Saturday, February 23, 2013

Archaic words

One recurring complaint against the King James Bible is that is contains many archaic words. That is something of a misnomer. While many of these accused words may not be commonly spoken today, they are not “archaic” in the sense usually intended – no longer in use, obsolete or outmoded. They may be considered archaic in its definition “surviving chiefly in specialized uses.” These archaic words might be considered “in specialized use” but they are certainly and definitely used on a regular basis in English-speaking churches around the world where the King James Bible is read, studied and preached. And my “NEA Crossword Puzzle” expects me to know the meaning of words such as “anon” whether or not I use them in speech regularly!

A companion complaint to archaic words is the presence of words whose meanings have changed.* Daniel B. Wallace claims “300 words found in the KJV no longer bear the same meaning.” This is again something of a misnomer. Rather than the word no longer bearing the meaning used in the KJV, more likely is that its most common use is no longer the meaning most commonly used in the KJV. Wallace gives as examples “suffer” (permit) and “study” (be diligent). The meaning in the KJV may not be the first meaning moderns think of when they hear the word, but my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary supports the changed meanings. Suffer means “to allow” (# 4) and study means “endeavor/try” (# 3) – substantially the same definitions given by Wallace which have “changed”. My modern dictionary even tells me that “prevent” means to “arrive before” or “go before” (Cf. I Thess. 4:15).

Words that do not mean what we expect them to mean cause us difficulty in reading and understanding the Bible. I do not ignore that; I have experienced that. But part of being diligent in studying the word of God is to study words and their meaning. This is true whether it is words in a Bible first printed in 1611 or a Bible that has just been translated and made available to the readers. It isn't hard to look up an old word in a good dictionary. All words we don’t understand need to be looked up in some dictionary!

The Oxford English Dictionary is a wonderful tool. It is the largest unabridged dictionary of the English language and especially helpful in ferreting out multiple and changing word meanings. Yet most good basic dictionaries will give definitions that correspond to the meanings of “archaic” words found in the King James Bible. In addition many Bibles have footnotes or marginal readings that are helpful, calling attention to archaic words or words whose meaning has changed.

Though Daniel Wallace and I will not agree on the best texts and best translations, I unreservedly agree when he writes, “The reason unspiritual people do not understand the scriptures is because they have a volitional problem, not an intellectual problem.” This is the first great problem of understanding the Scriptures, for they are spiritually discerned. Changing words may address a person’s intellectual problem, but it cannot address his or her spiritual problem!**

It is true that the King James Bible contains words that are not used much in everyday speech or that are not often used in the way the KJV uses them. It is not true that these must keep one from understanding the Bible. Rather than frighten the KJV reader (who wants to be a KJV reader) towards a modern translation, a valid option is to direct them toward the help they need.

* “Archaic” and “changed meaning” are two different issues, though they might seem one and the same without due consideration.

** Since each individual suffers from different language and knowledge difficulties, it is endlessly impossible to try to accomplish a fix with a new translation of the Bible. It would take a unique Bible for each individual. Rather than falling into this never ending cycle, better that many individuals work together to solve their problems from one common translation.

*** If we were to follow the train of thought used concerning the Bible – that something should not be written with words that some people cannot understand – we could not intelligently write or read much of anything.

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