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.
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 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.
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.