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:
- 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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