A Study in Archaic Translations

Peter, in his first epistle, cites an extensive passage out of the 34rd Psalm. This citation affords no small amount of light on the issue of translation itself, as there is a great deal of translation going on. Not only is David translating his thoughts to the language he was communicating with, presumably Hebrew. But Peter (or the Jewish scholars who translated the Septuagint, depending on your viewpoint) is translating from the Hebrew to Greek, presumably. And then the translators of your edition of the Bible, translate both of those into the language you are reading, presumably English. And then you are translating those words back into thoughts. And it is possible that I missed a step or nine in that process of translation. So these texts give us some keen insight into how all of these steps develop.

One of the primary criticisms of the reformation era translations, such as the King James version of the Bible, is that they are difficult to understand due to their archaic language and grammar. This text in 1 Peter 3:8-12 has its fair share of archaic language; such as eschew, ensue, pitiful, railing, and guile. If we look at this same passage in modern translations such as the NIV or the NET and even the NAS and the NKJV, we find that these outdated words have been modernized. In the place of eschew they supply turn away from. And in the place of ensue, we find pursue. Certainly a much more common word. Pitiful is updated to tenderhearted or compassionate. From the standpoint of general readability, these are the kind of updates that seem to justify the criticism of the old, staid KJV.

However, when we flip back to the Psalms and inspect the source of the citation, we find something unexpected: None of those archaic words are used. The same archaic, old English KJV has depart instead of eschew and pursue instead of ensue… exactly like the modern translations. We must wonder, how is that the same translators were archaic in 1 Peter but modern in Psalms? This tells us that the “archaic” criticisms are used too lightly and thoughtlessly. The translators had good reason to translate Psalms with simpler words and 1 Peter with more complex words. While I am not an expert on any language, especially not Hebrew and Greek, it does seem to my untrained mind that the Greek text of 1 Peter is more nuanced than the Hebrew text of Psalms. Whether that was intentional and whether it has doctrinal implications is a different discussion; perhaps it is just a feature (or a bug, depending on your perspective) of each of those languages. However, the translators obviously found it necessary to render one with a more esoteric vocabulary than the other.

1st Peter can, undoubtedly, be translated with the more accessible words that are used by the modern translations. How could we object, when it is a quote of a text that already uses those same words? But we must also be a little concerned about what we might be losing by simplifying what is obviously complex. If the goal is an edition of the the text that as many as possible can understand with as little help and effort as possible, then these modern translations are perfect. However, if the goal is to mirror the original text as closely as possible in language, but also in tone and ‘flavor’, then the KJV clearly pulls that off the best.

One thing this example illustrates is that the criticism regarding the archaic wording of the KJV is extremely oversimplified. It is not true that these archaic words, or any of them, can simply be swapped out with new, bright, shiny words. There are reasons that these old words exist, and they are not stray features of English 1.0. It is true that eschew and ensue loosely correspond to depart and pursue, but they are more than that. These uncommon words were chosen by the translators because they convey more fully the original meaning found in the text. Just like in math, there are times when counting by dozens and rounding to the nearest hundred is not only close enough, but is what the situation calls for. However, there are other times when calculations need to be made to the 10th decimal. Counting by 100’s is simpler, faster, and easier; but it is much less precise. So also, common generic words are easy, but not as precise as the more sophisticated and recondite words that a faithful scribe instructed in the kingdom will bring forth out of his treasure, things new and old.

M. N. Jackson is a founding elder and teaching pastor of Free Born Church. He was a missionary in Mexico for over 20 years where he was part of a team of church planters. After being deported from Mexico for preaching the gospel, he returned to San Antonio, and continued ministering the word.

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