God Squad / Religion & Spirituality

Old is good, in my book: the King James Version

Q: Why do you always quote Scripture from the King James Version of the Bible? It really grinds me. I came out of a cult church where that was the only version used. They could twist that old language to mean what they wanted it to say. Why not use a more modern language version of Scripture?

The Bible wasn't written in a language that was a couple of hundred years old at the time; it was written in the street language of the day. Something like "The Message" version is contemporary. Other than that, I enjoy and appreciate your column. - L., via godsquadquestion@aol.com

A: The main reason I always use the King James translation of the Bible when citing Scripture verses is that it is old. I don't want the word of God to sound like street lingo. The fact that the language of the KJV is different from common English today helps set it apart for me.

You might be interested to know that the Hebrew word for "holy" is kadosh, which literally means, "something set apart from the ordinary." I appreciate your legitimate concern that the language of the KJV may be hard to understand at times, but sometimes old is good, not just old. I love the music of old English. I'm just not on board when some modern translations render Joseph's "coat of many colors" as "an ornamented tunic," even if the garment given to Joseph by his father, Jacob, was, well, an ornamented tunic!

Remember, too, that every translation of the Bible into any language other than the original Hebrew is also an interpretation. Therefore, every translation, including the KJV, changes the meaning of the text, sometimes in ways completely contrary to the original language.

The most famous bad translation of a biblical text comes from rendering of Isaiah 7:14: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." This translation gives great support to the Christian belief that the virgin birth of Jesus was prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. However, the Hebrew word used in Isaiah is "alma," which means a young woman of marriageable age. Rebekah and Miriam are referred to with this word (Gen. 24:43 and Ex. 2:8).

Unfortunately for this audacious translation -- actually the result of the mis-translation of the verse from Hebrew into Latin by Jerome in the 4th century Vulgate Bible -- the actual Hebrew word for virgin is "betulah" -- not "alma."

However, I respect the KJV as one of the masterpieces of English literature and as one of the main reasons the Bible has had such a deep penetration into Western cultural traditions. To illustrate the genius of the KJV, I've included a couple of translations of the last verse (15) of Psalm 17. You decide which translation you like best.

Here's the KJV translation: "As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness."

The modern Jewish translation by Robert Alter translates this verse: "As for me, in justice I behold Your face, I take my fill, wide awake, of Your image." I find this way too choppy. "Take my fill" is so much less lyrical than "I shall be satisfied."

The American Standard Version says: "As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with beholding thy form." This is an obvious imposition of Christian belief that in seeing Jesus people saw the form of God. It may be true for Christians, but it is not in the text.

God's Word translation: "I will see your face when I am declared innocent. When I wake up, I will be satisfied with seeing you." The problem here is that the original text is about righteousness, not innocence, which is a very different idea.

"The Message," which you like so much, offers this wildly loose translation: "And me? I plan on looking you full in the face. When I get up, I'll see your full stature and live heaven on earth." The first problem is that there's nothing in the verse about looking God "full in the face" and also nothing in the original verse about heaven on earth. In fact, the whole idea of actually seeing God is explicitly rejected by God in the Bible when Moses is refused permission to see God's face because, as God succinctly explained to him, "No man may see me and live." (Exodus 33:20)

So have patience with the KJV. I think you ought to give the grand old book another chance.

(Send QUESTIONS ONLY to The God Squad via email at godsquadquestion@aol.com.)

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