Much of the so-called “King James Only” Bible debate generates more heat than light – from both sides. The tendency of one-upping the other often leads to loose statements that seem to support one’s side, while not reflecting the whole truth of the matter.
An oft-repeated line is that this or that word has “changed meaning” over time and no longer means what it meant in 1611. For example, consider 2 Thessalonians 2:7 and its phrase “letteth will let.”
- 2 Thessalonians 2:7 (KJV) For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.
- 2 Thessalonians 2:7 (LEB) For the mystery of lawlessness is at work already; only the one who now restrains will do so until he is out of the way,
- 2 Thessalonians 2:7 (NIV) For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way.
“Martin Marprelate”[i] tells us “The word ‘let’ in the 17th Century, meant to restrain or hinder; today, of course, it means ‘allow’… the verse means the exact opposite of what the K.J.V. says it means. The N.I.V. (and other modern versions) translate correctly…” He no doubt is sincere in this statement, but it doesn’t pass the smell test.
Meaning hasn’t changed
The meaning of “let” hasn’t evolved from “to hinder” into “to allow” over the course of 400 years. Search and check the King James Bible and you will see “let” has the meaning of “to allow” which was in use in 1611 (even in the same chapter, cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3, e.g.). According to most dictionaries, both uses of “let” are found in the English language for well over 1000 years. Let still means hinder or restrain.[ii]
Meaning hasn’t been lost
In the case of “let” – and most other accused words in the KJV (all, as far I can tell) – the meaning conveyed in 1611 is still a part of the range of meaning of the word. Some words may be labeled archaic, or rare in present-day speech – but often they are not.[iii] It is not that the “offending” word doesn’t still mean what it meant in 1611, but more often that the “offended” people do not know what is its range of meaning.[iv]
Not the same word
The varying or opposite meanings of the word “let” are not cases of words altering their meaning over time. The “let” that means “to allow” and the “let” that means “to hinder” are homonyms – two different English words that are spelled the same but mean something different. The words each have a different origin or entrance into the English language. From Dictionary.com:
Let 1 before 900; Middle English leten, Old English lǣtan;cognate with Dutch laten, German lassen, Old Norse lāta, Gothic lētan; akin to Greek lēdeîn to be weary, Latin lassus tired.
2 before 900; Middle English letten (v.), lette (noun; derivative of the v.), Old English lettan (v.), derivative oflæt slow, tardy, late; cognate with Old Norse letja to hinder
What meaneth all this? Certainly those who advocate for updated translations are not let from doing so. Let them go ahead. But in doing so, may they understand correctly and advocate honestly that most often (if not always) their advocacy should be from other grounds – such as the expediency of the modern vernacular – rather than a claim that the meaning of the word has supposedly changed.
[i] An internet nom de plume.
[ii] I do not assert that “hinder” is the common meaning we attach to “let” in current usage – just that it does mean hinder or restrain. In addition to specific usage in the King James Bible, the meaning “to hinder” or “to restrain” is still current in specialized uses in tennis and law – and well as the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer (in “The Collect for The Fourth Sunday in Advent”).
[iii] The online dictionary I most commonly use, Dictionary.com, gives “to hinder, prevent, or obstruct” as a meaning of “let.” It labels it as archaic, but archaic does not mean that a word does not mean that given definition. It means it does have that meaning, but is not often commonly used in speech.
[iv] Meaning is determined by use, context, etc. and dictionaries define all the meanings that go with usages and contexts (with the exception of when language change gets ahead of the dictionary).