader. This is usually necessary when translating from one language to another because a word in one language may not have a corollary word in English and idiomatic expressions often do not easily move from one language to another. Hence, the words in italics are words which do not have any equivalence in the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek text. By adding these words, the translators’ goal was to make the meaning of the sentence clearer and produce a more readable translation that read smoothly, yet was true to the original. However, to make sure that the reader understood that these words were not in the manuscripts, they set them in italics.
I have Gordon Campbell’s book entitled Bible: The Story of the King James Version, published by Oxford University Press. Published in 2010, it is a history of the King James Bible. Campbell states that KJV translator Samuel Ward reported to the 1618 Synod of Dort the procedures or rules that guided the making of the KJV. He noted that some of those rules were supplementary rules that added information not found in the fifteen rules given the KJV translators. Campbell asserted that this information reported by Samuel Ward has "the inestimable advantage of reflecting what actually happened rather than what was supposed to happen." (p. 41).
Here is the rule the KJV translators used themselves as presented by Samuel Ward that relates to the use of italics:
"Words that it was anywhere necessary to insert into the text to complete the meaning were to be distinguished by another type, small roman…" (p. 42).
So you are not confused, I remind you that the 1611 Bible was in fancy Black Letter type. The added words were in smaller Roman type and not italics. In later editions that were set in Roman type, italics were used. This is what we see in our King James Bibles today.
F. H. A. Scrivener wrote: "The end proposed by the use of italics is thus explained in the Geneva edition of 1578. 'Where as the necessity of the sentence required anything to be added (for such is the grace and propriety of the Hebrew and Greek tongues, that it cannot but either by circumlocution, or by adding the verb, or some word, be understood of them that are not well-practised therein), we have put it in the text with another kind of letter.' If this be the rule which the translators of our present version proposed to themselves (and we have every reason for believing that it was), it follows that such a rule should be carried out uniformly, and on all occasions" (Supplement to the Authorized English Version of the New Testament, Vol. I, pp. 60-61).
Scrivener also quoted in a note a similar comment from the 1557 Whittingham's New Testament.
Thus, the early English translators themselves stated one of the rules or principles that they used for "italics" [or putting some words in a different kind of letter or type], and the above evidence shows that principle was also affirmed and advocated by the KJV translators.
The words in italics are there for a purpose. While there are many illustrations to show how helpful the italics are, I will show you just one. We see that David killed Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:49 “ And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.” That is confirmed in 1 Samuel 21:9 “And the priest said, The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom thou slewest in the valley of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod: if thou wilt take that, take it: for there is no other save that here. And David said, There is none like that; give it me.” Watch carefully the importance of the italics in II Samuel 21:19, “And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines, where Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, a Bethlehemite, slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver's beam.” But, omitting the italicized words from II Samuel 21:19 as the ESV, NASB, NIV, The Message, etc. state, it would lead you to believe Elhanan was the one who slew Goliath. Look carefully at II Samuel 21:19 from the New American Standard, “And there was war with the Philistines again at Gob, and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s bean.” However, we know that is not a true statement by reading 1 Chronicles 20:5 “And there was war again with the Philistines; and Elhanan the son of Jair slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, whose spear staff was like a weaver's beam.”
Clearly, the words in italics were not miraculously given to the translators by God as additional inspiration the same way He did as recorded in 2 Peter 1:21, “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” Neither are the italics there to add emphasis. The words in italics in the King James Bible are words that were added by the translators to help the reader better understand the intent of the passage translated from the original languages.