Christopher Yetzer Addressing the Meaning of “Very Vulgar” in the KJV Preface to the Reader (Part 4)

The following is Christopher Yetzer’s fourth and final instalment in the treatment of the term “very vulgar” as it is used in the 1611 KJV Preface to the Reader. You can find prior instalments here: First, Second, and Third. Recently, “very vulgar” has been co-opted by opponents of the KJV in order to claim that even the KJV translators would want to see the KJV changed because the KJV is no longer a suitable form of English for the modern day.

Yetzer in this four part series has done a superb job showing that while the translators of the KJV desired to put the word of God into the hand of the ploughman it was not their intent to translate the Bible on the level of the “very vulgar” or very common man. Instead, these translators, like those before them, opted to retain difficult words, ambiguities, and majesty of the Scriptural style. What is more, the translators encouraged their readers to study if they could not understand or to turn to someone who had already studied so that they may better understand.

As Yetzer points out the KJV translators were not alone in this as we see in this fourth instalment. Thus Yetzer concludes, ” I do believe that the translators desired them [i.e., the common English speaker] to know God’s words but I don’t think that they [i.e., the KJV translators] consistently translated it on their level. They expected them to study, ask and learn.”

The following words are those of Yetzer presented without modification. He published this material today [08/18/22] on the Facebook group King James Bible Debate.

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Part 4: 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐊𝐉𝐕 𝐏𝐫𝐞𝐟𝐚𝐜𝐞 𝐂𝐨𝐦𝐩𝐚𝐫𝐞𝐝

COMPARED TO OTHER BIBLE PREFACES

First we need to note that the Bishops’ Bible was the only Protestant English Bible previous to the KJV which was translated after the official ending of the Council of Trent. It was however translated before the recognition of the Clementine text. Up to the Council of Trent, the changes by the inquisitors and the Prohibited Books Index, the Catholic Church was less unified in their position regarding translations of the Bible into the vulgar languages. The hardening of their stance had an impact on the methods and words they began to use in their attacks against the “heretics” which in turn would change the tone of the rebuttals used by the Protestants. The Council of Trent had an broad impact on the world, both Catholic and Protestant.

In the prefaces of the previous English Bibles, we are looking to see how intelligible or understandable the preface authors might have considered the words which they used. How did they think the translation would speak to the common man?

Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament preface:

In time to come (if God have appointed us thereunto) we will give it his full shape, and put out if aught be added superfluously, and add to if aught be overseen through negligence, and will enforce to bring to compendiousness that which is now translated at the length, and to give light where it is required, and to seek in certain places more proper English, and with a table to expound the words which are not commonly used and show how the Scripture useth many words which are otherwise understood of the common people, and to help with a declaration where one tongue taketh not another; and will endeavor ourselves, as it were, to seeth it better, and to make it more apt for the weak stomachs; desiring them that are learned and able, to remember their duty, and to help thereunto, and to bestow unto the edifying of Christ’s body (which is the congregation of them that believe) those gifts which they have received of God for the same purpose. (Text from Bible-researcher. Bold added)

In his preface, Tyndale was honest in recognizing the challenges of translating the Scriptures into English. He knew that some of the language used in the Bible would not communicate to the daily lives of the 16th century ploughman. He also knew that some of his terms and phrases would be unclear and in some points completely unintelligible to his readers (Tyndale is said to have created new words such as Passover, scapegoat, etc). That does not mean that he did not want the illiterate to understand the Scriptures, just that he didn’t translate it on their level.

1535 Coverdale preface:

Now will I exhort thee (whosoever thou be that readest scripture) if thou find ought therein that thou understandest not, or that appeareth to be repugnant, give no temeritous nor hasty judgment thereof: but ascribe it to thine own ignorance, not to the scripture, think that thou understandest it not, or that it hath some other meaning, or that it is happly overseen of the interpreters, or wrongly printed. Again, it shall greatly help thee to understand scripture, if thou mark not only what is spoken or written, but of whom, and unto whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstance, considering what goeth before, and what followeth after. For there be some things which are done and written, to the intent that we should do likewise: as when Abraham believeth God, is obedient unto his word, and defendeth Lot his kinsman from violent wrong. There be some things also which are written, to the intent that we should eschew such like. As when David lieth with Urias’ wife, and causeth him to be slain. Therefore (I say) when thou readest scripture, be wise and circumspect: and when thou commest to such strange manners of speaking and dark sentences, to such parables and similitudes, to such dreams or visions as are hid from thy understanding, commit them unto God or to the gift of his holy spirit in them that are better learned than thou. (Text from Bible-researcher. Bold added)

Like Tyndale, Coverdale desired people to have access to the Scriptures. He was aware though that within Scripture there were difficult concepts and that the readers may have to search out more intelligent or studied people to gain an understanding of what was written.

Thomas Cranmer’s preface printed in the Great Bible from 1540 onwards:

But still ye will say I can not understand it. What marvel? How shouldest thou understand, if thou wilt not read, nor look upon it? Take the books into thine hands, read the whole story, and that thou understandest, keep it well in memory; that thou understandest not, read it again, and again. If thou can neither so come by it, counsel with some other that is better learned. Go to thy curate and preacher; show thyself to be desirous to know and learn, and I doubt not but God – seeing thy diligence and readiness (if no man else teach thee) – will himself vouchsafe with his holy spirit to illuminate thee, and to open unto thee that which was locked from thee. (Text from Bible-researcher. Bold added)

Cranmer, like the others, desired people to know the Scriptures. He wrote in the preface that he believed they were written by common men to common men, but he also was prepared for the fact that many would not be able to comprehend them. He used the example of the Ethiopian Eunuch who continued to read even though he could not understand. Cranmer believed that if one would simply read like the Eunuch then God would bring a Phillip their way to open their understanding. He did not believe that they were translated at the level which common men would comprehend the entirety of them.

1560 Geneva Bible preface:

Now as we have chiefly observed the sense, and labored always to restore it to all integrity, so have we most reverently kept the propriety of the words, considering that the Apostles who spake and wrote to the Gentiles in the Greek tongue, rather constrained them to the lively phrase of the Hebrew than enterprised far by mollifying their language to speak as the Gentiles did. And for this cause we have in many places reserved the Hebrew phrases, notwithstanding that they may seem somewhat hard in their ears that are not well practiced and also delight in the sweet-sounding phrases of the Holy Scriptures. Yet lest either the simple should be discouraged, or the malicious have any occasion of just cavillation, seeing some translations read after one sort, and some after another, whereas all may serve to good purpose and edification, we have in the margent noted that diversity of speech or reading which may also seem agreeable to the mind of the Holy Ghost and proper for our language with this mark « …. And considering how hard a thing it is to understand the holy Scriptures, and what errors, sects, and heresies grow daily for lack of the true knowledge thereof, and how many are discouraged (as they pretend) because they cannot attain to the true and simple meaning of the same, we have also endeavored both by the diligent reading of the best commentaries, and also by the conference with the godly and learned brethren, to gather brief annotations upon all the hard places, as well for the understanding of such words as are obscure, and for the declaration of the text, as for the application of the same as may most appertain to God’s glory and the edification of his Church. (Text from Bible-researcher. Bold added)

Again the Geneva preface makes it clear that some of the words would not be understood, and they even made an attempt of putting more comprehensive language in the margins.

1568 Bishops’ Bible preface:

Saint Paul willeth thee to have thy senses exercised in them, and not to be a child in thy sense, but in malice. Though many things may be difficult to thee to understand, impute it rather to thy dull hearing and reading, then to think that the scriptures be insuperable, to them which with diligent searching labor to discern the evil from the good. Only search with an humble spirit, ask in continual prayer, seek with purity of life, knock with perpetual perseverance, and cry to that good spirit of Christ the comforter: and surely to every such asker it will be given, such searchers must needs find, to them it will be opened. Christ himself will open the sense of the scriptures, not to the proud, or to the wise of the world, but to the lowly and contrite in heart… Whereupon for frail man (compassed himself with infirmity) it is most reasonable not to be too severe in condemning his brothers knowledge or diligence where he doth err, not of malice, but of simplicity, and specially in handling of these so divine books so profound in sense, so far passing our natural understanding. (Modernized and bold added)

The Bishops’ Bible preface starts with a long encouragement to search the scriptures. And so it is clear that they stand in line with their forerunners: The Bible is to be read by all. But as their predecessors knew, so did they: That it wasn’t translated for the plowboy. We can also see in the preface the accusations against them, “but more cunningly under subtle pretenses, for that as they say, they were so hard to understand, and specially for that they affirm it to be a perilous matter to translate the text of the holy scripture, and therefore it cannot be well translated.” The Catholics were claiming that the Scriptures were too hard to understand for the people and that it was dangerous to translate them. The Anglicans wanted to bring their people to an understanding of the Scriptures and thought it was a blessing to man to read them at their leisure.

So we see by comparing these prefaces that each author desired the scriptures to be know to the common man and in most cases even to the children. But we also see that they knew that the Scriptures were not written on their level nor were they translated on their level. They knew that the words of the Scriptures contained difficult themes from a foreign land and a foreign time which were not common to the plowman.

COMPARED TO THE TRANSLATORS’ WORDS

A bit of background: as the discussions concerning the Apocryphal books and their position carried on, the Protestants began to emphasize that the canonical books had a sort of style to them which would allow true believers to differentiate canonical books from non-canonical. Richard Stock in his book A Stock of Divine Knowledge answers the question “How doth this appeare, that it was written by divine inspiration from God?” with three thoughts: 1. From the doctrine found inside. 2. From the majesty of the style. 3. From the approval of Christ and his Apostles. On his second point he explains, “Whosoever is exercised in reading the Scripture, shall plainly see, that no meer man was ever able to write it of himselfe. The excellencie of the stile is so great, that, as Eusebius reports, they thereby tried the writing of hereticks; if the stile doth not agree to this of the Prophets and Apostles, they are to be rejected. If wee will know all true authority, wee must know it by the stile… so the writings of other men may bee knowne from the Scriptures, on which the holy Ghost hath set such a stile as is not to bee found in all or any the writings of all the world besides.” This is important to understand because some of the translators’ quotes make reference to the style of Scripture and it seems that this is what was intended.

John Stock was not a KJV translator, but his explanation illuminates the words of the previous generation. Here is a more nuanced quote from a KJV translator and possibly two others:

  • Second Oxford translator George Abbot, “the matter of the books of Esdras is slight and vaine, without majestie, and unworthy the holy sacred spirit of God.” (The Reasons which Doctour Hill Hath Brought, for the Upholding of Papistry)
  • Translator Arthur Lake, “But we hold that which they confesse, that the Word written in the Canonicall books is undoubtedly signed with Thus saith the Lord of Hostes; as for the Apocryphall Scriptures, not only the Fathers, but their owne men have branded them for Bastards, before ever wee challenged them…” (Sermons With some Religious and Divine Meditations.)
  • “For it seemeth to me most agreeable to speak to God, as neere as we can, in the same language he speakes to us, which is the sanctified language of the Bible.” – Daniel Featley (Ancilla Pietatis: Or, The Hand-Maid to private Devotion)

Now let’s look at what some of the translators said concerning the intelligibility of Scripture. Some quotes will be pointing out the style and nature of Scripture as something different then common language while others are commenting on the difficulty interpreting the sense of the Scriptures.

  • “We hold, that God hath given the gift of Interpretation to some (as Saint Paul affirms) and they are such to whom God (as he saith) hath revealed it by his Spirit, that is, a natural man cannot Interpret them aright; nor yet the vulgar or common sort…” – Lancelot Andrewes (The Pattern of Catechistical Doctrine at Large)
  • “If the words be arranged in this manner, the statement will be more majestic.” – Andrew Downes (recorded during translating by John Bois) (Translating for King James)
  • “that we alwaies keepe the maiestie of the sacred word of God, and not give other men occasion, to thinke unfitly and unreverently of so high a mysterie,” – George Abbot (An Exposition upon the prophet Ionah)
  • “This man here is he which before was called the rich-man, rich not in a vulgar sense, but in the language of the Holy Ghost, who by Rich understandeth Noble.” – Arthur Lake (A Sermon Preached At Farneham On St. Iames His Day)
  • “…for the Bible is our Divinitie Grammar, according to which all our lessons ought to bee parsed and construed. And if yee meete with a difficult place, repaire to Gods Usher the Priest, whose lippes should preserve knowledge: Demand of your pastor, as the Disciples of Christ here; What manner of parable is this?” – John Bois (An Exposition of the Dominical Epistles)
  • “And for this purpose did Moses and the Prophets, Christ and his Apostles, and the Fathers of the Primitive Church commend unto the people the reading of the Scriptures. But we advise them to leave unto the learned, at least to learne of them to understand those things that are vailed; and soberly to edifie their pietie with these things which they shall find there unvailed, or laid before their faces.” – Arthur Lake (Sermons With some Religious and Divine Meditations)
  • “The name of ADAM is not to be understood vulgarly, but as the Holy Ghost useth it, and so it comprehends both sexes: so we read Gen. 1. GOD created ADAM, male and female made he them;” – Arthur Lake (Sermons With some Religious and Divine Meditations)
  • “God, in calling Him Lord; for that word must not be understood but according to the style of Scripture,” – Arthur Lake (Ten Sermons)
  • “Unregenerate hearts are termed in holy Bible stonie hearts;” – John Bois (The Workes of Iohn Boys)
  • “This dutie belongs not only to the Clergie, but also to the Laitie, yea to the most ignorant. For albeit every one cannot be learned in the writings of the Prophets and Apostles, which are the great Bible: yet, that he may take heed of false teachers, he must understand the plaine principles of his Catechisme, which, as one saith, is the little Bible.” – John Bois (The Workes of Iohn Boys)
  • “…so the word that now doth plenteously dwell among you, may dwell plenteously in you. Plenteously] Reade, heare, meditate, with all attention exactly, with all intention devoutly, with all diligence throughly…This one word, plenteously, confutes plenteously, first, ignorant people, who cannot: secondly, negligent people, who will not reade and heare…” – John Bois (An Exposition of the Dominical Epistles)
  • “The word of God is committed to the keeping of the Church, and this word is seed, and milke, and strong meat, Heb. 5.14. The Church then as a mother brings forth children to God by the ministerie of the word, and after they be borne feeds them with milke flowing from her owne two brests, which are the Scriptures of the two Testaments.” – John Bois (The Workes of Iohn Boys)
  • “Some things in the writings of S. Paul are hard to be understood: This Epistle containing the chiefe mysteries of all divinity, so difficult as any: this Scripture more dark than other parts of this Epistle: whether we consider the matter, or the words. It is a tract of eternall glory which is not fully revealed unto us here, but shall be shewed upon us hereafter: and it hath a phrase or two not used else-where throughout the whole Bible:” – John Bois (The Workes of Iohn Boys)
  • “What a good speech is that of Irenaeus. Some things in the Scriptures (by Gods prouidence) are hard to be comprehended in this life, Vt semper quidem Deus doceat, homo autem semper discat quae sunt à Deo? That God might haue alwayes somewhat to teach vs, and that man might haue to learne alwaies those things that are of God?” – Miles Smith (Sermons)
  • “And another, Circumcise the fore-skin of your hearts, &c. Neither doe the Scriptures only vse to speake thus, but ordinary wise men also, whether they were in the Church or out of the Church.” – Miles Smith (Sermons)
  • “Doe ye looke, (I speake to the vnlearned,) that as Bees brought honey into Platoes mouth, as they fable; and as Timotheus had Cities and Castles cast into his lap when he was asleepe, as they painted him; so knowledge and the resolution of hard doubts, and the vnderstanding of darke places of Scripture will be breathed vpon you, without once opening of your mouthes, or asking a question?… And our Prophet in my Text, would not haue a man to trust too much to his owne wit or perspicacy, but that he should aske of others.” – Miles Smith (Sermons)
  • “These be demonstrative proofes, that there is more in this word, then mans wit can imagine, that not by sword or compulsion, but onely by speaking and hearing, perhaps this day it creepeth, to morrow it flyeth aloft, and sheweth his head with the mightiest.” – George Abbot (An Exposition upon the Prophet Ionah)
  • “There are many demonstrative proofes of the unmatchable excellencie, and incomparable rarity of the volumes of the Bible, although the dazeled eyes of some know not how to behold them.” – George Abbot (An Exposition upon the Prophet Ionah)

Often in their sermons and writings they will mention a phrase similar to “as the Scripture speakes” (See Arthur Lake’s sermons, William Barlow’s The Sermon preached at Paules Crosse and John Bois’ An Exposition of the Dominical Epistles)

COMPARED TO THE TEXT ITSELF.

Lancelot Andrewes was one of the most important translators. He was director of the first Westminster company of translators which worked on the portion of the Bible from Genesis through 2 Kings. He may have had more impact on that portion of text than any of the other members as in November 1604 he wrote to a Mr. Hartwell saying, “this afternoon is our translation time, and most of our company are negligent”(Two Answers to Cardinal Perron, and Other Miscellaneous Works of Lancelot Andrewes. It should be noted that Andrewes was possibly one of the only unmarried men in his company). In several writings Andrewes taught that rather than make the Scriptures as clear as possible they should actually be translated into the broadest sense permitted, “It were good in translations, that the interpreter would observe this rule, to let the words stand in as large and broad a sense as they will bear, for so if need by they may be restrained by other places;”(The Pattern of Catechistical Doctrine at Large) and “for my part I wish no word ever narrowed by a translation, asmuch as might be, left in the latitude of the Originall tongue…The best way is, where there are two, to take in both: So we shall be sure, to leave out neither.”(Ninety-Six Sermons) This appears scattered throughout the text. Genesis 3:6 is a good example.

Genesis 3:6

  • Bishops’ Bible: …and gaue also vnto her husbande beyng with her, and he dyd eate.
  • KJV 1611: …and gaue also vnto her husband with her, and hee did eate.

Here we can see that the KJV reads more like the more vague Geneva text which permits Adam to have either been present at the moment Eve ate or to have been given the fruit when he was finally present with her. The following verse presents the same situation.

Genesis 11:28

  • Bishops’ Bible: And Haran dyed in the presence of his father Tarah…
  • KJV 1611: And Haran died, before his father Terah…

In Genesis 11:28 it is unclear if Haran died in the presence of his father or simply during his life. The Hebrew is “on the face”. The KJV translators took a more vague approach and copied the Geneva text. Andrewes’ theory of translation passes on to other books in the KJV besides the ones he specifically worked on. Here is an example from the book of Psalms (also see the example from 1 Samuel 24:3 given above above).

Psalms 12:7

  • Bishops’ Bible: [Wherfore] thou wylt kepe the godly, O God…
  • KJV 1611: Thou shalt keep them, O LORD…

Every one of these three examples follows the Geneva and the intent is less immediately clear to the reader.

Besides the places where the translators made the Biblical text slightly less understandable by making it more vague, there are other places where (despite Miles Smith’s words) the KJV continued to use some complex theological terms such as propitiation and technical terms such as presbytery (also see EphodProselyte etc.).

1 John 2:2

  • Geneva Bible: And he is the reconciliation for our sinnes:
  • Bishops’ Bible: And he is ye attonement for our sinnes:
  • KJV 1611: And he is the propitiation for our sinnes:

1 Timothy 4:14

  • Geneva Bible: …with the laying on of the hands of the companie of the Eldership.
  • Bishops’ Bible: …with the laying on of handes by the auctoritie of the eldership.
  • KJV 1611: …with the laying on of the hands of the Presbyterie.

Earlier in this study we noted William Sclater’s complaint just a few years after the printing of the 1611, but we won’t repeat it here. Other contemporary witnesses would include the preface to the 1645 English annotations, “the people complained, that they could not see into the sense of the Scripture, so well as they formerly did, by the Geneva Bibles, because their spectacles of Annotations were not fitted to the understanding of the new Text, nor any other supplyed in their stead.” and A Complete Concordance to the Bible of the Last Translation says, “if in their reading the Bible they fall upon some perplexed sentence and obscure place, let them according to the direction of S. Austin, seek for other parallel texts or places of Scripture, in which the same matter is set down more plainly and evidently…so the Scripture is best expounded by Scripture. But if they cannot meet with any parallel sentence, let them then single out that word or words, the ambiguity wherof causes obscurity in the sentence. This word or words let them search in their Concordance, and observe in each place where they reade it, the severall significations therof, and among them let them make choise of that which upon due examination they finde best agreeth with the analogie of faith, the scope of the place, and circumstances of the text.” John Selden, a friend of several translators, who said, “There is no Book so translated as the Bible for the purpose. If I translate a French Book into English, I turn it into English Phrase, not into French English [Il fait froid] I say ‘tis cold, not, it makes cold, but the Bible is rather translated into English Words, than into English Phrase. The Hebraisms are kept, and the Phrase of that Language is kept: As for Example [He uncovered her Shame] which is well enough, so long as Scholars have to do with it; but when it comes among the Common People, Lord, what Gear do they make of it!” (Table-Talk Thanks to Timothy Berg for recently pointing this out.)

Modern scholars have agreed with the sentiments expressed by the translators and the early contemporary sources. Bible Scholar Edward Hills has said, “…the English of the King James Version is not the English of the early seventeenth century. To be exact, it is not a type of English that was ever spoken anywhere. It is Biblical English…” (As quoted in Biblical English by Phil Stringer) Donald Brake describes that, “By 1611, the ambiguous you (singular and plural) instead of thou (singular) and ye (plural) was virtually the norm; thus, the KJV translators were compelled to employ forms that were already archaic,” and that the translators “were very conservative and retained the fading use of many words…”(A Monarch’s Majestic Translation) KJV scholar David Norton defends some of the ambiguity in the text by saying, “Equally what may appear bad through incomprehensibility or sheer ugliness often comes from its earnest fidelity to the originals.”(A Short History) Robert Alter commenting on the Hebrew text says, “the Bible itself does not generally exhibit the clarity to which its modern translators aspire: the Hebrew writers reveled in the proliferation of meanings, the cultivation of ambiguities, the playing of one sense of a term against another, and this richness is erased in the deceptive antiseptic clarity of the modern versions…” (The Art of Bible Translation).

In conclusion to the 4 parts of this research: The phrase “very vulgar” from the preface was most likely in reference to word units and even at that a bit of publicity which the translators did not universally apply. The text of the KJV was not entirely understandable to the most illiterate at the time it was published. I do believe that the translators desired them to know God’s words but I don’t think that they consistently translated it on their level. They expected them to study, ask and learn.

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