Rubbishing the King James Version: Eugene Peterson and Translation

In light of the 400th anniversary of the King James, I thought it would be fruitful to bring up an interesting argument that Eugene Peterson makes in his book Eat This Book. Furthermore, Ben Myers has recently put up a blog post about his love for the King James so I thought this would stand as an interesting contrast. Myers provides something of a personal apologetic I first heard when I was in an undergraduate Bible class – that there is just something special about the King James. I never used the King James so I was intrigued by this line of logic. The person in my class talked about how the language of the King James was sufficiently “high” for the Bible, and how that language helped to push the Bible into a more spiritual register (my language, not his). In light of this argument, I would like to note some of Eugene Peterson’s reasons for thinking that the King James Version, for these very reasons, is an inadequate translation (I should note that I don’t have this book with me and I read it a year ago, so I will only outline the broad contours of his argument).

The first thing to note about Eugene Peterson’s argument is that he denies what tend to be two assumed premises. First, that the King James was written in an older form of English which was used in everyday conversation. Rather, Peterson argues, the language of the King James was never conversational in any age. It was, even in its own day, an attempt to spiritualize language to a higher order fitting for the Bible. As ink marked the page it was, at it were, “arcane,” or, better, “foreign.” Second, based on the Greek language of the New Testament, the King James fails to provide a proper translation of the language that the apostles used to convey the gospel. It was, in fact, common language that was invoked for the New Testament and not a higher-level spiritual grammar. To make this point, Peterson highlights two arguments used leading up to the King James translation to explain why there were Greek words used in the NT that did not occur in other Greek manuscripts. I don’t recall the number of words, but there was a large chunk of key terms that hadn’t been found in any other ancient Greek text. From this problem arose two views: First, that the words were transliterations from the Hebrew, and second, that the terms were a special language given by God for use in his Bible. Peterson argues that these two arguments were both proven false when archeologists discovered the words on papyri found in garbage dumps. The terms were not found in other manuscripts because they are not the kinds of words people save for posterity. They are the kinds of terms used only for the mundane like laundry lists –  not theological or philosophical treatises – so the argument goes.

Based on this line of reasoning, the King James bought into a certain view of the language used in the New Testament that latter textual work has shown to be inadequate. This is why, Peterson explains, he translated the Bible into “American.” I find this argument to be pretty fascinating. Any thoughts?

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12 thoughts on “Rubbishing the King James Version: Eugene Peterson and Translation

    • Dwight, there certainly are aspects of old English that were utilized in the translation process. I don’t recall if Peterson addresses specifics with his claim, so I can’t point to word choice or sentence structure choice that bothers him so much. That is an interesting and important question to ask though.

  1. There are so many variables and simply unknowns, going back this far in History. Roughly of course, we think the earliest New Testaments we have, were based on common – koine – Greek. But how much? And what did the words mean? Culture was far less international then, than it is now; words mean different things to different people.

    But especially? I don’t know much Greek; but enough to look at the oldest Greek texts we have … and to assert that, in spite of protests from classicists or others, the old tongue was much less refined, much less specific in many ways, than language is today.

    But especially? There is so much slack, play, in TRANSLATIONS. For me – not an expert in Greek per se, but pretty well informed on language, semantics, and so forth – looking at the original Greek? There’s “many a slip, twixt cup and lip.” There’s more than enough slack, to come up with a Bible that pretty much says almost anything you want it to.

  2. Great post, Kyle. There is a bit of circumstantial evidence in support of Peterson’s theory on the cover page of the original KJV -“Appointed to be read in Churches,” which means to me that it would have been more formal speech than would be used in the street outside the church. Even fans of Peterson’s “The Message” or other colloquial translations do not (always) advocate their liturgical use. I worship in an evangelical/charismatic Anglican parish that is very low church and ripe for one of the less formal translations, but we use the ESV for public reading of scripture. Thanks for your effort on this post and your blog.

  3. As to England, it was and is no different than the U.S.A. and other countries. Different areas have different language usage. The King’s English would have been the standard, I assume for court, parliament, church, legal proceedings, etc.

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  5. Ironically, many scholars feel that the Bible and its theology, was actually improved and refined by the best of later translations. In that case, going back to the original would not be good.

    A 1611 update by the best scholars available, in the era of Shakespeare, of a c. 200 AD document, might be useful after all. Though we might well look into just exactly what “improvements” were made, and the complex developed theology that made them. In particular, the pointed Shakespearian semantic ambiguity of later versions, seems to have helped convey a complex message that most ordinary churches have not really appreciated, even to this very day.

    An “American” – right-wing/ nationalistic bourgeois? – translation, on the other hand, would not respect “God’s continuing revelation.” And the complex and useful nature, of a long tradition of increasing theological refinement.

  6. Peterson’s “The Message” is not a translation. It’s a paraphrase adapted to contemporary sensibilities. Compare his rendering of Romans 3:21-26 with the Greek, for example. Of course the KJV is inadequate as a translation–it’s 500 years old! But it’s still much more faithful to the Greek text than is “The Message.”

    • Sorry I have been so long in responding to this. Actually, your point goes exactly against Peterson’s point. Peterson is an expert in both Greek and Hebrew, and used the Greek manuscripts. His point is that to be truly faithful in translation, you have to paraphrase. In other words, translations are actually paraphrases and paraphrases are true translations. That is what is so interesting about his point.

  7. Ellsworth:

    Well noted. If Peterson’s “Message” is not even a translation, but just a paraphrase? Then of course, so much the worse.

  8. @Bill B.
    That phrase, “Appointed to be read in Churches,” was not put on the Authorized Version (1611) by King James’ authorization; that was of the translators own act.

    If you have not read the preface to the Authorized Version of 1611, then that might be something you would want to do. They state in the preface, the reason that Bible translation was made, and they say clearly, paraphrasing, it was for the common man to have access to God’s word in man’s common language.

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