The KJV is archaic and foreign today, but did you know it was already archaic and outdated when it was published in 1611?
The translation team was instructed to follow earlier translations like The Bishop’s Bible (1568) and only change where they thought necessary. But the Bishop’s Bible was itself a revision of yet earlier translations, all the way back to Tyndale (1525)! This means the translators were not starting from scratch, but essentially critiquing and updating earlier work. The English used was not the current vernacular language of the people when it was published. The abundance of “barbed wire” for readers today is not all a result of linguistic change since 1611; KJV readers in 1611 found plenty of “barbed wire” too.
Each of these comes from Alistair McGrath’s book In the Beginning- The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture.
Example 1– Have you noticed that the KJV lacks the 3rd person neuter possessive pronoun, “its”? One lonely time does it appear, in Leviticus 25:5,
“That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, neither gather the grapes of thy vine undressed: for it is a year of rest unto the land.”
The KJV came at a transitionary time in possessive pronouns. “Its” was not yet common, but using “his” and “hers” according to the grammatical gender of the noun was decreasing sharply. What to do? Unfortunately, they came up with a really ugly workaround, the post-positive “thereof” (which can mean other things as well.) Now we have to read really awkward passages like Ezekiel 43:11,
And if they be ashamed of all that they have done, shew them the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and the goings out thereof, and the comings in thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the laws thereof: and write it in their sight, that they may keep the whole form thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and do them. (Ezek. 43:11 KJV)
Compare the NRSV and its “its”es.
When they are ashamed of all that they have done, make known to them the plan of the temple, its arrangement, its exits and its entrances, and its whole form– all its ordinances and its entire plan and all its laws; and write it down in their sight, so that they may observe and follow the entire plan and all its ordinances. (Ezek. 43:11 NRS)
The NRSV uses the much cleaner “its X” instead of the KJV’s awkward “the X thereof.”
Example 2– You know how we take pains to pronounce every verb final -eth? Something new converts really have trouble getting used to?
Then shall it be for a man to burn: for he will take thereof, and warm himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread; yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto. (Isa. 44:15 KJV)
Well, I’ve got news for you. In 1611, all those –eths were pronounced –s. In other words, when we read the KJV out loud, pronouncing every –eth in an attempt to be authenticly archaic and true to the KJV, ironically we’re pronouncing it the way virtually no KJV reader ever did. Spelling tends to be conservative, while pronunciation changes, e.g. through, though, rough, bough, ought… (I pity people trying to learn to speak English.)
Example 3– Pronouns. We hear a lot about pronouns and prayer, in English at least. Problem is, the KJV represents several different usages of prounouns, which were then (as happens when someone archaizes) imperfectly reproduced and used in more modern scripture that followed KJV language. Now first, neither Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek has pronouns of different degrees of respect, familiarity, or anything else. But translators have to translate into the target language, so if the target language has such pronouns, translators have to try to fit them to the passage as best they can.
Point being, those pronouns are an imposition on the original languages, an archaic English vestige, not a scriptural one. The KJV reflected both the shifting usages of pronouns of its day as well as archaic usage.
the widespread use of French in England during the Middle Ages led to what was originally a simple situation becoming more complex. The English word “you” came to have the same assocation as the French “vous”…. The plural forms (ye; you; your) were adopted as a mark of respect when addressing a social superior. By the sixteenth century, the use of the singular form to address a single individual had virtually ceased in English, except in the specific case of family and inferiors. To address another as “thou” was thus to claim social superiority over him or her. There is considerable evidence that, in at least in certain circles, it was used as a form of studied insult….
A further complexity concerned the distinction between “ye” (nominative) and “you” (accusative). Although the terms were spelled differently, there is substantial evidence to suggest they were pronounced virtually identically…. Some have suggested that the [ KJV’s] use of “Thee” “Thou” ” and “Thy” to refer specifically to God is a title of respect…. This is clearly indefensible, at least for the following two reasons.
1) [Basically, these pronouns are applied to Satan and humans indiscriminately, as well as to deity.]
2) The use of these forms of address was, if anything, derogatory, implying superiority on the part of the user over the one being thus addressed. It is one thing for God to address a human as “thou”; for this hint of superiority to be returned is quite another. – McGrath, In the Beginning (full cite below.)
Why did the KJV try to retain earlier pronoun usages, even though potentially confusing? Because of their instructions to revise and retain tradition as much as possible.
So if you’re having trouble with the KJV, take heart. So did Joseph Schmoe in 1611.
The 400th anniversary of the KJV publication lead to a multiplication of books about it.
- Alister McGrath, In the Beginning- The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (Anchor, 2002). Fun quick read about the history of the KJV Bible through the ages. I’ve drawn the examples above from his book.
- Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (HarperCollins, 2005). This is much more about the immediate historical context and the translators themselves. Much drier, but still interesting.
- Gordon Campbell, Bible: The Story of the King James Version (Oxford, 2010)
- Brake and Beach, A Visual History of the King James Bible (Baker, 2011)- Lots of pics, if that’s your thing or you want your kids to take notice.
- Robert Alter, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton, 2010)- Alter looks at how the KJV language affected Modern English literature.
If you need to do serious academic work on the KJV, David Norton is a name you should know.
- Sure, he has his popular The King James Bible- A Short History from Tyndale to Today But then you get his academic tomes like
- A Textual History of the King James Bible, $112. (Cambridge, 2005.)
- A History of the Bible as Literature, From Antiquity to 1700 Vol. 1, and From 1700 to the Present Day, Vol 2.
Lest you think otherwise, I haven’t read all of these ^^. Yet.
But I feel about books as Homer does about donuts.