Friday, October 07, 2011

Concluding Thoughts on the KJV

Any English-speaking pastor or teacher of the Bible ought to be familiar with the KJV. By that, I don’t mean that he has read through it in a cursory fashion. Rather, that he has read it carefully and more than once. Why? First, because the KJV more than any other English version, is the heritage of the English-speaking church. For more than three centuries the KJV was the Bible of the English-speaking world. For any English-speaking pastor or Bible teacher to be ignorant of the KJV is for him to be ignorant of his history and of the history of his people.

Second, the KJV was translated at a time when English was finally coming out from under the shadow of Latin as a “respectable” language, a language suitable for scholarship, and especially theological scholarship. Thus the KJV translators regularly preferred the Anglo-Saxon word to the word of Latin origin. Perhaps the best way to see this is to read the KJV and the Douay-Rheims translation side-by-side. The latter was a Roman Catholic translation that deeply reflects its origins in the Latin Vulgate. William Tyndale led the charge in the use of Anglo-Saxon English, and for the most part the KJV translator followed suit.

Third, the KJV translators sought to make a translation “that openeth the window” (from the preface to the KJV). That is, they sought to make a translation that would enable the reader of the English Bible to see through to the original. In that, they largely succeeded. Most of the “oddities” that people remark of in the KJV are not “English.” At least, they did not reflect how English was written, or English style, in the early part of the 17th century. Instead, these oddities generally allow us to see the original. For example, the clause “and he answered and said” that appears often in Old Testament dialogue is not English style, but it is Hebrew style. It appears in the KJV, and the modern formal equivalence versions, but functional equivalence translations drop it. Compare these three translations of Gen 18:27:
KJV: And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes.
ESV: Abraham answered and said, "Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.
NLT: Then Abraham spoke again. "Since I have begun, let me speak further to my Lord, even though I am but dust and ashes.

The “and” which begins the verse shows us the Hebrew conjunction. The ESV has eliminated it entirely, and the NLT has turned it into “then.” “Answered and said” is retained by the ESV, but turned into “Spoke again” by the NLT. There are two different verbs in Hebrew that are commonly used in speech. The first, usually translated as “say,” refers to the content of speech, so that the reader expects a quotation to follow. The other, usually translated as “speak,” refers to the act of speaking, rather than the content. The NLT has confused the two words. The phrase “Behold now” reflects two words in Hebrew. The ESV drops one. The NLT effectively drops both, replacing them with “since” which implies a connection with what precedes that the Hebrew does not. Then, “I have taken upon me” reflects the most likely sense of the Hebrew verb. This is also found in the ESV. The NLT opts for the less likely alternative “begin.” Finally, all three struggle with the concluding phrase. The Hebrew is literally “and I am dust and ashes.” It is three words in Hebrew, with the verb “am” implied. The KJV comes closest, using six words, while the ESV and NLT use seven and eight respectively.

Thus, a careful reading of the KJV (always remembering that there are more than three hundred words used in the KJV that have significantly changed in meaning since 1611) will almost always show the English reader the structure and character of the underlying Hebrew and Greek—not a small gift to the modern audience.


c.t. said...

Thank you for this post.

Neil Mansfield said...

Thanks for this thoughtful, and for me, delightful insight into the faithful attempt by the KJV to allow us to hear God's actual spoken words. Excellent!

Neil Mansfield