The RSV Takes on the KJV

The translators of the Revised Standard Version (1952; 2nd. ed. 1971) didn’t mince words when comparing their work to the King James Version. The KJV “has grave defects,” they said. Its underlying Greek texts were “marred by mistakes, containing the accumulated errors of fourteen centuries.”

The RSV translators, on the other hand, possessed “more ancient manuscripts of the New Testament.” They were “far better equipped to recover the original wording of the Greek text.”

Although I’ve written my own book taking an honest look at the King James Version, I don’t think these comments were fair. Or nice. Or helpful—even if they contain a kernel of truth.

Problems with the RSV preface

The RSV preface leaves the impression that there are lots and lots of important mistakes in the Greek text underlying the KJV New Testament. This just isn’t the case. Even after fourteen centuries of copying, the text of the latest biblical manuscripts is still extremely similar to that of the earliest copies we have. The differences are almost all excessively minor. Subsequent history shows that the RSV translators should have been more deferential to the Emperor of English Bibles. Their words (and, more importantly, their translation of Isaiah 7:14) only succeeded in making KJV readers mad.

Words like these just were not calculated to win people over:

The King James Version has grave defects. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the development of Biblical studies and the discovery of many manuscripts more ancient than those upon which the King James Version was based, made it manifest that these defects are so many and so serious as to call for revision of the English translation.

Every Bible translation is the result of hundreds of thousands of individual translation decisions, both about Greek and Hebrew and about the “target language,” in this case, English. For a translation to have “grave defects,” a huge number of those decisions, important ones in significant passages, would have to be shown to be in error. That has not been done. The widespread acceptance of the KJV over 400 years does not prove that the KJV was well done, but the number of gifted people who have praised it over that time rather does. I don’t think the KJV had “grave defects” when it was translated in 1611. The RSV overshot its mark here.

What the RSV preface gets right

But the RSV gets one big thing right when discussing the KJV: they carefully distinguish between two different types of changes that have occurred in English since 1611.

Dead words

First, the RSV recognizes what I call in Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible “dead words.”

A major reason for revision of the King James Version, which is valid for both the Old Testament and the New Testament, is the change since 1611 in English usage. Many forms of expression have become archaic, while still generally intelligible—the use of thou, thee, thy, thine and the verb endings -est and -edst, the verb endings -eth and -th, it came to pass that, whosoever, whatsoever, insomuch that, because that, for that, unto, howbeit, peradventure, holden, aforetime, must needs, would fain, behooved, to you-ward, etc. Other words are obsolete and no longer understood by the common reader.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t recognize this phenomenon. Unfamiliar words, words we no longer use, jump off the page to any modern reader.

You can discern the meaning of many archaic turns of phrase through experience with the KJV. But there are many words, like besom, chambering, and emerod, that can’t be learned by practice; they remain completely foreign to modern English ears. Context won’t help. You have to use a dictionary.

Yet even if you reach for Merriam-Webster (in my experience, many don’t bother), you’ll regularly come up short. Archaic words don’t always appear in contemporary dictionaries; they can be looked up reliably in only one resource: the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a highly technical and exhaustive tome that takes a lot of hard work to understand and use wisely. Most of us don’t have the time or interest to learn, so the dead words in the KJV remain dead.

False friends

Second, the RSV translators noticed what I call in Authorized “false friends.” These words essentially can’t be looked up: unless you’re a specialist or an extreme nerd (like me), you won’t even notice that you’re misunderstanding them.

The RSV translators noticed; they were specialists (and probably extreme nerds). This is what they said of the KJV:

The greatest problem … is presented by the English words which are still in constant use but now convey a different meaning from that which they had in 1611 and in the King James Version.

This is what I said in Authorized:

The biggest problem in understanding the KJV comes from “false friends,” words that are still in common use but have changed meaning in ways that modern readers are highly unlikely to recognize.

I wrote that passage before ever reading the RSV preface. Eerie, right?

The RSV preface continues with some examples of “false friends,” words that “were once accurate translations of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures; but now, having changed in meaning, they have become misleading.”

The King James Version uses the word “let” in the sense of “hinder,” “prevent” to mean “precede,” “allow” in the sense of “approve,” “communicate” for “share,” “conversation” for “conduct,” “comprehend” for “overcome,” “ghost” for “spirit,” “wealth” for “well-being,” “allege” for “prove,” “demand” for “ask,” “take no thought” for “be not anxious,” etc.

These words, the RSV says, “no longer say what the King James translators meant them to say.” And the list could go on. It does in Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

Conclusion

My new book is making a point that is as old as the RSV preface—but it still desperately needs to be made. KJV users (and I’m still one of them!) tend to think only of dead words while being unaware of “false friends.” They feel unintelligent for not knowing KJV words, or lazy for not looking them up. But I argue that no one alive except a few specialists (and extreme nerds) should be expected to keep track of the winding path of all our many English words. And people should not be required to use a dictionary to understand words in the Bible for which there are common equivalents.

Some of the RSV’s criticisms of the KJV were unnecessarily unsettling for non-specialists—the intended market of the RSV—to hear. You mean the Bible I’ve read my whole life has “grave defects”?! The RSV preface could have gone the gentler route, safeguarding the trust of Bible readers without blaming anyone. They could simply have noted the reading difficulties that naturally occur as the centuries push a language this way and that. I wish they had.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a writer for Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

Comments

  1. Thomas D. Sutter says:

    Acts 28:12-13 in the AV says:
    12 And landing at Syracuse, we tarried there three days. 13 And from thence we fetched a compass, and came to Rhegium: and after one day the south wind blew, and we came the next day to Puteoli:

    I don’t know if this is in your book, but, the word “compass” is one of those “false friends.” In this context “compass” does not mean a device used to indicate magnetic north. (Wikipedia indicates that the magnetic north compass was invented in China about 200 BCE; and Wikipedia goes on to indicate the magnetic north compass was not used for navigation until 9th Century CE) Incidentally, the NRSV translates it as “we weighed anchor” and the ESV translates it as “we made a circuit.” The ESV is probably closer to what the AV translators were thinking.

  2. Tom Hanson says:

    I think you are just a bit hard on the unabridged OED when you speak about the hard work needed to use it. It IS of course useful to all sorts of highly specialized scholars and can be daunting to people especially in its abbreviations, and in its use of different foreign alphabets (including Greek and Cyrilic) in etymologies. BUT its English word definitions are very clear and its systematic scheme of quoting a word in its contexts for each century found, from even back before the invention of printing, is close to being simplicity itself. So my advice to readers with access to it is go to it for historical usages in English. All you really have to learn is how to deal with words with more than one definition and there are a lot of them. However, if you know how it works in almost any modern dictionary it will be no problem at all.
    BUT BEWARE, you word nerds, tournament Scrabble does not use it as its lexicon, and if you use the good old English word “oxter”, even though you can define it with precision, the judges will not be sympathetic.

    • I think I’m not intending to be hard on the OED so much as on the preconditions for using it: in my experience, most people simply have a *very* fuzzy idea about what “senses” are and how words and senses can go in and out of use.

  3. It certainly not fair to write that about Gods Word ever, since God Himself preserves His Word. But I wonder if 65 years of errors is any less damaging than 400 years.

    • We have to make a careful distinction between “God’s Word” and “translations of God’s Word.” As the KJV translators themselves said,

      The very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession (for we have seen none of theirs of the whole Bible as yet) containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, every where.

      So translations are God’s word, too. I agree with them. But to say that God is “preserving” his words *in a translation* is to confuse categories. To preserve means to “keep intact,” and that only makes sense when applied to the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words that were the original objects of divine inspiration (2 Tim 3:16).

      And just in case any readers missed it, this post *defends the KJV against charges of error.* Yes, errors can and do occur in Bible translation. Translators are fallen and finite. But errors are less common than a lot of Christians seem to fear. And they tend to appear in passages that no one is arguing about.

      If the RSV were all we had, we’d still have vast treasures. When it comes to the one rendering people really complain about in the RSV, Isa 7:14, it just so happens that the New Testament rendering still clearly calls Mary a “virgin.” If the Christian church had the RSV and only the RSV, it would still confess the virgin birth of Christ.

  4. Felmar Roel Rap. Singco says:

    After all is said and done, the Authorised King James Version of the Holy Bible remains the most beauty full trans lation of the Holy Bible in to the English language, and also remains the cap stone of the English language, the noblest and greatest monument of English prose and poetry, and the sustaining breath be low and be hind all English speaking institutions existing to day.

    To continue to sustain and to up hold this superior and illustrious pedestal of the AKJV in times of great strides in modern Biblical studies, exegesis, and hermeneusis, is not to derogate these new advances, nor to abrogate the power and influence of the newer and more modern English trans lations, many of which are also excellent.

    It is simply to acknowledge that the AKJV is, on the whole, and faced then with the great odds that surrounded its trans lation process, still super latively faith full to the auto graphs of the Sacred Writs.

  5. Pastor Linwood Turner says:

    To many of this translation take away the true many of the scriptures. It might sound good to the reader, but it is missing the true impact of the scripture intent. This is why I keep a strong greek and Aramaic word dictionary on hand.

    • But think of what you’re saying: that highly trained, conservative evangelical biblical scholars are producing translations which are missing the intent of the original authors? Isn’t that odd? I mean, is it really likely? Is it impossible for us to have a translation that sounds good to the modern reader and is also accurate?

  6. Thomas F Ewald says:

    When you drop “thou” and “thee”, you lose some meaning. They were (in 1611) not religious words, but simply second person singular pronouns. When Jesus said to Peter (in the KJV), “I give unto thee the keys”, He could have said “you”, but that would have been plural, and would have probably referred to all of His disciples, and perhaps to all of Christendom. Using the singular makes it pretty clear He did not mean to do that. I am not Roman Catholic (not even close), so I am not meaning to push Peter here, but simply to point out a loss of meaning, and also value IMHO.

    • I discuss this in the book. And I agree: dropping thou and ye for you and you loses some meaning—and also some value.

      But the point of this post is to show that using thou and ye adds some meaning for all modern readers. It says, “Thou art now beholding solemn, elevated, religious verbiage.”

      So you lose meaning or you add meaning; the current state of English forces you to choose. Some like to complain about the loss here, but they don’t seem to mind the addition… And they don’t even notice the “loss” every kind of English forces on the gender of certain words (Modern English has never had gender, of course) and the number of others (such as whom).

  7. Daniel Welch says:

    I realize the list of “false friends” you posted is from the editors of the RSV and not you. I hope your list does not include “false false friends” as does this list. One example of these is erroneously saying the translators of the KJV used comprehend to mean overcome. While I am no Greek scholar I can read the context of John 1:5 which is about understanding which makes comprehend a reasonable interpretation, contextually. The NASB agrees and uses comprehend as well. Also, the UBS handbook on John views both interpretations as reasonable:

    Has never put it out is difficult, in regard both to the meaning of the verb itself and the tense. The original meaning is “to grasp,” and it may be used either in a hostile sense (“to overcome”) or in an intellectual sense (“to grasp with the mind,” that is, “to understand”). TEV (has never put it out; so also dsp and Phps), together with RSV (“has not overcome it”) and JB (“could not overpower”; see also NAB), accepts the first of these two interpretations. Few translations, in fact, follow the second.

    Newman, B. M., & Nida, E. A. (1993). A handbook on the Gospel of John (p. 12). New York: United Bible Societies.