I have written several posts on “Defending the Bible” (see below for a list of posts on “Defending the Bible”). One of my readers and one of my students have asked me to write a post on the King James Version. I promised both of them that I would do it, but this post is not it. At a later time, I will write a post on the King James Version.
The purpose of this post is to address an article written by Paul Greenberg, the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In his article Greenberg descries the problems with modern translations of the Bible and praises the beauty and accuracy of the King James Version. He wrote:
I’d like to think that, if you placed one of the newer versions side by side with the King James, even someone who’d never heard of either could appreciate the superiority of the older translation. All it takes is an ear for the English language.
In order to demonstrate the superiority of the King James Version over modern translations, Greenberg chose two passages from the Old Testament that, in his view, demonstrate that the translation of the Hebrew text found in the King James Version is better than the translation of the same passages in modern versions of the Bible.
The first example Greenberg provided was taken from the Joseph story, more specifically, Genesis 37:3. This text in the King James Version reads as follows: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours.”
Many of the newer, spiffier versions of The Book cross the fatal line from translation into interpretation. Some even cross the line from translation into parody. The New English Bible, for example, washed out Joseph’s coat of many colors, which became only “a long, sleeved robe” in its denatured English, a literary style that might best be described as Modern Drab.
The expression “coat of many colors” has become a proverbial expression in American culture and it has provided the theme for children books, songs, movies, and for sermon topics. Mr. Greenberg believes that modern translations of the Bible have “washed out” the colors from Joseph’s coat and in the process made a “parody” of what the King James says.
However, what Mr. Greenberg is not aware of is the true meaning of the Hebrew words behind the “coat of many colours.” The Bible says that Jacob loved Joseph so much that in order to show to his family that Joseph was his favorite son, Jacob gave him a KeTöneT Passîm. And here lies the root of the problem.
Outside of the Joseph story, the word KeTöneT Passîm appears only once in the Old Testament, in the story of Tamar, the daughter of David, in 2 Samuel 13:18. The passage reads as follows: “Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times.”
In this text, the KeTöneT Passîm was the kind of garment the princesses of the house of David wore. This text seems to indicate then that the KeTöneT Passîm was the kind of garment worn by royalty. Thus, when Jacob gave Joseph a KeTöneT Passîm, Jacob was treating him as royalty, in fact, treating him as the ruler over his brothers. The KeTöneT Passîm signaled Joseph’s favored status in Jacob’s family.
The word KeTöneT is used in the Old Testament to designate a garment of some kind, but the word Passîm does not mean “color.” The Hebrew word Pas means “extremity,” as in the sole of the foot or the palm of the hand. It is for this reason that modern translations translate KeTöneT Passîm as “a long robe with sleeves” or “an ankle-length garment.” The translation “a coat of many colours” comes from the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, which translates KeTöneT Passîm as tunica polymita, that is, a tunic made from different pieces of colored material.
Claus Westermann, in his book Genesis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1987) p. 262-63, wrote the following about the KeTöneT Passîm: “it is a special garment, a sleeved tunic (not a “coat of many colors”), according to 2 Samuel 13:18 the costume of a princess, an ankle-length tunic . . . that designates high rank.” Then, Westermann said: “It is this tunic, not Joseph’s dreams, that first poses the question: May a brother be thus exalted above his other brothers?”
The second example Greenberg used to demonstrate the superiority of the King James Version over modern translations was Psalm 23:4. In the King James Version, the text reads as follows: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
Mr. Greenberg wrote:
Compare the power and the glory, the stark faith of “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” to the anemic version of the 23rd Psalm in a translation put out by the Jewish Publication Society, which mentions only “a valley of the deepest darkness.”
Is ours so euphemistic an age that we dare not speak even of the shadow of death? This newest version of The Book reflects the New Living Translation that first appeared more than a decade ago. Here’s hoping that title didn’t mean to infer that older ones, like the King James, are dead.
Thus, according to Greenberg, the reason modern translations do not follow the King James in Psalm 23:4 is because modern translations are reluctant to speak about death and use the expression “a valley of deep darkness” as an euphemism for death.
A study of the Hebrew word behind “the valley of the shadow of death” is very revealing. The word calmäwët appears 18 times in the Old Testament. H. Niehr, writing in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT), volume 12, page 396, said that the word comes from the word calam which means “to be dark.” The word clmT appears in Ugaritic with the sense of “darkness,” “gloom.”
The expression “shadow of death” reflects a popular etymology that derives the word from cal and mäweT, two words that mean “shadow” and “death” respectively. After studying all eighteen occurrences of the word in the Hebrew text, Niehr, the author of the article in the TDOT concluded: “Attempts to understand calmäwët in the sense of this popular etymology is unpersuasive.”
Two examples from the prophets will clarify the use of calmäwët. The first example is taken from Amos 5:8:
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the LORD is his name (Amos 5:8 NRSV).
Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night: that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The LORD is his name (Amos 5:8 KJV).
Amos says that it is God, who is the creator, who turns “deep darkness” (calmäwët) into morning. The expression “deep darkness and morning” is in an inverted parallelism with “day and night.” The idea of death, reflected in “the shadow of death” of the King James Version, is completely absent in the thought of Amos.
The second example is taken from Jeremiah 2:6:
They did not say, “Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” (Jeremiah 2:6 NRSV).
Neither said they, Where is the LORD that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, that led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of pits, through a land of drought, and of the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt? (Jeremiah 2:6 KJV).
In this passage, Jeremiah links the land of deep darkness with the wilderness wandering. The wilderness through which the Israelites traveled was a land of desert and pits, of drought and deep darkness. The same idea is present in Psalm 23:4. The psalmist was equating the inhospitable place where he worked with the place where his ancestors spent many years.
James Clemens, in his article “On the Expression ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’ in Psalm 23:4,” published in the Expository Times 5 (1893), p. 288, wrote:
“The shadow of death” simply expresses in a vivid way the gloom of the valley through which sometimes the flock is led . . . But a scrutiny of the particular term employed here, as we have seen, further assists in guarding against our seeing a necessary allusion to actual death. Keeping to the primary significance of the word, it is a “valley of deep darkness” that forms part of the Psalmist’s picture.
The King James Version has a beautiful Elizabethan English that people love and a literary style that reflects the beauty of old English, an English than few people today can understand. On the other hand, modern translations of the Bible make an attempt at presenting a faithful reading of the Hebrew text in current English, even when the English of modern translations is not as sonorous as the English of the King James.
Other Posts on Defending the Bible:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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