It is often hard for me to give you a clear picture of what it is like for millions of people who have Bibles which they do not fully understand. Many people living on “Oreo island” can figure out from Scripture that we are supposed to believe in Jesus, but they still would say that Christians are saved because of following a short list of do’s and don’ts. This is because they just don’t understand the main themes of Paul’s letters. Why? Because it is hard work to read something you find difficult to grasp, like reading a difficult legal document, or a medical document peppered with medical terms.
To appreciate what it is like for the people we are creating a translation for, please test yourself on this paragraph. To help you, the spelling of this historic document has been modernized.
The best things have been calumniated
Zeal to promote the common good, whether it be by devising anything ourselves, or revising that which hath been laboured by others, deserveth certainly much respect and esteem, but yet findeth but cold entertainment in the world. It is welcomed with suspicion instead of love, and with emulation instead of thanks: and if there be any hole left for cavil to enter, (and cavil, if it do not find a hole, will make one) it is sure to be misconstrued, and in danger to be condemned. This will easily be granted by as many as know story, or have any experience. For was there ever any thing projected, that savoured any way of newness or renewing, but the same endured many a storm of gainsaying or opposition? A man would think that civility, wholesome laws, learning and eloquence, synods, and Church-maintenance, (that we speak of no more things of this kind) should be as safe as a sanctuary, and out of shot, as they say, that no man would lift up the heel, no, nor dog move his tongue against the motioners of them. For by the first we are distinguished from brute beasts led with sensuality: by the second we are bridled and restrained from outrageous behaviour, and from doing of injuries, whether by fraud or by violence: by the third we are enabled to inform and reform others by the light and feeling that we have attained unto ourselves: briefly, by the fourth, being brought together to a parle face to face, we sooner compose our differences than by writings, which are endless: and lastly, that the Church be sufficiently provided for is so agreeable to good reason and conscience, that those mothers are holden to be less cruel, that kill their children as soon as they are born, than those nursing fathers and mothers (wheresoever they be) that withdraw from them who hang upon their breasts (and upon whose breasts again themselves do hang to receive the spiritual and sincere milk of the word) livelihood and support fit for their estates. Thus it is apparent, that these things which we speak of are of most necessary use, and therefore that none, either without absurdity can speak against them, or without note of wickedness can spurn against them.
So let’s take a little quiz!
- What is the purpose of calumniating the “best things”?
- True/False: A cavil is an instrument for making a hole in leather.
- When the document says in the third sentence, “This will easily be granted by as many as know story,” shouldn’t there be a “the” before the word “story”?
- What does “This” in that sentence refer back to?
- What is the point of the five-points? Are all five points all about one topic?
- In the last point, what is the point of the comparison that begins “that those mothers are holden to be less cruel, that kill their children…”?
- This is the first paragraph of a longer preface to a famous book. Based on this paragraph, what is the overall theme of the preface?
THAT is what it is like for people we are translating for! For most of us, the paragraph contains words we can only guess at. And some of the grammatical constructions sound quite strange, don’t they? The worst thing is that the whole point is hard to grasp, or may be missed totally. And remember, the people we are translating for are lucky if they have a 4th grade education! I have heard more sermons than I care to count, where the preacher chose a Scripture passage of similar difficulty, and then made the theme of his sermon something like the phrase “no man would lift up the heel, no, nor dog move his tongue against the motioners of them.” (In that case, the sermon might be about how we should not be cruel to dogs and children.) Often no one in the congregation (except me) realizes that the speaker has missed the whole point of the passage!
There are amusing stories I could share about this, but the point is quite serious, isn’t it? Understanding God’s Word is the key to eternal life.
Have you guessed where that paragraph comes from? It is the first paragraph of the translator’s original preface to the King’s James Version! If you would like to read more of it, or see some answers to my questions, try one of these links:
*Please note: My linking does not constitute an endorsement for other things you might find on these sites.
Here is a PDF of the complete preface from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary.
By the way: More on the preface to the KJV:
A few years ago, I wrote a letter when there were questions about Bible Translation growing out of the King James Only movement. The letter was later published by our organization. You can read the letter by clicking this link.
Later a similar, and much more scholarly article was written, available here:
What it’s like to not HAVE God’s Word: