ACCURATE, NOT ARCHAIC by Jim MacIntosh
“But that’s not the way we talk, these days!”
I am sure you have heard that argument from those who prefer to read the newer modern-language versions of the Bible. They dislike using words that are not in common use in ordinary speech today, words that they describe as archaic.
What most people don’t realize is that the words they are objecting to were not used in ordinary speech in 1611, when the King James Version of the Bible was first published. Words such as “thee”, “thou”, and “ye” were not in common use at that time, and had not been in common use for more than 300 years. People back then could also have accused those translators of using archaic language!
Want proof that those words were not in common use at that time? Try looking at writing from the same period. For example, look at the translators’ prelude, or preamble, to the Bible, which was included in the front of most KJV Bibles until a few decades ago. That prelude was published at the very same time as the first edition of the KJV Bible. And yet, the only uses of those so-called “archaic” words in that prelude are when the writers were directly quoting Scripture verses. In several instances in the prelude, as they wrote directly to King James, they addressed him as “you” and “your”. Had the so-called “archaic” pronouns been in common use at that time, they would have said “thee” and “thine”. But they didn’t. That wasn’t the way they talked, those days. Just like it isn’t the way we talk these days.
So, why did the translators use those old English words instead of the everyday words that were common at the time? Were they simply trying to dignify the Scriptures by issuing them in old language? Did they use those words just to make the Bible stand out from the other books that existed? Were they trying to present the Bible in stuffy and scholarly terms to make it appeal primarily to the intellectual and archaeological crowd?
Not at all! They were striving to be accurate. And only those older words allowed them to approach the accuracy of the original languages. Because the words in common use at that time, just like the common words in use in the 21st century, were unable to convey the exact meaning that was needed.
Why is it so important to get the exact meaning? Let us remember that we are talking about the Word of God. When holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:21), their writings were perfect. The inspired Word was flawless and accurate, exactly as God desired and required. But the Bible that we read today is not the exact writing that God gave to the holy men of old. Those originals are long gone, and all we have are copies, and copies of copies, which we call manuscripts. The King James Version was prepared from the most accurate and widely accepted manuscripts available. The translators took the words of the Hebrew and Greek in which the originals were written, and converted them into English.
Because the translation into English is not the same as the original, it cannot help but have some flaws and errors. The translators took the greatest care they could to make sure that they captured the exact meaning of the words of the original. Their work is not perfect, although they tried to make it as close to perfect as possible, with a few exceptions. Hebrew and Greek language structure and word meanings do not always line up exactly with English language structure and word meanings. And the translators ran into a puzzle when they tried to translate pronouns of the second person.
Pronouns of the second person are very limited today, regardless of whether we are addressing one person (singular) or more than one person (plural). All we use are “you”, “your”, and “yours”. For example, if I am speaking to one person, I say “you”, just as I do when I am speaking to a dozen people. If I am speaking of something that belongs to one person, I say “yours”, just as I do when I am speaking of something that belongs to a dozen people.
In addition, the “you” is used regardless of whether it is the subjective or objective case. For example, a mother might tell her dirty child, “You need to be washed. I will wash you. Cleanliness will be yours.” She would use the exact same words even if she had three dirty children. This is different from the multiple pronouns that are available in the third person, in which the same mother might speak of her dirty child, “He needs to be washed. I will wash him. Cleanliness will be his.” Or if she had three dirty children, “They need to be washed. I will wash them. Cleanliness will be theirs.” First person pronouns also have a clear distinction between the singular and the plural, as well as between the subjective and objective. For example, a mother might tell her dirty children, “I want those dirty clothes. Give them to me. They are mine.” And the children might reply, “We want clean clothes. Give them to us. They are ours.”
Only in the case of second person pronouns do we find the lack of precision that faced the translators of our Bible. This lack of precision did not exist in the original languages. Second person pronouns were very clear in terms of whether they were singular or plural, or whether they were subjective or objective. This clarity is important to the meaning of the Word of God. To preserve this clarity, the translators had to find an alternative to the ambiguous “you”, “your”, and “yours”. They found the words they needed, right there in the English language, a bit dusty with lack of use, but wonderfully accurate as to their meaning.
And that is why we have, in our KJV Bibles, those pronouns that are shunned by modern-day versions because “that is not the way we speak, these days”. Those other versions are less accurate, less precise, missing the distinctions that the KJV preserves.
Don’t let anyone tell you they can’t understand “those old words”. Those pronouns are very simple one syllable words that elementary school children should have no difficulty in grasping. Those who object to those words are merely using them as an excuse to use the less accurate modern-language versions of the Bible.
The rules of the older pronouns are very simple: if it begins with the letter “y”, it is plural; if it begins with the letter “t”, it is singular. For example, when the Lord Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, he declared, “Ye must be born again”. Nicodemus would know – by the use of the plural “ye” – that the Lord Jesus was not singling him out, but was referring to the necessity of us all to have the new birth. Similarly, when the Saviour asked Nicodemus, “Art thou a master of Israel and knowest not these things?”, Nicodemus would know that that Jesus was singling out his ignorance alone and not that of the entire Sanhedrin.
Let’s consider another example: Luke 22:31, 32: And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat, but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. In this portion, the Lord uses the plural pronoun “you” to indicate that all of the disciples were the targets of Satan’s desire and sifting. But He uses the singular pronouns “thee”, “thy”, and “thou” to indicate the content of His prayer specifically for Peter alone.
The pronouns of the King James Version are accurate, not archaic. That is one of the important reasons why we continue to use them.