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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Let it be

Let “Let” Be

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 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.
Let
before 900; Middle English letten (v.), lette (noun; derivative of the v.), Old English lettan (v.), derivative of læt slow, tardy, late; cognate with Old Norse letja to hinder
Upshot
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).

7 comments:

Will Fitzgerald said...

Words only have meaning because of the community in which the words are used. Languages change over time, and so when a dictionary marks a meaning as archaic (as Merriam-Webster, the American Heritage Dictionary, and the Oxford English Dictionary do for LET/HINDER), the lexicographers are signaling that the meaning of the word is no longer current. Of course, the King James BIble is an important enough cultural artifact that the HINDER meaning of LET is retained in some modern dictionaries. Another way to say this, is that someone who encounters LET/HINDER in the KJV needs to be taught that meaning; they will almost assuredly not encounter it in their other communities.

You are right that LET/ALLOW and LET/HINDER were homonyms; this is not an example of the later changing into the former. In current, normal meaning, LET/HINDER has disappeared, so they are no longer homonyms, since LET/HINDER is, for all practical current purposes (except for reading the KJV) no longer exists. The meaning of LET/HINDER has changed by dying away.

Unknown said...

Hi, Will. Thanks for your comments. It's always good to hear from you and know that you're out there reading. I'll respond to a couple of things. First, to all readers let me note the gist of post, which may have been lost in my wordiness and technicalities. Point 1. The word "let" in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 (KJV) has not evolved from meaning hinder to meaning allow. Point 2. The word "let" in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 (KJV) still means to hinder, restrain or hold back. If so, Martin's point about the incorrectness of the KJV translation and correctness of modern translations fails to suffice.

Will, I think your view is somewhat dismissive of a still fairly large (though decreasing) "community" of churches that still use the King James Version of the Bible. Let still means hinder/restrain in every King James Bible in which it is printed; it still means hinder/restrain every time it is read in our Bibles, every time it is printed in Sunday School literature or commentaries (that reference the KJV), every time it is preached in sermons, and so on. Perhaps those who have moved on to modern translations might prefer to think of it as specialized religious jargon, but whatever it is, it still exists and its meaning is still known. Because of this, I also disagree with your idea that let/allow and let/hinder are no longer homonyms (i.e., since let/hinder is not non-existence). The fact that many, even most, don't recognize that they are homonyms does not negate the fact that they are.

Neither these comments nor my original post suggest that let/hinder is common in everyday American speech. (It is used in some specialized speech in addition to KJV religious speech.) Further, I don't suggest that readers aren't/can't be fooled by the common expectation of the meaning of "let". Finally, my comments do not (and are not intended to) prove that "let" is the best/only word choice in 2 Thessalonians 2:7. (In fact, κατέχω is translated to several different English words even in the KJV.)

Will Fitzgerald said...

Robert,

We certainly agree about Point 1. We also agree about Point 2. I didn't intend to dismiss communities in which the KJV is used and taught. I only meant that, for most people ("everyday American speech" as you wrote) LET never means HINDER, and it only ever means HINDER for KJV-using communities. Which is what you said. Since this is your community, of course you see it from the inside!

On the whole, the KJV is valuable enough to you that you are willing to spend time teaching the HINDER meaning, even as you acknowledge that the KJV translation may not make the best/only word choices. The later puts you at odds, I think, with some of the more radical KJV people.

For me, the faults of the KJV and every single other translation drives me to want multiple perspectives and ways to express the scriptures. This itself has its problems (for example, it takes more time, it focusses on "semantics" instead of virtue, it might tend to undermine scriptural authority for some, or at least give an appearance of doing so).

I would love your perspective on the disadvantages of using the KJV only! And, why, on the whole, it's still better to use it than not.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Will, you wrote, “I would love your perspective on the disadvantages of using the KJV only!” Well, that is an interesting turn of thought – a direction I might not normally choose to go. I will address this as using the King James Bible only with respect to not using other English versions of the Bible. I assume that there may be some King James Only folks who don’t believe in considering the original languages, using lexicons, etc. In my own case, it is a case of only using the King James as the primary Bible, primary authority, the only Bible we use/read in church, etc. – not the case that I or others never look at how it may be translated in another Bible (though some do this for different reasons). All that rambling out of the way, I offer the following perspective.

Disadvantages of using the KJV only
At the moment two things come to mind:
Archaic or difficult language. Some KJVO supporters have resorted to dubious references to Flesch-Kincaid or other reading tests to “prove” that the King James Bible isn’t hard to read. I think most honest people perceive that as nonsense – even someone like me who doesn’t find the KJV that hard to read. (On the other hand, I am perplexed by very educated people who claim they can’t read the KJV.) To this is added the fact that we live in a time where there is both declines in voluntary reading and literacy. This definitely works against an older translation with words that readers need to look up in a dictionary. To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, a 2007 report from the National Endowment for the Arts says,

“The story the data tell is simple, consistent, and alarming. Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years. There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates. These negative trends have more than literary importance. As this report makes clear, the declines have demonstrable social, economic, cultural, and civic implications. [and I would add religious, rlv]”

Unfair opposition. The first disadvantage referenced comes from within. The second comes from without. The user of the King James Bible meets with a good deal of opposition. Go to a Christian book store looking for a KJV and they’ll likely try to convince you to buy something else. Go to a “non-KJV” Bible school and they’ll point out how the KJV (which was translated in the early 1600s) “mistranslates” the Nestle-Aland Greek text (whose history begins with the Westcott-Hort text of 1881)! Check Dr. Daniel Wallace’s 300 words found in the KJV that no longer bear the same meaning – and we might find that to be true of very few of the 300 (e.g., as I have shown with “let,” is not a case of changing meaning, or “suffer” which any standard dictionary will show a range of meaning including both “to feel pain or distress” and “to tolerate or allow.” I’ve not come near checking all of them.) Read Mark Ward’s book Authorized (which I actually like) and he’ll tell you that the KJV is written in a foreign language. In this day and age KJV supporters are fighting an uphill battle, often against opposition that is entrenched in ways to give it unfair advantage.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Continued...

Why using the KJV is better than not

The KJV is an accurate translation of a Greek text from the Majority/Byzantine tradition. (This is a bigger issue than differences in the Hebrew, but that comes into play also.) (Though there is no such thing as a “word-for-word” translation, the KJV is on the literal/formal end of the spectrum, where I think Bibles should be.)

The KJV italicizes words that are not in the source language. This is not a deal breaker, but I really like the concept. It makes the translation more transparent to the reader.

Any Bible needs to be taught. That is part the church’s commission. Bible reading and Bible study doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and parents, elders and churches are (some of) what fills the vacuum. Modern versions often sell themselves as the Bible an individual can just pick up and understand.

The KJV is time-tested, proven. It connects us to our forefathers, and once offered the opportunity to connect brothers and sisters in Christ across denominations, geography, etc. I think there is a distinct and definite advantage to using one primary Bible which supports and reinforces its truth across time and space. Mark Ward, a modern vernacular proponent, nevertheless recognized it this way:

“When an entire church, or group or churches, or even an entire nation of Christians, uses basically one Bible translation, genuinely wonderful things happen. An individual Christian’s knowledge of the Bible increases almost by accident, because certain phrases become woven into the language of the community.”

Will, you are correct in stating that the KJV is valuable enough to me that I am willing to spend time teaching difficult words and such. You also noted that my saying the KJV translation (of words such as “let”) is not the only word that could be chosen puts me at odds with some of the more radical KJV people. That is correct. Some of the most radical even extend their opposition to not only the changing of words, but even the spelling of words. My understanding that two spellings can be the same word and that two words can have the same meaning (and having limited knowledge of translation and speaking in more than one language) makes me draw back from such an extreme. That said, I am perfectly happy with the King James Bible just as it is, and believe it continues to function favourably and sufficiently to bring people to the knowledge of the truth and to equip believers to become mature in Christ.

Well, that is much more than I intended to write. So I’ll stop.

Will Fitzgerald said...

Thank you, Robert! How much I appreciate your careful thought.

As I was out driving today, I thought of another way that, even in KJV-using communities, the HINDER meaning of LET has been lost, unless I am mistaken. I doubt that LET/HINDER is ever used outside of quotation or commentary. I would be surprised that would a preacher would use LET/HINDER in a sermon, or that people in these communities would use LET/HINDER when talking to one another, except, perhaps in a humorous or arch way. I don't think a preacher would say, "Don't let your elders in their work," and I don't think his hearers would understand him if he did. But you have much more experience—I'm really curious if you've ever encountered this?

That is, I think that marking the meaning as archaic would be valid even for KJV-using communities, since it would be used almost exclusively by mention, not in use.

I know you have too many things to read, but you might enjoy WORD BY WORD by Kory Stamper, a current lexicographer, who writes about, well, current lexicography.

(I think the most radical KJV-only thing I've read, maybe through you, is the insistence that even speakers of languages other than English must use the KJV. This is very hard for me to wrap my head around.)

R. L. Vaughn said...

Thanks, Will.

I want to add one more thought to the pro-KJV points I made. I intended to have it in the last post, but apparently got distracted. The thee/thou/ye/you pronouns are not used in our current speech, but provides an excellent opportunity to immediately recognize the singular and plural second person pronouns of the source language.

You would be correct, I think, in assuming that let/hinder is not in common usage even in KJV-using communities. There might be some odd exceptions to this, such as in isolated communities or some other country where the English hasn't changed as much. I personally wouldn't describe this as the "hinder' meaning of the word "let" being lost, since we do know what it means (but by that, I don't mean every single member of KJV-using communities). I suppose I might know the meaning of thousands of words that I recognize when reading, which I might rarely or never use in speaking. (There are also words I use when writing that I would rarely or never using when speaking). I think it would be correct that the word is mostly used quotation/reference and commentary. I would be not surprised -- though not necessarily common -- to hear a "KJV-preacher" use let (as hinder) in a sermon if that sermon were on or included 2 Thessalonians 2:7 (that is, to use it in a sentence and not just a quotation of the verse). But, yes, overall I think you are correct concerning common usage even in KJV-using churches -- as long as we are talking about usage and not understanding.

I might have heard of and mentioned some KJV-only person who insisted that speakers of other languages should use the KJV -- but I don't think so. I am aware of some who insist that new translations into other languages use the King James as the source language rather than Greek and Hebrew. For example, some critics claim the Reina-Valera-Gómez, though not a new translation, was corrected using the King James Bible.