Theology in 3D

The Hermeneutical Value of the KJV?

Layton Talbert | November 5, 2020
Theology

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.

Photo Credit: Isaac Talbert http://www.freshexposureimages.com


7 responses to “The Hermeneutical Value of the KJV?”

  1. Thanks for this! Might not the footnotes that many (most?) modern translations contain be an adequate alternative? For example, in Luke 22:31 the ESV says, “The Greek word for you (twice in this verse) is plural; in verse 32, all four instances are singular.” I haven’t dug around enough to know if this is a consistent practice, but if so, do you still think that regularly consulting the KJV is a worthwhile practice for those not checking the Greek?

  2. Hey Michael, thanks for reading! Textual footnotes are a great option, they’re just not always there. I was aware of the ESV note in Luke 22; in fact, several modern translations clarify the difference directly in the text itself (CJB, NCV, NET, NIV), some do not but include a text note (ESV, HCSB), and some do neither (NASB, MIT, and my recently published, beautiful, multivolume, hardbound, straight-text reader’s ASV). Luke 22 is the most dramatic example because everything else in the verse screams singular. But my primary target in the post is Job. And when it comes to a passage like Job 9, I’ve found no text notes in any of the translations, so that even otherwise fine interpreters sometimes make incautious conclusions based on the modern English text alone. Being aware of the pronominal usage in Job greatly facilitates understanding to whom Job is speaking at times when it may be unclear from the context. And the only place that pronominal usage is clearly reflected in the text is in Hebrew and Elizabethan English–and those few translations that capitalize deity pronouns (but that’s a separate conversation). I’ve not tried to hunt down other passages where the pronominal reference may be unclear, though I suspect there are some. So to answer your final question . . . “regularly consult”? No, I wouldn’t say that. But I think it’s worth being aware that there’s a readily available English quick-check and, therefore, it’s worth “keep[ing] an eye on the KJV” for pronominal ambiguities.

  3. Timothy spitsbergen says:

    Should the archaic pronouns of the kjv be considered the preserved words of God as stated in Matthew by Jesus “my words shall not pass away?” If this case is true should not the modern versions be concluded as taking away from the words of God in thousands of places? Also if true why not keep the kjv primary as the best translation? The main reason for using a new translation- archaic pronouns has been eliminated.

  4. Archaic pronouns were hardly the main reason for modern translations; translation always has to deal with a host of vocabulary, syntactical, stylistic, punctuational, and other communicational devices, just as it did in 1611. The archaic English pronouns did accurately represent (in 1611) the words that Jesus spoke (whether in Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek) as preserved in the original inspired manuscripts (which recorded his words in Greek); but language changes, modern English is not the only language that does not differentiate second-person pronouns, and some modern translations actually do sometimes reflect that differentiation either in translation or text notes (per my reply to Michael Dunlop’s comment). So modern translations are not taking away from the words of God in this respect, since “you” is a perfectly legitimate translation of second-person pronouns into modern English; the modern English second-person universal “you” just happens to be more ambiguous.

  5. Thanks, that’s helpful. Did you get the Bibliotheca?

  6. Michael, I did get the Bibliotheca. Beautiful. In fact, I actually wrote the guy behind the project (I don’t recall his name now), suggesting some unobtrusive stylistic device to mark either the singular or plural “you”; he seemed intrigued and receptive in his reply, but apparently decided against it.

  7. Hey! I remember that! It was a Kickstarter project. His name is Adam Greene. It is a beautiful set and I have it on my shelf in the living room. I wrote him too about something else! He had tossed out the idea of maybe re-ordering the Gospels (he was assuming Markan priority). I wrote to urge him otherwise based on evidence (ala Kruger) that from ancient times the Gospels had circulated in their current order (regardless of what you think about which was written first). I remembered that you had written too about ideas for reflecting this distinction. Good post. Thanks for all your writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.