On my podcast (“Misquoting Jesus Podcast,” with Bart Ehrman) I recently interviewed my friend and colleague Jennifer Knust about the problems involved with producing a modern translation of the Bible. It made me recall some lectures I gave in 2012 about the King James Bible, in celebration of it’s 400th year anniversary. I made some posts about the great strengths and interesting problems posed (now) by the KJV. I looked, and lo and behold I posted about it too. Here’s what I said (this will take several posts):
In a couple of weeks I’m going off to Los Angeles to give a lecture at Loyola Marymount University as a keynote address for their putting on of the (traveling) exhibition on the King James Bible, started in commemoration of its 400th year (in 2011). The exhibition is called Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, and my lecture is entitled: “What Kind of a Text Is the King James Bible? Manuscripts, Translation, and the Legacy of the KJV.” In addition to celebrating the greatness of the translation – it’s obviously one of the greatest classics of the English language – I will be talking about various aspects of the KJV that make it less usable as a study or research Bible.
In will begin my talk by talking about the incalculable impact the KJV made on the English language, and its brilliance as an English classic. I will then be discussing three main difficulties it poses for readers who actually want to know what the Bible’s authors said.
- The fact that in the New Testament the KJV was based on Greek manuscripts (the only ones available at the time, of course – so it was no one’s fault) that are now recognized as being inferior in nature, leading the translators to include verses and even passages that we now believe were not originally in the New Testament;
- The problem of theological bias that occasionally crept into the translation;
- And the problem of the change of language over the past 400 years, so that English today simply isn’t the same as English then.
Here I’ll start with the last point. I remember when I became a born again Christian in high school – I guess I was 15 at the time – I thought that I really should read the Bible, which I had never done much before (even though I was a church kid; but, well, we were Episcopalian). The Bible in our home was a KJV. And I couldn’t make heads or tails of it! I ended up getting what I thought was a modern translation, which really was probably worse – The Living Bible (it is not even a translation, but a paraphrase made by a person who didn’t actually know Greek and Hebrew…).
Anyway, I knew for sure that the KJV was not written in a language I could understand. But what is worse is that over the years people have *thought* that they understood what the KJV said, but completely misunderstood it. This is because when English changed over the four centuries since the translation was done between 1604 and 1611, it not only made some words used then out of use now (so that sometimes readers may not know the meaning of a word) but even more problematic, it changed the meaning of words in such a way that it is possible to make sense of what the KJV says, but in a way that is not at all what it means.
A couple of my favorite examples. I remember hearing a sermon once based on Philippians 3:20, “For our conversation is in heaven.” The sermon was all about how we should watch carefully what we say – we should not curse, tell dirty jokes, or in any way compromise our Christian commitment by our speech because the way we talk is supposed to be rooted in the heavenly places. Not a bad sermon, but it actually had very little to do with the passage it was based on. The word “conversation” in the KJV was not meant to mean “what you say,” but “your citizenship.” Your citizenship – where you belong politically – is in heaven; that’s where you belong and where you’re going. Maybe you shouldn’t tell dirty jokes for *that* reason, but, well, it’s not what the text is talking about.
And then there is Revelation 17, where the author has a horrific vision of the great “Whore of Babylon” who is seated on a terrifying beast with seven heads and is called the mother of whores and is said to be drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And the prophet who sees the vision then says, in the KJV, that he looked upon this whore “with great admiration.” Ha! That’s a good one. In 17th century parlance, “admiration” meant “astonishment.” But I love the translation.
Here are a few more examples, in rapid succession.
- In 2 Kings 11:1, in the KJV, we are told that Solomon loved many strange women (2 Kings 11:1) (!) They may indeed have been strange, but what it means is that they were “foreign,” that is, non-Israelites
- In Lev. 14:10, in a discussion of the sacrifices to be made to God, there is a reference to the “meat offering.” Here is where things can get really turned around. What it actually means is a “grain offering”
- In the story of David and Goliath, we are told in 1 Sam 17:6 that the giant Goliath carried a “target” on his shoulder. It doesn’t mean a bull’s eye. The word meant “javelin.”
- Psalm 88:13 in the KJV says, “In the morning shall my prayer prevent thee.” Prevent? Prevent from what? Actually, it doesn’t mean what we mean by prevent. Here it means “…shall come before you.”
- When Psalm. 124:3 says this about “our enemies”: “Then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us” it does not mean that they devoured us quickly. Quick means “alive” (you may be familiar with “The quick and the dead.”). So it means they devoured us while we were still living. Or at least they would have if God had not stopped them (according to the Psalm).
- Paul gives an astonishing admonition in the King James of 1 Cor. 10;24, “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth.” What? We’re supposed to try to get the riches of someone else? How? By stealing it? No, actually “wealth” in this 17th century context meant “welfare.” So it’s just the opposite of what one might think: one is supposed to seek what is good for another.
- So too in Philippians 4:6, Paul in the KJV exhorts his readers to “Be careful for nothing.” We’re not to be careful? No, what it means is “Don’t worry about anything.”
And so, a great translation. But, well, problematic for today.