The Hermeneutical Value of the KJV?
The tectonic shift to modern translations has created occasional hermeneutical fissures that English readers are compelled to leap over as best they can. Ironically, it involves the most visible Elizabethan shibboleth that modern readers were eager to escape: the dreaded, archaic thee‘s and thou‘s. The problem is, the shift to modern language pronouns leaves a helpful (and sometimes interpretively decisive) hermeneutical key buried in the KJV. In Elizabethan English, thee and thou and thy always reflect a second-person singular pronoun or verb in the original text, while ye and you and your always reflect a second-person plural pronoun or verb in the original text. Granted, many modern English readers were never aware of that distinction in the first place, but that’s beside the point (and one reason for this post). The hermeneutical key is still right there under the proverbial doormat of the KJV text.
Modern translations render all second-person pronouns (whether singular or plural) as “you.” Much more comfortable. Much more sensible. And much more ambiguous. Because the reader has no idea whether the “you” in the text is an individual or a group. “Context!” you reply. Sorry, but it’s simply not that simple. The context may be not only unclear, but downright misleading. For example,
Simon, Simon, Satan has desired to sift you like wheat.”Luke 22:31
What could possibly be clearer? Jesus is speaking directly to Peter. Even names him twice! But the “you” is plural. (And it’s not because Peter was beside himself at the time.) Jesus was saying that Peter was not the only one Satan had received divine permission to sift. That significantly colors the gist of Jesus’ warning:
“Simon, Simon, Satan has desired to sift [all of] you [disciples] like wheat.”
Or as we’d say it down south, “Simon, Satan has desired all y’all.” Jesus’ next statement then shifts to the singular: “But I have prayed for you [singular; KJV, “thee”] that your [singular; KJV, “thy”] faith should not fail; and when you [singular; KJV, “thou”] are converted, strengthen your [singular; KJV, “thy”] brethren” (Luke 22:32).
Unless you (a) have access to the Greek text, or (b) do not assume that the context is clearly obvious and (c) check the KJV translation, you would end up erroneously concluding (and teaching) that only Peter was subject to Satanic sifting when, in fact, they all were. (Consequently, “they all forsook him and fled,” Mark 14:50.) [Disclaimer: I shouldn’t have to clarify this, but just in case, I am not arguing that you are awash in hermeneutical heresy unless you abandon modern translations and return to the KJV. I am arguing . . . well, just keep reading.]
I was reminded again of the hermeneutical value of this translational mechanism recently while reading Job. I mention this briefly in my book Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job (e.g., pp. 83, 103). But I think it warrants a bit more specificity and attention than I have given it there. Often the pronoun is the only indicator whether Job is speaking to his friends or to God. For example,
I have become afraid of all my suffering, for I know you will not hold me innocent…. If I wash myself with snow and cleanse my hands with lye, yet you will plunge me into a pit, and my own clothes will abhor me.Job 9:28-31
Some interpreters think that Job is complaining that his friends are determined to make him guilty no matter what he says to defend his innocence. But the “you” pronouns here are singular. He might be addressing Bildad specifically, but the language of v. 28 is very similar to what Job elsewhere clearly addresses to God (cf. 10:14). Beyond that, however, Job’s speech to his friends is always* signaled by second-person plural pronouns (e.g., Job 6:22, 25, 27, 28, 29; 12:2, 3; 13: 2, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 26; etc.). His frequent appeals to God invariably use second-person singular pronouns. Of course, you would either have to check the Hebrew or a KJV to actually see this in the text, because the distinction is invisible in most modern language versions. That’s my point. (*I am aware of only two exceptions; see below.)
Sometimes the other language in the passage tips you off that Job must be speaking to God, sometimes not. But the distinction between plural and singular is instantly recognizable in the archaic pronouns of the KJV. (The NKJV, NASB, and HCSB adopt the modern universal “you,” but capitalize singular pronominal references to God–a very helpful feature for the attentive English reader.)
As far as I can tell, Job aims singular pronouns at one of the friends on only two occasions–once to Eliphaz (Job 16:3) and once to Bildad (Job 26:2-4). Once the reader is aware of this distinction in pronouns, Job’s frequent prayer-soliloquies stand out in the dialogue–when he completely bypasses his friends and expresses his frustrations directly to God. And those occasions are far more frequent and extensive than you might think:
- Job 7:7-21
- Job 9:27-31
- Job 10:2-22
- Job 13:20-14:22
- Job 16:7-8
- Job 17:1-5
- Job 30:20-23
- Job 40:4-5
- Job 42:1-6
Job’s emotionally heightened state explains how he can, on an Uzian dime, turn from talking to God to talking to his friends about God. Obviously, knowing to whom Job is speaking is crucial for correctly understanding and interpreting what he is saying.
When everyone used the KJV, we used to advise students to regularly consult modern translations for translational alternatives and interpretive insights. That advice has now reversed: if you don’t regularly consult the Hebrew and Greek text, keep an eye on the KJV for at least this hermeneutical help. You might think the context will always make it clear, but it ain’t necessarily so.
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