No comments yet

I’ll Take Mine Arcane But Not Archaic

I would like to revisit the common accusation brought against the King James translation of it being archaic. To be sure, there is a certain degree of truth to it. That cannot be denied. What is irritating about the accusation is that the majority of those leveling it aren’t clever enough to actually find any evidence for it. The best they usually are able to muster is the “Thees and the Thous”; which is a load of draught. (Now there is some archaism for you.) For a translation finished in 1611 and last updated in the late 1700’s, of course there are some archaic words and expressions, but not nearly as many as the histrionics would lead us to believe. However, the archaisms that really do exist are far more serious than the overblown silliness of Thees and Thous. 

The archaic words that should concern us are those that we are not aware of. The “unknown unknowns”, if you will. When we read a word we don’t know, then we can look it up. That isn’t a problem. It also isn’t necessarily archaic. There are many words that might not be on the bottom shelf of our vocabulary that are perfectly current; just not common. But the truly problematic words are those that we all think we know perfectly well, and we do, but we know the modern meaning of the word, and it has changed dramatically since the 17th century. For example, in 1 Timothy 5:4 Paul specifies that “if any widow has children or nephews” she should not be supported by the church. None of us has any problem understanding those words. They could have been tweeted this morning by your teenage daughter. But “nephews” doesn’t mean what you probably think it means, and it certainly doesn’t mean what your teenage daughter thinks it means. In the 17th century, “nephews” meant grandchildren. This is an archaism that is problematic because who is going to look up what they don’t know they don’t know? How many of these are there? Hard to say. That is what “unknown unknowns” means. 

Another example, less consequential, is the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus says that the prodigal “would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat”. Which of those words do you need to look up? Most people will zero in on “fain”, although they probably will content themselves with a contextual understanding of what it means, and not trouble themselves with actually pulling out a dictionary to discover that it means pleased or willing under the circumstances, or a greek lexicon to learn that it is translated from a greek word that means greatly desire or to long for. However, what about the word “husks”? Everyone knows what husks are, right? We have all eaten sweet corn and had to husk the corn before boiling it. Only one tiny little problem: There was no corn in the Old World. What’s that you say? Of course there was corn? That’s right, Jesus and the disciples walked through the corn on Sabbath and plucked it and ate it. Right. Another unknown unknown. Corn in the KJV is not what is commonly understood to be corn in America. Just as “Corned Beef” doesn’t have anything to do with maize, and maize in Texas is not the cereal grain that the indigenous people of Mexico domesticated thousands of years ago. And cereal isn’t what comes in boxes that we pour milk over and eat with a spoon… So, what did the prodigal long to eat? Nothing that you and I have ever seen. Another unknown unknown. 

There are many of these archaisms that actually hinder our understanding of the text. Some to humorous results like “husks” and some to serious consequences like “nephews”. This is why we need to be very vigilant when reading classical translations, not taking anything for granted. And it is why you should seriously consider using an updated translation, such as the NKJV or MKJV or KJV21 or some other translation that has been carefully updated to modern language. There are no spiritual brownie points for inflicting oneself with archaisms. They don’t make the Bible more believable or more powerful; they make it less so. Otherwise, read it in Greek or Latin. If ready understanding isn’t a priority then don’t fool around, go right to the original. After all, you can look those words up also.

However, it isn’t that simple. There is a difference between archaic and arcane. And most of what the average critic refers to when he whines about the archaic renderings of the KJV is actually not archaism at all, it is arcane — that is to say, it is difficult to understand, ambiguous, hidden. This has nothing to do with the vocabulary or the grammatical structure of the translation or the mood of the verbs. It has to do with the original authors’ depth and complexity. There is no amount of updating and modern translating that can resolve that difficulty. Any translation that makes it more understandable does so at the cost of neutering the original complexity of the text.

In 2 Corinthians 6 we have a good example of a text that is both archaic and arcane. Paul writes:

“O ye Corinthians, our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged. Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels. Now for a recompence in the same, (I speak as unto my children,) be ye also enlarged.” [KJV]

The archaisms are obvious here. First we have the “usual suspects” of “Ye” that we can dispense with immediately because although it stands out as odd to our common ear, we all know exactly what it means. But words like “straitened” and “bowels” are not so well known. Probably not 1 in 100 average Chrisitans know what they mean exactly. They might have a vague notion in their mind but if put on the spot to paraphrase the text into modern vernacular they would probably realize just how little they really understand it. Then there are the terms that are also archaic, “our mouth is open unto you”, “our heart is enlarged”, “ye are straightened in your own bowels”, “now for a recompense in the same”, and “be ye also enlarged” are all archaic terms that most don’t know precisely what they mean. And all of these archaisms are unnecessary. There is no advantage of these over a modern rendering of the same concepts. Nothing is lost if we update the text to say something like the following:

“O Corinthians, we have spoken to you openly, our heart is open wide. You are not restricted in us, but you are restricted in your own affections. Reciprocate in the same (I speak as unto my children) and also be opened wide.”

This is still higher level language than we would find in the average book or publication, but it is understandable by most anyone with above basic education. We could render it even more simply as thus:

“We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart has been opened wide to you. Our affection for you is not restricted, but you are restricted in your affections for us. Now as a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts to us also.” [NET]

Or perhaps as follows:

“We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.” [NIV]

Or even more simply:

“We have spoken freely to you people in Corinth. We have opened our hearts to you. Our feelings of love for you have not stopped. It is you who have stopped your feelings of love for us. I speak to you as if you were my children. Do the same as we have done—open your hearts also.” [ERV]

Or even more simply yet:

“Dear friends in Corinth! We have spoken frankly to you; we have opened our hearts wide. It is not we who have closed our hearts to you; it is you who have closed your hearts to us. I speak now as though you were my children: show us the same feelings that we have for you. Open your hearts wide!” [GNT]

Each of these is successively easier to understand, but each is also more paraphrased from the original text, and therefore correspondingly less precise. Granted, when translating, precision must always be balanced with understandability. Before you fill with indignation: Have you noticed all the italicised words in your KJV? Those are words that are not in the original text that have been added to help the translation (and often the text itself) to be more understandable; also with corresponding less precision. Translation is always a tradeoff. The more understandable translations, such as the Good News Translation, have maximized understanding but have sacrificed more than just precision. They have expunged the arcane.

Buried in the many archaisms of this text is an important arcane clause: “Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels.” What does that mean, exactly? No one is exactly sure. That is why all the translations are split evenly between the two most likely interpretations. This can mean (I paraphrase):

“We are not restricting our affection towards you, but you are restricting your affection towards us” 

as the NIV, CSB, CEV, and others render it; or it can mean:

“Your are not restricted by of us, but you are restricted in your own affections”

as the NKJV, ESV, NASV, and others render it.

However, both of these translations achieve a more understandable rendering by removing the arcane formulation of the original. The KJV, ASV, Douay, and a few others retain the ambiguous “in” and leave the interpretation up to the reader. 

“You are not restricted in us” 

This can be understood either way. It is possible that the intended meaning was crystal clear to the 1st Century Corinthians. It is also possible that Paul intended it to be ambiguous. All really good writing is ambiguous at times — complex thoughts are far too abstract to be communicated with simplistic ‘literalism’. 

The casual or uneducated reader will probably prefer a translation that does more of the heavy lifting for them, and will likely be benefited by that; at least for a while. However, the serious student or the committed believer should prefer a translation that retains the complexity of the original text. We don’t need to cling to the unnecessarily archaic renderings, those should be modernized to a common vernacular that at least attempts to reflect the parlance of the author. But we do need to insist on maintaining the ambiguous constructions and word choices along with the unavoidable resulting arcaneness. Admittedly, this is a demanding order, and in my opinion no translation completely delivers this balance. However, the KJV is still by far the best. Even the updated versions of it seem to fall disappointingly short.

So, in conclusion, I like my translations arcane but not archaic; just the way the Apostles intended.

Post a comment