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Linguistic Characteristics of the King James Version Bible
Since its publication in 1611, the King James Version Bible (KJV), also known as the Authorized Version (AV), has been the most revered, read and beloved of all current forty-five bibles in the English language. The construction of this literary masterpiece is arguably the world’s most ambitious scholarly project. Begun in 1604, King James I of Scotland and VI of England employed forty-seven of England’s most renowned scholars to translate the Old Testament and New Testaments from Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and the books of the Apocrypha from Latin into early modern English, as accurately as possible.
Even after 400 years, the KJV is still widely-regarded as the most popular bible. Many people claim that the KJV is the only accurate English translation because its words are faithful to the original holy texts. On the other hand, for some of us, this bible is sometimes hard to read and understand. Adam Nicolson, author of the national bestseller, God’s Secretaries states, “These scholars were not pulling the language of the scriptures into the English they knew and used at home. The words of the King James Version are just as much English pushed towards the conditions of a foreign language as a foreign language translated into English” (211). To help clarify reading this great book, some of the linguistic characteristics must be explained, so that the KJV might be easier to understand.
WORD ORDER: If you read the original Hebrew Old Testament as well as the Greek in the New Testament, it seems there is no end to the manipulation of words and grammar when they are read. However, the KJV transforms all parts of speech in an endless array of word order: Adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositional phrases and many others, add to the subject (S), verb(V), indirect object (I.O), and direct object (D.O.). This can make reading this Bible a much more intellectual and breathtakingly beautiful experience.
HEBRAISMS: (1) Ordinary words in English, especially nouns, verbs, adjectives prepositions, and conjunctions are given different meanings when translated from Hebrew. For example, “and” replaces over twelve words with different meanings in the Old Testament Hebrew.
(2) The preposition “of” expands possessive meaning. So, “God’s Son” becomes “Son of God”, or “King of kings”, not “most excellent king.”
(3) Also, Hebraisms use double prepositions: “From under the heaven,” (Deuteronomy 25:19), not “Under the heaven.”
(4) There is repetition of a subject: “The Lord your God, he shall fight for you.” (Deuteronomy 3:22). Active replaces passive verbs: “He shall kill the bullocks,” instead of “The bullocks shall be killed.” (Leviticus 1:5).
In his book, Hebraisms in the Authorized Version of the Bible, William Rosenau fills a glossary with over 2000 Hebraisms in the King James Old Testament. (170-283).
CHARACTERISTICS OF GREEK SYNTAX: (1) The verb usually comes before the subject: “Then came the disciples to Jesus.” (Matthew 17:19), “… for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him.” (Mark 1:27), “… There cometh a shower; and so it is.” (Luke 12:54), “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee… ” (Matthew 3:13).
(2) The New Testament KJV closely follows the Greek almost word for word. (Original Greek): “Now in those days comes John the Baptist proclaiming in the wilderness in Judea and saying, Repent, for has drawn near the kingdoms of the heavens.” (Matthew 3:1-2)(KJV). “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:1-2).
(3) Words are arranged so that they have more importance at the beginning of the sentence. This allows the reader or listener to immediately pay attention from the beginning of the sentence: “Truly this was the Son of God.” (Matt. 27:54). “He that overcometh, I will make him a pillar.” (Rev. 3:12).
ARCHAIC WORDS: The most widely used words in the KJV’s early modern English are the pronouns “you” and “”your.” Each is divided into plural and singular categories: THOU (you, plural-subject), THEE (d.o., plural, singular, object of a preposition), THY (your, plural, possessive adjective), THINE (yours, plural, possessive pronoun). YE (you, singular-subject), YOU (d.o. singular, object of preposition), YOUR (your, singular, possessive adjective, pronoun).
TWO IMPORTANT WORDS: There are two important words that dominate both testaments of the KJV: “Unto” and “Upon.” “… Upon this rock I will build my church… ” (Matthew16:18), ” But Peter… said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words.” (Acts 2:14), Throughout the Book of Mathew, when Jesus is preaching, he states repeatedly, “I say unto you,… “.
MISSING LETTERS AND WORDS: Printing errors were fairly common in the 17th century: “(t) he Seas:”(Genesis 1:10), “made a” to “made thee a” (Isaiah 57:8), “… It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” (Genesis 2:18), “An help meet”: “A helper?” or “a help mate”?
NO QUOTATION MARKS: When a person talking, the word “said”, “saith”, or “saying”, usually comes before the spoken word which is capitalized. EXs: “Thus saith the LORD, Behold,… “, “He said unto him, Look..” (No specific Bible verses).
COMMANDS: Commanding someone is accompanied with a form of “you.” For example: “Bless THOU the LORD, O my soul. Praise YE the LORD.” (Psalm 104:35), “Repent YE:… ” (Mathew 3:2).
VERB FORMS: Not only are there words for “You” or “Your” in early modern English, verbs in the present and past tenses, end in “th,” “st,” “t” (hath, hast, saith, cometh, cameth, doest, seeth, goeth, wilt, shalt). Most of the time, you can tell what the verb is by hiding the endings “th” and “st”. The future tense is recognized by “will” and “shall.”
LEGAL WORDS: Did you ever wonder why we use the word “testament” for the two in the Bible? A testament in legal terms is a “legally” binding document, contract, or covenant. The Bible can be viewed as a covenant between God and His people. In the KJV, there are words that reflect that we are reading such a contract: thereof, thereby, therein, hereby, herein, whereof, whereby, wherein, wherefore.
THE KING JAMES BIBLE TODAY:
In 1975, the New King James Version (NKJV) was commissioned. It was finally published seven years later. In this version a few changes were made to the original: 1. Verbs have been modernized from the early modern English forms. 2. The person pronouns: thou, thee, ye, thy, and thine have been taken out. 3. There are quotation marks around the words when someone speaks.
Now, we have the 21st Century KJV (KJ21). According to reviews, it is almost the same Bible as the original. It has been carefully updated to leave out obsolete words to include possible modern equivalents. Also, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization have also been updated.
The King James Bible was translated in early modern English that can be difficult to read for the average person. After 400 years, it can still be understood, even by the average high school student. I have outlined ten characteristics to help the reader fully appreciate and enjoy the magnificent words of God.
Adam, Nicolson, God’s Secretaries, Great Britain: HarperCollins, 2003.
Rosenau, William, Hebraisms in the Authorized Version of the Bible, Great Britain: Lord Baltimore Press, 1902.
TERMS TO RESEARCH: King James Version (KJV),Language in the King James Bible, Authorized Version (AV) KJV Dictionary, Archaic Words from the KJV. King James, Hebraisms, Ancient Greek Syntax.
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