KJV Reading Tips

I’ve got two lessons under my belt in my new GD teaching gig, and it’s going fine. Being the teacher has forced me to actually, you know, read the scriptures (when I’m a student in class I tend not to actually read the assignments), and I’ve been noticing a lot of little things that most class members aren’t aware of or that just sort of slip by them, which if properly appreciated I believe could enhance the experience of reading that venerable version. So I thought I’d share some of those thoughts here and solicit your additional insights.

1. People get confused about archaic second person pronouns. But if nothing else, just remember this rule: th- forms are always singular (thou, thee, thy, thine) and y- forms are always plural (ye, you, your, yours).

2. In modern English we don’t use the pronoun as part of the imperative. So Isaiah 40:1 would be “comfort, comfort my people.” Jacobean English put the pronoun after the imperative: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” And since ye is a y-form, we now know that imperative there is plural, not singular.

3. Italics in the KJV are not used for emphasis.

4. Modern translations are set up in paragraph form rather than the verse-centric presentation in our 1979 LDS KJV. The paragraph is a more natural thought unit for understanding the text. But there is some help for the reader that most people don’t even notice: the KJV has pilcrows (paragraph signs) designating paragraphs. Paying attention to those can help you see that a group of verses belong together as a thought unit. (For some unknown reason these symbols cease somewhere in the book of Acts.)

5. The KJV block-verse presentation obscures the fact that Isaiah was a poet. For my first class I took the text of Isaiah 28 and put it into a word processor and then manually reformatted it in poetic lines so the class could see this clearly. Imagine taking an English poem, smushing it together in a block text format, and people trying to read it as if it were historical narrative. It’s not gonna work!

6. When you see the word Lord with an initial capital only, it is a generic term for Lord, usually adonai. Conversely, when you see that word printed in SMALL CAPS, it is a translation of the divine tetragrammaton, YHWH, which is the actual name of God, “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.”

7. This isn’t specific to reading the KJV. But one thing I’ve noticed is that people read so quickly, when they encounter a relative or a pronoun they don’t stop to figure out what the antecedent is. A “which” or a “he” is referring to something or someone else, and unless you figure out what that is, you’re not going to understand what you’re reading.

Those are just some things I’ve thought about the last couple of weeks as I’ve been reading the KJV for the first time in a while. What other reading tips do you have to help improve the experience of reading our common English Bible?

Comments

  1. jose pellecer says:

    or you can do what i do…get either the new king james version or an uptaded bible version and read that :)…i mean, i love the kjb´s poetic languaje as much as the next guy, but sometimes its freaking impossible to understand :) which is why im hoping we get an updated version of the BoM and D&C that has updated languaje.

  2. Kevin, this is lovely and very helpful. I wish I had something to add.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    jose, I actually recommended to people that they try using a modern translation. Knowing that most Mormons would freak out at such a prospect, I suggested that they read the KJV, and when they hit a tough passage they couldn’t crack, consult two or three modern translations (easy to do on the computer). I also suggested that if people had learned another language, say on a mission, to read in that language.

    An illustration of the virtue of this practice I used was from Isaiah 28:4:

    [and] as the hasty fruit before the summer;
    which [when] he that looketh upon it seeth,
    while it is yet in his hand he eateth it up.

    “Hasty fruit before the summer”? What the hell is that supposed to mean? But another translation reads “an early fig before harvest”; now it makes sense. If someone sees a piece of fruit that ripens early on the tree, he snags it and eats it, right? It’s human nature. So Assyria is gonna chomp on Israel.

  4. I like to have class members read scripture so that there’s no question that we’re focusing on scripture and not The Gospel According to the Teacher. When it’s narrative I’ll call on anybody who raises a hand — most narrative is clear enough that if listeners miss a few details here and there, they’ll still follow the general story.

    But when there is a passage key to making a point, and the passage is tricky with awkward language, I call on one of three trusted readers who can be depended upon to read with the right emphasis and phrasing — if the passage *really* matters, I’ll talk to one of those readers ahead of class, even suggesting that they emphasize this word or that. It’s amazing how much clearer a KJV passage will be to everybody when it is read aloud by a good reader. (Think of how much better you can understand Shakespeare when the actor is Kenneth Branaugh as opposed to that kid in your high school English class.)

  5. Great stuff — and not too complex for this dunce. I might print it out and paste a copy to the inside of my KJV. Thanks.

  6. Well Kev, now your no. 3 has me all confused! I don’t believe that the ‘not’ in your post is part of the original mss. of your draft post…

  7. For the Pauline epistles, I suggest reading the J.B. Phillips translation next to the KJV. It really helps to clear up many hard-to-understand KJV passages.

  8. Rebeckila says:

    This is a helpful post, I’ve probably already heard these tips (maybe not the th y one) but it’s good to see them together. I’d like to see that poetic version you made and maybe share it with my class.

    On the paragraph issue, I got one of those reproduction original versions of The Book of Mormon hoping it’d be easier to read like a novel but mostly I find the chapters are much longer and sometimes things sound different like maybe the wording has been changed a bit from what I’m used to reading. It’s hard to try to compare it with the versed version, but then again I haven’t put that much effort into it. :p

  9. …learn the difference in pronunciation between ye, yea, and yeah.

  10. Please pronounce “shew” like “show” when reading aloud and not “shoo.” Drives me crazy.

  11. 10 — Yes, yes, yes. I tell people that “shew” rhymes with “sew”, not “few.” After a moment of head-scratching, they usually get that.

    Kevin — If you can find a copy of the Schindler brother’s lessons on Jacobean English, that’s got some very good helps with KJVing. And, if you do, please post it — I’ve lost mine, and would love to share it.

    I’m looking forward to doing the NT next year, now that I’ve got my Lattimore translations of the NT texts to review from.

  12. Since we’re talking about pronunciation errors like ‘shew’ and ‘show’, I’ve got one:
    I was taught that the word “saith” is to be pronounced like “said”–not “say-eth.” If you look at hymns that have the word “saith” in them, you’ll find that it doesn’t quite work with the music if you try to squeeze a second syllable (say-eth) in there.

    By the way, I especially like the suggestion about carefully looking at antecedents and personal pronouns. Sometimes we think they refer to someone different than what the author intended, if we read too quickly.

  13. Just to clarify– correct pronunciation of “saith” has the same vowel sound as “said.” But it ends with a “th.”

  14. Good stuff — and thx especially for the reminder about antecedents; my problem with speakers of MAS (Modern American Speech) instead of English is that they ignore or are ignorant of the rules that in English enable the hearer to track down pronouns’ antecedents.

  15. John Mansfield says:

    How about . . . No need to read the verse numbers aloud, unless you’re playing Cal Trask, in which case it’s required.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 8, you need Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition, not an 1830 facsimile.

    Blain, Marc and Craig Schindler’s notes on KJV English are memorialized as an Appendix to my Footnotes to the NT for LDS. You can find it at Feast Upon the Word.

  17. “th- forms are always singular (thou, thee, thy, thine) and y- forms are always plural (ye, you, your, yours)”

    This isn’t strictly true. The plurals became honorifics, like French “vous.” To address someone as “thou” was to claim higher social status and became an insult in certain circles. I’m not aware of any examples of this in the KJV, though. The pronouns were simply retained from the Bishops Bible even though they were no longer used that way.

    Yet later they become interchangeable.

    Shakespeare has plenty of examples of alternating between the two. From A Winter’s Tale
    “It is; you lie, you lie:
    I say thou liest, Camillo, and I hate thee,”

  18. Ben (#17) – Good point. And I was surprised, when learning “religious” French as a missionary, to discover that the Lord is addressed (at least by non-Catholics) as “tu/toi”(thou/thee), which in that language is the intimate, familiar form. In modern English it seems to be exactly the other way around; I grew up thinking that we clung to the KJV’s early modern English as a marker of respect for Deity. Finding out I had it backwards gave me an entirely new outlook on our relationship with God.

    That said, I still think the KJV is unsurpassed in poetic beauty and for purposes of contemplation/meditation. Even the dedication, in which Elizabeth I is lauded as “that bright Occidental Star” “of most happy memory” is a thing of literary beauty. :-)

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Ben, you’re right that it doesn’t always hold in English generally, but it holds for the KJV, which was specifically edited to this end. (For instance, the original edition had about 300 instances of nominative “you” that were changed to nominative “ye” in later editions).

    Your point is an important one when we turn to the BoM, which reflects more of the general diversity of the archaic pronominal usage in English, and is not anywere near as consistent as the KJV is. I go into this in my article “Enallage in the BoM” in the JBMS.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s the link to my Enallage article:

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=3&num=1&id=52

    Here’s the section relevant to Ben’s important point:

    These passages reflect a pattern of pronominal variation, in which normally plural y-forms are used with a clearly singular meaning. When I first observed this pattern, I assumed that such usage simply reflected grammatical error.21 Before long, though, I began to notice passages from a variety of sources in English literature that demonstrated a similar pronominal variation, such as this illustration from the second stanza of an early sixteenth-century Christmas carol, entitled Thys endere nyghth, in which a precocious baby Jesus addresses his mother Mary:22

    Thys babe full bayne aunsweryd agayne,
    And thus me thought he sayd:
    “I am a kyng above all thyng,
    Yn hay yff I be layd,
    For ye shall see
    That kynges thre
    Shall cum on Twelfe Day;
    For thys behest
    Geffe me thy brest,
    And sing, “By, baby, lullay.’ ”

    Here a singular “ye” alternates with a singular possessive “thy,” which is reminiscent of the type of switching seen in the Book of Mormon. I began to learn that, although “ye” was originally used strictly as a plural, both its use as a singular and switching between y- and th-forms are well attested in the English language. “In M[iddle] E[nglish], thou and its cases were gradually superseded by the plural ye, you, your, yours, in addressing a superior and (later) an equal, but were long retained in addressing an inferior.”23

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    And here’s the primer on early modern English from my Footnotes book:

    http://feastupontheword.org/images/b/ba/37_Early_Modern_English.pdf

  22. Latter-day Guy says:

    In general, I would recommend people get a cheap copy of the NRSV to read in tandem with the KJV. A good modern translation “covereth a multitude of” problems in the Authorized version (as lovely as it can be sometimes).

  23. I personally love Anchor Bible for all this. It’s more expensive, which is tragic, but for a particular book, I prefer AB.

    Re: anachronistic pronouns in Mormon practice, I wouldn’t assume that “thou” means “toi” currently. Sometimes archaisms are used to denote respect, regardless of their derivation.

  24. One of the best tools for studying the bible, even for Mormons, is the NET Bible site http://net.bible.org/bible.php. If you limit what you look up to a single verse, rather than the full chapter, you get many versions, including KJV; and even better, the original language, Greek or Hebrew, spelled with Latin characters and a clickable thesaurus for each word. Talk about having the nuances available to you, even if you are not trained in the original languages!

    Our buildinghouse library recently acquired a large flat screen digital TV which has made power point presentations for lessons a breeze. I much prefer formatting my own scriptures (eliminating distracting verse numbers and divisions, helpful use of ellipses for long passages, verse format for the poetry). Also having the whole class read the scripture off the screen with eyes and attention front, rather than time-wasting and distracting shuffling through scriptures, in my opinion vastly improves the learning experience. Verse format is helpful for finding, but is anathema to understanding. It promotes deceptive proof-texting and obscures the intention of the author. I can imagine the eloquent scorn an Isaiah or a Paul would have for the results of this type of formatting.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    amazed, the large, flat screen digital TV would be awesome! I’d definitely incorporate some multimedia if we had something like that.

  26. Latter-day Guy says:

    RE: #23, The Anchor Bible is a great series, but I think it might be overly technical for most non-scholarly types. A more accessible (though necessarily less in-depth) option would be the New Interpreter’s Bible. I like it especially because it avoids the heavily protestant bias you might find in, say, the Word Biblical Commentary, etc.

  27. Great post and suggestions that we can apply in our home. We are helping our 7-year-old read the scriptures each night. Soon, we will buy him his own set. Would any of you parents buy a standard quad PLUS a small NRSV for your child? I want to help him read the KJV-type language, but I also want to introduce a modern translation and give him a key giving him more direct access to the Bible.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    I think that’s a good idea, Swisster.

  29. I second the NRSV and the NET Bible. I use both in the classes I teach, and encourage participants to bring and read from modern translations in class. (It’s a weekday Institute-type class, though, not Gospel Doctrine.)

    The text of the NRSV is available online:

    http://www.devotions.net/bible/00bible.htm

    For reading purposes I recommend the NRSV to Latter-day Saints because the cadence and word order is very similar to the KJV. The NET, NIV, ESV, and other modern translations are easy to read, but often switch the word order around to make them more understandable in English, and that can be challenging if you’re reading side-by-side with the KJV.

    Of all the modern translations I would not recommend the NKJV — even though it updates the KJV’s archaic language, it doesn’t fix most of the KJV’s textual errors (e.g., the extra text in Matthew 5:44 and 6:13, and the Comma Johanneum in 1 John 5:7–8).

  30. The OT lesson manual’s chapter on Hosea suggests an attention activity based on poetic phrases in the book. The manual instructs the teacher to write specific phrases from Hosea on pieces of paper. The manual then directs:

    “Distribute the papers you have prepared among class members….Explain that each of these phrases is a comparison from the book of Hosea. Have each class member who received a paper read the phrase aloud and suggest one possible meaning for the comparison. For example, saying someone is ‘as a lion’ may indicate strength or fierceness.”

    One of the phrases is taken from Hosea 10:1: “Israel is an empty vine” (KJV: “Israel is an empty vine, he bringeth forth fruit unto himself: according to the multitude of his fruit he hath increased the altars; according to the goodness of his land they have made goodly images”).

    How this attention activity played out in a class I attended:

    The class member read Hosea 10:1 in KJV and then said that he had no idea what the phrase meant because it contradicted itself. “How can an empty vine bring forth fruit?” he asked. The teacher was unable to respond and moved on.

  31. Is it a bad sign that my first read of GD wasn’t Gospel Doctrine but G–D—–?

  32. John,
    Did you send that in to Correlation Department? :)

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