Archive for April, 2011

With all that the King James Version had to recommend it when first published, we are forced to recognize that during the past 400 years it has become a less than ideal translation. Let me state clearly, that I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with using the King James. If you are accustomed to it, and wish to continue using it, you should feel free to do so, and it would be improper for anyone to tell you otherwise. That being said, just as we looked at the strengths of the King James last week, today we shall consider its weaknesses. They fall into two general areas. While this requires mentioning something about manuscripts and textual criticism, which we have not discussed yet, I feel it is necessary. In the future I plan to deal with these areas more fully.

The Text of the King James

It should be obvious that no Bible translation can be better than the Hebrew and Greek texts upon which it is based. Perhaps no other point better illustrates both the strengths of the King James when first produced and its weaknesses today.

The earliest manuscript of the Hebrew Old Testament the King James translators had was from the tenth century AD, only 700 years before their own time. Since 1948 the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls has provided some Old Testament texts written before or slightly after the time of Christ. Additional early manuscripts of the Septuagint have provided another basis for comparison with the accepted text of the Hebrew Bible (the Masoretic text).

For their basic text of the New Testament the King James translators used the Greek text of Erasmus, which was certainly the best text known to them at that time. Erasmus’ text, however, was not a particularly good one. He had only four or five fairly late manuscripts which he could have used, and they dated from the 10th to the 13th centuries. Of course the King James translators did have other resources. They had before them every previous English version, all available foreign versions, as well as ancient Latin and Syriac translations; however, there appears to be some doubt that the translators made use of these, deferring (for the New Testament) for the most part to the text of Erasmus, which as we have seen, was not an especially accurate text.

And the search for the most accurate text possible has over the years rendered the King James a less than ideal translation. None of the three most significant manuscripts of the Bible (Codices Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, or Alexandrinus) were available to the King James translators. In fact they could have had access to no more than 25 rather late manuscripts, and there is little evidence they used them. Today we know of well over 5,500 manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament, some dating back to the second century AD.

Although still occasionally denounced by some, the application of scientific methods in textual criticism has helped explain many of the variations among ancient manuscripts, and the result is a biblical text far more reliable than we have had since the earliest days of Christianity.

The Language of the King James

The primary function of any translation is to render the original in the language of the reader, and, for good or ill, Jacobean English is no longer the standard language of any English-speaking culture, and the continuing changes in English usage must increasingly make the King James more difficult to understand and in some cases actually misleading.

The word “let” can serve as an example of how changes in English word meanings since Jacobean times can easily obscure, if not actually distort, the meaning. The King James translates Romans 1.13 as follows: “Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto) . . .” In a similar usage 2 Thessalonians 2.7 reads, “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” Since the word “let” has, in modern English, virtually the opposite of its Elizabethan meaning of “prevent,” its usage in the King James must present difficulty to the average English reader unfamiliar with the history of the language. While the passage in Romans might appear simply strange or quaint, the verse in 2 Thessalonians could easily be confusing to the modern reader.

Another example can be found in the word “prove.” In current English, the word “prove” means to establish the truth of something; however, as used in the King James Bible,“prove” means to “test.” Judges 3.3 shows us this meaning. “And they were to prove Israel by them, to know whether they would hearken unto the commandments of the LORD, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses.” In this verse, the word “prove” clearly means to “test.” A New Testament example is Galatians 6.2 where the King James reads, “But let every man prove his own work.” Again, the context shows that the meaning is “test.” We have all heard the expression, “The exception proves the rule.” In current English, this expression makes no sense. How can an exception prove a rule? In the modern sense an exception does precisely the opposite. But using the King James understanding of the word, the expression is saying that the exception tests the rule, which makes perfect sense. If we do read the King James without knowing that, we can actually misinterpret what the text is saying.

These are only two examples of how changes in language over 400 years have made it more difficult to understand the King James Version. As I indicated in my last post, I have nothing but admiration for the quality of the King James Version. At the same time, we need to recognize that, like all translations, it has weaknesses. And these weaknesses have increased over the passage of time. Next week I intend to provide my last posting on the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. I will summarize my thoughts at that time.

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The language of the King James Version was perhaps its most crowning achievement, although, as we shall see next week, that same language may paradoxically have become its weakest element. There are few indeed, scholar or layman, Christian or agnostic, who would argue that the King James Bible is the most magnificent piece of literature ever produced in the English language. Its superb renderings have become ingrained in our very consciousness and still have power to move and inspire us. Since I was raised on the King James, I am undoubtedly influenced by that. Even so, I do not believe any of the modern translations come close to the stirring majesty of “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Even the archaic “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal,” still portrays a strength and beauty hardly surpassed by modern versions.

It is true that the English language today is far different from what is was in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and we shall look at that next week. But this does not make the King James Version irrelevant. We can still profit from reading Shakespeare, Milton, and even Chaucer, because of the ideas they present, as well as the language which they use to convey those ideas. The same can be said of the King James Bible. The very fact that it has remained in constant use for 400 years is a testament to its power to instruct and inspire.

The King James Bible could also serve as an example to modern translators in the way its translators rendered the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts available to them into what was then modern English. The King James is perhaps the best example of a formal equivalence translation. We shall talk about differing approaches to translation (formal equivalence vs. dynamic equivalence) at another time. For our purposes right now, just understand that formal equivalence is the attempt to preserve as much as possible the grammatical structure and even the words of the original languages. It is commonly referred to (incorrectly) as a word-for-word translation. The King James demonstrates that it is possible for a translation to do this without becoming stiff or mechanical. It is perhaps the best formal equivalence translation of the Bible to be made in the English language, and our modern translators could learn from what the King James translators accomplished.

In more recent years a new criticism has been made concerning some translations of the New Testament, especially the King James. It has been argued that the Koine Greek of the New Testament was just what the name implies, the language of the common people, and that the stirring eloquence of the King James Version does not accurately reflect the down-to-earth language of the Koine Greek. While there is some degree of truth to this argument, it is perhaps too simplistic an analysis.

We should recognize that the language of the King James was in fact the language of contemporary England. Once again, the writings of William Shakespeare can help to illustrate this. Shakespeare is recognized for the beauty and power of his poetry, but we should remember that his plays were, for the most part, not written for royalty. They were meant to be performed for the common people. That is why he includes so many sword fights and murders. The language may sound strange and exalted to us, but it was not so for contemporary England.

We should also realize the variety of Greek styles within the New Testament. Certainly, there are a number of instances of traditional koine (or common) Greek in the New Testament. 1, 2, and 3 John are written with a limited vocabulary and relatively simple grammatical structure. That’s why, even with my limited understanding of the Greek language, I can read these portions of the New Testament in Greek with relatively little need to look up words or forms. They are true examples of the common or koine Greek. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the book of Hebrews, which is written in a Greek style that approaches the classical Attic Greek. So, it seems unjust to criticize the King James Bible for the language that was employed in the translation.

My purpose has been to demonstrate that the King James Version was, when first produced, a marvelous translation and to help us recognize the debt we owe to it and to the translators who produced it. Over the centuries subsequent changes have rendered it a less than ideal translation. We shall look at those aspects next week.

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Perhaps no other English translation has captured the heart of English-speaking peoples more than the King James Version. A mythology has developed about the translation and about those who produced it. Many people visualize pious, scholarly men, working feverishly, sensing God’s divine guidance as they work to translate the Bible.

While they may have been pious men, they operated under specific guidelines. Some were good; others betray a religious and even a political prejudice, intended to ensure that the translation conformed to the realities of the time.

Fifteen general rules were given for the guidance of the translators. Some of them will probably appear to you to be quite reasonable. Others seem to betray a desire to keep the status quo whenever possible. We see in these rules both an attempt to provide logical guidelines for translation, as well as barriers which appear designed to prevent the translators from going too far out of the bounds that James and the ecclesiastical officials felt appropriate. The rules are listed below. Some of them need no explanation. For others, I have inserted my own comments in brackets below the rule.

Here are the rules for the Translators.

1. The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the original will permit.

[The deck was stacked against the Puritans from the beginning. James I had already expressed his belief that, although none of the existing English translations were adequate, the Geneva Bible was the worst. By insisting that the Bishops’ Bible be the starting point, he hoped to minimize the influence of the Reformers.]

2. The names of the Prophets, and the Holy Writers, with the other Names of the Text, to be retained, as nigh as may be, accordingly as they were vulgarly used.

3. The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church not to be translated Congregation &c.

[The Anglicans supported a more institutional approach than the Puritans, and both sides naturally wished a translation that supported their perspective. The word “church” is just one example. Although it had been used in notes and references, the English word “church” was not used in any translation until (interestingly enough) the Geneva Bible of 1560. Before that, the Greek word “ekklesia” had normally been translated as “congregation,” matching its usage in the Septuagint. Another example from the Bishops’ Bible that made it into the King James was the translation of the Greek word “pascha” in Acts 12:4 as “Easter,” instead of the normal translation of “Passover,” as it was translated in the Geneva Bible.]

4. When a Word hath divers Significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most of the Ancient Fathers, being agreeable to the Propriety of the Place, and the Analogy of the Faith.

5. The Division of the Chapters to be altered, either not at all, or as little as may be, if Necessity so require.

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.

[This had been perhaps the greatest issue with the Geneva Bible. While King James and the Anglican Bishops certainly had concerns about some of the translations in the Geneva Bible, their main objections came from the marginal notes which tended to interpret passages from a Reformed point of view. The problem was resolved for both sides by insisting that only notes intended to clarify the language would be allowed.]

7. Such Quotations of Places to be marginally set down as shall serve for the fit Reference of one Scripture to another.

8. Every particular Man of each Company, to take the same Chapter or Chapters, and having translated or amended them severally by himself, where he thinketh good, all to meet together, confer what they have done, and agree for their Parts what shall stand.

[This was one of the strengths of the process, because no one person could determine the final translation. It became essentially the work of a committee, representing both Puritans and Anglicans. This made it less likely for either side to dominate the translation. This principle is outlined in more details in other rules below. Most modern translations (such as the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version are the work of committees, consisting of members who come from a variety of faith backgrounds. This helps to ensure that the translation does not reflect the religious presuppositions of any one person or denomination.]

9. As any one Company hath dispatched any one Book in this Manner they shall send it to the rest, to be considered of seriously and judiciously, for His Majesty is very careful in this Point.

10. If any Company, upon the Review of the Book so sent, doubt or differ upon any Place, to send them Word thereof; note the Place, and withal send the Reasons, to which if they consent not, the Difference to be compounded at the general Meeting, which is to be of the chief Persons of each Company, at the end of the Work.

11. When any Place of special Obscurity is doubted of, Letters to be directed by Authority, to send to any Learned Man in the Land, for his Judgement of such a Place.

12. Letters to be sent from every Bishop to the rest of his Clergy, admonishing them of this Translation in hand; and to move and charge as many skilful in the Tongues; and having taken pains in that kind, to send his particular Observations to the Company, either at Westminster, Cambridge, or Oxford.

13. The Directors in each Company, to be the Deans of Westminster, and Chester for that Place; and the King’s Professors in the Hebrew or Greek in either University.

14. These translations to be used when they agree better with the Text than the Bishops Bible: Tyndale’s, Matthew’s, Coverdale’s, Whitchurch’s, Geneva.

[Both William Tyndale and John Rogers (the presumed translator of Matthew’s Bible) had been burned for daring to translate the Bible into English. Tyndale had mercifully been strangled prior to having his body burned. Rodgers had not been so fortunate. This should remind us of the price that has been paid in order for us to have free access to an English Bible.]

15. Besides the said Directors before mentioned, three or four of the most Ancient and Grave Divines, in either of the Universities, not employed in Translating, to be assigned by the vice-Chancellor, upon Conference with the rest of the Heads, to be Overseers of the Translations as well Hebrew as Greek, for the better observation of the 4th Rule above specified.

What shall we make of all this? Perhaps the main thing to remember is that the translators of the King James Version were people like ourselves. They were, for the most part, devote Christians, who were dedicated to preparing an accurate and meaningful English translation. At the same time, they (like we) were influenced by their backgrounds and theological presuppositions. They were not perfect and never claimed to be. The project they undertook was immense, and they fulfilled it admirably. We shall talk more about that next week.

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Monday, May 2, will mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. Normally, I would not be talking about English translations at this point, but circumstances seem to be directing me to issues in anything but a sequential order. While this drives me crazy, perhaps that is a good thing. Friends and family may think it to be a short drive anyway. At any rate, I simply could not let this date go by without talking about what must be considered one of the monumental translations of the Bible in English. I plan to issue five articles (including this one) relating to the King James Version each successive Monday, culminating with the final entry on May 2.

Today I want to present some background. We must pass over much of the story of the English Bible (to which I plan to return at another time) until we come to the reign of Elizabeth I. During her rule two significant English translations were issued.

Geneva Bible

Geneva Bible page printed in 1595

The first was the Geneva Bible, published in 1560. Mary, Elizabeth’s predecessor, had attempted to reestablish Roman Catholicism in England. Because of the ensuing persecution, Bible translation and publication became virtually impossible. A number of English Protestant scholars fled to Geneva, Switzerland, which was the home of Reformed Protestantism. It was there that the Geneva Bible was produced and from which it received its name. The translation is mainly attributed to William Whittingham, a brother-in-law of John Calvin. The Geneva Bible was certainly one of the most influential English translations in history, and we shall return to it another day. Just one of its important “firsts” was that it was the first Bible to use the chapter and verse divisions which we find in modern Bibles. The chapter divisions had been produced much earlier and were first used in John Wycliffe’s English Bible in 1382. However, the Geneva Bible was the first translation to incorporate both modern chapter and verse divisions. So it was the first Bible in which John 3.16 is John 3.16.


The other translation produced during this period was the Bishops’ Bible, published in 1568. The Bishops’ Bible was actually a revision of an earlier translation called the Great Bible. The Bishops’ Bible received its name from the fact that all of the translators either were or became bishops in the Anglican Church. Just as the Geneva Bible was felt to reflect Reformation (in England, Puritan) elements, so the Bishops’ Bible was perceived to express a stance more in keeping with the Anglican Church.

Bishops' Bible printed in 1578

So, now there were two competing Bibles circulating in England. In 1603 King James I called for a conference of both Anglican and Puritan clergymen to address the subject of religious reform. This conference was held at Hampton Court in 1604. While the attempt at reform achieved limited results, the most significant historical outcome was a suggestion by Puritan leader, Dr. John Rainolds (also spelled Reynolds) , who suggested that a new or revised translation be undertaken which would become the standard for all English-speaking Christians (except for Roman Catholics, for whom the Douai-Rheims was the accepted English translation).

A committee of both Anglican and Protestant scholars was selected and procedures were established which were to govern this new translation. In the next posting, I will outline some of those rules and procedures.

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This should have been the second posting I made to my blog. Funny how easy it is to miss the obvious. You need to know where I am coming from. Why? Because I have biases, prejudices, whatever word you choose to use. I have come to believe that the most dangerous people in the world are those who actually think they are completely objective, and that anyone with any sense will agree with them. It’s a dangerous position, but, oh so hard not to believe.

We can respond to our background in more than one way. Many people simply accept what they have been taught unquestioningly. This can be especially true in matters such as religion (I’m not going to get into politics. Religion will be controversial enough, thank you!). After all, we have so much emotionally tied to our religious beliefs. They form the core of how we view the world, and ultimately, our own lives. Perhaps no other area of our heritage is so difficult to change.

Backgrounds can affect us in other ways, as well. If we came from a heritage that was dogmatic or self-righteous, we may have recognized some of the problems in that culture and reacted against them. That can lead to a tendency to overreact and swing to an opposite extreme. A friend of mine once said, “The only time we see the center of the road, is when we are moving from side to side.” I suspect there is a great deal of truth, even wisdom, in that.

So who am I? I was raised in the Church of Christ and still attend a Church of Christ, although it is quite different in many ways from the ones I went to as a child. For those of you unfamiliar with the churches of Christ, we have historically tended to be very conservative in our interpretation of the Bible and its application to our lives. When I was growing up, I saw that view taken to extremes that I rejected as I grew older. Although I never left the Church of Christ (came close at times), I was especially intent on changing some positions which I felt to be too dogmatic or authoritarian.

As I have grown older, I have come to believe that extremes in any form should be approached with caution. This applies to both conservative and liberal extremes. I have become more aware than ever of how much my own biases continue to express themselves, in spite of my intense desire to be objective.

In another blog (probably my next one), I plan to be up front with you about how I approach the Bible. That way, if you disagree with some of my evaluations, at least you will know where I am coming from.

At the same time, I want to be very careful to distinguish fact from evaluation. I want to be scrupulously honest, when I present “facts” about the Bible.  We can’t have an honest discussion about meaning, interpretation, or significance, if the facts are wrong. So, if I should ever present as “fact” something that is not right, please correct me on it. I assure you, it will not be intentional.

That’s who I am. I just think you need to know that.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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