Scriptural Language, and False Friends: A Book Note and Observations

Mark Ward is a conservative Christian with a PhD in New Testament from Bob Jones University. Currently employed at Logos Bible Software, Mark authored a very readable short book on the KJV through Logos’ paper imprint, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (currently $5.99 on Kindle, paperbacks from $9.72, and $7 at Logos).

I highly recommend this book, but I’m not writing a review here. Rather, I want to reprint some short sections to illustrate both the utility of his book and also make a point about the KJV.

Mark grew up in a conservative Christian denomination which only used the KJV, and Mark only reluctantly came to acknowledge the utility of other versions. Sound familiar? He recognizes “What We Lose as the [Christian] Church Stops Using the KJV” (chapter 1), as well the great difficulties and problems of the KJV.

The by-laws of Christian publishing require at least one chapter in each Christian book to begin with a C. S. Lewis quote. I am a great lover of Narnia and Perelandra, so I am happy to oblige. Lewis, a celebrated literature professor, philologist, and master of English prose, wrote in a foreword to a new Bible translation:

“The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be reclothed.”

Language is not a fixed thing.

[R]egular KJV readers may fail to notice what they’re missing—but also that “look it up dear” may not always provide a sufficient answer to people who have difficulty reading the KJV. You can look up every word in Psalm 37:8b—“fret,” “not,” “thyself,” “in,” “any,” “wise,” “to,” “do,” “evil”—and it won’t help. Except perhaps for “wise,” you already know all those words, anyway. You likely even know that “thyself” is singular, but that won’t do thyself much good in this case.

We’re familiar with this. Our 1979 LDS KJV gained footnotes for archaic words with some Greek and Hebrew glosses. However, there’s a bigger problem.

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

A pastor friend of mine once heard an address by an educated man who made everyone in his audience feel dumb by showing them how many KJV words they didn’t know. You can find such lists anywhere on the Internet, which include words like: brigandine, beeves, bolled, and bewray.

Bible readers can indeed look up these words, but if a dictionary bothers to list them, they will be called “obsolete.” Still, if that were the whole list of difficult words, it would seem reasonable to me—given all the things we’re losing as people stop reading the KJV—to ask people to look them up. But the lists are much longer,8 and there are some significant problems with expecting people to look up all the no-longer-used words. One is that people simply don’t do it, even for common words in very common passages—like firmament in Genesis 1. Another problem, as we’ll see, is that almost no one has the kind of dictionary that could truly help them with archaic KJV words.

FALSE FRIENDS

But the biggest problem with KJV vocabulary is not actually the dead, obsolete words. When you run across emerod, you know you don’t know what it means, so you know when to pull out your dictionary. The biggest problem in understanding the KJV comes from “false friends,” words that are still in common use but have changed meaning in ways that modern readers are highly unlikely to recognize. Many words and phrases in the KJV are still in use but meant different things in seventeenth-century England—and yet what they now mean makes sufficient sense in context that most readers don’t notice the change.

Indeed. Mark goes on to discuss a number of these false friends. He’s recently started to produce a YouTube series.

Are things like language change and “false friends” a problem? They are indeed for the KJV but also for uniquely LDS scripture.  I’ve sometimes told the mission story I recounted in my BYUS article on “The Israelite Roots of Atonement Terminology.”  As a French-speaking missionary, I was called on to read D&C 121:43, “rebuking betimes with sharpness.”

I knew the English of D&C 121:43 well enough as a missionary to be surprised at an apparent extra phrase in my French triple combination, “Réprimandant avec sévérité avant qu’il ne soit trop tard,” or “rebuking sharply before it is too late.” In my ignorance, I had simply assumed “betimes” to generically indicate “at times” and wondered why it had been translated otherwise. After my mission, I consulted Webster’s 1828 edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language,which defines “betimes” as “seasonably; in good season or time; before it is too late.” For another example with LDS terminology, see J. Spencer Fluhman, “Authority, Power, and the ‘Government of the Church of Christ,’”

Jonathan Stapley has also identified the way our terminology around “priesthood” has changed considerably since the 1830s and 1840s. Those language shifts mean that we read D&C assuming we know what certain words mean there; in reality, they mean something different, which means we are misreading. (See his book and various podcasts where he discusses those changes, like this one.)

What does all this mean?

We cannot simply read scripture at face value— even modern LDS scripture like D&C, wherein English was the native language— and assume we understand what it meant to Joseph Smith, let alone Paul, Matthew, or Moses.

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through the Amazon links I post. *I am an Amazon Affiliate, and receive a small percentage of purchases made through these links. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box below). You can also follow Benjamin the Scribe on Facebook.

7 thoughts on “Scriptural Language, and False Friends: A Book Note and Observations

  1. I bought this book on your recommendation and absolutely loved it. Now I want to get a comparative bible. Do you have any recommendations for a good one?

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      1. Sorry for the late reply, I thought I’d get a notification of some sort if you replied. Yes, multiple translations on the same page. I think something like that would work best for me—self-contained.

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      2. This is very easy to do electronically (I use Logos for it). Parallel Bibles are getting rare in print, but I think this is your best option. I’m not a fan of the NIV, but you do get the KJV and NRSV.

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  2. Sometimes the changes are important.
    I think the change in meaning for the word “virtue” is fairly significant. Luke 8:46 makes sense when you realize virtue referred to something like “the power to do good.” But Proverbs 31 changes fairly dramatically.
    Profane simply meant that something was not sacred.
    In Joseph Smith’s time, herbs were what we now call vegetables–changes the meaning of that part of the Word of Wisdom.

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  3. Two quick “False Friends” I doubt most English speaking members are aware of. Corn as we know it, or maize, was unknown to the KJV translators, obviously, because it was a new world crop. The Bible Dictionary informs us that 7 different words in Hebrew and 3 in Greek were translated as corn, which meant cereal grains in English at that time. So that changes the mental picture of Joseph gathering corn for the 7 years of famine, or Christ walking through the corn field and his disciples plucking the “ears” of corn because they were hungry. Another – I was confused because the 3 chief apostles in Spanish are Pedro, Santiago, and Juan. But also in our Bible Dictionary one reads that James is an English form of the name Jacob. And it turns out that Santiago is a derivation of Saint Jacob. So think Peter, Jacob, and John.

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