The Unintentional Tyranny of the KJV

The other day we were having some back and forth on Facebook about Bible translation issues in response to an article I re-posted on my wall from about some of the agenda-driven translation choices in the NIV. One problem not mentioned in the article, though, “afflicts” nearly all translation teams and is, I suspect, mandated by Bible publishers. That problem, and it has enormous implications, is the perceived obligation to not stray too far from the King James Version, especially in the most familiar passages. This is not because the KJV is a particularly good translation. In many, many ways, it is not, and for a fuller understanding of why, I strongly recommend the book God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicolson. But for all its faults as a translation, the KJV has been, for generations, The Bible; for some denominations, it is still the only translation allowed.

As a pastor who usually preaches the lectionary texts, I quite frequently find it necessary or useful to single out a particular word or phrase in the text and talk about translation choices—choices which may have significant impact on the theology and application that arises from the passage. In this week’s gospel, there’s a wonderful case in point from Matthew 11:29-30.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” That’s the NRSV translation and it hews closely to the KJV though the language is updated. “Meek” becomes “gentle” and “ye” becomes “you,” and so on, but it still says what the KJV says.

Now, putting aside the fact that if you’re preaching or teaching this text you should probably spend a moment talking about what a yoke is unless you’re in a rural community where horses and mules are still used, the real translation issue here is that the Greek word zygon, which has been translated as “yoke” ever since it appeared that way in the KJV, has another meaning. It can also mean a balancing scale, the kind used in the marketplace to weigh something.

So here’s an alternate translation from the Greek. “Come alongside me all who are weary and burdened. Take up and use my scale and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my scale is kind and my burden is insignificant.”

Translating it this way makes the passage less about “pulling our weight” one way or another or letting Jesus help us bear the great load of life that weighs on us all, and more about the freedom and peace we find when we set aside our need to be constantly judging and evaluating both others and ourselves. It can also be heard as an invitation to lay down the burden of the criticisms and judgments others have leveled at us and, instead, let Jesus do the evaluating. This fits, too, with the earlier part of the text where Jesus takes the crowd to task for their cynical and critical attitude and their failure to simply accept him for who he is, as he is.

So you can see how the choice of how to translate even one word may make a difference in how a passage is understood and interpreted. The theology that arises from thinking we are called to put ourselves in Jesus’ harness and pull whatever load he would have us bear is not bad theology, but it’s quite different from the theology of finding rest for your soul by putting down the burden of criticism and judgmental thinking.

Another example of a passage where a significant difference in theological understanding depends on translation choices is one that Biblical literalists like to quote a lot: 2 Timothy 3:16-17. The NRSV renders it this way: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Once again, this echoes the KJV: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for…”

From a translating standpoint, there are two primary problems with this passage. The first is the choice to translate pasa graphei as “All Scripture.” In particular, the choice to translate graphei as “Scripture” (with a capital S) is a choice that was driven by a pre-decided theology. The word graphei, in its most common use, simply means “writings.” “Scripture” is a very weighted word; it implies that the writings in question are in some way holy or sacred. To the translating team addressing this passage in the early 17th century, this seemed entirely appropriate. In their minds there was no question that the work they were translating was, in fact, Holy Scripture, so it is natural that they would assume the original writer intended something similar, especially since in verse 15 he had reminded the recipient, Timothy, “from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” But even referring to “sacred writings” in one verse doesn’t necessarily justify the leap to “All Scripture” in the next.

What we don’t have here is any concrete idea of what, exactly, the writer regarded as “sacred writings,” though we can make some good guesses. We do know that the early church made significant use of many books of the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible), particularly Genesis and Psalms. We know that the prophetic books, particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah were often used and quoted. One thing we have to bear in mind, however, is that when this letter to Timothy was written, nobody had decided which books could officially be regarded as “Scripture.” It would more than 250 years before serious discussions of the canon of scripture began in earnest. The Church, itself, would not be well-enough organized to find substantial commonality of doctrine for such discussions to be productive until after the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. And while the Rabbis who began meeting and teaching at Jamnia some time around 90 CE did have long and interesting discussions about which books “defiled the hands,” their way of saying they were to be considered holy, they came to no conclusions about an official canonical list for the Jewish Bible, although they universally agreed that Torah was to be considered supreme among all writings.

So back to the translation issue at hand: “All Scripture is inspired by God.” Bearing in mind that nobody had yet decided what was and what was not Scripture when this was written, is there another way to translate it? Let’s look at a literal word-for-word translation of the original Greek. Where there is more than one translation choice for a word, a second option is offered in parentheses. “All writings God-breathed and beneficial for teaching, for refuting error, for correction (or restoration), for instruction (or discipline) in righteousness…” Did you notice that “is” isn’t there? That’s the second important translation issue with this passage, and where you decided to put that little word “is,” which isn’t in the original but has to be inserted somewhere to make a sentence that makes sense in English, can make a pretty significant difference in how the verse is read and understood.

Here’s how the great Greek scholar Richmond Lattimore translated this passage: “Every writing that is divinely inspired is also useful for teaching, for argument, for correction, for education in righteousness…” Every writing that is divinely inspired. Every God-breathed writing. That’s a long way from “All Scripture is divinely inspired.” One translation presumes that the reader and the community of faith will discern which writings are and which are not “God-breathed.” The other implies that the canon of Scripture is clearly defined, known to all and, since it is God-breathed, not to trifled with.

Interestingly, that canon, itself was redefined in 1647 at the Westminster Convention of Reformed Churches, nearly 4 decades after the King James Translation was completed and published. They eliminated the books commonly known as The Apocrypha, reducing the total number of books to 66. They did this, of course, without the consent or participation of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches or even, for that matter, the Lutherans. So, apparently, “All Scripture” can be redefined if a large enough group of the same theological persuasion agrees to do so.

It’s interesting to me that the theological descendants of those who prefer that King James or King James-ish translation, the theological descendants of the ones who were quick to discard a whole collection of books that didn’t fit their particular qualifications, are the ones who tend to be more often literalist in their reading of the Scriptures and lean more toward Fundamentalism in their theology. It makes sense, of course, if you believe that the question of divine inspiration is settled and put to bed. But if you translate that same passage another way, if you read it to mean that one of our jobs as people of faith is to discern if, when and how a writing is inspired, it leads to an entirely different understanding of how we encounter, understand and apply the Word of God in our communities and our lives.

Since its publication in 1611, the Authorized Version Commissioned by His Majesty King James has imposed a quiet and subtle tyranny over all subsequent translations. In doing so, it has also powerfully shaped the theologies of English language readers, Americans in particular. I think it could be argued that not all of that theological shaping has been for the best.

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