Tag Archives: kjv

Learning To (Reluctantly) Appreciate The KJV

I wasn’t raised in a KJV-only tradition. Most of my elders had some respect for the King James, but we rarely used it in study or in worship, and we certainly weren’t taught (as many young fundamentalists are) that it represents the definitive and authoritative revelation of God’s Word in the English language. For us it was just the old fashioned Bible where people talk funny.

So it’s been easy for me to overlook and even to disdain the KJV, especially as I have developed an interest in the evolution and transmission of biblical texts. I remain baffled by the American fundamentalist obsession with the KJV as a timeless and inerrant text, despite its clear origins in such a specific historical place and moment and its abundance of questionable translation choices and outright errors.

gods-secretariesIt was a pleasant surprise, then, to read Adam Nicolson’s book God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible and to find myself appreciating the KJV in a more informed and sympathetic light. Not a book by or for American fundamentalists, this is the work of an English historian reconstructing the milieu of Jacobean England from which the King James Bible emerged. Far from the world of snake handlers, young-earth creationists, and tent revivals, this was 17th century England; still reeling from the Protestant Reformation, steeped in royal intrigue, devastated by the Plague, home to wild opulence and astounding poverty, rattled by the Gunpowder Plot.

The KJV translation is less a product of divine revelation or inspiration than of royal ambition and scholarly collaboration and competition. The colorful cast of characters includes King James himself, who commissioned an official royal English Bible, and various famous courtiers, translators, and opponents: Lancelot Andrews, Richard Bancroft, Henry Savile, and many others, all self-interested, all flawed, and all brilliant. And this is my curious takeaway from the book, that the very thing I came to appreciate about the KJV is probably also what ultimately disqualifies it as a faithful and reliable transmission of scripture: the willfully grandiose and magisterial English prose created by its translators.

When we were kids (and I think most American Christians still assume this), we thought the King James sounded like that because it was very inspired and religious, and that heavenly language was bound to sound highfalutin’ to mortal ears. But of course, the words of the KJV were not dropped from the heavens, they were written and rewritten and debated and reworked and revised and compromised by a team of feisty and combative scholars.

I’ve often read American histories of the King James Bible that claim it is written in the vernacular of the common folk of 17th century England. However, Nicolson’s book makes it clear that the translators of KJV quite intentionally amplified and bedazzled their text to give it a unique air of majesty and import. No one ever really talked that way, it seems, but they aspired to. And the KJV was the perfect platform for that very English ambition. This is a work of literary art, a deliberate attempt to bring the full arsenal of Renaissance English to bear upon the old texts of the Bible.

This all helps me to appreciate the KJV in its native context as a work of intention and aspiration, but there should be no mistake regarding the real motivation behind the work. This was no mere attempt to precisely and faithfully transmit the spirit and letter of the ancient Hebrew and Greek scriptures, though the translators were certainly experts in those fields for their time. The KJV represents an explicit and overt attempt to marry the majesty of the British throne with the authority and power of the Bible. This meant not only amping up the language and weaving a work of grandeur and artistry, it also meant deliberately crafting a Bible which endorsed and upheld a specifically British church polity, purged of anything that might fuel papists on the one hand and anti-tyranny Calvinists on the other. This was the king’s Bible for the king’s reign, designed to buttress the authority of crown and church simultaneously.

It should not be scandalous to suggest that any translation of scripture is a subjective product of a time and place in human history. (The same is true, of course, of the original texts.) As for the KJV, it stands as an artifact of a strange and volatile moment in English-speaking history. As a translation it carries little authority for our time and place, and too often actually obscures the spirit of the original texts. But as a work of English literature, it may rival the works of Shakespeare as a high point in the history of the language. I am still baffled by those who claim the words of the KJV to be the specifically authentic and authoritative utterances of God for all time, but I have learned to enjoy and admire what is truly an invaluable work of religious art.


Three (Specific) Bible Words That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

Typically on these lists I’ve addressed concepts and categories instead of actual Hebrew and Greek words from the Bible. This blog is meant for public consumption, so I rarely delve into scholarly minutiae. But here are some specific words from well-known biblical texts that are begging to be revisited and reconsidered.

Luke 2:7: The Greek word kataluma doesn’t mean “inn”

We’ll start with this one since it’s not particularly controversial, though it has the potential to completely transform the way we read Luke’s nativity story. The familiar reading sees Mary and Joseph turned away by an innkeeper with no vacancies, forced to birth their baby in a filthy barn among the livestock. While this is a suitably ironic and dramatic setting for such an important event, it also strikes us as a tad melodramatic and harsh. Were first century Judeans really so cruel as to force a pregnant women to deliver in a pigsty?

The word kataluma doesn’t connote an inn or public place of lodging, instead it refers to the “upper room” within a family home where guests stay and share meals with their hosts. This is the same word which describes the room where Jesus and his followers celebrated the “Last Supper” (see Mark 14:14).

In this clarified reading of the story, Joseph returns to Bethlehem to find his family home full of visiting aunts, uncles, and cousins in town for the census and holiday. The kataluma is already at capacity. His family doesn’t toss Joseph and Mary out back in the barn to fend for themselves, rather they invite them into the main living quarters of the home, where the host family resides and where the spotless sacrificial animals are kept and cared for, and where stone hewn mangers are carved into the very structure of the house. The context and circumstance of Jesus’ birth were indeed humble, but he was actually born in a place of relative honor and comfort, according to Luke. It is not difficult to see the theological implications of what the gospel writer is doing here.

Isaiah 7:14: The Hebrew word almah doesn’t mean “virgin”

Now things get a little more dicey. Christian apologists will deny and fight this one until their last breath, but it’s pretty clear that the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14 does not refer to a virgin but simply a young woman of childbearing age. In the specific context of Isaiah, the prophet is clearly forecasting the natural birth of a child in his own immediate future. The point of the verse is not the mother or the birth but the child that will be born, and he will be a king who will defeat the Assyrians (7:20). That king was born, and his name was Hezekiah.

When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek by Jewish scholars in the third or second century B.C.E., almah was approximated with the Greek parthenos, which does not necessarily refer to a sexually pure virgin, but usually refers to a young, unmarried girl. By the first century C.E., the Jewish authors of the New Testament were using that Greek translation (called the Septuagint) as their primary scriptural source, and the writer of Matthew used Isaiah 7:14 as one of five Hebrew Bible “fulfillments” in the early life of Jesus. This point is this: Isaiah once said that a parthenos would give birth to a savior child, and it is happening again.

People often misunderstand what I’m arguing here. This discussion has nothing to do with whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin or whether the author of Matthew is “wrong.” The point is that Isaiah 7 was never about a miraculous virgin birth in its original setting. Matthew performs a hermeneutical maneuver (band name!) based on a reading of the Septuagint to compose Jesus’ origin story. I assume that this author understands perfectly well what is really going on in Isaiah, and exploits parthenos as a license to draw a connection between two stories about two kings.

(SIDE NOTE: You’ll notice that conservative and complementarian Bible translations like ESV make a point to always translate almah as virgin in the Old Testament, which sometimes results in creepy renderings of verses like Proverbs 30:19.)

Romans 3:25: The Greek word hilasterion doesn’t mean “propitiation”

“Propitiation” refers to the appeasing of an angry deity by means of sacrifice or ritual. Blood is spilled or life is taken, and the wrath of the god(s) is satisfied or abated. The King James Bible translated the Greek hilasterion as simply “propitiation,” which rendered Romans 3:25 as “Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” This verse, more than any other passage in the New Testament, became the “smoking gun” for the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, which understands Jesus’ death as a blood sacrifice which appeased the wrath of God, if only for those who will believe in it as such.

But the word hilasterion, admittedly difficult to define succinctly, has more to do with “expiation” than “propitiation.” Both concepts deal with the problem of humanity, sin, and God, but while propitiation refers to a godward flow of appeasement and sacrifice, expiation connotes an outpouring of forgiveness and pardon from God to humanity. It has to do with the removal of guilt and the application of mercy rather than the satisfaction of a divine bloodthirst. In the Greek text of the Torah, hilasterion is the name of the “mercy seat,” the footstool of God (and the “lid” of the ark of the covenant) from which God dispensed forgiveness and blessing.

Given all of this and the greater context of Romans 3, it seems that the cross (for Paul) is not the place where God’s wrath is poured out on the innocent Jesus, but rather the place where God’s mercy confronts and forgives human sin and evil. It is precisely by absorbing wrath, not dispensing it, that God’s mercy is made known through the cross.


Isaiah 14 and the Real “Lucifer”

It’s not unusual that people disagree about the interpretation of a Bible text. It is very strange, however, that a biblical inerrantist might argue for a meaning which contradicts what is on the page. Yet this happens with some frequency. Here is a case study from personal experience.

Classic Western Christianity reads Isaiah 14 as if it narrates the story of Satan (the angel “Lucifer”), his rebellion, and his fall from heaven. Verses 12-15 in particular might seem to tell the whole story, presented here in the King James Version for maximum impact: Continue reading