The KJV: Is it THE Bible? Part 4: Jacobean English, or “Have It Thine Way”
“Some sentences in the KJV will not be understood without the help of a commentary. Champions of the use of the KJV forget that they have been conditioned to its oddities by a lifetime of study. The new reader and the uneducated reader have not had that conditioning.”
-Jack P. Lewis (1)
In our last post we discussed the language issues in translating the King James to English. The King James Bible is known and used throughout the world, even in foreign-language speaking countries. However, we must understand that the day will come when Jacobian English, the language of the King James Version, will be unreadable to an audience that speaks a language that changes so quickly.
I actually heard on fella argue the following: We would not change the song “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” to “Have Your Own Way,” or update the works of Shakespeare or Milton to modern day English, so why should we do such with the Bible? This man, having a very small understanding of Greek, missed one major problem with this theory:
There was no pronoun difference between addressing gods and addressing men in the Greek manuscripts. The pronouns were the same. The word was always the same form of the Greek root for “you.” The idea that the writers meant for “thee” and “thou” to refer solely to deity is a misconception held by tradition and confusion.
We actually have it a little backwards. In Jacobean English, ye (“you”) was a pronoun used to address those in exalted positions. You can see examples of this in Shakespeare. The pronoun thou (“you”) was used either in reference to someone of equal status or inferior status. Using thou could show familiarity or condescension. In the case of the KJV, it indicated familiarity. By the 17th century most people were no longer using thou, but some religious communities held on to it because printed religious material still had it and inadvertently developed the assumption that it was more of a solemn pronoun. Sometimes it was also used otherwise because the sound of the word had a certain “ring” to it, and this seems to be why it was retained in the KJV even as it was continually revised and updated.
|[chart taken from EME wiki]||Nominative||Oblique||Genitive||Possessive|
|2nd person||singular informal||thou||thee||thy/thine
|plural or formal singular||ye, you||you||your||yours|
|3rd person||singular||he/she/it||him/her/it||his/her/his (it)
[See also the wiki page on Early Modern English personal pronouns]
The KJV translators may have originally stuck to thou because Tyndale had done so in his version, but with the purpose of making a distinction between singular and plural, not to make a pronoun distinction between God and man (in Tyndale’s Bible, thou was singular, and ye was plural). As mentioned, many people mistakenly took the intimate pronoun to be a reverent pronoun, because it was eventually only used by KJV Bibles. But it was not normal for the word to be used in addressing deity or beings of higher status. If that were the case, then we would have a hard time explaining the KJV rendering of Mark 15.2:
And Pilate asked him, “Art thou the King of the Jews?” And he answering said unto them, “Thou sayest it”.
So, is Jesus praying to Pilate, or calling him a God? Thou knowest neither can be true if Christ is deity and Pilate is not.
Thou is used by both Christ and Pilate as a singular pronoun, and perhaps also an air of intimacy. If it were also to mean exaltation, we must then declare Jesus a blasphemer.
And even if we decide it is more holy to say “thee” and “thou”, what do we make of the ending “eth”, as in “he that doeth”? All it means is “does”. Nobody today says “doeth”. Would I sing “Have your own way, Lord, have your own way, you are the potter, I am the clay”? I certainly would. I would also sing it with “thine” and “thou” in it as printed. I would sing it however it was written, and however the congregation sings it, because I am happy and blessed to sing it. I will sing it because the linguistic difference in question makes no difference at all, and the Lord knows my heart. Assuming “thee” and “thou” show reverence is like assuming that leather binding shows reverence.
So we should ban thee and thou?
Is it wrong to use “thee” and “thou”? Certainly not. There is nothing wrong with using them in prayer for the sake of your own conscience. If you were raised on memorizing KJV passages and you believe this is a way for you to show respect to God by differentiating the pronouns when you pray, then do so. Let you yourself be convinced in your heart that this is good for you to do. But it is not a feature of our language to do so and there are problems with assuming that the KJV did so in accordance with features of Greek and Hebrew that differentiated between addressing God and men. So you cannot bind this on anyone else.
Many people end up stumbling through prayers because they’re so worried they might call God “you” instead of “thee”. This should not happen. There was never an English pronoun invented just for God, so any pronouns used for persons of respect would be used for those persons as well as God. Today, “you” applies to all persons, regardless of title or status, and therefore applies appropriately to the Lord. We exalt God not with pronouns, but with nouns. Lord, Maker, Father, Creator, Almighty–these all show very well how highly we think of Yahweh, the all-powerful Lord God on high.
One last point about the comparison of scripture to Shakespeare. Although it is true that literary critics and editors should retain original versions of Shakespeare and Milton alone, this analogy does not connect. These works were originally written in a certain stage of English (i.e. Elizabethan), and thus we do not need to translate them to English to know what they would say in English. And yet, as time passes we do need to explain anachronistic words and syntax structures, and thus we do have “translations” of Shakespeare from Jacobean English to Contemporary English. In Shakespeare’s plays most characters spoke a more aristocratic English than the commoners, and versions of Shakespeare’s plays such as “No Fear Shakespeare” have been produced to help contemporary English speakers understand his plays.
As a teacher of Shakespeare, I find such aids invaluable when it comes to helping students understand the content and meaning of Shakespeare’s plays. Besides, Shakespeare’s plays are primarily a language art form. The originals are in Jacobean English, and so we treat them that way. The originals of scripture are not in English, and so we must use English as English changes in order to be faithful to the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic originals. If a non-English-speaker were to read a translation of Shakespeare into, say, Chinese, it may not suite him to read the first Chinese translation of Shakespeare ever known, but one that is updated to contemporary Chinese, assuming it is also a faithful translation of the text.
The KJV is indeed a beautiful translation and a beautiful jewel of Jacobean English. Here is a spoken poem outlining many examples of the language that the KJV both created and preserved from this time. I end with this video to remind readers that I have every intention of praising the KJV for its capturing the beauty of a disappearing form of English.
In our next post we examine the myth that the Gospel has to be in “high English” and how that myth often prevails with the KJV.
1 Lewis, Jack P (1992). The English Bible from KJV to NIV: A History and Evaluation. 2nd Ed. Baker Book House. p.53