James 3:1-4, AV:

A Study in Translation Obscurity

by Doug Kutilek

(Reprinted from “As I See It,” 10:11, November 2007)


I recently was ear-and eye-witness to an exposition of James 3:1-4.  The message was well prepared and well-presented.  With it, I take no issue; indeed, I am grateful to have heard it and benefited by it.  However, at the beginning of the message, as the Bible text was read in English, I was struck with how absolutely obscure and puzzling the archaic language of the King James Version--for that was the version used--was and must appear to the modern English speaker and particularly anyone not thoroughly versed and long exposed to antique, Shakespearean-era English.  In short, the contemporary American Christian, and the great body of the unchurched and unreached masses will draw small benefit from such a text as this in this translation.  It is viewing “through a glass darkly” (to quote another KJV obscurity).


I am a devoted student of language--a “linguistic,” if you will--, particularly of English.  I am a writer as well as a frequent public speaker as both teacher and preacher.  I succeed or fail by whether I can effectively communicate my thoughts to those who read and hear what I say.  Regularly deliberately seeking to find the best word, the best phrase, the best sentence to communicate my own ideas, I tend to consciously or unconsciously evaluate everything else I read or hear as to its own success or failure in attaining effective communication.  On the score of achieving clear and accurate transference of information from the original Greek to the English reader, I would grade James 3:1-4, KJV, as follows: v. 1 an “F,” v. 2 a “C-“ at best, v. 3 a “B” and v. 4 a low “D.”


That text reads:


1. My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.  For in many things we offend all.  2. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.  3. Behold, we put bits into the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us, and we turn about their whole body.  4. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.


This text, not untypical of the KJV as a whole, is plagued with quaint-sounding obscurities that utterly fail to express the meaning of the original Greek in a fashion that is likely to be understood by the present-day reader.  What may have been clear in 1611 has become afflicted with obscurities that simply must puzzle the modern average reader, leaving him at best uninstructed and at worst misled, and more than likely discouraged from trying to read the Bible for himself.


Coming to specifics--


In v. 1, “brethren” though “current” in usage in Christian jargon is of course archaic, with the modern equivalent being “brothers.”  And though in some Biblical contexts it is used generically, referencing both male and female fellow-believers (“siblings” or “brothers and sisters”), in this particular place, it seems to be male-specific, as the rest of the text apparently requires (see below).


“Be” here seems to indicate an existing state, while the idea is rather “become,” the entrance into a state or condition. 


“Masters” in modern English means a variety of things: one highly accomplished in a skill or craft; a boss or supervisor of some activity (as in “master of ceremonies”); and owner (whether of an animal or a person).  What “master” does not call to mind is its archaic meaning of “teacher,” even though “teachers” is precisely what the Greek here does mean.  “Master” is from the Latin magister, which has as one of its primary meanings “teacher,” (the only current parallel use to this that comes to my mind is that of “head-master,” an uncommon synonym for the principal or administrator of a school).


“Condemnation” here implies only a negative outcome.  The Greek word, rather, indicates evaluation, scrutiny, examination (with the outcome for good or ill to be determined by this examination.  Notably, the KJV margin offers the alternate rendering “Or, judgement.”


In v. 2, the Greek word represented by “offend,” (the English being based on the Latin word in the Vulgate at this place), carries more the idea of “stumble” or “falter” or “fail,” and inadvertence rather than a deliberate or willful act, as “offend” may suggest.  Even with the best of intentions, we mess up.


 “All” in the phrase “in many things, we offend all,” seems to be the object of the verb, that is, “we offend everybody.”  However, in Greek, “all” is in the nominative (subject) case, and therefore part of the subject, that is “we all stumble.”  Very few, if any modern readers of the KJV would rightly discern the use of “all” here.


“Man. . . man” would suggest to the reader the repetition of some Greek word; however, the first “man” is an indefinite pronoun (tis, masculine singular nominative) meaning “anyone, someone.”  The second “man” is aner, the word commonly used in Greek for male-specific persons, particular a full grown male of the human species.  It cannot be said with absoluteness that James intended a male-specific reference (since the word in question is occasionally used in a more general way to refer to adults, both male and female), but if he did so, this would certainly harmonize with Paul’s teaching concerning men--males--being the teachers in the churches (I Corinthians 14:34-5; I Timothy 2:11-2; 3:1-2).


“Perfect,” a frequently appearing word in the KJV, has been misunderstood and regularly seized upon by those who teach sinless perfectionism in support of their doctrine.  Of course, the Greek word here, and elsewhere, does not mean sinlessly perfect or faultless, but mature, complete, full-grown.  The misguided charismatics might be drawn back from this folly by simply substituting the non-misleading word “mature” (just as eliminating the italicized--and admittedly KJV translator-supplied--“unknown” in the often-repeated phrase, ”unknown tongue” in 1 Corinthians 14 might help rescue them from the “tongues” error).


Verse 3, as with v. 4, begins with “behold” (idou in Greek).  “Behold” is absolutely archaic, and is completely unused in contemporary written and spoken English (I faulted the recent English Standard Version in my review of it for not updating this English word; see As I See It 6:6, June 2003).  A variety of contemporary English equivalents exist, depending on context: “Look”; “Consider”; “Note”; or even “Take for example” or “Think about.”


In v. 4, “great” suggests several notions--“wonderful” or “terrific”; “impressive”; and “large” or “big”; only the last idea is present in the Greek.  To avoid possible misconstruing of the sense, “big” or “large” is the preferred modern term.


“Of” was put for the Greek preposition hupo, which is used to express direct agency, for which we today employ “by.”  “Driven by fierce winds.”


“Helm” as currently used means (as throughout the word’s history it has meant) the on-board apparatus for steering a boat--the “wheel” or the “tiller” (the handle attached to the rudder on smaller craft), or more generally, the region of the boat at which the steering took place.  However, the Greek pedalion, occurring but twice in the NT, means a rudder, that part that actually rests in the water and directs the flow of water this way and that off the stern (rear) of the boat to control direction.  It seems that the KJV was imprecise and incorrect from the start with its word “helm” (the 1557 Geneva NT has “rudder”); “helm” certainly does not express the meaning of the Greek in today’s usage.  “Rudder” does, and therefore should be used instead.


“Governor” (taken from the vocabulary of the Latin Vulgate here) today invokes first of all in my mind notions of the chief executive officer of the state’s government, then of a mechanical apparatus that controls engine speed on lawnmowers and other powered machinery.  It can even suggest the British use as a term of address of one gentleman to another, “Guvnuh.”  But it never brings to mind the man steering a boat--the helmsman or pilot (the Greek word here, euthunon, is a participle used as a noun, literally meaning “he who directs” or “makes straight.”)  The English “governor,” (ultimately derived from the Greek word kubernetes--not the Greek word here used, though found in Acts 27:11 and Revelation 18:17), did, like its Greek ancestor, originally mean “pilot” or “steersman” but the Oxford English Dictionary a century ago labeled that usage “obsolete.”  If obsolete then, it is yet more so today.


And finally “listeth.”  With reference to boats, the verb “list” today means to tip or lean to one side due to improper loading or taking on of water--“she’s listing badly to port, sir”.  Not in a hundred years of searching modern books, newspapers and magazines is anyone likely to come across the wholly obsolete use of “list” found here.  The Greek is plain enough--“to wish, want, desire.”  So the translation ought to read--and many readily available translations do so render it.


 (Interestingly enough, some of the obscurities of the KJV in this passage are directly derived from its dependence on the Roman Catholic Rheims NT of 1582, which was translated from the Latin Vulgate, rather than the Greek text.  This dependence on the Rheims version--and no other printed English version--includes “many masters,” and “offend all.”   Other examples of dependence on the Rheims in this passage are also evident, though not involving the obscurities and inaccuracies here discussed.)


In contrast to the murky slough of words that the KJV presents at James 3:1-4, consider (“behold”) the Holman Christian Standard Bible’s translation (for our purposes here, we could have just as easily referenced the NIV, NASB, or ESV as great improvements over the KJV, though each of these fails fully to correct all the faults pointed out here)--


1 Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment; 2 for we all stumble in many ways.  If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control the whole body.  3 Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses, to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal.  4 And consider ships: though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.


(Incidentally, I do not doubt that one of the things for which Bible teachers will receive the closer scrutiny is on whether they willingly and wholly unnecessarily imposed on their hearers a traditional but communication-wise often very ineffective translation such as the KJV has become.)


For the person who wants the most direct access to the precise teaching and content of the original Greek and Hebrew texts obtainable through the medium of an English Bible translation, the King James Version is beyond question the poorest choice among readily available translations produced by theological conservatives.  This is first of all due to its rampant and growing obscurity, as the vocabulary and syntax of English, a living language, departs further and further from what it was four centuries ago.  The passage from James noted here is just one of literally hundreds that could have been seized upon to illustrate this point.  Second, judged by the standard of the original text--yes, and even by the standard of the textus receptus Greek,--the KJV is simply inaccurate in a thousand ways.  Often, but not always, these are minor matters, but that they are inaccuracies and imprecisions cannot be honestly denied. 


The greatest general defect in the KJV is a repeated failure to adequately and accurately express the force of the Greek definite article in English.  The next most common failure is the failure to adequately express the meaning and force of Greek verbs in English.  Then comes inaccuracy in giving the precise meaning of specific words, and then the use as a base text, in the New Testament especially, one which frequently has readings which cannot be defended as the precise original form of the NT as written by the apostles.  True enough, none of these textual variants affects the theological content of the NT, but nevertheless, if the evidence is compelling, for example, that the Greek originally said “tree of life” in Revelation 22:19 and not “book of life” as the KJV and textus receptus have it (and ALL extant Greek manuscripts read “tree of life”), then what possible reason can justify continuing to follow a reading which we KNOW with certainty is not what the Apostle wrote?  And there are many hundreds of such places in the KJV NT, to say nothing of the KJV OT in comparison with the Hebrew text.


While the King James Version served its own day and generation (and also later ones) well, the fact of the matter is that its day has passed.  Not “is passing” but has passed.  It is often obscure already and becomes increasingly so as time passes, and is too often inaccurate--mostly in details, but sometimes in matters of larger moment,--and to continue employing it for personal study or pulpit reading is to voluntarily deny oneself, and those taught from it, a clearer, more accurate and fuller comprehension of God’s revelation.  The more I have learned of Greek and Hebrew and linguistics, the less satisfactory the KJV has appeared to be.  Because numerous other English versions have much more faithfully and intelligibly rendered the original texts into English, I have long since adopted other English translations of the Bible and have not used the KJV for regular personal study in more than thirty years.  Indeed, I consult it only when answering questions as to why the KJV says one thing and other versions say another.  I do not preach or teach from it, ever, unless expressly required by a church’s policy or a pastor’s direct request.  I’d rather give a sight translation from my Romanian Bible, as I have occasionally done.


If we had no other English version but the KJV, yes, we could make do.  But we do have and have had better English versions for 125 years and more, and some translations produced in recent years are far better than those of a century ago.  I could not go back to the KJV under any probable circumstances (short of being marooned on an island or placed in solitary confinement with no other Bible).  I’d frankly rather have the Reina-Valera Spanish of 1960 (or the LBLA, the Spanish equivalent of the NASB), or one of several Romanian Bibles, and no English Bible at all, if compelled to choose one or the other.


I cringe and shake my head when I receive, as I did this week, a request for money to provide copies of the KJV for children in central Africa.  I am sure of this--if native American speakers of English (including children in AWANA struggling to memorize the archaic KJV wording) very often cannot understand the KJV, how much more obscure and unintelligible it is and must be to those who are learning English as a second language!  We Americans can be so “undiscerning” (not the word I wanted to use) at times.  I have had experience in this very thing in Romania--English-speaking Romanians who were given KJVs by well-meaning but misguided Americans.  Their uniform reaction: “I can’t understand this.  It is very difficult.”  But when I supplied them with copies of the Bible in contemporary English--the NIV--they responded, “Hey, this makes sense!”  Some years ago, I received a report regarding American Christians--independent Baptists, no surprise--sending 10,000 KJVs to Kenya or somewhere thereabouts for use by the national Christians.  What a colossal waste of money and effort.  The nationals there would have been far better served had they been given NIVs or the New Living Translation--or even the Living Bible (or, what would be far better, a translation of the Bible in their own language; spend your time and effort providing that).


Translations are a means to an end, not the end in itself.  The KJV deserves to be honored (not “idolized”) for its historic importance, as we honor the earlier English versions of Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale, the Geneva version, and others, but like them, it is time to consign it to the shelf next to these in the reference section, while we at last turn with inexplicable and unjustifiable hesitation to the regular use of one of the numerous English versions that are more accurate, clearer, and much more comprehensible.  Why have we waited so long?  What can possibly be gained by hesitating longer?

---Doug Kutilek