King James Bible – “Archaic” Language and Biblical English

The following excerpt is taken in its entirety from the Introduction to “One Book Stands Alone” by Dr. Douglas Stauffer, pages viii-xi.

“Archaic” Language

Another victim of the modern versions has been the very language of the Bible that makes it sound like the Bible.  English scholars recognise a category of English which they call Biblical English (1).  It is the English of the King James Bible and of other English versions of that era.  These same scholars point out that the modern versions of the Bible are not written in biblical English.  And, despite the claims of recent translators that this is simply the language of the time, it is not.  The language of the King James Bible is distinct from any spoken English of any time period of English history.

The biblical English of the King James Bible stems from two sources: the historical, “archaic” English vocabulary and grammar and the transparency of the English text that maintains the style of the Hebrew and Greek languages.  Scholars most often attack the “archaic” language of the King James Bible.  People may have spoken that way in 1611, they say, but we speak differently now.  We need a Bible that sounds the way we talk.

Yet, the English of the King James Bible was not the way common English speech sounded in 1611.  For instance, the thee’s and thou’s of the King James Bible were seldom used by common speakers of that time.  Even when encountered in conversation, these pronouns were spoken differently from their written use in the Bible.  In the Bible, thee and thou are always singular (referring to one person or group) second person pronouns, while ye and you are always plural second person pronouns.  This grammatical device, by the way, retains the distinction between the singular and plural you as found both in Hebrew and in Greek.  The modern versions lose this distinction.

We do not incorporate this distinction of singularity and plurality into modern English.  We always say you (except when we say you all, etc.). But so did most of the English-speaking people of 1611.  Just consider the Dedication written to King James by the translators of the KJB (It is found in the front of many Bibles).  Throughout this document, King James is referred to as you and your even though he is obviously one person.  The King James Bible and the Dedication to King James were written at the same time and by the same men.  However, the documents use you in two totally different ways.  This difference alone illustrates well that the language of the King James Bible was not the common language of 1611.  It was meant to be different; it was Biblical English.

Even the older verb endings (such as –est and –eth) were not commonly used in English conversation in 1611.  Individuals of this era used believe or believes in talking to one another – not believest and believeth.  Why then were these older forms retained in the King James Bible?  Seth Lerer, in his taped course on The History of the English Language, states that he believes that the translators attempted “to produce a highly crafted, artificial, elevated and, at times, archaic language – a language that will stand, not just the test of time, but will contain within it the time frame of the history of English” (2).   In other words, the language of the King James Bible was designed from the beginning to be distinct from all other language.  It was designed, I believe, by God to stand apart from the language of any particular period.  It was written in a timeless language.

Biblical English

Greek teachers of an earlier age understood that the Greek of the New Testament was not exactly like any Greek that was ever spoken.  They called it Biblical Greek.  Because of the recent emphasis on having a contemporary language Bible, we now hear of Koine of Common Greek instead of Biblical Greek (3).  And, concerning the Old Testament, recent research has shown that its Hebrew was distinct from the common Hebrew spoken by ancient Israelites (4).  So, we should not be surprised that the English of the King James Bible is quite different from the contemporary English of any age.

One of the main reasons for this distinction is the impact of the Hebrew and Greek languages on the English of the King James Bible.  The article on “Biblical Literature” in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica states as follows: “The impact of Jewish sources upon the King James Version is one of its noteworthy features…The impact of the Hebrew upon the revisers was so pronounced that they seem to have made a conscious effort to imitate its rhythm and style in the Old Testament.  The English of the New Testament actually turned out to be superior to its Greek original” (5).  The Oxford Companion to the English language states that “the vigour and simplicity of OT Hebrew and NT Greek have to a great extentbeen successfully conveyed in Biblical English” (6).  Let me provide two examples to illustrate this point.

The Old Testament Hebrew uses the word and as a continual connector.  Its repetitive use sets the rhythm of the text and is one of the key characteristics of the Hebrew Old Testament.  This rhythm is maintained in the King James Bible.  Just notice how many verses in the Old Testament begin with the word and.  However, newer versions seem intent on updating the style and removing the repetitive and’s

Just consider the passage of 1 Kings 17:17-24, which deals with Elijah’s raising of the widow of Zarephath from the dead.  The King James Bible has 22 and’s in this short passage.  This closely corresponds with the number found in the Hebrew text.  However, the New International Version removes over half of them and retains only ten and’s.  This trend is seen to a greater extent in other modern versions.  The Contemporary English Version includes only seven and’s, and the New International Reader’s Version removes all but one of them.

This may seem like a small change, but it entirely alters the way the Bible reads and sounds.  It removes the biblical language of the text and creates something that is not quite Bible.  Also, this is only one of several major shifts of language being made in the modern Bible versions.  Let us look at one more.

The Greek New Testament is filled with long, complex sentences of seemingly never-ending clauses.  These involved sentences cause the Bible student to pause and reflect so that he can carefully comprehend the complex connections being revealed by the Holy Ghost in these passages.  As a rule, the King James Bible keeps these sentences intact.  On the other hand, the modern versions generally split them up into smaller sentences and thereby lose many of the intended connections.

Take Hebrews 1:1-4 as an example.  This passage tells us about how God’s ultimate revelation of Himself comes through His Son Jesus Christ.  Any preacher worth his salt could preach a ten or twelve week series from this one passage.  The complex connections between the different concepts in this passage prove the greatness of God.

In the Greek New Testament, Hebrews 1:1-4 is made up of only one sentence.  The King James Bible also has only one sentence in this passage.  However, look at what is being done in the modern versions.  The NIV breaks the passage up into three sentences; the CEV into six sentences; and the NIrV chops this one passage up into thirteen different sentences.  This last version gives you the awkward sensation of going through a series of unnecessary speed bumps.

Conclusion

The Bible has ceased to be the “last word” for most Christians.  They want to know what another version says.  Or, if they do not like what they read, they assume that it is a bad translation.  So, instead of the word of God correcting us, we correct the word of God.  In the minds of today’s Christians, the Bible has ceased to be a solid substance that can be checked as an absolute authority.  Rather, it has become a process that is always becoming but never quite arrives.  The real authority becomes the scholar who tells us what this passage really means.

But where is this process taking us?  What is God’s word becoming?  The book you hold in your hand records the path taken by the modern versions and shows where this path is leading.  It demonstrates one by one the doctrines that are being attacked, weakened, and – in some cases – destroyed.  The new versions are taking us somewhere.  But, do we want to go there?  From their treatment of the doctrine of salvation to the practice of fasting, this book systematically details what is happening in the new versions.  Please read this book…..

Dr. David Reagan

Pastor, Antioch Baptist Church

President, Antioch Baptist College

Knoxville, Tennessee

Introduction Endnotes

1. The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992, s.v. “Biblical English”

2. Lerer, Seth, The History of the English Language, Lecture One, The Great Courses on Tape, 1998

3. Robertson, A. T., “Language of the New Testament,” in The International Standard Bible Enclopaedia, 1956

4. Robert Alter, “Beyond King James,” Commentary, September 1996, p. 61-62

5. Nahum M. Sarner, “Biblical Literature,” in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., 1979

6. The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992, s.v. “Bible”

References

Stauffer, Dr. D. 2001, 2005, “One Book Stands Alone”, publ. McCowen Mills Publishers, Millbrook, Alabama

www.sovereignjesus.net