Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Allowing the Intent of the Translators to Be Heard Today

This is actually an essay I wrote several years ago and had on my website. From some conversations at Greg's blog, I thought I would post that essay here in its entirety. I don't really want to get into debates about the newer translations, but I hope this makes some people think who may come from the King James-only camp.

Imagine, if you will, two translators of the Bible into English. The first one had his body exumed and burned over 40 years after his death. The other was imprisoned, put on trial for heresy, and was strangled to death - followed by a burning of his body. Although this may sound like the type of persecution we imagine that translators faced after 1611, these were actually the first two men to publish English Bibles - John Wycliffe and William Tyndale. Their persecution then was due to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church believed that the people should have to listen to their Mass in Latin and that the Latin Vulgate was the only authoritative version of the scriptures. It was a Pope who had John Wycliffe's body exhumed and burned.

Even today, in America especially, the same passion that the Catholics held for the Latin Vulgate is rampant among those who believe the King James Version of the Bible is the one true translation of the word of God - bar none. This essay is not meant to be technical in nature for there are possibly thousands of documents and websites dedicated to either proving that the KJV is the inspired Word of God or that it has been antiquated. Instead the author will rely on the actual preface to the 1611 Authorized Version, which is a note from the translators to the reader, for the majority of the essay. (This may be viewed alongside the present article by clicking here.) The purpose of this essay is to simply demonstrate that the original intent of the translators of the 1611 Authorized Version was to simply make God's Word available to the English-speaking world. The translators would be appalled today at how their work had come to the point of idolatry.

Looking at the 1611 Preface, the translators began by stating "revising that which hath been laboured by others, deserves certainly much respect and esteem, but yet finds but cold entertainment in the world. It is welcomed with suspicion instead of love, and with emulation instead of thanks: and if there be any hole left for cavil to enter, (and cavil, if it do not find a hole, will make one) it is sure to be misconstrued, and in danger to be condemned." It is clear that the translators knew right off that their revision of previous works (as demonstrated below) would be looked upon dimly. The second heading of the preface is in regards to King James' "constancy", or steadfastness, in regards to making a revision of the previous English Bibles. "His Majesty that now reigns...knew full well, according to the singular wisdom given to him by God, and the rare learning and experience that he hath attained to; namely that whosoever attempts anything for the public (especially if it pertain to Religion, and to the opening and clearing of the word of God) the same sets himself upon a stage to be gloated upon by every evil eye, yea, he casts himself headlong upon pikes, to be gored by every sharp tongue." Not only were the translators aware of possible condemnation for their endeavor, but King James was also fully aware of this fact.

In the next section, the translators offer their praise for the Scriptures in general. Quotations from church fathers such as Augustine, Jerome, Cyril, and Tertullian are offered to the reader which extol the Bible. The translators liken the Scriptures to a "whole paradise of trees of life, which bring forth fruit every month, and the fruit thereof is for meat, and the leaves for medicine."

The following section is offers the reasons for which translation is necessary. They begin with the question "how shall men meditate in that, which they cannot understand?" They close the section by stating "Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which is deep) (#Joh 4:11) without a bucket or something to draw with..."

Next we come to a brief survey of some of the earliest translations of Scripture - beginning with the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament). They begin by stating that "While God would be known only in Jacob, and have his Name great in Israel, and in none other place...then for one and the same people, which spake all of them the language of Canaan, that is, Hebrew, one and the same original in Hebrew was sufficient." In other words, since the Jews were God's only people their Bible in a single language was sufficient. The 17th-Century Roman Catholics believed that Scripture should only be in Latin (they used the Latin Vulgate). The 1611 Authorized Version translators countered this by demonstrating that when Christ came the barrier of Jew and Gentile was broken and there was a need for Scripture in the Greek language. We read that "this is the translation of the Seventy Interpreters, commonly so called, which prepared the way for our Saviour among the Gentiles by written preaching.... It is certain, that that Translation was not so sound and so perfect, but it needed in many places correction." They also provide the example that many of the early fathers used the Septuagint for their commentaries. Following the brief survey of the Septuagint, the translators speak of the early translations into Latin. They state that most of the Old Testament translations were "muddy" because they were made from the Greek and not the Hebrew. The translators are indebted to Jerome for undertaking the translation of the Old Testament "out of the very fountain", or from the Hebrew.

Next, we come to the translators' section regarding "The Translation of the Scriptures into the Vulgar tongues." In this section the translators go briefly through many previous translations into various other "vulgar tongues" - or the common languages of a particular nation. Following this is a brief section on the general "unwillingness" of the Roman Church to allow the Scriptures to be translated into Vulgar Tongues. The Roman Church could claim that they did allow this, but there had to be a request for a license to do this. The translators are basically stating that the Roman Church did not want the Scriptures to be translated because "So much are they afraid of the light of the Scripture, ("Lucifugae Scripturarum", as Tertulian speaks) that they will not trust the people with unwilling they are to communicate the Scriptures to the people’s understanding in any sort, that they are not ashamed to confess, that we forced them to translate it into English against their wills. This seems to argue a bad cause, or a bad conscience, or both."

We now come to a section dedicated to what others (both friends and foes) had to say about this translation. The first question raised was whether the Church has been deceived this whole time. Their response to this question is a quote from Jerome - "Do we condemn the ancient? In no case: but after the endeavours of them that were before us, we take the best pains we can in the house of God." Then we come to some almost cynical questions - "Was their Translation good before? Why do they now mend it? Was it not good? Why then was it obtruded to the people?"

In the following section the translators offer "satisfaction to our brethren". The very first sentence sees the translators stating that they "are so far off from condemning any of their labours that travailed before us in this kind...that we acknowledge them to have been raised up of God, for the building and furnishing of his Church, and that they deserve to be had of us and of posterity in everlasting remembrance." This should be an example of all believers - to acknowledge that previous translations, insomuch as the translator did not set out with an ungodly agenda, should be respected for how God used it to "build" and "furnish...his Church." An analogy is drawn that we may have a wonderful composer but his work would not be so revered if it were not for his instructor or predecessor. They next ask what could be better "than to deliver God’s book to God’s people in a tongue which they understand?" They express the Godly hope that no-one would dislike them for trying to improve upon something that was already good. We go on to read "that whatsoever is sound already...the same will shine as gold more brightly, being rubbed and polished." Throughout this preface we have seen that the translators never once thought that God was using them to do anything but improve upon earlier works. A key phrase from this section is that they hoped to not be disliked but thanked for trying to improve upon the previous translations.

I believe that the next section of the preface begins with a statement that should make all Christians who believe that the King James Version is the only true word of God reconsider their belief. It is perhaps the most concise statement answering the objections current translators receive from King James Version advocates. "Now to the latter we answer; that we do not deny, nay we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession, (for we have seen none of theirs of the whole Bible as yet) contains the word of God, nay, is the word of God." The translators would "affirm and avow" that even the "meanest translation" not only "contains the word of God" but "IS the word of God." (To avow means to "declare assuredly, openly, bluntly, and without shame" and "meanest" is "of poor shabby inferior quality or status or worthy of little regard." - Webster) Here the translators are unashamedly stating that even the worst translations in English are the word of God. Their intent is a far cry from what we hear today.

In the same section we have the allusion to the Romanists burning translations. They also reference the Seputagint once again. They state that even though it "dissents from the Original in many places, neither doth it come near it, for perspicuity, gravity, majesty; yet which of the Apostles did condemn it? Condemn it? Nay, they used it." The translators again prove their point that poor translations are used by God. This is done by their stating that even though the Septuagint is a flawed translation the Apostles actually used it. A final paragraph of this section is an attempt by the translators to give a reason for their "altering and amending our Translations so oft." They state that one should go back over his work and "amend it where he saw cause."

We next come to a section about their purpose and the manner in which they translated. If one still wonders what their intent was they make it perfectly clear here. "Truly (good Christian Reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one...but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath been our endeavour, that our mark." Their "endeavour" was to improve upon previous translations. Many humble men were chosen to perform this task. They quote Jerome and Augustine for their next point. They are stating that they used the Hebrew Old Testament and Green New Testament for their present work. They claim that they were not rushed to complete it, as the Seventy reportedly completed the Septuagint in 72 days; nor were they kept from reviewing and revising their work.

The next section offers their reasons for marginal notes. These notes may be due to a word being seldom used or because of "many rare names of certain birds, beasts and precious stones." They state that wise people should rather offer different readings instead of tying the reader to one. Next they state why they did not stick with particular phrasing. They were apparently accused of deliberately changing wordings, but they felt that they should try to keep some uniformity. They ask "is the kingdom of God to become words or syllables? why should we be in bondage to them if we may be free, use one precisely when we may use another no less fit, as commodiously?" They conclude stating that "desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar."

I will leave you with their complete conclusion. My simple prayer is twofold. If you believe that modern translations are Godly I would pray that you take care in your dealings with those who do not. Your love for one another is what demonstrates your faith. If you believe that anything other than the King James Version is not God's word, then I pray that you would truly take to heart what the intent of the translators was when revising the previous Bibles into what we have as the 1611 KJV. Keep in mind that their intent not only allowed for revisions of their 1611 text that you currently read but it also allowed for newer translations to improve upon their work. If you cannot believe this now, then you are truly not with the spirit of those who translated your Bible.

"Many other things we might give thee warning of (gentle Reader) if we had not exceeded the measure of a Preface already. It remains, that we commend thee to God, and to the Spirit of his grace, which is able to build further than we can ask or think. He removes the scales from our eyes, the vail from our hearts, opening our wits that we may understand his word, enlarging our hearts, yea correcting our affections, that we may love it to the end. Ye are brought to fountains of living water which ye digged not; do not cast earth into them with the Philistines, neither prefer broken pits before them with the wicked Jews. (#Ge 26:15 Jer 2:13) Others have laboured, and you may enter into their labours; O receive not so great things in vain, O despise not so great salvation! Be not like swine to tread under foot so precious things, neither yet like dogs to tear and abuse holy things. Say not to our Saviour with the Gergesites, "Depart out of our coast" (#Mt 8:34); neither yet with Esau sell your birthright for a mess of pottage (#Heb 12:16). If light be come into the world, love not darkness more than light; if food, if clothing be offered, go not naked, starve not yourselves. Remember the advice of Nazianzene, "It is a grievous thing" (or dangerous) "to neglect a great fair, and to seek to make markets afterwards:" also the encouragement of S. Chrysostom, "It is altogether impossible, that he that is sober" (and watchful) "should at any time be neglected:" (S. Chrysost. in epist. ad Rom. cap. 14. oral. 26.) Lastly, the admonition and menacing of S. Augustine, "They that despise God’s will inviting them, shall feel God’s will taking vengeance of them." (S. August. ad artic. sibi falso object. Artic. 16.) It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God; (#heb 10:31) but a blessed thing it is, and will bring us to everlasting blessedness in the end, when God speaks to us, to hearken; when he sets his word before us, to read it; when he stretches out his hand and calls, to answer, "here am I, here we are to do thy will, O God." The Lord work a care and conscience in us to know him and serve him, that we may be acknowledged of him at the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with the Holy Ghost, be all praise and thanksgiving. Amen."


David Sanford said...

Two big surprises tied into the 400th anniversary of the 1611 King James Version Bible:

1. Two scholars and an international team of researchers have compiled the first worldwide census of extant copies of the original first printing of the 1611 King James Version (sometimes referred to as the "He" Bible). For decades, authorities from the British Museum, et al., have estimated that “around 50 copies” of that first printing still exist. The real number is quite different.

2. As well, one of the two scholars has discovered the exact price at which the first KJV Bibles were sold back in 1611. That price has eluded experts for generations. The finding was quite a surprise.

For more information, you're invited to contact Donald L. Brake, Sr., PhD, at or his associate David Sanford at

Chris Whisonant said...

Thank you. As this is a public blog, I would appreciated it if you could just publish what your two findings are or provide links to them.