5 Words You’re Probably Not Getting in the Christmas Story

Every Christmas Eve growing up, my father read the Christmas story from Luke 2 in the King James Version.

And every Christmas Eve, I thought I understood it. I largely did. But I now see little things I was missing—through no fault of my own, nor of the KJV translators, but simply because of the inevitable process of language change. The KJV is 400 years old, after all. I now see these little things because I focused hard on them while writing my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

Here are five things you might not have noticed you were missing in the Christmas story in Luke 2 in the King James Version.

1. “That all the world should be taxed

The very first sentence of Luke 2 contains a fairly good example of a word that no longer means what it used to mean: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

It’s a tiny bit unclear what the KJV translators were doing with this word “taxed.” They were excessively smart men, and they had to know that the Greek word they were translating here (ἀπογράφω, apographo) referred to census registration and not to the levying of taxes.

By choosing the word “taxed” they were following Tyndale (1526) and the Bishop’s Bible (1568) before them—the KJV is a revision of the latter. And I don’t think any of them made a mistake. It’s possible they chose what we now call a “functional translation”: they thought the point of the census was for taxes, so they translated according. It’s also possible they were using a sense of the word that is no longer available to us. The authoritative and exhaustive Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the only dictionary that traces the full history of English rather than merely describing its current state, gives weight to that second possibility. Look at sense 8 for the verb “tax”:

Joseph and Mary did not go to Bethlehem to pay taxes but instead to register for a census—in part, yes, for tax purposes (the Common English Bible of 2011 renders this word, “enrolled in the tax lists”). But modern readers misunderstand “taxed” because we don’t (and can’t) use the word that way. This sense isn’t in our English like it was in theirs.

Many people know Luke 2:1 refers to a census or registration because it has been explained to them in sermons or books. But what they don’t realize is that the KJV translators (at least according to the smart folks at the OED) did not make a mistake; they used a different sense of the word.

2. “There were in the same country shepherds”

This is a minor distinction, but when Luke says,: “There were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field” (2:8), the “country” he was referring to wasn’t “Israel.”  Instead, he was talking about the “region” around Bethlehem.

We still say things like, “We drove through some beautiful Ohio farm country.” But none of the major modern English translations opt for “country” in Luke 2:8. The closest they come is “countryside” (New Jerusalem Bible). The most common choice is “region.”

But if you look up “country” in the OED, you’ll see a very interesting sense that is no longer available to English speakers—and yet may be what the KJV translators meant:

Could the KJV translators have used a sense of country that referred to the fields just outside Bethlehem? It fits. Where else were the shepherds likely to be but just outside the confines of the city? And it makes sense that we no longer have this sense, because we don’t need it: cities haven’t been walled for a long, long time.

3. “A multitude of the heavenly host

The shepherds in the environs of Bethlehem saw “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God” (2:13).

I talked about this word for a good little while in Authorized. A host is an “army.” That’s what host meant in 1611, when the KJV was first published. That’s what the Greek word here (στρατία, stratia) means. But we no longer use host to mean “army.” We use it mean someone who entertains guests (“she was the host of an elegant dinner party”) or—and this is what most people probably hear in Luke 2:13—“a whole lot of” something. But “multitude” already told us that. The KJV translators weren’t trying to communicate, “a multitude of a heavenly whole lot of something.”

I don’t blame the KJV translators. What they did was perfectly fine in 1611. And I don’t blame people today. In fact, several modern translations stick with host. It’s not a huge deal. But Tyndale himself went with sowdiers (soldiers), as did the Geneva Bible (1599) with its souldiers. God the father didn’t just send “a whole lot” of angels. He sent an army of angels in militant array to make this special, joyous announcement.

4. “All they that heard it wondered

The shepherds, having seen the baby Jesus, were eager to tell others about their experience. And “all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds” (2:18).

The KJV translators did not mean that they were merely curious; that’s the way “wondered” is most commonly used today. In 1611 the word meant “to be struck with surprise or astonishment, to marvel” (OED). The word can be used that way today, but my sense is that this is not common enough to be clear to many readers. Everyone who heard this news was “amazed”—that’s what the contemporary English translations say.

5. “Mary kept all these things”

One of the obsolete senses of the verb keep in the OED is “To take in with the eyes, ears, or mind; to take note of, mark, behold, observe.” This may be what the KJV translators meant when they said “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” I’m not sure. Maybe they did just mean what we would mean with “kept”: she “retained possession of” certain memories. But modern translations don’t follow the KJV. Most go for, “Mary treasured all these things.”

One of the difficulties of reading any literature from the Elizabethan era is that it’s really difficult, even with the help of a dictionary like the OED, to put yourself in the shoes of the original readers. It’s hard to forget what you “know” a word means and read like they would.

Conclusion

Over time, languages change on multiple levels. Some words have dropped out of English, words we know we don’t know. We don’t say besom, we say “broom.” We’ve traded emerod, for “tumor.”And chambering is now called “immorality.” If you read the KJV, you’ll notice those words. And it’s nobody’s fault we don’t know them! How could the KJV translators have known what words would fall out of use?

But sometimes, changes in English lead to actual misinterpretation—and that’s what we must guard against. There are words we don’t know we don’t know, because we still use them—but those words mean different things today.  But often that modern sense seems to make sense in context and we don’t notice our misunderstanding! It’s nobody’s fault. Language just does this. You shouldn’t feel dumb, anymore than you should feel dumb for not knowing Sanskrit.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).

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What should we do with the King James Version? Has this influential translation been misunderstood by those who cherish it most? In the fascinating new book Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James BibleDr. Mark Ward explains how the King James translators wanted Scripture to be understood by the regular man on the street—and that this has profound implications for what we do with the KJV today. Get it now.

 

Comments

  1. Wayne Baker says:

    I do have to read your book. I guess I will have to buy your book and read it, but sometime in the new year, too broke now.

  2. James Isaac says:

    Dr. Ward are you using the OED online version?

  3. Frank Winter says:

    Dr. Ward, When using the reference to the KJV Bible is this the youngest translation available. Fr John Whiteford’s an “Orthodox Look at the English Translations of the Bible”, refers to the KJV Bible (latest translation) as the most accurate of current bible translations.
    I have always considered the blessing of the scriptures as an encouragement to ” search the scriptures” so that we can get a closer understanding of His Word.
    Regards Frank Winter.

    • The KJV is an excellent translation—into a language no one speaks or writes anymore. I read that article, and though it contains much good advice, I feel it takes inadequate account of the very things I bring up in this post. Whiteford recommends learning 200 unfamiliar words in order to read the KJV. But 1) I’m not sure why someone should have to learn new words (or rather, old words) when there are plenty of English Bibles which use modern equivalents everyone already knows, and 2) in my book I show that the biggest problem in understanding the KJV is not words modern readers know they don’t know, but words that have changed meaning over time in ways modern readers won’t know to look up. You need my new book. =)

      • Frank Winter says:

        Dr. Ward, thank you, I have pre-ordered your book and shall look forward to reading it. May the LORD continue to bless you and all those who search the scriptures. Frank Winter

      • What I actually said about the King James Version was a lot more nuanced than that. See: http://www.saintjonah.org/articles/translations.htm

        • Indeed it is. In particular, I agree with what you said here:

          Now it must be conceded that the King James Version has some significant problems in terms of its liturgical use today. There are passages in the KJV that are hard to understand for most contemporary English speakers, and there are passages that are even misleading now, due to changes in the meaning of certain words over time. This being the case, there is in fact a need for some revision to the text, and there are editions of the King James Version that make such revisions… but the question is how much of the text needs to be revised, and on that there is not unanimity.

          But I simply don’t myself in full agreement with this, particularly the final piece of advice:

          Generally speaking, the King James Version is where all English translations of Scripture should begin… and it remains one of the best options available, even without any revision. The pronouns and verbal forms that it uses are not hard to learn. The primary problem with it is the occasional translation that needs to be corrected, and the occasional word that is likely to confuse most contemporary readers. Most readers could easily remedy the second problem by simply expanding their vocabulary by about 200 or so words.

          I think that last line of counsel underestimates the difficulties of the KJV and overestimates people’s capacity to overcome them.

          But I grant that this is a judgment call, and you clearly have worked hard to refine your judgment. I’ve done the same, and somehow I think the globe will keep spinning if we reach different judgments. =)

          • I include in the 200 words the meaning of those words that have changed. I read the KJV all of the time. My wife, who didn’t grow up speaking English does too, and both of my children read it, with no problem.

            Also, when you say the KJV is in a language no one speaks anymore, this is not true. People speak it all of the time, when reading the KJV, and when praying in traditional English. I asked my wife about a Chinese liturgical text a few months ago, and without batting an eye, she translated it into traditional English, and all of the pronouns and verb endings were correct. And she is from Guizhou, China. If someone from the People’s Republic of China can understand KJV, I suspect Americans can too.

            The issue with using the straight KJV text liturgically, is that obviously, not everyone has put in the time or the effort to understand some of the difficulties you encounter in the KJV, and so I do want to see a well done revision of the KJV that eliminates the most difficult obscurities in the text, as well as some of its errors in translation.

            If someone has difficulties with the KJV, I encourage them to read the NKJV. But the NKJV is not as beautiful by a long shot.

          • You’re a good writer. I’ve got an idea for you. Taking this offline…

  4. Matthew Witter says:

    Thanks for the article. This was helpful in sermon prep regarding the word “taxed.” As you mentioned, most know what the word means. This can be found by simply consulting Strongs or Vines. You answered what may be a lingering question: why did the translators use this word? A man in my church does such word studies and sometimes wonders about the choice of words by the translators in various passages, but never for the purpose of inciting doubt.Your explanation is well-stated. I’ll look forward to getting your book.