It Happened Again with the KJV

by Oct 31, 2019KJV4 comments

I’m almost done with a year-long project writing a BJU Press Bible textbook on biblical worldview for sixth graders. I needed to quote a verse that helps them understand that Christians are called to live lives of practical good works for their neighbors. I turned to Titus 3:14. Here it is in the English Standard Version:

And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.

This comes in a list of short instructions. There isn’t really much immediate context to help us know what this means. It stands more or less on its own.

But I think I get it:

1. Christian people under Titus’ care should be told to dedicate themselves to doing good.

2. They’re supposed to look for cases of urgent need.

3. This way they can avoid being unfruitful.

Got all that?

Now what can you get out of the Elizabethan English of the King James Version? Same verse:

And let ours also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that they be not unfruitful.

1. Who is “ours”? I think this is a little difficult or obscure, but it’s not impossible. The KJV translators are being fastidious here in their literality, a wholly defensible choice. There is no word “people” in the Greek. But, then again, it is clearly implied. It is therefore equally defensible to “add” it. I have little sense (no one alive does) for whether “ours” was natural Koine Greek, or whether Paul could have said, “our people” explicitly. But I have a fairly good sense for what makes for understandable English. The addition of “people”—which all major modern versions make—is clearly helpful and accurate.

If I get past “ours,” I get the rest, though: maintain good works.

2. But what are “necessary uses”? Honestly, I have no idea. I can read Greek, so I can see that this is another literal translation. Sort of. BDAG, the standard Greek-English lexicon, does not list “uses” as one of the glosses for χρεία. The main glosses seem to be “need,” “lack,” or “difficulty.” So I head off to the Oxford English Dictionary to see if “uses” used to mean “needs.” Sure enough, though I had to wade through a seventeen other senses to get to it, sense 18 looks like a good candidate:

But then I just can’t make my mind understand the KJV to be saying what that last 2004 use of use says. I understand that sentence perfectly—“someone…might have great use for a second-hand PC.” But I can’t understand “good works for necessary uses.”

So maybe sense 16 is better?

Hmm. No. The example sentences don’t fit what I think I’m seeing in the KJV. But neither does sense 18. I’m at a loss. I’m not good enough at Elizabethan English to say with certainty what the KJV translators meant here (and, I say humbly, if I’m not good enough, I have to wonder how many other redheaded thirty-somethings in my town are doing any better).

So I don’t know what the KJV translators meant by saying that Christians should “maintain good works for necessary uses,” but I assume based on the Greek and on contemporary translations that they meant they should “devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need.”

3. “That they be not unfruitful” is not the way I would say it today; it’s a bit archaic. But I think I get that just fine. Minimal exposure to KJV English is all I need to understand this phrase.

Repeatedly—not every time, but repeatedly—I come to a verse in the KJV that my gut tells me I can’t quote to sixth graders. They won’t get it. Here, I don’t even get it, so I’m not going to quote it. Edification requires intelligibility (1 Cor 14). So I paraphrased. I missed out on the power that quotation marks provide, indicating as they do that I am citing Scripture quite directly. But I’d rather do that than use words my readers won’t understand.

If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:9 ESV)

Other times I toss in explanations or contemporary glosses in brackets, like the following actual examples from the textbook:

…even his eternal power and Godhead [divinity]. (Rom 1:20)

After that, he was seen [by more than] five hundred brethren at once. (1 Cor 15:6)

The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [suppress] the truth in unrighteousness. (Romans 1:18)

That which may be known of God is manifest [clear] in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by [through] the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19–20)

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations [reasonings], and their foolish heart was darkened. (Rom 1:21)

This is the first and great[est] commandment. (Matthew 22:38 KJV)

All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed [counted] as nothing: and he [God] doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay [stop] his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Daniel 4:35)

I don’t have very many quotations from the KJV in that book of any length that are without brackets. I refuse to give kids Bible quotations they can’t understand. I’m not against their use of the dictionary, of course. But I am against it when it shouldn’t be necessary, when perfectly good contemporary equivalents are available.

Edification requires intelligibility.

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  1. Michael Osborne

    Studying German and the word brauchen has made me aware of how much the ideas of “need” and “use” and “custom” have overlapped in English and German and continue to overlap in legal-ese. I think the biggest overlap between “need” and “use” survives in English in the colloquial phrase, “I could really use a cup of coffee.” It *means* “I think I need a cup of coffee.”

    Looking at the Greek and thinking out loud: it seems like anagkaios (“necessary”) is doing the heavy lifting, and chereai (which our Greek vocab list glossed as “need”) is along for the ride.

    • Mark Ward

      This is helpful. And if true, my next question, and the most important one: given this context and this parallel in German that you called upon but most can’t, what do I really expect most English readers to get out of the KJV phrase as it stands?

  2. Spencer

    That therefore gives rise to the question of why you would use the King James at all in a book meant for sixth graders? Why not use the CSB instead? It’s written on their level.

    • Mark Ward

      Agreed. Not my choice, I’m afraid. 🙁 I understand why that choice was made, however, and I am doing all I can to make it possible for kids to understand despite the Elizabethan language. Not all quotations require brackets. Just a lot!