KJV Italics

The principal use of italics in contemporary English is to provide emphasis. Anyone reading the KJV Bible with that background assumption is likely to be misled, however. The KJV occasionally uses italic type, but if you open your Bible and scan some examples, it doesn’t appear to be used for purposes of stress. And the introduction nowhere explains the use of italics in the translation. It is clear, however, that the KJV translators were following the practice pioneered in a number of 16th century translations, including most proximately the Geneva Bible, of using a different typeface(1) to represent words not literally present in the Hebrew and Greek texts, but necessary for the text to make proper sense in English. The LDS BD s.v. “Italics” explains it this way:

In the KJV italics identify words that are necessary in English to round out and complete the sense of a phrase, but were not present in the Hebrew or Greek text of the manuscript used. Such additions were necessary because in some instances the manuscript was inadequate, and the translators felt obliged to clarify it in the translation. In other instances italics were necessary in cases where the grammatical construction of English called for the use of words that were not needed to make the same thought in Hebrew or Greek. Italics thus represent the willingness of the translators to identify these areas. It appears that generally, though not always, their judgment was justified in their choice of italicized words.

I’m curious how widespread knowledge of this stylistic usage is among contemporary Mormons. My guess is that it is probably well known among ‘Naclers, but that it is probably not at all well known among ordinary members. Part of the reason for my sense about this is that I learned of it myself relatively late, after four years of seminary and after a two-year mission, and not until I was involved in publishing my first substantial published article, on the JST (in Dialogue).

An important question for LDS scholars of scripture is whether Joseph knew of the import of KJV italics when producing the BoM and JST. Royal Skousen is of the view that he likely did not; see this preliminary discussion (although his detailed treatment has not yet appeared, but will be in a forthcoming volume of his BoM textual commentary). In contrast, David Wright is of the view that Joseph did understand the import of italics; see for example here.

I am a great admirer of Skousen’s scholarship, but on this particular issue I have to agree with Wright. I think there are basically three types of evidence favoring the conclusion that Joseph understood the meaning of the italicized words. First, and most importantly, is the distribution of the variants in Joseph’s inpired translations, which show a clear (though by no means absolute) tendency to revolve around the italicized words. Skousen and Wright agree roughly on this distribution, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30%, give or take, but they draw different conclusions from it. My experience spending a fair amount of time examining variants is that the italics were a significant factor.

Second is the practice of often crossing out italicized words in the “marked Bible” used as an aid in preparing the JST. Anyone with access to the critical text can see this phenomenon for herself, since they have actual pictures of the marked Bible text.

Third are near-contemporary statements from Joseph’s milieu evincing a familiarity with the purpose of the italics. A prominent example is this from a W.W. Phelps editorial in the Evening and Morning Star (January 1833):

The book of Mormon, as a revelation from God, possesses some advantage over the old scripture: it has not been tinctured by the wisdom of man, with here and there an Italic word to supply deficiencies.—It was translated by the gift and power of God. …

For further examples, see Note 25 here.

This suspicion towards italicized words demonstrates why, ultimately, it was a bad idea to represent such interpolations with a different typeface. (Witness the fact that modern translations no longer follow this older fad in the art of translation.) It was certainly done with the best of intentions, to provide complete transparency and disclose where the translator had left his mark. But people unschooled in actually doing a translation got the wrong idea from this. First, it gave the appearance that translation is a mechanical, verbum pro verbo process, and it is not. And it also gave the impression that the italicized words might not be strictly necessary to the translation, which was the wrong impression to give.

In Gen. 1:4, we read: “And God saw the light, that it was good….” Hebrew allows the formation of sentences without the copula, where English requires it. Should we instead render “And God saw the light, that good….”? Surely not.

In the genealogy of Jesus from Luke 3, say at v. 24, we have: “Which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi….” Would it be more accurate to remove the italicized words, leaving “Which was of Matthat, which was of Levi, which was of Melchi….”? No. In Greek descent may be clearly shown simply by using the genitive, but trying to do that in English would unnecessarily introduce an obscurity and ambiguity to the text.

So, although well intentioned, the use of italics was often misunderstood by lay people. In my view it is preferable when translating not to try to draw this kind of distinction for the reader. A translation has both a source language and a target language, and making the text sensible in the target language is simply a part of what a translator must do.

(1) The 1611 first edition of the KJV was printed in black-letter (gothic), with the translator interpolations in small roman type. The next year, due to demand for a roman type edition (to match the Geneva Bible), the interpolated words began to be printed in italic, which is the practice followed in contemporary KJV editions.


  1. I had just read that Phelps statement in my extraction–they also made fun of Webster’s for offering a sanitized version of KJV. Fascinating to see how they interacted with those texts, I agree. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Name (required) says:

    Way off topic:

    Anyone with access to the critical text can see this phenomenon for herself, since they have actual pictures of the marked Bible text.

    What is the deal with female pronouns from male authors? This practice seems to be gaining in popularity. I would generally expect pronouns to match the gender of the author unless the group being described is more accurately described using the opposite gender. Is this the case here?

    Is this just political correctness? Are writers supposed to randomly switch genders?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Historically the masculine gender was always used for generic third persons. I picked up the habit, in law school, I think, of randomly switching genders in such cases.

    I guess our choices are (a) just come to grips with the idea that in such situations the masculine includes the feminine, (b) come up with a new gender neutral pronoun (people have tried, but none has ever caught on), or (c) randomly switch the gender of generic personal pronouns. Since women tend to feel that the structure of the English language inherently represents historical sexism, I don’t mind doing the switching thing.

    But I’m open to suggestions if anyone has a better solution.

  4. I believe I learned about the italics on my mission, although I don’t know how widespread that knowledge is in the church. I’ve always thought them to be unnecessary. Of course when you translate there will be different ways of saying things (like saying “of” instead of “the son of”) that will require adding words to give it the same meaning. I do, though, sometimes find it interesting when I read to skip the italicized word to hear how it might have sounded in the original text, just for fun I guess.

  5. I learned about this shortly after joing the church. It was one of those “Joseph Smith is a true porphet because of the Italics in the KJV” Faith Promoting Rumors. It seemed to be common knowledge among the people I was associated with at the time…

  6. I’m not sure when I learned it, but I know I was a teenager at the oldest. I’m fairly certain my parents taught me about it, and they were very typical Mormons with respect to issues like this.

  7. Hmm. Not sure when I learned this/figured it out, but it was no later than my undergrad years at BYU (religion classes in OT and NT, plus a NT Greek class). It probably wouldn’t have come up on my mission (Spanish-speaking); I might have learned it pre-mission, but I just don’t remember.

    I’ve usually pointed it out in the Sunday School and Seminary classes that I’ve taught over the years. ..bruce..

  8. Our ward Sunday School teacher mentioned this tidbit about the KJV italics a few weeks ago in class, and I was surprised to overhear the 50 year old gentleman sitting behind me (whom I believe to be life-time member) say to his wife, “I didn’t know that.”

    I think I was taught it in seminary, but I think a lot of people aren’t taught this until later in life.

  9. This is news to me. I attended seminary, but never knew this. I think I’m probably more representative of an “ordinary mormon” than most naclers. I’m not a scholar.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 2, I found some stuff on Wikipedia that is responsive to your question:

    A speaker may not know or may want to avoid specifying a person’s gender. Traditionally, when one wishes to refer to a single definite person androgynously with a pronoun in the third person, the masculine pronoun is used. Some people have begun to challenge this tradition, however, usually by resorting to plural pronouns such as ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ for singular uses. This is called the singular ‘they’.

    Other common solutions include the generic ‘she’, ‘one’, the generic ‘you’, circumlocutions such as ‘he or she’, or using ‘he’ and ‘she’ in alternate passages, and rewording sentences to avoid pronouns.


  11. I personally prefer the solution of using “he” and “she” in alternate passages. To heck with them if they can’t keep up with the story.

    None of this would have been an issue if the Alta Club didn’t buckle back in ’85.

  12. Christopher Smith says:

    >>But I’m open to suggestions if anyone has a better solution.

    Maybe you could put “he” in italics.

  13. #12 has my vote. Brilliant!

  14. Name (required) says:

    Back on the subject–

    I think that I was a teenager when I noticed the italics. I initially thought it was for emphasis or something, but it seemed weird because the more boring words would always get the italics. I eventually read something that clarified the meaning of the italics.

    On my mission, I came across a decent greek(?) to english translation of the new testament. It was from the JWs (so it was new world translation), but it showed each greek word and the literal english translation. It made it easy to see that some english words came out of thin air to make the reading smoother. In a few places, it also showed an obvious bias in the JW translation.

  15. Perry Shumway says:

    It’s so easy for anyone to avoid specifying someone else’s gender!

    All they have to do is vary the use of her pronouns, so he doesn’t end up using their same one-gender pronoun again and again, and – presto! – she can magically yet accurately record his thoughts without worrying about offending their potentially gender-issue-sensitive audience at all!

  16. I always got a chuckle on my mission when some naive Elder would approach a Jehovah’s Witness and ask them to turn to vs. such and such, and point out that words were missing. The only problem, seeing as I was in Italy, the Elders would use the KJV to indicate where the Jehovah’s Witness Bible was missing text – I secretly enjoyed showing my companions that the Italian Bible we used was also missing the text. Thos italics can sure be confusing.

  17. I learned what the italics meant either just before or on my mission, I’m pretty sure from reading the Bible Dictionary in my quad for fun. My question about italics is how often did the translators add in an entire clause, such as the end of John 8:6? It certainly takes chutzpah to add in an entire made-up reason for Jesus doing something, and even more to then tell everyone that you’re adding it.

  18. Austin you bring up a good point. It can also compound upon itself if the manuscript being used is already a translation of a translation. If you compare the KJV to actual Hebrew or Greek versions, sometimes you can come up with a completely different meaning of a scripture or verse than the one that would seem evident in a newer version.

    I cannot wait for the Codex Sinaiticus to go online in a couple of years to see how extensive the differences might be. It might just give a whole new meaning to the gospel being restored from the “4” quarters/corners of the world (England, Russia, Germany and St. Catherine’ Monastery) See more here

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 12, that’s pure genius! (We’re still on for Saturday, right?)

    No. 14, I too had a JW Interlinear on my mission. It’s a good little book.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    On the italicized final clause of John 8:6, I found the explanation here. I’ll quote below the relevant text:

    The editors of the 1769 Oxford edition undertook, therefore, to regularize the use of italics by italicizing all words of the translation which did not have a counterpart in the text of Stephens 1550. Consequently, modern editions of the King James version are much more heavily italicized than the original: In Matthew, the 1611 edition uses roman type 69 times, whereas the more exact 1769 edition uses italics 384 times. The reader should be aware of the fact that the King James version is not, strictly speaking, a translation of Estienne 1550; and so in some cases the modern italics are misleading if used as an indication of the readings upon which the version is based. For example, in Mark 8:14 the modern editions italicize the words the disciples because they are not in Estienne, but it is evident that here the King James translators were following, as usual, the text of Beza 1598, where the words hoi mathetai are found. The following is a complete list of such cases.

    S – Stephens 1550
    B – Beza 1598
    E – Elzevir 1624
    C – Complutensian Polyglot 1522
    Er – Erasmus 1527
    Vul – Clementine Vulgate 1592
    Tyn – Tyndale 1535
    Gen – Genevan Bible 1560
    Bish – Bishops Bible 1568

    Mark 8:14 Modern editions italicize the disciples, in accordance with S E. But the text of 1611 was probably based upon B.
    Mark 9:42 Modern editions italicize these, in accordance with S B E. But the text of 1611 was probably based upon C Vul.
    John 8:6 Modern editions italicize as though he heard them not at end of verse, in accordance with S B E. But the text of 1611 was probably based upon C S1546 S1549 and the Bishops’ Bible.
    Acts 1:4 Modern editions italicize them after assembled together with, in accordance with S E. But the text of 1611 was probably based upon B.
    Acts 26:3 Modern editions italicize because I know, in accordance with S E. But the text of 1611 was probably based upon B.
    Acts 26:18 Modern editions italicize and before to turn, in accordance with S E. But the text of 1611 was probably based upon B.
    1 Cor 14:10 Modern editions print the words of them in ordinary type, in accordance with S B E. But the text of 1611 had them in italics, in accordance with Vul.
    Heb 12:24 Modern editions italicize that of before Abel, in accordance with S B E. But the text of 1611 was probably based upon Er.
    1 John 3:16 Modern editions italicize of God after love, in accordance with S E. But the text of 1611 was probably based upon C B.
    Rev 11:14 Modern editions italicize and before behold, in accordance with S. But the text of 1611 was probably based upon B Vul.
    Rev 19:18 Modern editions italicize both before free, in accordance with S B E. But the text of 1611 was probably based upon C.

  21. I’m not sure when I learned this. That is kind of an odd feeling.

  22. I’m the daughter of a Protestant minister, so I learned about the italics so early I don’t even remember a time not knowing. But I’m aware that many LDS do not know this, so I always make it a point to mention it when I teach Seminary, Sunday School, and even Primary classes.

    I’m a rabid feminist, but have never minded the use of the generic “he,” or “man” as mankind. That’s just an idiosyncrasy of our language. I’ve toyed with using the singular “they” and the word “one,” but they never seem to flow as well. The best results I’ve had when writing highly feminist essays has been the use of “s/he”.

    I got a huge laugh out of #12! But some feminists, being unaware of the meaning of the use of italics, might object to an extra emphasis on he! So watch out.

  23. Kevin, as the LDS Bible dictionary is apparently an adaptation of the Cambridge Bible Dictionary (see Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, citing a 1981 BYU Studies article, “The New Publications of the Standard Works), it’d be interesting to know whether in the LDS BD entry for “Italics,” Matthews, McConkie, et al. simply repeated the CBD entry, adapted it, or wrote their own entry(Mildly interesting, not enough for me to actually check that out myself).

  24. Kevin, I like your informative posts for readership. Usually always good.

    You might find this interesting, as I sit embroiled in scrutinizing the JST, I tend to favor the view of you and Wright about Joseph.

    And on another sidenote, even with my respect for the scholarship in modern English translations of Scripture, I also appreciate the KJV and use of italics. I have often been intrigued by the KJV translators’ mark.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    Good question, Stirling.

    I don’t know for sure (my old missionary edition with its pre-1979 Cambridge BD is buried in a mountain of books in my bedroom), but my strong impression is that the last sentence represents a judgment made by the LDS scripture committee and not something that would have originally appeared in the Cambridge BD.

    Perhaps someone with access to a pre-1979 LDS Bible could take a look and let us know.

    Todd, what do you mean usually always good? (Heh.) Actually, like you I quite like the KJV, but then I have a strong antiquarian streak.

  26. Re: gender issues in writing

    As per Kevin (#3), I will alternate between using generic male or female examples in my writing. However, I will also at times use “s/he” and “her/him” in my writing, though I know there are writing mavens who are appalled by such constructs. However, coming from a family of strong women (meaning my mother and sisters), I’m less concerned about the mavens than I am about them. :-) ..bruce..

  27. Adam Greenwood says:

    Nothing says ‘I love you, Mom’ like ungainly prose.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  28. So Kevin (#20), am I understanding right that John 8:6 is an example of the translators not using their regular manuscript, but relying on another text? That would be comforting if they weren’t just making stuff up out of thin air.

  29. Kevin Barney says:

    Right, Austin, they didn’t just make the words up, they were based on another (printed) edition of the Greek text. One of the occasional functions of italics (whether intentional or not) was to mark textual variants.

  30. On the topic of making stuff up –

    Kevin, didn’t that happen often in Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible? We usually call it a translation, but do we know what Joseph was thinking as he made those changes? Did he think he was putting back words that had originally been in the text, or did he think he was puting it right for the first time?

    Either way, I think his revision of scripture is a powerful indicator of the amount of confidence he had in his prophetic calling. Not only did he not consider himself to be bound by sacred texts, he felt that he had authority to change them.

  31. Mark, Smith’s accounts of the process suggest that he believed he was restoring the autographs, though that may not need to be understood as literally as he did. Something that may bear fruit in research is the question of whether Smith believed he was retranslating from the same Adamic that the “inspired penmen” were translating from originally.

  32. Kevin Barney says:

    Whatever Joseph thought he was doing, I view his inspired translation projects as largely midrashic in nature.

    You can find my publications here; see in particular “The Joseph Smith Translation and Ancient Texts of the Bible,” “A More Responsible Critique” (under the caption “Shepherd on Pseudo-Translation”), and “Isaiah Interwoven” (under the caption “Interweaving of the BoM and JST”).

  33. I don’t remember not knowing about the italics. It seems really obvious, but I also had to study languages without things like definite articles in high school and college: once you realize that in Russian you introduce yourself by saying “They call me Sarah” instead of “My name is Sarah,” the problems of translating anything (including scripture) into natural-sounding English become pretty apparent.

    I hate (hate hate hate hate) alternating pronouns in a single paragraph. I don’t care if you decide that today’s example of the moment is female or male, but please, pick one. My parents, when I was a kid and every adult I knew was a Unitarian Universalist, spent time at church altering every other reference to deity, in all the hymnbooks, to a female pronoun or noun. Thus, half the “Lords” became “Ladies” and half the “hes” became “shes”. No surgery required for anyone, beyond that provided by a #2 pencil. It was incredibly, mind-numbingly silly and served no point except to illustrate how obsessed with perception and appearance the people in question were. By the time I was old enough to feel like actually participate in the singing they’d erased the marks and replaced most of the books and yet no one was more sexist than they had been ten years earlier. Good sense (and basic communicative clarity) should always win out over any “ism.” Sheesh.

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