Tag Archives: translation

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.


Break Your Bible: Jeremiah 7 and What God Never Said

The first post in this series was met with almost deafening silence, but I’m forging ahead with this second one. I know I am pushing fairly hard against the grain of how most Christians have been taught to read their Bibles, but I don’t do so lightly or flippantly. On the one hand, there are surely more pressing issues facing us today than how we interpret the Bible. On the other hand, the way Christians respond to pressing issues is deeply affected by our traditional interpretations of scripture. This type of exercise might be the first step to laying a new and healthier foundation for Christian thinking and living.

Whereas the previous post explored the way we interact with the many streams of thought and belief represented in the Bible, today’s post concerns how the Bible interacts with itself. If Numbers 25 raised questions about how we identify and assess divergent voices in the Bible, our passage today unsettles our simplistic notions of biblical authority and uniformity. Jeremiah 7 is not only a major prophetic watershed in the Hebrew Bible, it is a text frequently quoted and alluded to by Jesus (it contains the bit about the Temple becoming “a robber’s den” and Jeremiah’s descriptive history of Gehenna). But before we can confront the surprising implications of the prophet’s words in verses 21-23, we have to take a moment to clarify what they actually say.

When Translators Attack!

Here is the text of Jeremiah 7:21-23 according to the 1985 update of the JPS Tanakh translation of the Hebrew Bible:

21 Thus said the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat!
22 For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice.
23 But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you.

But those of us who grew up in the evangelical tradition were taught to stick with our familiar and safe NIV translation, which renders the same passage like this:

21 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves!
22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices,
23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.
[Emphasis added.]

The comparison of these two translations of the same Hebrew text highlights just how many choices a team of translators has to consider when producing an English version of the Bible. No two translators will ever make the same choices, and no single translation will ever capture the complete essence of what was originally written. But in addition to the stylistic variations between these two texts, there is one word in the NIV on which our entire discussion will hinge. Did you catch it? Right there in the middle of verse 22, it’s the word “just.” Four letters, one syllable, which completely changes the meaning of the passage.

What Did God Really (Not) Say?

In the JPS translation (based on the Masoretic Hebrew manuscript tradition) God via the prophet says, “Go ahead and eat up your own meat offerings, because I never said anything to your ancestors about burnt sacrifices. I just told them to obey me and walk with me!” But the NIV version tells a different story. Here God says, “Keep those sacrifices coming! But remember that I didn’t only give you commands about burnt sacrifices, I also told you to obey me and walk with me!” This is no minor discrepancy. In the JPS, God is utterly disinterested in burnt sacrifice, in fact He denies ever having asked for it in the first place. In the NIV, God demands uninterrupted burnt sacrifice.

Why would the NIV translators take it upon themselves to alter a text in this manner? How could the Bible of choice for fiercely conservative and “biblicist” readers justify changing an original author’s clear intent? What do they gain by tweaking the “word of God”? (I note here that even the ESV and King James Version render this passage according to the manuscript witness.)

I can think of at least two motivations for the NIV’s decision to alter Jeremiah 7:22. First, and most ironically, it preserves the appearance of consistency and inerrancy. You can’t have one part of the Bible saying that God never said or endorsed another part of the Bible. But more specifically, this verse threatens a precious evangelical theological assumption, namely that God demands blood payment for sin. This is a non-negotiable premise for certain configurations of atonement theory, for example. All translation is interpretation, and the NIV translators knew the interpretive expectations of their audience.

For more on questionable translation choices in the NIV, see this link: https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/articles-and-resources/deliberate-mistranslation-in-the-new-international-version-niv/

The Uncomfortable Implications of Jeremiah 7

Is Jeremiah claiming that the animal sacrifice laws in the Torah are illegitimate, a product of men and not God? What happens when a prophet seems to be saying that another part of the Bible doesn’t fully represent God’s word? I don’t offer any decisive answers to these questions, I just think it’s of paramount importance that we allow them to be asked. This is not about the reliability of the Bible, it’s about recognizing that a conversation is going on among the diverse texts of our tradition. I know inerrantists fear that questions like these will lead to doubt and undermine faith, but I don’t see how ignoring or neutering them is a healthier alternative to working them out in candor and hope.

It’s helpful, perhaps, to consider that Jewish interpreters have not found it necessary to edit or redact Jeremiah 7, and yet if the Temple were still standing they would surely resume making burnt sacrifices. Jews are (historically) more adept than Christians at allowing the Bible to speak, even in tension with itself, and yet living and flourishing within that tension.

The Beautiful Implications of Jeremiah 7

For my part I appreciate Jeremiah 7, both for the way it forces us to consider some heavy questions about how we read the Bible and for what it seems to be saying about God. This may be a disorienting text, but it’s certainly not the only voice in scripture suggesting that God is more concerned with integrity and mercy than He is with sacrifice. In fact, it’s a prophetic theme picked up by Jesus himself. How might such a clarification about God’s character alter or inform our understanding of Jesus, his death, or of our own relationship to God and other humans?

Jeremiah 7 is not a happy text. It’s a warning of calamity and coming judgment. But judgment comes not in the form of fire from heaven, it comes as a military enemy. The reason you face war and exile, says Jeremiah on behalf of YHWH, is not that your blood sacrifices were insufficient or insincere. Your problem is that you have not obeyed my commandments to honor your neighbor and care for the outcast. The God of Jeremiah is not impressed with religion and ritual, He is not thirsty for the blood of sinners or their animal substitutes. He longs to walk with humans in the way of selfless love.

The words of prophets are intended to ignite their hearers’ imaginations with possibility and hope. How can they do this if they cannot surprise us, if we refuse to let them diverge from a predetermined theological script?


Word-for-Word Translation!

Everyone knows that the worst thing we can do to ancient texts like those found in the bible is to interpret and contextualize them. The best translation is a literal, word-for-word translation that doesn’t poison the original words with any of our high falutin’ modern ideas. In that spirit, I have undertaken my own translation of the Hebrew Bible that matches the text exactly word-for-word and avoids modern contraptions like punctuation, chapter & verse divisions, essence and meaning. I hope you and your family are #blessed by my work. Enjoy!

in-begin created elohim the-skies and-the-earth and-the-earth was formless void and-dark upon-the-face of the-deep and-the-breath elohim blowing on-the-face the-water and-said elohim be light and-be light and-saw elohim the-light that-good and-separated elohim between the-light and-between the-dark and-called elohim to-the-light day and-to-the-dark called night and-be evening and-be morning day one and-said elohim be dome in-midst the-water and-be separated between water to-water and-made elohim the-dome and-separated between the-water which from-below to-the-dome and-between the-water from-upon to-the-dome and-be there and-called elohim to-the-dome heaven and-be evening and-be morning day two

This is just a taste. My complete translation will soon be available in a handsome hardbound volume with personalized leather slipcase for an outrageous premium price.