The following article by J. Henry Thayer is reproduced from Anglo-American Bible Revision: Its Necessity and Purpose, by members of the American Revision Committee (Philadelphia, 1879), pp. 133-43. Page numbers are given in square brackets. I have also added some Greek words in square brackets where Thayer’s point is made clearer by them. Below I also add the text of a passage that Thayer refers to from William Paley’s Horæ Paulinæ. —M.D.M.

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Unwarranted Verbal Differences and Agreements in the English Version.

by Prof. J. Henry Thayer, D.D.,
Andover Theological Seminary.

King James’s translators, towards the close of their address “To the Reader,” remark: “We have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing or to an identity of words. ... That we should express the same notion in the same particular word, as for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek word once by purpose, never to call it intent ... thus to mince the matter we thought to savour more of curiosity than wisdom ...”

This decision to disregard verbal identity, provided the sense did not suffer, was a grave error. By translating the same word in the original by different English words, distinctions are inevitably suggested where they do not exist; on the other hand, by rendering different words in the original in one and the same way, differences in the sacred writers’ thought are hidden from the modern reader. No sensible man, it is true, would think of making one word in English uniformly answer for each particular Greek or Hebrew term; nevertheless, in translating such a book as the Bible, the one supreme religious authority recognized by all Protestant Christians—in which, moreover, the change of a word may involve the change of a doctrine—the greatest pains should be taken neither to confound things which differ, nor to create differences where they do not exist.

Not that, with all our pains, it is possible always to [pg. 134] reproduce in a modern tongue the precise distinctions of the ancient. Languages differ in this respect; and even when the modern tongue is not, in general, inferior to the ancient in the capacity for nice discriminations, it will often deviate from it widely in those it actually makes. The distinctions, for example, which the Greek makes between the various words signifying to know, cannot well be reproduced in English. The evil spirit’s reply to the sons of Sceva (Acts xix, 15,) might indeed be rendered, “Jesus I know [γινώσκω] and Paul I am acquainted with [ἐπίσταμαι],” and our Lord’s answer to Peter (John xiii, 7,) would be fairly represented by “What I do thou knowest [οἶδας] not now, but thou shalt understand [γνώσῃ] hereafter;” but it is not easy to mark the distinction in such passages as these: 1 Cor. ii, 11, “What man knoweth [οἶδεν] the things of a man, save the spirit of a man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth [ἔγνωκεν in critical texts, but οἶδεν in the Received Text] no man, but the Spirit of God;” 2 Cor. v, 16, “Henceforth know we [οἴδαμεν] no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known [ἐγνώκαμεν] Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we [γινώσκομεν] him no more;” John xxi, 17, “Lord, thou knowest [οἶδας] all things; thou knowest [γινώσκεις] that I love thee.” Or again, take the verbs denoting to love: the touching suggestiveness of the interchange of words in the threefold “Lovest thou me?” with its reply, in the passage last cited, [in which the verbs αγαπαω and φιλεω are both used] must lie hidden from an English reader by reason of our poverty of speech; so, too, must the delicacy with which the Evangelist in chap. xi, after saying (ver. 3,) “Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest [φιλεῖς] is sick,” instinctively substitutes a less emotional term, when he comes (in ver. 5) to associate the name of Jesus prominently with the name of a woman: “Now, Jesus loved [ἠγάπα] Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.”

On the other hand, it must be confessed that our [pg. 135] occidental taste in matters of rhetoric—or rather our English taste, for it is doubtless traceable mainly to the influence of the blended Norman and Saxon elements in our language—makes us like a euphonious change in the phraseology, even when there is no change in the sense. Such passages as the following: Matt, xii, 5, 7, “Have ye not read how that ... the priests ... profane the Sabbath and are blameless ? ... But if ye had known what this meaneth ... ye would not have condemned the guiltless ; ” Matt xxv, 32, “He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats;” 1 Cor. xii, 4 sq., “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but,” etc.; Rev. xvii, 6, 7, “I wondered with great admiration. And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou marvel ? ” Jas. ii, 2, 3, “If there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing,” etc., most readers, looking merely at the English, would prefer to let stand as they are, rather than to substitute in each some single identical term for the words in italics, as conformity to the Greek requires. Yet, on consideration, we see that the biblical translator mistakes his duty, who compels even the ancient and oriental taste of his author to yield to that which is occidental and modern.

But our translators’ disregard of verbal coincidences and variations involves what is far more important than any mere question of taste. Positive obscurities, amounting sometimes to unintelligibility, are due to it. What plain reader understands the saying (John xiii, 10), “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit”? Yet it becomes [pg. 136] luminous when the sacred writer’s change of terms is heeded: “He that hath taken a bath needeth not save to wash his feet [soiled even in coming from the water], but is clean every whit.” What unlettered man is not thrown into perplexity when he reads, Matt, xxiii, 35, “of Zacharias son of Barachias, slain between the temple and the altar” ? Was “the altar,” then, not in “the temple”? The clue to extricate him from his perplexity is given him when the translator distinguishes—as the original author does—“the sanctuary” or inner shrine, from “the temple,” or sacred precincts as a whole. To many a child our Lord, in addressing (Luke xxiv, 25,) the two disciples on the way to Emmaus as “Fools and slow of heart to believe,” has seemed to lie open to the judgment pronounced by himself (Matt, v, 22,) upon “Whosoever shall say to his brother, thou fool—the verbal identity in English completely hiding from a childish vision the radical difference between the cases. Every reader, on the other hand, would naturally judge that Luke makes a far more sweeping statement than the preceding Evangelists, when he is represented as saying (xxiii, 44), “There was darkness over all the earth,” where they only use “land.”

And though this mistaken mode of translating may not often hide the meaning of the biblical language, it frequently blunts its point. That noteworthy declaration by Christ respecting himself (John viii, 58), “Before Abraham was, I am,” gains greatly in force when the distinction between the passing nature of the former half of the statement and the permanence of the latter, marked in the Greek by the choice of two different verbs, is brought out in translation: “Before Abraham came into being, I am.” Paul’s reasoning in Rom. vii, 7, 8 [pg. 137] — “I had not known lust except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence” — seems to an English reader to halt, when, had the translators but followed the apostle in describing the sin as it is described in the commandment, the sequence would have been as close in appearance as it is in fact: “I had not known coveting except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin ... wrought in me all manner of coveting.” The reiteration of “comfort” in the opening of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians has made many a believer’s heart pulsate in blessed response; what a pity, then, that our translators wearied of the word sooner than the apostle did, who writes: “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation [comfort] also aboundeth by Christ. And whether we be afflicted it is for your consolation [comfort] and salvation ... or whether we be comforted it is for your consolation [comfort] and salvation ... Knowing that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation [comfort].”

These infelicities are too numerous to be classified here. Our present limits will permit us only to enumerate—with the addition of an example or two by way of illustration—some of their unfortunate effects:

I. They are an impediment to the study of the Bible. For they deprive the student of the light often shed on the meaning of a word by its use in other passages, as exhibited in an English concordance. He comes, [pg. 138] for instance, upon the word “atonement” in Rom. v, 11; and, so far as he can discover, it occurs nowhere else. But a correct translation would have enabled him to recognize the term made familiar elsewhere as “reconciliation.” So in investigating the nature of biblical “hope,” he is baffled by the fact that eighteen times out of thirty-two the translators have rendered the verb by “trust,”—thus virtually confounding the first two of Paul’s triad of graces. And as respects the third, “charity,” why should it be known by this name almost invariably in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, and have to be looked for under the heading “love” in more than fourscore instances elsewhere?

II. Again, they tend to conceal from the English reader delicate allusions and correspondences. No doubt the language in 1 Pet. iii, 14 as it stands—“If ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye” — prompts a reader to think that the apostle had our Lord’s Beatitude in mind; but the allusion would have become indubitable, had the translators retained here the “Blessed” of Matt, v, 10. And who would imagine that the quotation given in Heb. iv, 3, “As I have sworn in my wrath, If they shall enter into my rest,” agrees verbatim in the Greek with the quotation given just before (Heb. iii, 11), “So I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest;” while the hardly intelligible Hebrew idiom “If they shall” is rendered in the Old Testament, “Surely they shall not.”

III. Akin to the evil just mentioned is the obscurity thrown on some of the relations existing between the several parts of the sacred volume.

The Epistle to the Romans, for instance, has many points of verbal agreement with that to the Galatians, so has Ephesians with Colossians, 2 Peter with Jude; [pg. 139] but the English reader is hampered, in making such comparisons, by his uncertainty as to whether apparent agreements and differences are real or not. Does the Epistle to the Hebrews resemble in style the Epistles of Paul? The evidence of the best translations on such a point is necessarily inferior to that of the originals. But surely an English Bible student is entitled to a more truthful representation of the facts in the case than is afforded by the following parallel, in which the italicized words and phrases are all from the same Greek root:

“Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him. But now we see not yet all things put under him.”—Heb. ii, 8.

“For he hath put all things under his feet; but when he saith, All things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may he all in all.”—1 Cor. xv, 27, 28.

Learned men are discussing the relation of the first three Gospels to each other, and to some common oral or written source. But how can we follow such discussions with our English Bibles, when verbally identical passages are made to differ as follows:

“Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts: which devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayers.”—Mark xii, 38 sq.

“Beware of the scribes, which desire to walk in long robes, and love greetings in the markets, and the highest seats in the synagogues, and the chief rooms at feasts: which devour widows’ houses, and for a shew make long prayers.” — Luke xx, 46

[pg. 140] We are not even put in a position always to judge correctly respecting the identity of the several incidents and discourses recorded by the different Evangelists. Surely our translators could not have had the fear of the modern Sunday-school superintendent before their eyes when they translated the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew (vi, 10), “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven,” but in Luke (xi, 2), “Thy will be done as in heaven, so in earth.”

IV. Further, the translators’ neglect of verbal discrimination hides in a measure from the English reader the individuality of the biblical writers. These writers may be recognized, as we recognize modern authors, by their favorite words and turns of expression. Take Mark, for example, who is sometimes represented as the mere epitomizer of Matthew and Luke; his personality as a writer manifests itself in a fondness for particular classes of words, yes, strikingly in the use of a single adverb—“immediately,” or better, “straightway.” So familiar a word is found, of course, in the other two writers; but it occurs in Mark nearly twice as often as in both the others put together. Yet so characteristic and simple a term as this has received five different renderings, viz., “straightway,” “immediately,” “forthwith,” “anon,” “as soon as,” while elsewhere in the New Testament it is also translated “by and by” and “shortly.” Still more numerous, and if possible more marked, are the words characteristic of John. Among them are the verbs to abide and to bear witness. Yet the former in our translation has seven different representatives, viz., abide, remain, continue, tarry, dwell, endure, be present—the first three being brought together in a single verse of the First Epistle (ii, 24); and the latter is translated witness, bear witness, [pg. 141] bear record, testify, and (in the passive) have good report.

Paul’s peculiarities as a writer are too salient not to stand out even in a translation which should take no pains to preserve them. The truthfulness of Paley’s description of him, “off at a word,” is so generally recognized that the phrase has become proverbial. “Use this world as not abusing it,” (1 Cor. vii, 31,) and other of his pointed sayings, have taken rank as popular maxims. His mental agility and adroitness in availing himself of the very language of opponents is now as piquant as a repartee, now as convincing as an argument. An oft-quoted instance, preserved by our translators, is that in Acts xxvi, 28, “Almost thou persuadest me,” etc.; only it is to be regretted that they have chosen a translation which the Greek will not bear. But another instance on the same occasion they have seen fit to conceal. Paul’s declaration, “I am not mad,” is his dignified denial of the exact language of a charge which they have diluted into, “Thou art beside thyself,” (Acts xxvi, 24.) Still less felicitously have they reproduced his retort to those at Athens who spoke of him as “a setter forth of strange gods.” His allusion to this disparaging term is hidden, and again that to the inscription on the altar, “To an unknown god,” is quite perverted by their rendering: “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”

V. But still more unfortunate is the translators’ indifference to verbal agreements and variations when it affects matters of doctrine. Not often, probably, is a reader found so ignorant as to infer a difference of meaning from the change of rendering in Matt. xxv, 46, “These shall go away into everlasting [pg. 142] punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.” But the confusion occasioned by translating “Hades” and “Gehenna” identically in every instance but one is not so harmless. The uniform transfer of the quasi-proper name “Devil,” corresponding to the Hebrew “Satan,” to those beings called “demons” by the original writers is also to be regretted. The unwarranted insertion of “should” in Acts ii, 47 (compare on the other hand, 1 Cor. i, 18; 2 Cor. ii, 15),— properly, “them that were being saved,”—has probably ceased to start false theological suggestions; but undoubtedly most readers understand the words of Christ to Bartimæus in Luke (xviii, 42), “Thy faith hath saved thee,” to be of immeasurably higher import than the declaration in Mark (x, 52), “Thy faith hath made thee whole.” That the original term, indeed, may refer to spiritual healing is by no means impossible. In the case of the “woman which was a sinner” (Luke vii, 50), it clearly covers the forgiveness of sins. So that if it were a translator’s design to intimate that the expression is ambiguous in the Greek, the variation in rendering would perhaps be allowable, provided in each case the alternate translation were given in the margin (as is actually done in Mark). In any event, however, the English reader should know that the language is the same in both Evangelists, and the same which is elsewhere (Matt, x, 22; Mark v, 34; Luke viii, 48,) commonly rendered, “Thy faith hath made thee whole.” A single additional illustration: every reader of Paul knows the importance he attaches to the doctrine that “faith” is “reckoned as righteousness.” But the proof-text from the Old Testament (Gen. xv, 6) on which the doctrine rests is given differently by our translation every time [pg. 143] Paul quotes it (Rom. iv, 3, compare ix, 22 ; Gal. iii, 6); and the verb itself, which may be called one of his technical theological terms, and which constitutes the very warp of his argument in Rom. iv, being used eleven times within the compass of twenty-two verses, receives there three different renderings.

Now, let it be repeated, that it is not always practicable to preserve identity of language in English where it exists in the original. Sense is more important than sound. The interests of the former, therefore, sometimes dictate the sacrifice of the latter. But it is evident that any fresh attempt at revision must proceed upon the opposite principle to that which was unfortunately adopted by King James’s revisers.

William Paley on St. Paul’s “going off at a word.”

An excerpt from Horæ Paulinæ; or, the Truth of the Scripture History of St. Paul Evinced, by a Comparison of the Epistles which Bear His Name, with the Acts of the Apostles, and with One Another, by William Paley, M.A. (originally published in 1790; reprinted London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1855), pp. 148-51.

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There is another singularity in St. Paul’s style, which, wherever it is found, may be deemed a badge of authenticity; because, if it were noticed, it would not, I think, be imitated, inasmuch as it almost always produces embarrassment and interruption in the reasoning. This singularity is a species of digression which may properly, I think, be denominated going off at a word. It is turning aside from the subject upon the occurrence of some particular word, forsaking the train of thought then in hand, and entering upon a parenthetic sentence in which that word is the prevailing term. I shall lay before the reader some examples of this, collected from the other epistles, and then propose two examples of it which are found in the epistle to the Ephesians. 2 Cor. ii. 14, at the word savour: “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place (for we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish; to the one we are the savour of death unto death, and to the other the savour of life unto life; and who is sufficient for these things?) For we are not as many which corrupt the word of God, but as of sincerity, but as of God; in the sight of God speak we in Christ.” Again, 2 Cor. iii. 1, at the word epistle: “Need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or of commendation from you? (ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read of all men; forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in the fleshly tables of the heart.” The position of the words in the original, shows more strongly than in the translation that it was the occurrence of the word επιστολη which gave birth to the sentence that follows: 2 Cor. iii. 1. “Ει μη χρηζομεν, ως τινες, συστατικων επιστολων προς υμας, η εξ υμων συστατικων; η επιστολη ημων υμεις εστε, εγγεγραμμενη εν ταις καρδιαις ημων, γινωσκομενη και αναγινωσκομενη υπο παντων ανθρωπων, φανερουμενοι οτι εστε επιστολη χριστου διακονηθεισα υφ ημων, εγγεγραμμενη ου μελανι, αλλα πνευματι θεου ζωντος ουκ εν πλαξιν λιθιναις αλλ εν πλαξιν καρδιας σαρκιναις.

Again, 2 Cor. iii. 12, &c. at the word vail: “Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech : and not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished. But their minds were blinded; for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the Old Testament, which vail is done Christ; but even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart: nevertheless, when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away (now the Lord is that Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty). But we all, with open face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. Therefore, seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not.”

Who sees not that this whole allegory of the vail arises entirely out of the occurrence of the word, in telling us that “Moses put a vail over his face,” and that it drew the apostle away from the proper subject of his discourse, the dignity of the office in which he was engaged: which subject he fetches up again almost in the words with which he had left it; “therefore, seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not?” The sentence which he had before been going on with, and in which he had been interrupted by the vail, was, “seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech.”

In the epistle to the Ephesians, the reader will remark two instances in which the same habit of composition obtains; he will recognize the same pen. One he will find, (chap. iv. 8-11) at the word ascended: “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things). And he gave some, apostles,” &c.

The other appears (chap. v. 12-15), at the word light: “For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret: but all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light ; (for whatsoever doth make manifest is light ; wherefore he saith, Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light :) see then that ye walk circumspectly.”