The KJV and the Thereofs Thereof

The KJV is archaic and foreign today, but did you know it was already archaic and outdated when it was published in 1611?

The translation team was instructed to follow earlier translations like The Bishop’s Bible (1568) and only change where they thought necessary. But the Bishop’s Bible was itself a revision of yet earlier translations, all the way back to Tyndale (1525)! This means the translators were not starting from scratch, but essentially critiquing and updating earlier work. The English used was not the current vernacular language of the people when it was published. The abundance of “barbed wire” for readers today is not all a result of linguistic change since 1611; KJV readers in 1611 found plenty of “barbed wire” too.

Each of these comes from Alistair McGrath’s book In the Beginning- The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture.

Example 1– Have you noticed that the KJV lacks the 3rd person neuter possessive pronoun, “its”? One lonely time does it appear, in Leviticus 25:5,

“That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, neither gather the grapes of thy vine undressed: for it is a year of rest unto the land.”

The KJV came at a transitionary time in possessive pronouns. “Its” was not yet common, but using “his” and “hers” according to the grammatical gender of the noun was decreasing sharply. What to do? Unfortunately, they came up with a really ugly workaround, the post-positive “thereof” (which can mean other things as well.) Now we have to read really awkward passages like Ezekiel 43:11,

And if they be ashamed of all that they have done, shew them the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and the goings out thereof, and the comings in thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the laws thereof: and write it in their sight, that they may keep the whole form thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and do them. (Ezek. 43:11 KJV)

Compare the NRSV and its “its”es.

When they are ashamed of all that they have done, make known to them the plan of the temple, its arrangement, its exits and its entrances, and its whole form– all its ordinances and its entire plan and all its laws; and write it down in their sight, so that they may observe and follow the entire plan and all its ordinances. (Ezek. 43:11 NRS)

The NRSV uses the much cleaner “its X” instead of the KJV’s awkward “the X thereof.”

Example 2– You know how we take pains to pronounce every verb final  -eth? Something new converts really have trouble getting used to?

Then shall it be for a man to burn: for he will take thereof, and warm himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread; yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto. (Isa. 44:15 KJV)

Well, I’ve got news for you. In 1611, all those –eths were pronounced –s. In other words, when we read the KJV out loud, pronouncing every –eth in an attempt to be authenticly archaic and true to the KJV, ironically we’re pronouncing it the way virtually no KJV reader ever did. Spelling tends to be conservative, while pronunciation changes, e.g. through, though, rough, bough, ought… (I pity people trying to learn to speak English.)

Example 3– Pronouns. We hear a lot about pronouns and prayer, in English at least. Problem is, the KJV represents several different usages of prounouns, which were then (as happens when someone archaizes) imperfectly reproduced and used in more modern scripture that followed KJV language. Now first, neither Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek has pronouns of different degrees of respect, familiarity, or anything else. But translators have to translate into the target language, so if the target language has such pronouns, translators have to try to fit them to the passage as best they can.

Point being, those pronouns are an imposition on the original languages, an archaic English vestige, not a scriptural one. The KJV reflected both the shifting usages of pronouns of its day as well as archaic usage.

the widespread use of French in England during the Middle Ages led to what was originally a simple situation becoming more complex. The English word “you” came to have the same assocation as the French “vous”…. The plural forms (ye; you; your) were adopted as a mark of respect when addressing a social superior. By the sixteenth century, the use of the singular form to address a single individual had virtually ceased in English, except in the specific case of family and inferiors. To address another as “thou” was thus to claim social superiority over him or her. There is considerable evidence that, in at least in certain circles, it was used as a form of studied insult….

A further complexity concerned the distinction between “ye” (nominative) and “you” (accusative). Although the terms were spelled differently, there is substantial evidence to suggest they were pronounced virtually identically…. Some have suggested that the [ KJV’s] use of “Thee” “Thou” ” and “Thy” to refer specifically to God is a title of respect…. This is clearly indefensible, at least for the following two reasons.
1) [Basically, these pronouns are applied to Satan and humans indiscriminately, as well as to deity.]
2) The use of these forms of address was, if anything, derogatory, implying superiority on the part of the user over the one being thus addressed. It is one thing for God to address a human as “thou”; for this hint of superiority to be returned is quite another. – McGrath, In the Beginning (full cite below.)

Why did the KJV try to retain earlier pronoun usages, even though potentially confusing? Because of their instructions to revise and retain tradition as much as possible.

So if you’re having trouble with the KJV, take heart. So did Joseph Schmoe in 1611.

The 400th anniversary of the KJV publication lead to a multiplication of books about it.

Suggested reading- 

If you need to do serious academic work on the KJV, David Norton is a name you should know.

Lest you think otherwise,  I haven’t read all of these ^^. Yet.

But I feel about books as Homer does about donuts.

Homer and donuts


44 comments for “The KJV and the Thereofs Thereof

  1. did you know it was already archaic and outdated when it was published in 1611?

    No, I did not. Learn something new everyday. Loved the Homer gif. Isn’t that from a Halloween episode where he is sent to hell and sentenced to an eternal forcefeeding of donuts, and he keeps saying “more, more, more”?

  2. This might sound really stupid, but how do we know how people pronouced certain words in the 1600’s?

  3. Murrary- I don’t know, since I haven’t followed the footnotes. But McGrath asserts it pretty strongly. I assume it’s from other writings where the spelling does reflect then-current pronounciation.

  4. Could we at least update all of the shew’s to show’s? Seriously, the only purpose to keep the archaic spelling is to drive the spirit from the room when someone reading scripture in class reads “shoe”.

  5. David Norton edited a version of the KJV (published by Penguin; just under $12 on amazon! Here, if you’re interested: ) also updates the shew stuff. It’s a nice version of the KJV, as it updates some of the “shew” type stuff, but has paragraph-centric rather than verse-centric formatting.

  6. Ben S. I agree whole-heartedly about books (as anyone who knows me can testify), but mine is more, “MMMMMMM . . . bacon.”

  7. So I have a question. Do we know if Joseph Smith had access to other versions or translations of the Bible besides the KJV? I know his family owned a copy of the KJV but do we know if he or others living in early 19th century upstate NY had access to other versions or translations of the Bible? Were there other translations floating about? The more I learn about church history and Joseph Smith’s revelations the more I learn that nothing that came by him was learned in a vacuum; rather, it was the culture milieu of his times. So I’m just wondering because he certainly felt strongly about “correcting” the KJV.

    I am not familiar with Greek or Hebrew and how they treat possessives but I studied Latin (most of which I have since lost) and from what I understood, the Latin language is quite explicit about its possessives. It’s a shame there was no influence of the Latin grammar in its translation, especially as I’m sure many educated Englishmen of the middle ages were grounded in it. Were they making a statement against all things Rome?

    And it’s interesting that you cite the NRSV. Any reason for choosing this translation?

  8. I read your post to my kids and my daughter said she’d never pronounce “eth” the same again.

  9. also, I think it’s interesting that the BoM in the French uses the familial “tu” (ye, or you) when Nephi speaks to an angel or to God rather than the formal “vous” (ye, or you). I haven’t read our KJV Bible in French so don’t know if that’s the case just for English or something that is more apparent in another language but reading the scriptures in French opened a whole new world for me about one’s relationship with deity.

  10. There were other translations that had been done , but I don’t know how widespread and available they were. That Wikipedia article says the KJV had no rival until the RSV (a revision of it) in 1952.
    I think for Joseph Smith and many others, the KJV and “Bible” were more or less synonymous. (If anyone else has detail on that, I’d love to know.) Joseph did study some German later, and declared “the German Bible” to be the most accurate, but I think we should understand that in terms of the specific issue of translating as James or Jacob in the New Testament. (See Kevin Barney’s BCC post.

    Prophets (and revelation) are always part of their cultural milieu. It’s impossible not to be. Even “direct revelation” is adapted to a cultural setting. See my post and links here , and my conference presentation here on Accommodation.

    The NRSV is widely used among academics as a religiously neutral, reliable (if a bit wooden at times) translation. For more on that, see my New Testament Recommendations post #1 and my Religious Educator article on Bible translation and study suggestions.

    The lineage works like this. (Read “>” as “was revised and became”)

    KJV (1611) > American Standard Version (1900) > Revised Standard Version (RSV 1952) > New Revised Standard Version (NRSV 1989)

    The English Standard Version (ESV, last revised in 2011 and growing in popularity) was also a revision of the RSV, so it’s a sibling to the NRSV. Here’s a screenshot comparing them all (changes highlighted) in Isaiah 6, and one for Romans 8. You can definitly see how they’re related.

  11. “Prophets (and revelation) are always part of their cultural milieu. It’s impossible not to be.”

    right. and that’s part of the problem of how we are taught in church. that everything came into the mind of Joseph Smith directly from God’s mind. Once we place him in his historical context, we understand so much more. But if we did that with Joseph Smith (place him in his historical context), then we should do the same with Jesus. Sorry, I’m going off into tangents. thanks for the links.

  12. athena (and all). There’s a new release at DB with the Religious Studies Center called Approaching Antiquity. Ed. by Blumell, Grey and Hedges. Its from the 2013 Church History Symposium. Several excellent articles, kicked off by Richard L. Bushman, “Joseph Smith and the Study of Antiquity”. There’s also a complete section on “Joseph Smith, the Bible, and Nineteenth Century Biblical Scholarship as well as one called Joseph Smith’s Study of Ancient Languages.” It contains “The Word of the Lord In the Original: Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland” by Matthew Grey and “joseph Smith’s Awareness of Greek and Latin” by Jack Welch. It only just hit my desk and I haven’t had time to read it yet. I think many of these presentations have been available in video online for a while. I know there are books (but can’t think of the titles) of how Joseph interacted with the Bible to produce the JST and I’m also looking for any indication as to how much he would have interacted (if at all) with the book of 1 Enoch. (I think there’s an article, but I can’t remember it)

  13. I find that Joseph Smith’s statement: ““Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”

    . . . is a great way to gently introduce people to the idea that all revelation, scripture, etc. is bound by culture and, more generally, the limitations of a fallen world.

  14. Yes, Julie, as as we’ve seen from recent posts here at T&S, the language its communicated in makes a HUGE difference as well. “33 And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record.

    34 But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language; and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof.” (Moem. 9-33-34.

    My personal wish list for the Gold Plates, if I got to see them would be to see the word on them that Joseph Smith translated into “Christ”. That’s just for starters. Just wondering if it looked something like, ” ???????” . . .

  15. Though I freely concede that the language of the King James version can be a struggle and that our understanding of the text is considerably enhanced by utilizing other translations—something that CES hasn’t figured out yet—the virtues of the KJV should not be overlooked. To that end, perhaps you should add to your reading list Harold Bloom’s fine work, “The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible.”

    (P.S. Thanks, Julie, for the JS quote about the inherent limits of the written word. I had not seen that one before.)

  16. Fascinating.

    If Joseph Smith figured out the James-Jacob thing, what do we make of his failure to connect Elias and Elijah, something he seems to have based some teachings on?

  17. “I have an old edition of the New Testament in the Latin, Hebrew, German and Greek languages. I have been reading the German, and find it to be the most [nearly] correct translation, and to correspond nearest to the revelations which God has given to me for the last fourteen years. It tells about Jacobus, the son of Zebedee. It means Jacob. In the English New Testament it is translated James. Now, if Jacob had the keys, you might talk about James through all eternity and never get the keys. In the 21st. of the fourth chapter of Matthew, my old German edition gives the word Jacob instead of James.

    The doctors (I mean doctors of law, not physic) say, “If you preach anything not according to the Bible, we will cry treason.” How can we escape the damnation of hell, except God be with us and reveal to us? Men bind us with chains. The Latin says Jacobus, which means Jacob; the Hebrew says Jacob, the Greek says Jacob and the German says Jacob, here we have the testimony of four against one. I thank God that I have got this old book; but I thank him more for the gift of the Holy Ghost. (…) I have now preached a little Latin, a little Hebrew, Greek, and German; and I have fulfilled all.”

  18. Kevin Barney’s BBC post refers to Joseph Smith having access to many translations in various languages. Was the German translation of the Bible that Joseph Smith have, a translation of the KJV in German? or was it the German Bible also known as the Luther Bible? From reading that tidbit, I am not convinced that Joseph Smith figured anything out about James and Jacob in the Bible. How can JS make such assumptions about names by comparing names from one book to another in the different languages knowing very well he couldn’t even read any of those languages. If he did, he would had known about James the Just (who was the brother of Jesus). Very confusing.

  19. Matt Grey at BYU has some exciting forthcoming work on Joseph Smith and language study (not sure when.)
    Joseph Smith studied Hebrew, and also some German and a little Greek. He had a polyglot bible, two columns on each page, one column each in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German. I believe the German was an edition of the Luther Bible. Latin and German use a Roman font, Greek script is pretty easy to pick up, and the most foreign alphabet was the one he actually had training in, Hebrew.
    It’s clear Joseph did not understand that that James was a reflex (linguistic descendent) of Jacob.

  20. Ben S. Is Matt Grey’s article I referred to in #19 what you’re talking about or is he working on something longer?

  21. No, this is from a conversation in the last month or so. He’s found some relevant things in the archives that haven’t been noticed before, but are quite interesting. I don’t feel at liberty to give “spoilers” on his research, but it’s good stuff and relevant for Joseph Smith and languages, as well as the Book of Abraham.

  22. I’ve wondered, given the KJV-ish language of the Book of Mormon, why Joseph used that version of English, and it occurred to me once that perhaps Moroni [or someone] was doing the translating into English for him, and that person had learned English in the 16th century. That led me to wonder if maybe someone else had originally been chosen to bring the BoM to light but blew his chances somehow, so the plan was put on hold until Joseph Smith emerged and asked the right questions. Just idle speculation, and I clearly don’t have enough to do… But I’m looking forward to the Matt Grey to come. I shall pick up Approaching Antiquity when I next cross the ocean if I can’t get it locally.

  23. Ben S. I’ll be looking for it. Thanks. I’ve also heard rumblings about there being other stuff in the archives that might have to do with that topic (not from Matt Grey) so we’ll see.

  24. The thesis of tight control but a loose translation by someone else I confess seems dubious to me. I know Skousen talks about a 15th century dialect being in the original Book of Mormon. I suspect we’ll find that this was a dialect in America as well – although that might be harder to prove. The idea that this was Moroni translating the Book of Mormon seems a bit problematic to my eyes as well. He’s portrayed from what I can tell as a resurrected angel. Why would he be limited to learning English from a few centuries earlier? I just think Joseph’s mind as involved in a sometimes loose translation is the most likely explanation.

    I don’t think Approaching Antiquity is out yet. Neither the DB or Amazon websites have it that I could find.

    Adano, are we sure he confused the terms Elias and Elijah later on? (It’s certainly plausible early on) It may well be that he’s just splitting the concept, much like he does with the eschatological concept of Jerusalem into the old Jerusalem and new Jerusalem.

  25. Clark. I know its not on Amazon or the DB website, but its on the shelves at DB here in St. George. Nag them. I once offered our local manager to pay Sheri Dew if she would let me fire their buyers. No luck, sadly. On the bright side, after selling out every time I mention Julie’s book on air, they now have several copies that I hope will move before Christmas. Hi, Julie. :)

  26. That could also be a problem with the RSC not communicating very well. That happens with the University of Utah Press every now and again. A couple of years ago, I was at the Maxwell Institute offices to ask them about a book and they said it was still in press. I walked to the BYU Bookstore and there it was. DB had gotten it out without telling them. Stuff happens!

  27. I made a goal of getting rid of print books as much as I can to free up space. I actually made this huge run to Pioneer Books this summer with all the books I managed to find ebook versions of. (Except for ones where the replacement was too expensive such as some of my Anchor Bible books) So I’ll hold out for the ebook.

    Hopefully it comes out soon as it sounds quite interesting. I just finished From Darkness into Light and learned a ton from it. Lots of great new books coming out this year.

  28. Yes. the Oxford Handbook of Mormonism is out, but not too many notices or reviews yet that I’ve seen. You might call the RSC and find out what they’re thinking. I agree with what you said about from Darkness into Light (and I’ve read a boatload on that topic). I happen to have the Hermeneia CD for the first 38 of their volumes. Everything since then is hard copy. Actually, the AB isn’t on ebook that I’ve seen (although most of the AYBR series is on ebook.) Scott Hahn’s Kinship and Covenant isn’t (and its the best one of the lot).

  29. It’s interesting that they’re doing library pricing for the Oxford Handbook of Mormonism. Even for the Kindle it’s $136!

  30. Most of the Anchor volumes as well as Kinship and Covenant are available through Logos. Also, Word Biblical Commentary volumes are all on sale for $9.99 across platforms.

  31. They are, but they’re still expensive. It’s hard to justify an other $250 for the Anchor Bible Dictionary for example if I already have the print version.

  32. The KJV use of “Thee” and “Thou” for addressing God parallels usage in French and other languages where the intimate/familiar form of “you” is used. It should be understood as evoking Paul’s “Abba” reference to our Heavenly Father. As noted, too many English-speakers have it exactly backwards, thinking it’s some sort of exalted language for the Deity. It was living in France for six months in college, using the “tu” form in prayer when so much of my life was in the formal “vous” form, that confirmed my rejection of the KJV (and the NASB, which didn’t jettison Thou until 1985); I switched to an English Bible that was written in recognizable English.

  33. Kevin Smith: That’s a nice bit of Eurocentric thinking, but in many Asian languages, using the familiar terms when dealing with God or praying would be unthinkable, if not outright blasphemous. I’m not sure why the familiar forms are somehow morally superior in some people’s minds.

    I get that we misuse it in the modern English speaking church, thinking “thee” and “thou” and the like are super-formal when they really aren’t, but each language has it’s quirks, and I see no reason to claim the familiar pronouns are the only true and living pronouns to use in prayer, when my experiences with Lao and Thai tell me different.

  34. (It’s Kelvin, not Kevin, if you don’t mind.) My thinking (at least on this topic) is not Eurocentric; it’s bibliocentric. Jesus’ preferred term for God is “Father.” He calls the disciples his friends. The relationship is clearly an intimate, not a formal, one. Is that the only way to refer to God in the Bible? Of course not; he is the Ancient of Days, high and exalted. But the point that the familiar form of “you” drives home, in a way that can be arresting to a speaker of any language that has the distinction (English, of course, doesn’t), is that the Creator of the Universe has chosen to be in an intimate relationship with us. That’s not blasphemous; that’s Christianity, even though it blows the mind of some from different cultures, just as does the concept that said Creator would die an ignominious death at the hands of his creatures so that we miserable sinners might have eternal life. It’s one of the distinctives of Christianity as compared to, say, Islam, which has a much more remote conception of Allah.

    Does that mean you have to rub it in the nose of an Asian with a highly socially stratified language structure? No; familiar/formal isn’t the core of the gospel. But I think the European understanding is a more accurate portrayal of our relationship with God. Another way to look at it is that forms appropriate to addressing one’s physical father would apply, over those used for addressing a king or a boss. If an Asian thinks that’s blasphemous, he needs to unlearn and rebuild his concept of God.

  35. One problem with your so called Bibliocentric reading: The Greek pronouns behind the NT don’t really support your reading (since Koine Greek doesn’t have distinctions between familiar and formal pronouns the way European languages do).

    From my understanding, the you/thou for both the Greek and Hebrew was used in translation to distinguish plural and singular, and that there’s no real formal/informal pronoun differences in Biblical Hebrew as well, but Ben S. will know that better than me – I’ve only studied the Greek.

    But at least we know you see you are quite comfortable condemning Asian cultures for not being as enlightened as European ones.

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