By Neal Michell

On Friday, we surveyed the differences in Bible translation, from formal and dynamic equivalency to interlinear approaches and paraphrase. So, what difference do these various approaches to Bible translation have in our devotional life? Let’s explore positive aspects of the King James Version (KJV). Then we will consider the understanding archaic language gave to previous generations, which we are in danger of losing today.

The KJV Predates Current Theological Battles

Professor Nathan Jennings pointed out in his article “Appointed to Be Read” that the beauty of the King James Version stems from its translation “prior to modernity and the Enlightenment.”

“[I]t is a pre-critical translation (in a particular sense). It predates the divide between liberal and evangelical appropriations of, or reactions to, that critical turn.”

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You see, all of our modern translations or paraphrases, all faithfully and devoutly written, nevertheless have an eye looking toward one set of biases in the other groups of people translating the other versions. As Jennings points out, that is not to say the King James translators didn’t have biases; it is just that they are not our modern biases and therefore they bring a refreshing perspective distanced from the theology wars of the contemporary translations.

Italics are Used to Inform the Reader That Not all Words are Found in the Underlying Text.

Another reason that I have re-embraced the KJV as my devotional and study Bible of choice is the use of italics. In modern prose, italics are used to emphasize certain words or phrases. For example: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!” “What are you doing, Mrs. Robinson?”

In the KJV, italicized words show the reader which words were inserted by the translators to aid in the readability of the translation. They tell the reader that the translator supplied those extra words are not found in the original text and to let the reader be aware of what is original and what is editorializing.

For example, Eph 2:1 reads, “And you hath he quickened, where were dead in trespasses and sins.” The verb and subject hath he quickened is not in the Greek text in verse 1. The subject of the sentence, God or he, does not appear in Greek until verse 4; the verb hath quickened doesn’t appear until verse 5. A more literal translation of this passage would go: “And you, being dead in trespasses and sins (v. 1) … God (v.5) … hath quickened (v. 6). Apparently in King James’s day, the translators thought the average reader would have gotten lost in the word order between verse 1 and 5.

Why is this important? It tells the reader that the text of the Bible is so significant that the reader needs to know some words can actually be found in the underlying text and some cannot. Will knowing this actually change any interpretation? Maybe not. But this practice sends yet another signal that the Bible is holy and precious, down to every jot and tittle (Matt. 5:18).

Different Personal Pronouns Communicate Specific Things

Thee and thou, ye and you have particular meanings that are obscured in contemporary English. The use of these words tells whether the writer is speaking to an individual (thee, thou) or a group (ye, you). Consider the usage of the various archaic pronouns:

Personal Pronouns in Old English
Person, Singular/Plural Nominative (Subject) Objective (Object) Genitive (Possessive)
First Person Singular I Me My (Mine)
Second Person Singular Thou Thee Thy (Thine)
Third Person Singular He/She/It Him/Her/It His/Her, Hers/Its
First Person Plural We Us Our (Ours)
Second Person Plural Ye You Your (Yours)
Third Person Plural They Them Their (Theirs)

 

In the 15th century, Thee/Thou and Ye/You were used with significant differences. Ye/You was used to address social superiors and equals; it was more formal, as the second person plural still is in French, for instance. Thou and Thee were used to address social inferiors or family and friends; it was less formal. People could be punished for contempt of court for addressing the judge as Thou. By the late 16th century, when the first Book of Common Prayer was published, and the early 17th century, when the King James Version was published, these pronoun usages were already out of date. The editors and translators of both books knew they were not in popular usage in their day, but what might their purpose have been in using these archaisms, knowing they were out of date? 

Thee and Thou Communicate Intimacy with God

The use of Thou and Thee in the Book of Common Prayer communicates that the worshiper is intimate with God. It was only later that the use of Thee and Thou came to communicate formality. It is amazing that people today consider the Rite I and 1928 language for the liturgy as overly formal, when the opposite was intended by the original translators.

For example, in Psalm 8:1, we read of wonder at the majesty of God; there is a comparison with the smallness of man in contrast to the vastness of creation. Yet, the Psalmist says, “How excellent is thy name in all the earth.” Thy reinforces intimacy with God by each — tiny, finite — human being.

Thee and Thou Communicate when God is Speaking to Us Individually

In modern English, we have to determine whether you is singular or plural based on the context, and this presents a problem in contemporary translation. Sometimes seeing the Scriptures speaking to us singularly and directly drives their message home to us in a more powerful and profound way: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.” Here God is speaking to me and you individually and not just to the community.

KJV is Poetic

Second, the language of the KJV and more traditional rites (1928 BCP and Rite I of the 1979 BCP) is often simply more poetic and mellifluous in the reading. For example, the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews gives us a wonderful contrapuntal motion between God the Father, the Son, and the writer, who is writing more of a sermon or a devotion rather than the typical beginning of a letter:

And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.

But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands:

They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment.

Here are some more nuggets from the KJV that have been diminished (in my opinion) by modern translators

Matthew 21:13: “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.”

  • NIV, RSV, NASB: den of robbers.

Isaiah 65:5: “Which say, Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou.”

  • NIV: “Who say, ‘Keep away; don’t come near me, for I am too sacred for you!’”
  • RSV: “Who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am set apart from you.’”
  • NRSV: “Who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.’”

2 Corinthians 11:19: “For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.”

  • NIV: “You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise!”
  • RSV: “For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves!”
  • NRSV: “For you gladly put up with fools, being wise yourselves!”
  • NASB: “For you, being so wise, tolerate the foolish gladly.”

Are there some difficulties understanding the text of the King James Version with its archaic words? Certainly:

  • anon (“immediately”): “But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it.” Matt. 13:20 (Of course readers of Shakespeare will know recognize this word immediately.)
  • bewrayeth (“expose) “And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth” Matt. 26:73. (No, bewrayeth is not a typographical error of betrayeth.)
  • Divers (“diverse” or “various”): “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations” (James 1:2).

The “Traditional Rites” of the Book of Common Prayer

I’d like to make one additional observation about the “traditional rites” of the Book of Common Prayer with its Thees and Thous. Just as the KJV uses Thee and Thou to connote an informal, intimate relationship between the worshiper and God, so also does the use of Thee and Thou in the Prayer Book rites.

Conclusion: Devotion, not Debate

Will any theological arguments be settled by using the King James Version? No. My aim in writing this essay is to enhance your devotional life through the reading of the Word of God, not to encourage you in your theological debates.

St. Paul tells us that we who were stranger and foreigners are now “fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). We can “therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). And so we are bold to say, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”

 

About The Author

The Rev. Prebendary Dr. Neal Michell was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in Garland. Until recently, he was Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas.

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