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 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.

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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:

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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 challenging, 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.

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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 dead 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! These I call “false friends.” And they’re 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. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

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Comments

  1. Thank you Mark, that was a very useful post.

  2. Gordon Golden says

    Great article! Thanks, Mark

  3. Yes! Very good research and thoughtfully and clearly presented! Thank you for putting this together!

  4. We still use the word “country” in the sense that it used in the KJV down here in the South. We talk all the time about “the city” and “the country,” the word country meaning the rural areas. For example, “We live way out in the country away from those city slickers!”

    • Yes, I know that sense, too—like country mouse and city mouse. =)

      But I don’t think that’s actually the sense the KJV translators were using. I think it’s something a little more specific. It’s “*the same* country”—the environs immediately around the walls of Bethlehem. I can’t know this for sure. It is possible that they were talking about the region more generally.

      But I know that the sense of “country” that you’re pointing to is what the OED calls a “subsequent” sense, a more general sense that developed from the specific sense of the land right around the walls.

      I find that 1) it takes a certain kind of nerd to be willing to push the mind into these old, dark, lexicographical corners; and 2) sometimes I get to the end of my search for what the KJV translators meant and I really just can’t know with certainty.

  5. Will Scholten says

    Thanks Mark, good insight.

    In my opinion, the 5 words would be “Christmas in not in scripture”!
    Why is it, the days the Church keeps, are not found in scripture, and yet we are taught “scripture alone”!! If they are not found in scripture, where do they come from? Not one of the holi days are found in scripture, that is scary!

    I am told, if you ask most scholars or pastors when the birth was, they will tell you not Dec. 25, but on one of 2 Appointed Times ( don’t you think this would happen at an appointed time) most saying the Feast of Tabernacles, a few Passover. I myself agree with Tabernacles, (as does Dr. Michael Heiser).

  6. Chad Matheny says

    I’m in wonder from the depths my bowels as I trow over this article. I will keep this and anon share it with my companions. Peradventure these great ensamples should conclude the incontinent gainsayers and bewray their divers chamberings.

    Great article. Thanks.

  7. This seems like knit picking trivia. I don’t think any meaning was changed or enhanced. It seems like an unnecessary shot at the King James Bible that blows up in the chamber. Every clarification or correction goes with the normal understanding of the language as written and therefore really seems unnecessary and trivial.

    • Friend, I’m really not sure how this article constitutes a shot at the King James Bible when I argued that, in every case, the KJV translators offered a perfectly good and acceptable translation into their English. As in my book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, I said nothing critical about their choices. I love the KJV and am grateful for it. I simply want to understand it, and four centuries of language change sometimes get in the way.

  8. Chad Wilham says

    Great read. Would love to heat your thoughts on the use of the word “Inn” as it seeming should be translated as “ place to stay.” and that history tells us Bethlehem likely had no “inn” the way we think of it.

  9. Steve Smythers says

    Great insight and enjoyable article. Just wondering why the authoritative and exhaustive Oxford English Dictionary (OED) isn’t available in Logos. I think that would be really valuable. Thanks.

    • Thank you for the suggestion! I’ve passed it on to those in charge of such things.

      I myself get access to the OED through my local library system. I use it all the time, many times a week.

  10. David Magee says

    Keep up the great articles Mark, always find them useful.

  11. First of all I’d like to say that I read both the article and all the comments. Next, lest I be charged with being hostile toward Mr. Ward let me say, I appreciate your article. I’m sure that there are some who had their eyes opened to your 5 points of clarity.
    Let me say also that I see where Rodney could get the feeling that Mr. Ward took a cheap shot at the KJV. Please don’t take this personal, Mark. While everything you said in your response to Rodney was absolutely true, IMO your final analysis of the KJV is that the language is ambiguous at best and misleading at worst.
    I don’t have a dog in this fight but I do think that we all should be looking for the same thing, truth. Mark, your truth (And the company you work for) is that the KJV is outdated and needs to be brought up to today’s standards. Your comments about the KJV didn’t bother me at all; the only thing that bothers me is that when someone reads an article like the one you wrote, they many come away with the idea, “The poor KJV translators, they did the best they could with the poor/inferior manuscripts they had so it must be best to put that translation back on a shelf and use a modern translation with words/language we understand”.
    Am I the only one who sees an elephant in the room? Is this Monday morning news that a 400 year old translation of the bible has archaic language? What’s worse is the remedy seems to be the OED! Excuse me but I’m 65 years old and have used the KJV since the first grade when the Gideon’s gave me my first New Testament. Please, let’s not make this a spitting contest. I’m not KJV only but I see no reason to set it on a shelf either just because I have to look up some words in a lexicon.
    Let me introduce the other elephant in the room. You completely bypassed Luke 2:17. In Luke 2:17 the KJV makes a bad translation of ἐγνώρισαν; of course the KJV translated the textual variant διεγνωρισαν but it really does not matter which one we consider correct. The verb comes from γνωρίζω and has absolutely nothing to do with broadcasting some truth. It has everything to do with making known a truth or coming to know a truth. It has a “causative” sense. Roy B. Zuck wrote a good article on, “Greek Words for Teach” that covered γνωρίζω very well. William D. Chamberlain wrote a very nice book, “The exegetical grammar of the Greek New Testament”. On page 14 he covered the ίζω verbs; worth reading.
    Now look at not only the KJV but all the modern versions and tell me about the updated language which reveals the true meaning of the text.

    Luke 2:17 KJV And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

    Luke 2:17 Cambridge Paragraph Bible And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

    Luke 2:17 NLV After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child.

    Luke 2:17 NKJV Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.

    Luke 2:17 The Message Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child.

    Luke 2:17 NIV When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,

    Luke 2:17 NASB And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.

    Luke 2:17 NRSV When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;

    Luke 2:17 LHDNT: ESV And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.

    Luke 2:17 LEB And when they saw it, they made known the statement that had been told to them about this child.

    Luke 2:17 ESV And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.

    Luke 2:17 Christian Standard Bible After seeing them, they reported the message they were told about this child,

    Luke 2:17 Good News Translation When the shepherds saw him, they told them what the angel had said about the child.

    Luke 2:17 NET When they saw him, they related what they had been told about this child,

    Luke 2:17 HCSB After seeing them, they reported the message they were told about this child,

    The Contemporary English Version is the only translation which translates γνωρίζω correctly and pays attention to the context.

    Luke 2:17 CEV When the shepherds saw Jesus, they told his parents what the angel had said about him.

    The truth of the matter is that if the shepherds had “told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child”, the murder of the innocents would have occurred years earlier.

    Merry Christmas

    • Mr. Rogers, thanks for reading and commenting!

      Let me say clearly that I do not believe that the KJV is, overall ambiguous and misleading. I made a very limited claim in this article: in five places in the Christmas story, the KJV is potentially misleading—*through no fault of the KJV translators and through no fault of modern readers, but solely due to the process of language change.*

      If someone comes away from my article with any ideas about the respective superiority of printed editions of the Greek New Testament, I’ll be unwilling to take the blame. =) I didn’t say a word about that debate! As a matter of principle, I usually don’t talk about that topic when writing things I think laypeople will read.

      *I do not believe the KJV ought to be put on a shelf and never used again.* I believe it ought to be related to the standard set by Scripture in 1 Corinthians 14: edification requires intelligibility. In those places where the KJV—because of four-plus centuries of language changes—contains what I call “dead words” and “false friends,” readers of the KJV ought to be made aware of the misunderstandings and difficulties that will result. Or people ought to be given the freedom to use modern translations. I use the KJV with extreme regularity, nearly every day.

      Your argument about Luke 2:17 is a separate argument about formal vs. functional translation practices, and how much latitude translators should be permitted in translating idioms. Am I missing something, though? It seems to me that the ESV did what you thought best. On balance, in more formal translations made for high school educated readers, I would tend to agree with you. But then, no one today is forced to use only one translation. I see value in people having formal and functional options. I know with certainty that they have both helped me over and over to understand God’s Word.

  12. Mark, so glad you read my comments. These things can become emotional, can’t they? Sorry for the length of my post; there was much more that probably should have been said that would have made my post more clear. There are two things I would like to comment on. First, my point was in my post that the KJV is not the only translation which is misleading; they all are in places, Luke 2:17 is a classic example.

    Second, my point about γνωρίζω really had nothing to do with “formal vs. functional translation practices” but was strictly a comment on exegesis of the Greek text. Γνωρίζω means something, what is it? That was my point. ἐγνώρισαν in Luke 2:17 is third person plural; what does it refer to? There are several grammatical options but only one fits the context. That was my point. The ESV comes “close” but even it fails to convey the fact that γνωρίζω is causative in the New Testament. Like I said, if all you knew was that the shepherds “made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child” (ESV), it is still ambiguous who they told. Only the CEV limits the context to those in the stall; Mary, Joseph and whoever delivered the baby (If Joseph didn’t).

    Merry Christmas

    • Another concern with the KJV of Luke 2 is “manger”. If I’m not mistaken the reference is actually to a large dining area, not to a stall. I might be confusing this with another scene but it is worth looking into.

      Also, kudos to all for keeping civil.

  13. Thank you for this article.
    Just wish I could get your book on this matter.