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Making it clear and giving the meaning

Or...why it matters that the Bible's used in modern English

 Part 1: Tyndale’s dream

 Back in the 16th century, there was a revolution. At its heart was the belief that people had a right to read the Bible in their own language, and not to rely on the authorities of the church to tell them what God required of them.


In England, one figure towers above all others in the story of that revolution. The Bible translator William Tyndale was driven by the conviction that the word of God should be available to the common people in the language of everyday. Tyndale was passionate about that belief - so much so that, some 470 years ago, he gave his life to see it fulfilled.


Today, those of us who believe the Bible’s message to be as up to date and relevant now as it always has been ought to acknowledge the debt we owe to Tyndale and his collaborators. The best way to do that is by doing what Tyndale himself would have wished: ensuring that the Bible we use in our reading, preaching and study, and the content of our worship, are in the language of the present day, accessible and clear to all.


That is not, of course, always the case. Ironically, it is Tyndale’s own language, the language of the 16th century, that has dominated worship and Bible reading through much of the intervening period. Let’s look first at how this language achieved such a dominant position.

 Good news for the ploughboy: the Bible in English

 The England of the early 16th century was a repressive place for religion. The law forbade anyone to translate or even to read a version of the Bible in the common tongue without official permission.

But it was also a world ripe for change. The last half of the fifteenth century saw the invention of the printing press; the reflowering of learning - the Renaissance - in Europe, and the arrival in the West of many Greek scholars together with their manuscripts after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in l453. For those who valued the Bible, a vital contribution was made by Erasmus, the Dutch scholar who recognised the errors of the Latin Bible then in use, the Vulgate, and in the early years of the sixteenth century prepared as accurate a version as he could of the Greek text of the New Testament. Some of his work was done in England, at Cambridge, though it was at Basle in Switzerland that Erasmus's Greek Testament was printed and published in 1516. Although Erasmus made no attempt to translate the work into English, his preface reveals how he longed for others to do so:

“I totally disagree with those who are unwilling that the Holy Scriptures, translated into the common tongue, should be read by the unlearned…. I wish that the farm worker might sing parts of them at the plough, that the weaver might hum them at the shuttle, and that the traveller might beguile the weariness of the way by reciting them.”

Although Erasmus had left Cambridge by the time Tyndale arrived there around 1516, his influence on the young Tyndale is shown by a well-known story recounted in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Tyndale was disputing with a learned cleric who asserted: “We were better be without God's law than the Pope's.” Echoing Erasmus, Tyndale's answer was “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of Scripture than thou dost.”

Tyndale was as good as his word: using Erasmus's Greek text as his basis, he published in 1525 the first printed English translation of the New Testament. Sadly, his work on the Old Testament – he translated the Pentateuch, the historical books, Jonah and other fragments - was cut short by his betrayal in 1535 and his martyrdom the following year. But Tyndale’s genius lived on: as the Reformation created a climate more receptive to the Bible in English, it was Tyndale’s phrasing and wording that dominated later translations.

Tyndale, like Erasmus before him, longed that the Bible should be available and accessible in the everyday language of ordinary people. No church, no priest, no self-appointed authority should come between the sincere believer and the Word of God. It is to Tyndale’s lasting credit that his ringing phrases and genius of expression shaped the English Bible – indeed, the English language – through the centuries. It is largely due to him that the King James version, which follows his New Testament translation closely, has been such a remarkable and lasting success.

 The genesis of the King James Bible

 Particularly successful among the later Protestant translations influenced by Tyndale was the Geneva Bible, so called because it was the work of exiled Protestants in the Swiss city during the bloodstained reign of Mary, Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter. Eventually published in 1560, it won wide acceptance in the England of the new Queen Elizabeth – for instance, it was Shakespeare’s Bible. But the Geneva translation, and particularly the marginal notes it contained, alarmed the political and ecclesiastical establishment. One note on Exodus 1:19, pointed out that the Hebrew midwives were right to disobey Pharaoh’s command to kill male babies. Another note on Daniel 6:22 drew attention to Daniel’s disobedience to the king’s command in order to obey God. Such ideas accorded with the strong Puritan movement in England, but went down badly with those who believed in the “divine right of kings”, and with the religious establishment who supported the compromise between Reformed and Catholic ideas that was (and to some extent still is) the Church of England. The Church’s services were required to use the less popular but officially approved Bishops’ Bible of 1568.

One firm believer in the divine right of kings was, of course, James I. At his accession in 1603 the English Puritans had high hopes that church reform would bring the English church practice closer to the Calvinist, Presbyterian practice of Scotland, where James already reigned as James VI. But James was no Presbyterian, and the English bishops played on his concern for royal authority to encourage the new monarch to resist the Puritan lobby. As Alister McGrath[1] and others have shown, there was much at stake for the religious life of England, and feelings ran high. When James convened a conference of senior church figures at Hampton Court early in 1604, there was little on which he was inclined to give ground to the Puritans – James defended the Prayer Book against criticism, and resisted calls for the Geneva Bible to be authorised for use in Church of England worship. But James found one proposal which he could support – the request from John Reynolds, an Oxford don and Puritan leader, for a new Bible translation. Here was a proposal that would defuse demands for the wider use of the Geneva Bible, while giving the Puritans something to show from the conference. The bishops, led by the ultraconservative Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London and later Archbishop of Canterbury, initially resisted the idea along with anything else that smacked of change. Seeing that the king’s mind was made up, however, Bancroft changed his position. Backing the new translation, he saw to it that he would have a strong influence in selecting the translators and writing the rules that would constrain their work - and ensured he would have the opportunity to edit the final text.

Bancroft’s rules were clear. The Bishops’ Bible was generally to be followed, and altered as little as possible. King James’ translators kept so closely to the preceding versions that they retained forms of English that were already becoming outdated by 1611 – the use of ‘thou’ instead of ‘you’, and ‘his’ as a possessive pronoun in place of ‘its’ are examples. No marginal notes, other than to clarify difficult words, were to be permitted. Traditional ecclesiastical words were to be kept – a key point, since they carried connotations convenient to the established Church authorities but gave misleading impressions to the reader. Tyndale had replaced several such words - 'church' by 'congregation', ‘charity’ by ‘love, ‘priest’ by ‘senior’ or ‘elder’.

The result of the work, the King James Bible of 1611 (there is no record that it was ever formally ‘Authorised’ by the king) was slow to win acceptance. Nonetheless over time it displaced the Geneva and other translations to take a unique place in the affections of the English-speaking peoples - so much so, that for many years it was the Bible, almost as if the prophets and apostles had written in the English language. 

 A language for today?

It was not until the latter part of the 20th century that the dominance of the King James Version was challenged by a succession of new translations. These took into account the huge growth in textual evidence, and while some were ‘one-man’ paraphrases, others sought to retain a high degree of fidelity to the original text and drew on large groups of scholars to produce each new version. Yet some Bible believers chose to keep to the KJV for worship and study, and the language of the KJV- in large measure the language of the 16th century with its characteristic ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ pronouns and so on – continues to occupy a central place in the meetings, hymns, public prayers, and Bible talks of many of our congregations today.

Is this the right approach for believers today? Those who say it is point to three main reasons. We will look at them in the next section.

Part 2: A language for today?

 In the preceding article, we traced the origin of the King James Version of the Bible, noting how it achieved a dominant position for so long. This article looks at the reasons why some Bible believers choose to keep to the KJV for worship and study and to use its characteristic language in public prayers, hymns and Bible talks – and then suggests an alternative course of action.

Three main reasons are advanced for sticking to the language of the KJV. We will look at them in turn.

 The quality of the language

The first reason is that the language of the KJV is said to have a beauty, an almost musical character, which is unsurpassed. True, the language of the KJV is exceptionally beautiful. The genius of Tyndale shines through, and the words are often memorable, a little like the language of Shakespeare perhaps. It would be unfair to ignore the immense contribution that the KJV has made to the development of the English language or the comfort that its ringing phrases have brought to so many over the centuries.

But there’s a big difference between the Bible and Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s work is for entertainment: it does not set out to change its hearers, and it can’t help to save your life. The Bible does, and can. The preface to one modern translation, the New International Version, puts it well:

“In working towards these goals, the translators were united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God's Word in written form. They believe that it contains the divine answer to the deepest needs of humanity, that it sheds unique light on our path in a dark world, and that it sets forth the way to our eternal well-being.”

In its purpose the Bible is not there to impress us with the beauty of its language. It has more in common, in one sense, with the maintenance manual for a car or the dosage instructions for a powerful drug. That is, it is there to instruct us, as clearly as possible, what to believe and what then to do about it. To fulfil that function, the Bible must above all be clear, accessible and readily understood – even if that means sacrificing some much-loved beauty of phrasing.

 A sense of reverence?

The second reason is that the language of the 16th century carries with it a sense of reverence absent from modern language. This view is simply incorrect, as it relies on a mistaken conception of both the English and the Greek involved. In English, the suggestion that to address the Almighty as 'Thou' somehow carries more reverence is untenable – the 'Thou' form, already becoming obsolete in 1611, was the more familiar form of address in earlier English, not the respectful form used to superiors or strangers. Archaic word forms have nothing to do with respect, and reverence is something much deeper than the language one uses. It is hardly rational to suppose that we show reverence for God by speaking to or of Him in the language of nearly 500 years ago. As to the original language, the New Testament was written in the everyday koine, the Greek of the streets, not the literary Greek of the classics. That King James’ translators did not understand the difference is not their fault – though it meant that the translation was somewhat more ‘literary’ in tone than the original warranted.


The third reason is that the KJV is thought to be a more accurate translation, and closer to ‘word-for-word’ equivalence, than any of the later versions. This too is wrong, but it does need considering in more detail. There are two aspects to the question of accuracy– the quality of the manuscript evidence underlying the translation, and the approach taken to the task of translation itself.

On the issue of manuscript evidence, the major deficiency of the KJV is an inevitable consequence of its time. The text available to King James’ men was inferior to that available today: along with other early translators they relied to a great extent on late copies of the 'Byzantine’ type of Greek text, a type based on fourth-century revision of the text and further removed from the first century text than other material discovered since. More and better Greek texts began to become available after the translation of the KJV. The Codex Alexandrinus, older than any biblical manuscript previously available in western Europe, was presented to King Charles I by the Patriarch of Alexandria just sixteen years after the publication of the KJV. Over the next two centuries, it became increasingly clear that the KJV required revision in the light of new textual evidence, and a succession of eighteenth and nineteenth century versions culminated in the production of the Revised Version in 1881. Though the Revisers took great pains to achieve precision in their wording, the RV never really supplanted the KJV. The study of Biblical texts continued, with perhaps the greatest step forward the discovery in the late 1940s of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Scrolls demonstrated the remarkable accuracy with which the Old Testament text had been preserved - better than the New - though they did contribute some corrections to the text of, for example, Isaiah.

Fortunately, with one exception there are no major doctrinal issues at stake in those passages where the KJV is in error on account of an inferior text. The exception, and perhaps the most glaring example of a deficient text, is the notorious interpolation in 1 John 5:7 (in the KJV, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”). That passage was known to be spurious long before 1611, but many have wanted to retain it because they see it as clear Biblical evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity – for which there’s no real evidence anywhere else in the Bible! Some are strident in their defence of the ‘Received Text’ (essentially the New Testament text on which the KJV was based) on this point, and it is a remarkable consequence that on the question of Bible versions, Christadelphian adherents of the KJV find themselves allied with the Trinitarian Bible Society.

Instead of seeking to defend the KJV, a better approach is to recognise that the same providential oversight that ensured the accurate preservation of the Old Testament text in the Dead Sea Scrolls has also provided us with a wealth of textual evidence not available in the time of Tyndale or King James. It would be folly not to use it.

The issue of approach to translation is essentially about balance between conveying the sense and meaning of the original, and translating each word of the original text as literally as possible within the constraints of English grammar. Contrary to some views, the KJV translators were not aiming for word-for-word equivalence, though their approach was closer to it than most modern counterparts: in fact they deliberately varied the way in which particular words were rendered, using different English words even where the sense of the original is much the same. They discuss this practice in their longer preface, “The Translators to the Reader” (omitted from most published KJV Bibles). Moreover, they were quite capable of departing from literal translation when they felt it appropriate. The 20th century translator J.B. Phillips gives the example of Matthew 27:44, where not a word of the expression ‘cast the same in his teeth’ is in fact in the Greek: the words mean just “abused him”. Incidentally, if one does want the closest thing in English to a ‘literal’ word-for-word translation, the New American Standard Bible – not the KJV - is the one to use[2].

 Choosing a translation today

 If the main reasons for retaining the KJV do not stand up to scrutiny, what about the reasons for change – and how should Bible readers go about selecting a translation?

A clear reason for change is that believers have the task of showing the Gospel to be up-to-date, relevant and powerful. Using the language of the past makes this task a great deal harder. Instead, it damages the cause of truth by suggesting our faith is quaint and outdated, with little in common with the hopes, worries and concerns of people today. Furthermore, it exposes Christianity to ridicule – consider for example that when the media tries to mock religious belief, it is often archaic language that features as part of the mockery.

Moreover, archaic language hinders the understanding of the Bible and its message for people who aren’t familiar with it - and sometimes for those who are, too. With its vocabulary, constructions and word usages, some of them obsolete even in the seventeenth century, the KJV is no longer clear to many regular Bible readers, and still less clear to the great majority of people who have little or no Biblical knowledge. Even those who can handle the language may struggle to explain its meaning: familiarity is not to be confused with understanding. Changes in meaning, and the misleading ecclesiastical terms that King James’ translators put back in place of Tyndale’s choice of words, continue to present obstacles. How many hours have been expended explaining what ‘hell’, ‘soul’ or ‘ghost’ doesn’t mean, that ecclesia refers to the people, not the building, or that ‘let’ and ‘prevent’ mean just the opposite of what the unfortunate listener might think?

These issues are all the more pressing in trying to share the truth of Scripture with the next generation – who often have all too little familiarity with Biblical ideas and teaching. We owe it to them and to God to present the timeless truth of the Gospel in ways that are attractive, engaging, contemporary and readily understood. Sometimes, older believers’ familiarity with 16th century language leads us to underestimate quite how great an obstacle it can be. There are enough difficulties in the way of young people coming to discipleship in the 21st century, without allowing language to be an extra barrier.

Instead, our job is to make the Bible’s message plain, whether to one another or to others. This way, we will have the privilege of following the example of Ezra’s Levite colleagues who “read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” (Nehemiah 8:8 NIV). To do so, believers today, compared to previous generations, are immensely fortunate to have access to the Bible in clear contemporary language.

The choice of a particular translation will depend to some degree on personal circumstances and the context in which it is going to be used. But there are some general principles to be recommended.

First, choose a version that’s translated by scholars with a high respect for the Word of God, rather than one whose translators see the Bible as another piece of ancient Middle Eastern literature, and that takes advantage of the mass of textual evidence now available.

Unfortunately, some translations will be unsuitable on the first of these criteria, and the second criterion rules out the New King James Version, which just updates the language using essentially the same ‘Received Text’ that underlies the KJV.

Don’t be reluctant to use different versions for different purposes. For example, the version that’s most helpful for a detailed study might not be ideal for a devotional service or for working with newcomers to the Bible.

Be careful with paraphrases, such as ‘The Message’: they can be helpful in bringing out a specific point in a fresh way, but they can also seriously mislead – sometimes with renderings that bear little resemblance to the text.

And finally, do compare one version with another when studying a passage – an alternative translation can draw attention to something you might have missed in a more familiar version.

It isn’t the purpose of this article to specify a particular version to use, but many find the New International Version or the English Standard Version a good choice for general use, while the New American Standard Bible is valuable for study purposes. Why not try each of them?

This is more than just a question of personal taste. It is hard to imagine a cause more important than the clear understanding of the Word of God. We opened by referring to Tyndale, whose passionate hope was for the Bible to be in the everyday language of the people – racy, street English; the English that would change lives. If that hope is to be realized, the Bibles we read; the talks we give; the prayers we lead; the literature we publish; the majority of hymns and songs we sing – all should be in clear, contemporary English, so that the language we use, like the truth we convey, is up-to-date, clear and compelling. The language of the past, eloquent though it may have been, will no longer blunt the sharp edge of the ‘sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17): instead, the Bible will speak as powerfully and clearly today as ever it has.

David Brown

 This paper appeared as two articles in ‘Tidings’ magazine, 2010

[1] Alister McGrath, “In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible”, Hodder & Stoughton 2001

[2] For example, see David Dewey, “Which Bible? A guide to English translations”, Inter-Varsity Press 2004, p.157. Dewey’s book is an excellent reference on the different versions available.

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