A friend and reader who has good training in linguistics wrote to ask me to evaluate a claim she found in an article online. Here’s what the writer said (and I won’t link to it because I don’t want to seem to be critical of this writer in particular—hers is a very common viewpoint, and the rest of her post is really quite good):
TIP: The King James Version is a great one to use for this kind of studying! Though this version uses older English and can be a bit hard to understand if you are not used to it; when translating the Hebrew and Greek words the KJV is the most (though not entirely) consistent in using the same English word each time that Greek or Hebrew word is used. Thus, it is a lot easier to see patterns in word usages as you study! I love to see patterns and themes throughout God’s Word!
After reading this paragraph and sharing it with me, my friend asked me,
I don’t know Greek or Hebrew, so I have no idea how accurate this is, but I’m curious. What do you think of this? I thought I remembered that…friends in seminary used a different translation (NASB maybe??) in their Greek classes for glossing. In addition, from a basic linguistic point of view, I can imagine why it would not be a good idea to always translate a Greek/Hebrew word into the same English word throughout the Bible—lack of semantic equivalence across languages, of course, and the fact that languages and dialects each have unique semantic maps, etc.
Here’s my response:
What she’s talking about is “concordance.” It’s part of what causes the KJV to be considered generally among the more “literal” translations—although, as you know, “literal” is a very slippery term. And I would definitely not say that the KJV is the most concordant of the major English translations.
Here’s how I’d respond to someone who claims that the KJV is the most concordant English Bible translation:
1. You’re perfectly right that, from a linguistic point of view (and shouldn’t that be the main point of view of a translator?), perfect concordance is not a good idea. But she doesn’t say the KJV is entirely consistent in this regard. She recognizes implicitly that concordance can be useful for a certain angle of Bible study but is not utterly required.
2. And yet, how could she know the KJV is the most concordant translation? This is a question I find I repeatedly want to ask people (I rarely get to!). If you can’t read Greek and Hebrew, you have to take someone else’s word on this question. The NASB is indeed generally regarded (by the people the KJV translators would call “the judicious”) to be literal than the KJV, but we’re talking about thousands of words here in all kinds of contexts: it would be really hard to nail this one down. I doubt anyone has ever done the stats; how could they? It would be extremely detailed and lengthy work. People speak so confidently about the superiority of the KJV, making all kinds of claims, from the milder (like hers) to the extravagant. But not a few are unprovable. And they cite the ether. Really, they are repeating ecclesiastical legends.
3. And I can say that because the KJV translators themselves deny adhering to a concordance theory of translation. In their preface, “Translators to the Reader,” which is a goldmine for responding to all types of claims for KJV superiority, they write,
Another thing we think good to admonish thee of, gentle reader, that we have not tied ourselves to a uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe that some learned men somewhere have been as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not vary from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places (for there be some words that be not of the same sense everywhere), we were especially careful, and made a conscience, according to our duty. But that we should express the same notion in the same particular word, as for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek word once by “purpose,” never to call it “intent”; if one where “journeying,” never “travelling”; if one where “think,” never “suppose”; if one where “pain,” never “ache”; if one where “joy,” never “gladness,” etc.; thus to mince the matter, we thought to savour more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the atheist than bring profit to the godly reader. For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables? why should we be in bondage to them if we may be free? use one precisely when we may use another no less fit as commodiously? (xxxiv)
Concordance provides one useful tool for Bible study. But it can also obscure the meaning of the text, at least a little. Once again I’m driven back to recommending that people use multiple English Bible translations in their study. A combination of literal/concordant/formal and dynamic/functional and then paraphrastic translations are all helpful for understanding what God said.
At least the KJV translators thought so:
Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgement not to be so sound in this point. For though “whatsoever things are necessary are manifest,” as St Chrysostom saith, and as St Augustine, “In those things that are plainly set down in the Scriptures all such matters are found that concern faith, hope, and charity”: yet for all that it cannot be dissembled that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from loathing of them for their everywhere plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God’s Spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, and never scorn those that be not in all respects so complete as they should be, being to seek in many things ourselves, it hath pleased God in his divine providence here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain), but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we will resolve, to resolve upon modesty…: it is better to make doubt of those things which are secret than to strive about those things that are uncertain. There be many words in the Scriptures which be never found there but once (having neither brother nor neighbour, as the Hebrews speak), so that we cannot be helped by conference of places. Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts and precious stones, etc., concerning which the Hebrews themselves are so divided among themselves for judgement that they may seem to have defined this or that, rather because they would say something than because they were sure of that which they said, as St Jerome somewhere saith of the Septuagint. Now in such a case doth not a margin do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatise upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgement of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as St Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded. (xxxii–xxxiii)
Does that help?
God bless your service for him.