16 Sep 2021

It Doesn’t Mean What it Says: Why We Need Translations

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church History, Culture, Discipleship

A Classic Restoration Quote

The Bible translated,’ is our motto, not the Bible hid in the past, buried in the tomb of an obsolete, and forgotten language, but the Bible trembling all over with the spirit of life; the Bible full of eyes before and behind, like the living creatures in the Apocalypse. And as the ocean reflects the image of the sky with all its brilliant jewelry, so to a world shrouded in darkness, the lights of the spiritual firmament may be mirrored forth by true and faithful translations of the oracles of God.”

– James Challen, “Address of Elder James Challen,” The Bible Union Quarterly, No. 7 (February 1852), 318.

It Doesn’t Mean What it Says

I grew up on the KJV (when I read the Bible that is what it was). In 2011 a few of us read the 1611 KJV cover to cover in honor of the 400th anniversary. I was truly grateful when I came back to a modern version. I have made a list of words that did not mean what I thought they mean in the KJV. These are just a few examples that could be expanded into the hundreds. References are to the KJV below …

1) “Sometimes” – “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” (Eph 2:13)

This important verse is obscure on several levels in the KJV. We would think the word “sometimes” means something like “occasionally” or “every once in a while.” Which is completely wrong and not what “sometimes” meant in 1611. The word means formerly! You can see this in Eph 5:8; Col 1:21; Titus 3:3; etc

2) “chief estates” – “And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee” (Mk 6:21)

An average reader would be confused. When we read “chief estates” we might think this is piece of property, probably an expensive one at that. But the phrase means “important people” or “leading men/people” and has nothing to do with property.

3) “suffer” – “Suffer not the little children” and “But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up” (Mt 24:43)

I remember growing up totally confused about the suffering of children. And what pain was the house experiencing? But the word “suffer” has nothing to do with suffering! How confusing! It means “to allow” or “permit.” Permit the children and the owner would not permit his house be broken into. (other examples of this confusing KJVism is Lk 4:41; 22: 51; Ac 14:16; etc)

4) “Stomacher” – “And it came to pass, that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth and burning instead of beauty.” (Isa 3:24)

What in the world is a stomacher? Is Isaiah telling folks their gut smells horrible and need some deodorant? Well stomacher is nice clothing or fine clothing!

5) “Conversation” – “Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles” (1 Peter 2:17; etc)

This is another of those words that simply does not mean what we think it means. Conversation has nothing to do with talking. The word meant “example.” In our language today we might say “live a good life in front of nonbelievers.”

6) “Concourse” – “For we are in danger to be called in question for this days uproar, there being no cause whereby we may give an account of this concourse” (Acts 19:40)

I did not know they had airports in Paul’s day! Isn’t a concourse where planes park? Well no. What is of concern is the “commotion.”

7) “Leasing” – “O ye sons of men, how long will ye turn my glory into shame? how long will ye love vanity, and seek after leasing? Selah” (Ps 4:2; 5:6; etc)

Don’t sign a lease when you move into an apartment. Don’t seek a lease? Of course “leasing” has nothing at all to do with a modern lease. Leasing has do do with “false” or “lies.” Do not seek lies … in the context the lies are false gods or idols.

8 ) “Doctors” – “And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions.” (Lk 2:46)

Jesus is not in the middle of a conversation with medical personnel. He is not inquiring about medicine or anything related to health. In 1611 the word “doctor” had the meaning of “teacher.” Jesus is in a conversation with the “teachers” in the temple.

Most folks will not know shamefacedness is modesty (1 Tim 2:9) or that bruit is noise or commotion (Jer 10:22). Straitened is distressed or even restricted. Being mean does not make us bad/unkind, but ordinary and perhaps obscure. But if you are noisome then you are beyond bad but evil (Ps 91:3; Ezk 14:15, 21; etc).

We can have fun with my list all day long. There are many reasons to let the KJV retire. Beyond the places where it is simply wrong, where it is dependent upon faulty knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, where its underlying text is corrupted and so on. But a significant reason is that the KJV is an alien tongue (language) both in the structure of the language and its vocabulary.

Read the Bible. Read the Bible a lot. But there are many outstanding translations that are vastly superior to the KJV in all respects today. The NIV is probably the most like normal English and is outstanding for simply reading. The ESV is more formal and at times stilted but it is a good English translation. The NRSV is among the best translations.

I regularly read from about a dozen English translations for class and sermon preparation. I like the TEV/Good News Bible and CEB/Common English Bible. I encourage you to have multiple standard translations of the Bible. But my go to reading for my personal reading is the NRSV with Apocrypha and the NIV. But modern translations will always be welcome.

Related Articles

The Living Oracles. (Alexander Campbell’s effort to give a contemporary English New Testament)

Campbell & the King James Version (Campbell’s attitude toward the 1611 version)

Words Easy to Understand: The Restoration Movement and the King James Version (an in depth look at the quest for an accurate contemporary English Bible in the Stone-Campbell Movement from the 1820s to 1900)

2 Responses to “It Doesn’t Mean What it Says: Why We Need Translations”

  1. Robert Limb Says:

    When Shakespeare had Juliet say “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” he meant what he said (although it is up to the audience to understand : “Romeo Montague”). It is not the Bard’s fault if ignorant people today imagine her peering out into the darkness asking her lover to show himself.

    So, Bobby, although this is a good, useful article, I query your title. It does mean what it says : it’s just that modern readers (who regrettably may have come through high school without any Shakespeare) do not understand what it says.
    Might I suggest that, whilst the need for contemporary translations is patent, the fact that the 1611 version sometimes sounds odd to modern ears is a salutary reminder that the Bible is a very ancient text coming from another time and culture – and that just because we can look up the Greek or Hebrew words does not mean we can necessarily understand them as the contemporaries, did; any more than we can assume that English words from the 17th century were used in the same way as they are today.

  2. Merry Smith Says:

    Thank you for helping me understand.

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