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Does It Mean What It Says? More Problems with the King James

In my previous post I pointed out that the King James Version sometimes uses words and phrases that no longer make sense to most speakers/readers of the English language today.  That obviously makes it use complicated.  Why would you want to use a study Bible that doesn’t communicate in common English – or in this case, in English that no longer makes sense?   I can understand – and heartily support – those who want to read the King James for its sheer beauty and historical significance.  But if you want to study what the Bible actually means, it’s not the best place to go.  In fact, it’s a rather awful place.

An even bigger problem comes from the fact that sometimes the King James uses a word or phrase that does in fact make perfectly good sense in modern English.  But the word means something very different now from what it meant in 1611, since the language (and hence the meanings of words) has changed over the past four hundred years.  Here are a few examples to illustrate my point.

One of my favorite KJV passages is Revelation 17, where the prophet sees the great whore of Babylon, “the mother of harlots.”  It is a hideous vision of this terrifying woman full of abominations and drunk with the blood of the martyrs (it is a symbol for the city of Rome, as is made crystal clear in 17:9 and 18).  And how does the prophet react to this ghastly sight?  In the KJV he looks upon here “with great admiration.”  Ha!  What it means, of course, is that he…

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Printing Errors in the King James Version
Problems with the Language of the King James Version

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Comments

  1. talmoore
    talmoore  January 23, 2017

    I’m curious, does Luther’s German Bible have similar issues with archaisms and ambiguity that the KJV does in English? Do Germans still use Luther’s Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      Yes, and it was also highly significant for the German language. But there are also modern German translations, just as in English.

    • Avatar
      mjordan20149  January 24, 2017

      Luther’s translation refers to the “last trumpet” as the “last trombone.” (Die letzte Posaune) I find this mildly amusing, and it may have to do with the sackbut, which is a pre modern family of brass instruments; but its significant for musical reasons: Mozart’s setting of the “tuba mirum” features a duet between the bass and a trombone. Brahms’ German Requiem also features trombones in the musical setting from I Corinthians that is about the second coming.

  2. Avatar
    Todd  January 23, 2017

    I usually think of Jesus saying, ” Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Evidently some KJV believers seem to think that little children must suffer (pain) to come to Jesus and actually inflict such on their children. Suffer means allow or permit.

  3. Avatar
    nichael  January 23, 2017

    Purely by coincidence I’ve recently been reading John McWhorter’s excellent _Word on the Street_ which contains the chapter “Shakesperean Tragedy”. The subject of the chapter is quite similar to that of this post. But rather than the KJV, the point is that probably the main problem that a modern listener of a play of Shakespeare has less to do with the “poetic” language, or with even the “unfamiliar” words. Rather the real problem is the “familiar” which no longer mean what we, as modern readers, think they do.

    Probably the most famous example is Juliet’s “wherefore art thou Romeo” (i.e which actually means something like “Why are you [named] Romeo”) but McWhorter give many other example. Such as “And, like the haggard, check at every feather that comes before his eye” from Twelth Night” (How many modern readers know that here a “haggard” means a trained falcon.). Or in Polonius’s speech in “Hamlet” –a treasure trove of these “false friends”– that “Be thou familiar” is advice to be gregarious, or that “And these few precepts in thy memory/look thou character” is advice to write these things in your memory, the now-archaic meaning of “character” being “write”. (And speaking of Hamlet there’s the Prince’s threat to his friends who are trying to restrain him from following his father’s ghost “I’ll make a ghost of him who lets me!” (“lets” = “forbids”).

    (BTW, McWhorter’s chapter was originally an article in honor of Mark H. Liddell classic 1898 article on this topic “Bootching Shakespeare”.)

    In any case, great stuff, highly recommended (as are all of McWhorter’s books.)

  4. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  January 23, 2017

    I just noticed that my NIV Bible does not use inclusive language but the NIV YouVersion app does. Hmmm…

  5. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  January 23, 2017

    Interesting stuff! Have more recent or modern translations addressed these issues or do archaic words and phrases still exist in the newer translations?

  6. Avatar
    twiskus  January 23, 2017

    This is a great topic for me, especially since I am good friends with a “KJV is THE inspired Word.” Hopefully it’s okay to link this; this is an excellent lecture by Dr. Ehrman on the KJV!

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ehnEZtqj2Mo

  7. Avatar
    llamensdor  January 24, 2017

    I use the New Layman’s Parallel Bible, which contains the KJV, the NIV, the Living Bible (which I tend to ignore) and the RSV. These are updated as of 1978 and 1981, and I would use a later parallel version if I could find one. I realize there are later versions of the RSV and if I am confused, I look to the NRSV. However, as a novelist, I don’t usually require the strict precision of the latest edition. In my work I don’t usual require the very latest thinking unless it completely alters the thought — and sometimes I am tempted to us the lyrical cadences of just because they are so exquisite. I haven’t found an updated parallel version. Do you know of one?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      I’m afraid I don’t — but maybe some other readers of the blog do!

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 24, 2017

    Thanks. It certainly makes one wonder even more about those who contend that the KJV Bible is the literal, inerrant word of God despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I guess belief often “Trumps” facts.

    This is also a good illustration of how to answer the recent question asked on this blog about how to know which “expert” is correct. Evaluate the evidence the conflicting experts give and analyze it the best one can. That’s the best one can do.

    • Avatar
      Eric  January 24, 2017

      It’s like my ol’ Grandmama would say: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you!”

  9. Avatar
    nichael  January 24, 2017

    While on the topic of “how the meaning of words change out from under the translator” we should bear in mind that this is not a problem unique to “old” translations.

    For example (as I’m sure Dr Ehrman knows) in his wonderful little book on The Making of the NRSV, Prof Metzger gives several examples where the translation committee of the NRSV felt that it was necessary to alter words or phrases whose meaning or connotation had drifted in the years since the RSV was published.

    My favorite example occurs in 2Cor when Paul is listing the trials and sufferings he has endured as an Apostle. In the NRSV, published in 1989, one item is rendered as “Once I received a stoning”. In the RSV, originally published in the late ’40s, this had been translated simply as “Once I was stoned”. 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2017

      Ah, I haven’t looked at that book in years. Need to do so.

  10. Avatar
    nichael  January 24, 2017

    And while we’re on this topic (I.e. the problems that “language drift” cause for translators), I’d like to give one more plug to a book by the linguist John McWhorter.

    Namely, his recent book “Words on the Move” which explores the topic of how language –especially spoken language– is always changing.

    It’s natural for a speaker of a language (like modern standard English) to think that the version of the language that he/she uses is how “it’s _supposed_ to be”, and more to the point, “the way it’s always been”, and to view any usage that differs from that standard –however common it might be– to be simply an ‘error”.

    But the fact of the matter is that all languages have always been (and are always) changing. Constantly. And Dr McWhorter’s book is an entertaining, accessible exploration of this fascinating subject for those interested in such things.

  11. Avatar
    Jarred McCleese  February 14, 2017

    Dr Ehrman I’m curious to know which modern English version you particularly prefer, if any.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2017

      I prefer the New Revised Standard Version, which I especially like in an annotated edition, such as the Harper Collins Study Bible.

  12. Avatar
    Kakuzato  August 1, 2019

    Hey, Dr. Ehrman

    How translation of these kind of texts work generally? I mean, if we assume that OT was written about 2500 years ago, and NT’s manuscripts about 2000 years ago. How do people living today think they know what the words meant back then, to the population who lived back then?

    Also can people living today, by studying present hebrew or greek read original texts, or does it require different kind of studying?

    My native tongue is Finnish, I just bought NT facsimile of first NT translation in Finnish from 1548. Firstly, the font used, is “old english”, which I am not too familiar with, so it is hard to read, even if I understood what I read. Secondly the language is from 1548, which was kinda long ago already, so it is different too from present day’s language.

    Still it’s closer to present day than manuscripts you are dealing with, so I’m curious to know how you know what you are dealing with. I assume Greek and Hebrew changed too during these years.

    Thankk you

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2019

      There is an entire science of comparative linguistics to determine the meanings of ancient words — it takes many years of advanced study to be able to do it competently, and the knowledge of the related languages (for Hebrew, that would include the various semitic languages of antiquity, e.g., Akkadian and Ugaritic) and the literatures in them. But yes, it can definitely be done!

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