KJVism That Just Won’t Die—But Should

No doubt the KJV marks a significant milestone in the the translation of the Bible into the English language. I would even say that the KJV is a magnificent piece of English literature whose influence is unfathomable. But, because all languages change, the task of translating the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic of the Old Testament and the Koine Greek of the New Testament into English will go on until the Lord returns.

However, partly because of the iconic significance of the KJV, certain phrases retain currency, even when the current understanding of those words are not what the translators meant and, in some cases, is actually contrary to what the text is saying. On the other hand, I’m glad that other phraseology has dropped from common usage. For example, no one misses the less than poetic “he that pisseth against the wall” (1 Sam 25:22, 34; 1 Kings 14:10; 16:11; 21:21; and 2 Kings 9:8), a Hebraism for the men—women would never even dream of doing such as disgusting thing.

Anyway, here are a couple of these archaic readings that still have currency today but misses what the text actually says. For example, this text, which I have known since childhood:

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
(2 Timothy 2:15 KJV)

Often taken as a verse to encourage Bible study—and I don’t want to discourage such—this verse actually encourages Timothy to do the best he can in his work as a minister. First, the word “study” in 1611 could also mean “to be diligent,” which is what it means here. Secondly, most folks in the ancient world in which 2 Timothy was first read would not have had access to books and would not have been able to read had they had access. The notion of the private study of books belonged only to the wealthy in the ancient world. Perhaps it is the word “study” that teases modern readers into seeing “rightly dividing the word of truth” as equivalent with “use the Bible properly.” Again, something I would not want to discourage; but that is really not what the text is about in the context of 2 Timothy. By “dividing of the word of truth” the author has in mind that Timothy should distinguish between the true Christian message against the heresy of such characters as Hymenaeus and Philetus. Thus, “rightly dividing” is more accurately today rendered “use correctly.” By the way, this is one of the earliest texts that seems to recognize the divide between orthodoxy and heresy which would be such a challenge later in the second century. “Rightly dividing” furthermore has nothing to do with distinguishing the Old Testament from the New as the New Testament, though the Johannine literature was yet to be written, was not collected as a whole at this time.

Another verse that comes to mind as being being misunderstood today since it has been somewhat frozen in KJV English is this one:

“Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. (Romans 16:17 KJV).

“Mark them” would appear to be a mandate to label (and to libel) those with whom we disagree. However, at the time of the KJV, “mark” could also means to “watch, keep an eye on,” which is much closer to the original Greek word σκοπέω. (One can even see the word “scope” in it). Interestingly, this text is similar to the text from 2 Tim in that the concern is to be on the right side of doctrine. However, “keep an eye on” and “mark” are far removed in modern English. In the end, one should not MARK those who reject orthodoxy but, according to this text, AVOID them.

These are merely two texts where I believe the tradition of English translation has frozen their meanings, thus making it hard for us to hear the text afresh in their original contexts. Perhaps you can think of a few more texts where traditional translations actually obscure the meaning rather than elucidate it. If you do, please share.

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2 Comments

Filed under Bible Translation, New Testament

2 responses to “KJVism That Just Won’t Die—But Should

  1. I have seen the phrase “Suffer the little children” used with complete seriousness as if it is a reference to the suffering of children in areas hit by hardship. (And yet, the term “suffer” was used in the sense of “allow” prominently in the movie “Return of the King.”)

    • snhelton

      James, As you know, the bigger problem may not be how “archaic” the KJV’s language is, but how dumb readers in our time have become.

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