The KJV is not written in modern colloquialism. However, it is wrong to dismiss the peculiar language of the KJV as mere outdated language. Much of the KJV’s peculiar style is due to the KJV’s faithful translation of the underlying Hebrew and Greek texts. In the national bestseller, God’s Secretaries, Adam Nicolson observes, “These scholars [working on the KJV] were not pulling the language of the scriptures into the English they knew and used at home. The words of the King James Version are just as much English pushed towards the conditions of a foreign language as a foreign language translated into English” (211). Pushing English towards Hebrew and Greek serves to convey the meaning and style of the original scriptures more accurately. This article describes how this is so.
Things that are not mere archaisms
Perhaps the first thing that many people identify as an archaism in the KJV is the use of “thee’s” and “thou’s.” The KJV uses these pronouns in order to distinguish between the second-person singular (thou, thee, thy, thine) and the second-person plural (ye, you, your, yours). The Greek and Hebrew make this distinction.
This distinction is crucial for a close reading of the Bible. See Galatians 6:1 for example: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” By paying close attention to the pronouns, we see that the restoration of a faulted individual is the responsibility of not just one person but of many (“ye” which are spiritual) but each individual must examine his own integrity (considering “thyself”). We cannot extract these helpful teachings on communal responsibility and individual responsibility from this passage unless the distinctions in pronouns are translated. Other passages where the distinction in a pronoun’s person is important are Exodus 4:15, Exodus 29:42, 2 Samuel 7:23, Matthew 26:64, Luke 22:31-32, John 3:7, 1 Corinthians 8:9-12, 2 Timothy 4:22, Titus 3:15, Philemon 21-25, to name a few.
Many modern languages such as French, German, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese retain this distinction between singular and plural second person pronouns. Moreover, although “thou” and “ye” may be archaic, they are not unfamiliar. We do not use these pronouns in colloquial speech, but we still use them when we sing hymns (even contemporary praise songs) to God and to the congregation. We sing “Be thou my vision” in the song titled thus, and “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” in the song, “Days of Elijah.” At every hockey game Canadians sing their national anthem, “O Canada,” which mentions “thy” once and “thee” four times in one stanza. The song became the official Canadian national anthem as recently as in July 1, 1980 and remains a national favorite. Canadian children do not have any problem understanding the meaning of “thy” and “thee.” Although “thou” and “ye” may not be parts of colloquial speech, they are certainly not obsolete if we still use them in songs, prose, or the Bible when there are good grammatical, metrical, or stylistic reasons to use them.
The KJV does not have quotation marks (” “). This is often considered another archaic feature of the KJV. There are, however, good reasons not to have quotation marks. The original Hebrew and Greek texts do not have them. The following page explains why it is helpful not to have quotation marks in the Bible: Quotation Marks.
Imperative statements are commands. For example, “Praise the LORD” is an imperative statement. In modern imperative statements the subject is often not stated. One could say, “You, praise the LORD,” but it is customary to omit the subject. If the KJV were to state the above, it might say, “Praise thou the LORD” or “Praise ye the LORD.” Such constructions may seem peculiar to the modern reader. Most modern grammar books might say that it is unnecessary to indicate the subject in imperative statements because the subject is always “you.” However, this rule is not wholly accurate. There are two kinds of “you” – the singular “you,” which is “thou,” and the plural “you,” which is “ye.” This distinction can be important. For example, Psalm 104:35 says, “Bless thou the LORD, O my soul. Praise ye the LORD.” In this statement, the speaker says to his own self (his soul), “Bless thou the LORD.” Using “thou,” his imperative statement to “bless” is addressed only to his own soul. However, the speaker follows up with “Praise ye the LORD,” which is an imperative statement addressed to others. In this passage, the speaker begins commanding himself first, but he concludes by commanding others. We do not get this fact when the imperative statements do not indicate the person. For example, “Bless the LORD, O my soul! Praise the LORD!” in the ESV reads as if the speaker is telling his soul once again to praise the LORD. In the ESV the speaker seems to conclude the psalm with the focus on himself whereas in the KJV the speaker clearly concludes the psalm with the focus on others. Thus the use of personal pronouns in imperative statements serves a grammatical and semantic purpose.
The vocative case is used when directly addressing a person with a noun identifying the person instead of with the second person pronoun “you.” An example is in Matthew 6:9 which says, “Our Father, which art in heaven.” Today we are less inclined to say “Our Father, who ARE in heaven.” It seems more natural to say “Our Father, who IS in heaven.” The peculiarity of the KJV is based on the faithful translation of the vocative case. This is not an archaism but a faithful translation of the Greek which has the vocative case.
The KJV preserves lexicographical and syntactical Hebraisms (William Rosenau, Hebraisms in the Authorized Version of the Bible, Lord Baltimore Press (1902)). Many readers mistake these Hebraisms for archaisms. Most contemporary translations, in an attempt to make the Bible sound more familiar to readers, dilute the Hebrew style of the Bible. Much of the peculiar language of the KJV is due to its faithful mimicry of the Hebrew language. Expressions such as the Hebraic anticipatorial accusative (“God saw the light, that it was good” Genesis 1:4) and Hebraic double prepositions (“Abram went up out of Egypt” Genesis 13:1) are examples of Hebraisms. Acclaimed Greek teacher John H. Dobson, author of Learn New Testament Greek, 3rd ed, Baker Academic (2005), invites his students to pay close attention to the Hebraic influence in the Greek New Testament. Due to his apparent preference for dynamic translations, he does not seem to prefer the KJV. However, he acknowledges that the KJV “follows Hebrew style more closely than a modern translator would normally do” (305).
In the New Testament, the KJV often follows the Greek word order more closely than most translations. These can also be confused with archaisms. For example, Matthew 17:19 says, “Then came the disciples to Jesus.” This syntax, which has the verb preceding the subject, may seem peculiar to contemporary English-speaking audiences; but the word order in the KJV follows the Greek word order (“τοτε προσελθοντες οι μαθηται τω ιησου”). Mimicking the exact style and structure of the Greek can sometimes preserve what is emphasized in the Greek. Another feature common in the KJV is the historical present tense. The KJV often uses the present tense to describe past action: e.g. “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John” (Matthew 3:13). This is because the KJV faithfully translates the Greek which is also in the present tense. Greek writers used the historical present tense to add emphasis to important past actions. The historical present tense has the effect of making past narratives more vivid. Modern translations unfortunately blur this effect by translating the historical present tense in the simple past tense.
Sometimes an archaic word in the KJV is more accurate in translating the Hebrew or Greek than a modern equivalent found in modern translations. For example, “bewray” at Matthew 26:73 seems archaic. The verse reads, “And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee.” The modern ESV says, “After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.””. “Bewray” is not merely the modern equivalent of “betray”. “Bewray” is a more nuanced word which has the connotation of “divulge” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). So “bewray” in its full implication means “to betray by revealing”. What happened in Matthew 26:73 was that Peter’s Galilean speech “revealed” his association with Jesus which in effect “betrayed” (implicated) him. The Greek word at Matthew 26:73 is δηλον which is translated as “evident” in Galatians 3:11 in both the KJV and ESV. Clearly the word has the connotation of revealing something, not just betraying. When faced with an “old” word in the KJV, it is fruitful to confirm whether the old word is more accurate before brushing it off as a mere archaism.
The Bible is God’s “testament” or “covenant” to humanity. As such, the Bible is a legal document. Not to mention that some books of the Bible are literally legal documents. The phrase “legal document” might not connote the same warm and fuzzy feeling as would the phrase “love letter” (as some might describe the Bible) but the truth is that the more intimate we are with someone, the more we enter into meaningful legal agreements with that person. A marriage is a legal covenant. Family inheritances are conferred through wills and trusts. Any flirt can write a “love letter,” but only a true lover will issue a legally binding marriage certificate or a will to bestow one’s assets. The Bible is not just a “love letter” – it is God’s covenant signed by the blood of his Son. Thus the Bible employs many legal words that we may not use on a daily basis: thereof, thereby, therein, hereby, herein, whereof, whereby, wherein, wherefore. These words are accurate legal terms which incidentally remind us that the Bible is indeed a collection of two “Testaments.” These words are not archaisms because they are still used in legal writing.
Some words and idioms may seem archaic to a North American, but they may be very familiar to the British or citizens of other commonwealth nations. There are millions of readers outside of North America who understand these British words and idioms. For example, the words “plaiting” (1 Peter 3:3) may be unfamiliar to North Americans, but is familiar to the British. Moreover, some British words may become familiar to North Americans through popular novels or movies from Britain. For example, “schoolmaster” (Galatians 3:24-25) is more commonly used in Britain than in North America. However, with the success of the Harry Potter novels (albeit their controversy among Christians), the word “schoolmaster” has become familiar to North American children. As advocates of modern translations say, language is always in flux. If that were true, however, a word that becomes “obsolete” might become standard again with its use in just one popular novel or movie. We must be careful so that we do not deem a word as being obsolete too readily.
The KJV uses “which” to refer to people. This is considered problematic by some critics. However, there is good reason to use “which” instead of “who” where the context is unclear as to whether a thing or a person is being referred to. For example, 1 Peter 1:23 says, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” The clause, “which liveth and abideth for ever” could refer either to “the word” or to “God.” The clause could be saying either that the word of God lives and abides for ever or that God lives and abides for ever. The ambiguity is present in the Greek and so the KJV makes that apparent.
Some words that are deemed archaic are actually still used frequently by some segment of the population as terms of art. For example, “let” (Romans 1:13) is considered to be a prime example of an archaic word in the KJV (“let” in this usage means “hindered”). However, the term “without let or hindrance” is used in the passport notes of Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Israel. Thus people who work with immigration, such as border guards, lawyers, policy makers, and many educated people are familiar with the term “without let or hindrance.” This makes “let” a jargon rather than an archaism. Also, anybody who plays or watches tennis will know that a “let” is called when a stroke does not count and hinders the gameplay. Thus a word such as “let” may be infrequently used today, but it is not entirely obsolete.
Some constructions that may seem archaic are actually constructed as such for poetic effect. The phrase “…all the places where David himself and his men were wont to haunt” (1 Samuel 30:31) is not common speech, but the rhyming phrase “wont to haunt” is more poetic than “accustomed to go” (NASB). Also the phrase “despise dominion” in Jude 1:8 does not consist of the most “up-to-date” vocabulary. The ESV says “reject authority”. However, “despite dominion” is an alliteration. In fact, the entire line “…these filthy dreamers defile the flesh, despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities” is a five-fold alliteration of the letter D. This is KJV poetry at its finest. The letter D is a plosive, a consonant produced in the mouth by a strong sudden stoppage of airflow. It is the most fitting consonant in a verse such as Jude 1:8 where the speaker is shooting out words of condemnation like bullets from a machine gun. While a Bible does not have to have rhymes and alliterations to convey the message of God, poetry helps memorization.
The KJV has some archaic spellings and forms of words such as “spake” and “shew.” These can certainly be updated without changing the meaning of the text. They serve no special grammatical or semantic purpose. However, their meanings are not difficult to ascertain from the context and from their close resemblance with their modern equivalents.
Some words have an archaic flavour, but are nonetheless familiar. These typically do not cause any comprehension problem for a reader. For example, “thou” might seem archaic, but its meaning is known to the typical reader. After reading the KJV habitually these archaic words begin to sound as natural as any other modern word. Words such as “thou” (singular 2nd person pronoun) and “ye” (plural 2nd person pronoun) are certainly more familiar to an English speaker than the Hebrew and Greek equivalents. By reading the KJV instead of a modern translation, a Christian can benefit from the grammatical distinction between the singular and plural second-person pronouns without learning Hebrew or Greek.
Many archaic words in the KJV can be discerned by the context. Judges 3:21-22 says, “And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly: And the haft also went in after the blade; and the fat closed upon the blade, so that he could not draw the dagger out of his belly;” “Haft” is archaic, but there is no problem figuring out that it is a part of the dagger that is opposite to the blade. These archaic words cause no problem in comprehension; moreover, they may appear often in passages that do not have much theological significance.
That leaves us with unfamiliar archaic words that cannot be discerned by the context. Such words could cause problems with comprehension. However, such words do not appear in the KJV as often as one might expect. For example, in the Gospel of John the only unfamiliarly obsolete words are “listeth” (John 3:8) and “wist” (John 5:13). “To list” (related to “lust”) means “to desire,” and “to wist” (related to “wise”) means “to know.” There are some books with more archaic words than just two, but many of these words can be understood by the context.
However, even an unfamiliar archaic word can become familiar again. For example, before the outbreak of the swine flu (H1N1) many children in North America may not have known the meaning of “swine.” Thus the NIV and ESV use “pigs” instead of “swine.” Now, however, with the amount of hype around the swine flu, there is no child who is unaware of the word and its meaning. Thus even unfamiliar archaic words that cannot be discerned by the context may be better off being learned rather than replaced.