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Problems with the Language of the King James Version

In my Introduction to the New Testament class this semester, I talked on the first day about which Bible translations I would allow students to use for the class.  The basic answer: most any modern translation would be fine (though I myself prefer the New Revised Standard Version), but I would not allow paraphrases (which are not actually translations from the original Hebrew and Greek, but are simplifications of previously existing English translations and as a result can be highly interpretive and misleading) or the King James Version.

When I tell them I do not allow the King James, I let them know that I think the King James is one of the great classics of English literature.  As a piece of writing, it is arguably the most significant work every produced in English.  But it is decidedly not a good study Bible.  That is for several reasons: one is that the manuscripts of the New Testament it is based on (going back to the Textus Receptus – i.e. the original edition by Erasmus) were not ancient or of high quality.  The other is that the language used is from over 400 years ago, and can be easily misunderstood – or not understood at all.

Here let me give some examples (which I didn’t give my students: I just asked them to take my word for it and to ask me about it later if they wanted some instances.)

First though let me stress that the King James is to be thanked for many phrases that have come into the English language that are remarkably well turned and memorable, such as the followAm I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4)

  • The salt of the earth (Matthew 5)
  • Where two or three are gathered together (Matthew 18)
  • The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26)
  • Eat, drink, and be merry (Luke 12)
  • A law unto themselves (Romans 2)
  • The powers that be (Romans 13)
  • The patience of Job (James 5)

But despite these elegancies, there are problems.  For example, because of the changes in the English language, a number of words occur in the King James that make zero sense to most people today.  These include the following nuggets that you will find scattered here and there:

  • Almug
  • Algum
  • Charashim
  • Chode
  • Cracknels
  • Gat
  • Habergeon
  • Hosen
  • Kab
  • Ligure
  • Neesed
  • Nusings
  • Ouches
  • ring-straked
  • sycamyne
  • trow
  • wimples, ….

The King James translators also translated some animal names into animals that in fact we now have pretty good reason for thinking don’t actually exist:

  • unicorn (Deut. 33:17)
  • satyr (Isa 13:21);
  • dragon (Deut 32:33) (for serpent)
  • cockatrice (Iswa 11:8),
  • arrowsnake (Gen 49:11, in the margin).

Moreover,, there are phrases that simply don’t make sense any more to modern readers: Phrases that no longer make sense:

  • ouches of gold (Exod. 28:11);
  • collops of fat (Job 15:25);
  • naughty figs (Jer 24:2);
  • ien with (Jer. 3:2);
  • the ground is chapt (Jer 14:4);
  • brazen wall” (Jer 15:20);
  • rentest thy face (Jer. 4:30);
  • urrain of the cattle (Exod. 9:2);

And there are whole sentences that are confusing at best, virtually indecipherable (or humorous)

  • And Jacob sod pottage (Gen 25:29)
  • And Mt. Sinai was altogether on a smoke (Exoc. 19:18)
  • Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing (Ps. 5:6)
  • I trow not (Luke 17:9)
  • We do you to wit of the grace of God (2 Cor. 8:1)
  • Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels (2 Cor. 6:12)
  • He who letteth will let (2 Thes 2:7)
  • The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd (Eccles. 12:11)

 

Other sentences make sense, but would today be considered somewhat problematic – at least for the sacred Scripture.  My favorite is the one that refers to a man who: “Pisseth against the wall:….  1 Sam 25:22, 34, I Kings 14:10!

So even though the KJV is a brilliant classic of English literature, it is not the best option for a study Bible.  I’ll give some more examples of problematic renderings, of a different sort, in subsequent posts.

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Does It Mean What It Says? More Problems with the King James
How Do We Know What “Most Scholars” Think?

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Comments

  1. talmoore
    talmoore  January 22, 2017

    I have to admit that I snickered like a 12 year old when I saw “chode”. (If you don’t know why then simply google it.)

  2. epicurus
    epicurus  January 22, 2017

    I have a simliar problem with Shakespeare. Unless one regularly reads his plays and works to stay familiar with that era’s language, it’s hard to follow what’s going on. So when summer comes and the inevitable “Shakespeare in the park” type events occur, I think many people who go just for the “fun” of it, yawn their way though it. I wind up getting invited once in a while, and while I may read the program to get the overall plot, or perhaps I know it from general cultural knowledge, I spend most of my time looking at my watch, waiting for the incomprehensible gibberish to end. No need to tell me I’m a barbarian, I already know.

  3. epicurus
    epicurus  January 22, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman: I imagine you have come across people from churches or denominations that only use the KJV and hold it to be the best and only version that should be used. What’s your take on them? Have you ever heard any good arguments from them, or Is it just a case of people just so trapped in a tradition and glorifying the past they can’t or won’t reasonably consider the validity of their position?

    3
    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      No, I’ve never heard a good argument. Basically they can’t believe that God would allow any mistakes into the Bible used by their parents and grandparents, etc.

      3
      • antoinelamond
        antoinelamond  July 6, 2017

        The only argument I have heard is that it was good enough for black slaves so it should be good enough for us today. That is the poorest defense of the KJV ever!

    • Avatar
      crucker  January 24, 2017

      It’s interesting that while I know of people that are “KJV only”, one of the two that I know personally who advocate this is actually illiterate. The other one points to differences in the KJV and modern translations to show how modern versions changed the word of god and took away parts. He gives no reason for the KJV being more valid, but assumes any differences from it were driven by theological agendas to weaken the word of god. “Missing verses in the NIV” is something I’ve heard him complain about.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  January 29, 2017

      Although it seems silly, the ‘KJV-only’ phenomenon is not at all surprising when you think about Fundamentalists and the idea of inerrancy.

      If every word is ‘God-breathed’, then how can there be different versions? The KJV just happens to be one that was available when both Fundamentalism and the notion of inerrancy took hold. It was the only version those people knew, so it was assumed to be ‘the’ one.

      It’s a big problem for inerrancy; if every word matters, then why do we have different words?

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  4. Avatar
    rivercrowman  January 22, 2017

    Bart, you sure demonstrated that the King James version has a plethora of words that today’s Bible reader should be perplexed by. … Just to demonstrate I read you posts carefully, shouldn’t the “collops of fat” be Job 15:27 instead of Job 15:25?

    1
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    godspell  January 22, 2017

    It’s also problematic to study it as literature (which it absolutely should be) because of its continuing religious significance. One both smiles and winces, thinking of sincere Christians without any background in biblical scholarship trying to make sense of this odd language, believing as they do that this and this alone is the received word of God.

    Some later and less problematic translations such as the Jerusalem Bible have used a few of the beautiful phrases from the King James, simply because people love them so much, and they have become part of our common parlance, regardless of religious background. A high tribute to Mr. Tyndale and those who followed him.

    1
  6. Robert
    Robert  January 22, 2017

    Unicorns in the bible is one of my favorite red herrings, and Dt 33,17 is an especially interesting case for bible translators!.

    While I positively cringe at being suspected of being a biblical innerantist, King James-onlyist, or any other kind of apologist, unicorns in the bible did not arise out of a belief in mythical beasts. This was just based on the Greek word (μονόκερως) and one of the Latin words for a rhinoceros (some species of which also have one horn), and it is still today the technical Latin name for the single-horned species of rhinoceros: *Rhinoceros unicornis*.

    That a rhinoceros is meant, is apparent from this description by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (8,31,76):

    “asperrimam autem feram *monocerotem*, reliquo corpore equo similem, capite cervo, pedibus elephanto, cauda apro, mugitu gravi, uno cornu nigro media fronte cubitorum duum eminente. hanc feram vivam negant capi.”
    http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/L/Roman/Texts/Pliny_the_Elder/8*.html

    “But that the fiercest animal is the Monocerotem (Unicorn), which in the rest of the body resembles a horse, but in the head a stag, in the feet an elephant, and in the tail a boar, and has a deep bellow, and a single black horn three feet long projecting from the middle of the forehead. They say that it is impossible to capture this animal alive.”
    http://www.theoi.com/Thaumasios/HippoiMonokerata.html

    Note, however, in this particular text (Dt 33, 17), John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and King James’ ‘translators’ would have been much better served by following the Vulgate since Jerome realized that the plural horns at Dt 33,17 could obviously not be referring to a one-horned rhinoceros and so he did not use *unicornis* or *monoceros* here, but rather *cornua rhinocerotis*!

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 22, 2017

    Wow! Thanks.

  8. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  January 22, 2017

    Hello Bart
    I asked you two years ago , if there were any christian sect in the past who regarded Mary the mother of jesus to be goddess and your reply was no there were not any . but few days ago i found this on line
    Collyridianism was an Early Christian heretical movement in pre-Islamic Arabia[1] whose adherents apparently worshipped the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, as a goddess.

    Can you please comment on this

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      I’m surprised I said no. Did I really? What I would/should have said is “not that I know of.” But worshiping Mary is not the same as considering her a goddess.

  9. Avatar
    Jason  January 22, 2017

    “Chode” is sometimes used as an insult or other profanity today-what’s our best guess for the closest literal modern meaning in the KJV as you’ve included it here?

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    haoleboy26  January 23, 2017

    I am curious, is the King James providing a more literal translation of the Hebrew texts than modern translations? If so, is it really a good translation practice to clean up the language?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      No, it is not more literal particularly than many / most modern translations.

  11. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 23, 2017

    Technically, whether or not an animal exists should have no bearing on whether the translation is accurate. An ancient text could easily refer to a mythical creature. However I find the choice of unicorn a bit strange. The Hebrew word is re’em, but the translators didn’t know what that was. We’re still not completely sure, but modern translations seem to agree on wild ox. But why did the king James translators choose unicorn?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      Excellent point. As to the KJV translators, they may have been influence by the Greek version that renders it as “one-horned” (animal)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 24, 2017

      A ראם is possibly an oryx, an ungulate with noticably long, majestic horns, and very common to the Arabian wilderness .

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    JoeRoark  January 23, 2017

    Would Kenneth Wuest’s ‘expanded’ translation be allowed?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      I’m afraid I’m not familiar with it, and no student in all my years has ever asked about it!

  13. Avatar
    mjt  January 23, 2017

    If there are those issues with the KJV, why do we have the phenomenon of ‘King James only’ Christians?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      Mainly because they can’t believe that God would allow any mistakes into the Bible used by their parents and grandparents, etc.

  14. Avatar
    Stephen  January 23, 2017

    Prof Ehrman

    Have you run up against any of the “KJV-only” crowd? Many evangelicals favor the KJV but this is a ferocious subculture who thinks that the KJV is the only authorized version (sorry) not by King James but by the Holy Spirit! They even think the NIV is a work of the Devil. (And like many other a fringe group they have discovered YouTube. I saw at least one where you were attacked for “undermining” the authority of the KJV.) I came to be aware of it because my cousin is one such. His mind is hermetically sealed and there is no discussion with him about it. And he has this bizarre penchant for conspiracy theories. Do you get hate mail from these folks?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      Yes, I have! Frequently. And no I don’t, for some odd reason.

  15. Avatar
    jhague  January 23, 2017

    I stopped using the KJV when the NIV came out in 1973 with the New Testament. Do you have a large percentage of students who plan to use the KJV when they start your class?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      My sense is that students have never paid attention to whatever Bible their parents gave them, and so really don’t even know!

  16. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  January 23, 2017

    I was informed by my colleagues that “chode” is vulgar slang teenagers use nowadays. Who knew?

  17. Avatar
    Silver  January 24, 2017

    A piece of KJV trivia: Ezra 7:21 is almost a pangram i.e. a verse containing every letter of the alphabet. In this case it lacks the letter ‘J’.
    I reckon that if it were appropriate to change ‘scribe’ to ‘jurist’ perfection would have been achieved!

  18. Avatar
    doug  January 25, 2017

    The other day I was applying almug to my wimples when I accidentally neesed my cracknels. That gave me ouches. 😉

  19. Avatar
    Jana  February 2, 2017

    This might be a simple question .. then did people understand what these words and phrases meant originally/within their day?

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