The KJV: Is it THE Bible? Part 6: Any Other Translation is Just So….Vulgar?
“The unskilled reader needs to understand clearly what he is reading. In this area the KJV has definite shortcomings.”
-Jack P. Lewis (1)
Jesus took on flesh, and that alone was vulgar to the scribes of his time. This word, vulgar–it has a few connotations. Consider the Oxford English Dictionary:
Sometimes these separate connotations are conflated. We assume that if something is common or unrefined, it must also be coarse and rude. This assumption is sometimes another instance of linguistic prejudice, which we covered in the last post.
You may have heard of the Vulgate Bible, but have you ever wondered why it was called so? The very reason the Vulgate was called a “Vulgate” was because someone got around to realizing that the word of God was meant to be in languages people can comprehend—”vulgar”. To render God’s words in human tongue is a kind of “vulgarization” anyway, just as God taking on flesh. It is a holy vulgarization, one that is God’s will. Many boasted of the KJV being “understood even of the very vulgar”. If this was a goal of the KJV then—a goal which it accomplished for its time—and you admire the KJV, then you should consistently admire translations which accomplish this same goal in today’s vernaculars (when, of course, that they are also faithful to the text).
A clip from a debate in which two teachers explain to a third why re-translating the Bible over time in a changing language is not vulgar, but necessary.
Words that have gone bye-bye
Many phrases found in the King James Version have lost their meaning in today’s language. In fact, at the time of its composition at the turn of 1600, phrases like “it came to pass” and “verily verily” were already archaic, and the translating teams chose them because they were already “solidified” phrases. There are others that are now no longer used by Americans outside of KJV-saturated churches. Here are some of them:
- “Mt. Sinai was altogether on a smoke” (Ex. 19:18)
- “For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?” (Ecc. 2:25)
- “Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing.” (Ps. 5:6)
- “Solomon loved many strange women.” (1 Kings 11:1 and other passages)
- “The noise thereof sheweth concerning it, and the cattle also concerning the vapour.” (Job 36:33)
- “I trow not” (Luke 17:9)
- The phrase “by and by” is used in Mark 6:25, when a modern translation would be “at once.”
- A charger is an archaic word for a platter, also found in Mark 6:25.
- The phrase “do you wit” in 2 Corinthians 8:1 is a Jacobian way of saying “do you know” or “make known to you.”
- A scrip is an ancient word for a bag (Mark 10:10).
- Apothecary appears six times, when each time the correct rendering of the Hebrew would be “perfumer”.
- What are bakemeats? Used in Genesis 40, the term means “baked goods from a baker”.
- Besom is a word meaning “broom” (Isaiah 14:23).
- In Matt 26:73, Peter is told, “thy speech bewrayeth thee.” This word, used a few other times in the KJV, means to “betray” as in “to give oneself away”.
- In 1 Peter 3:11 we are told to eschew evil. In other words, avoid.
- Everyone growing up in a KJV-heavy environment has heard propitiation several times. Have you ever stopped to think about what it means? It’s the KJV rendering of the Greek word hilasterion, which means “that which expiates” or “atones for”. In other words, Jesus is our sacrifice of atonement. Of course, we well know that even that needs further explanation for seekers of the Word.
- According to the KJV, unicorns and satyrs are real creatures. Unicorns appear in Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9,10; Psalms 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; and Isaiah 34:7. Today this is one of the more embarrassing blunders of the KJV translation. To medieval peoples, many creatures that were only written about in the ancient texts of Greeks and Romans were thought to possibly be real, so when they came upon the mention of unidentified creatures like the re’em, they used the clues they had to determine it meant “unicorn” (or sometimes “rhinoceros”). Scholars are now more sure the word means “wild ox”, a creature which is now extinct, but is actually known to have existed in the East. A similar thing happens with the Hebrew word sa‘ir, which means “hairy one”, and refers to male goats. Because it meant something goat-like, and it looked like “satyr”, translators rendered it so in Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14. If the KJV was prepared by men who believed that unicorns and satyrs were real creatures, I have a hard time believing it is God’s final and special revelation of his Word in a word-for-word format, a one and only translation perfectly prepared in every way, without textual flaw.
- Here’s a list of other words in the KJV you probably don’t know (I only know a few) because they are obsolete in contemporary use:
almug, algaum, chode, charashim, chapt, gat, habergeon, hosen, kab, ligure, leasing, maranatha, nard, neesed, pate, pilled, raca, stacte, strake, sycamyne, trode, wimples, ouches, taches, brigandine, ambassage, occurrent, purtenance, bruit, fray, cracknels, nusings, mufflers, corban, talitha cumi, ephrata, aceldama, centurion, quarternion, sanctum sanctorum, wot, trow, sod and swaddling clothes (3).
- And since we’re on the subject of vulgarity, let’s not forget to mention how awkward it is for us contemporary English speakers to come across KJV passages with the word “pisseth” (1 Sam. 25:22; 1 Kings 14:10; Isaiah 36:12, to name a few). What is and is not vulgar, dare I say it, changes across time and culture.Here is a crude atheist video mocking the Bible’s mention of “unicorns”, one example among many of how mistranslations from any version can function as a stumbling block to belief. Although the video creator is ignorant and judgmental, using a better translation can prevent such stumbling blocks to evangelism.
It is important to note, however, that modern editions of the King James Version do include definitions in the margins, and some versions, like the Dickson Bible, render the American Standard reading of some words and phrases in brackets. Reading the King James Version and looking up such words may improve one’s archaic vocabulary and appreciation for the heritage of the English language, and helps create a broader understanding of translation differences. (As we will see in the next post, if the words were updated, then we’ve been given different editions of the KJV over time, which poses another problem to KJV-only extremists: Which KJV is the one to use?)
Helping Others Hear
On average, those of us who grew up on a steady diet of the KJV are already familiar enough with the language in general. We cannot assume that reading this translation is as easy for everyone else, particularly English Language Learners and people with disabilities that limits their language skills, or people who grew up outside of a King-James environment or a religious environment. Should we be asking them to adapt to our language traditions, or should we be making the effort to be “all things to all men”, serving their linguistic needs (while still remaining true to the Word)?
Jack Lewis observes,
“Admirable as the KJV was when it was launched, valuable as has been its contribution to the religious and literary life of the English-speaking public, and loved as it is by those who have studied it in detail from their childhood, time has done to the KJV [translation] what it does to all works of men. The message of the Bible should not be the peculiar possession either of scholars or of those initiated into and trained in the church; it should be open (as the KJ scholars themselves said) “to the very vulgar”, that is, to the uneducated and to children. However, the KJV is no longer completely intelligible to all readers. It is no longer the most accurate and most readable English rendering of the Word of God. Who wishes to affirm that the KJV in all its aspects accurately represents what the inspired writers originally gave us? It is a sad commentary on the attitudes of those who claim to love the Bible that they, with oratory about its literary merits, are zealous to bind men to that which has demonstrated inaccuracies and is not completely intelligible in all its parts.” (2)
It is ironic, then, that the KJV-only advocates who argue that others must be “KJV-literate” to approach the Gospel are themselves quite illiterate when it comes to Biblical scholarship. There’s nothing wrong with being illiterate, so long as you come to terms with what you don’t know and place good trust in honest, literate folks to help you know. There is, however, something wrong with speaking out of your illiteracy about something that requires literacy, for that is irresponsible. It’s also very vulgar. The gross kind.
In our next post we will examine the different editions of and changes to the KJV over the years and ask the question, “Which KJV are these advocates talking about?”
1 Lewis, Jack P (1992). The English Bible from KJV to NIV: A History and Evaluation. 2nd Ed. Baker Book House. p.48
2 Ibid. p.41
3 Patridge, English Biblical Translation, p.211