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An Example of Archaic Words – 1 Samuel 9:9

In a comment to a previous post, someone brought up the case of Saul and the seer. In this passage we have the parenthetical note following the reference by one of the characters to a seer, indicating that a prophet was formerly called a seer. This was provided as an example of how to handle archaic words in the KJV–just explain them, or as this commenter suggested, look them up in an 1828 Noah Webster’s!

In my response I indicated that I didn’t see anything new and referred readers to my Bible Translations FAQ, but it turns out that in this case while I have responded to someone on this issue before, probably on the Compuserve Religion Forum, I failed to include the answer in my FAQ file. In addition, I wanted to comment on an exegetical point. You can get the full context of the story by reading 1 Samuel 9:1-14.

My exegetical point is a simple one. Any principle of interpretation you use should be one that can be applied consistently. The application of a principle–I’ll hold off trying to express it–that we see here is the observation that a Bible writer took a particular action, so that action is normative for similar circumstances. I would guess that the best way to express this principle would be that in comparable circumstances, one should consider the actions of a Biblical writer to be normative.

Now here’s where I tend to annoy KJV-Only advocates and other extreme Biblical literalists. I would ask how they would apply that principle in other cases. For example, should we take the literary forms of the Bible as normative for the way in which we should write other material? It’s hard to respond precisely, because I have never seen anyone try to express this as a principle. Whenever I ask someone to express it that way or to apply it to other circumstances, they say I’m not staying on the subject. But I think that when interpreting the Bible, principles of interpretation are always relevant.

A related approach is often used for other Bible stories. If a Bible character, normally limited to one of the good guys, did it, then it’s a good idea. Of course, until it isn’t. Because this “story” approach to Biblical norms is very rarely applied with any consistency.

Can we get information from Bible stories? Indeed we can. For example, I believe that God calls women to leadership. One Biblical support for that position is the call of Deborah. But in that case I’m working with a clear statement that Deborah was a prophetess, and the blessing of God on her action. Further, I use the story not to create a common practice directly, as in “God called Deborah, a woman, to be a prophetess, so all women are called to be prophetesses.” Rather, I use the story to establish that any claim that God excludes women from his call runs up against this clear counter-example.

Interpreting stories requires a good deal of thought and effort, and it is useful to be consistent. I have an essay on interpreting stories for those who are interested in some basic ideas.

But let’s look at this specific case. There are several important points that I would note.

  1. The parenthetical comment provides historical information to the reader that is relevant to the story. Archaic words in the KJV provide knowledge of 17th century English, but provide no knowledge relevant to the story. The actual word used by the ancient Hebrews does not appear in the KJV here or elsewhere. I would suggest that if one consistently used this principle, one should enter in the translation every term with any technical element, and then explain it in a parenthetical comment. (The Complete Jewish Bible heads in this direction.)
  2. This type of comment is extremely rare in scripture. It doesn’t involve the relearning of an entire dialect so that people can have the privilege of using archaic language.
  3. While I’m sure using an 1828 dictionary is exciting to someone, I don’t plan on recommending purchase of such a dictionary to go with any Bible purchase. That is simply another barrier to hearing the word.
  4. In the New Testament we see Hebrew ideas primarily presented in Greek words. The very occasional transliterations (with translation) are for specific purposes.
  5. Finally, any argument in favor of forcing people to learn the language of the KJV applies with greater force to urging them to learn Greek and Hebrew.

The problem here is an ad hoc interpretation desperately grabbed and applied to the KJV. The foundation of such an argument is the assumption that the KJV must be right, therefore we must find the way to preserve it. But other than as a great artifact of English language and literature, I fail to see any reason to try to do that.

The Bible wasn’t written in English. It was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. KJV-Only advocates seem to have trouble understanding that, but it remains a fact.

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