Monday, January 24, 2011

Studie to shewe thy selfe approued

The King James version translates 2 Timothy 2:15 as “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” A number of other older translations give the same or a very similar translation (the title of the post was taken from the Geneva Bible (1557) translation of the verse). None of the modern translations that I am aware of translate the verse in this way. The word “study” is translated variously as “be diligent”, “do your best”, or “work hard”. I was asked if the KJV mistranslated the verse, there is a variant reading in the manuscripts, or if the modern translators are being influenced by some other concern.

The fact is that the difference in the translation of this verse between the KJV and the more recent (and actually some even older ones like Wycliffe & Tyndale) translations is not the result of any of these factors. The fact is that it is not really a different translation at all. Languages change over time and particular words often have a shift in their potential meanings. Every word has what is called a semantic range which is the range of various meanings that the word carries. Over time the semantic range of any word may change. Sometimes words come to have a broader range of meanings (such as the word icon) and in some cases the range of meanings will become more restricted (like the words engine, meat, or accident). Most English words have at least 3 or 4 distinct potential meanings.

The differences in these translations are the result of a semantic shift between the Elizabethan and modern definitions of the word “study”. The Greek word that is being translated is the word σπούδασον which means to make an effort, pursue diligently, or to be prompt. At the time that the King James Version, the Geneva Bible, and others were being translated this is exactly what the word “study” meant. The original readers of the KJV would not have thought that the verse was a reference to bible study, but rather to urgent and diligent effort. There are many similar examples in the KJV where a word appears that is a commonly used modern word but has a shifted meaning. Examples include the words let, communicate, against, prevent, and ought, which are just a few of the words that have different meanings in the KJV than they have in modern English.

The translation of 2 Timothy 2:15 is actually the same in both the King James Version and most modern translations though each uses vocabulary appropriate to its own time. This is not an example of differences in the manuscripts or translation philosophy it is simply that the English words most appropriate to convey the meaning of the Greek word are different today than they were in 1611. I love the King James Version. It is the most significant book ever published in the English language and its influence is virtually incalculable in many different ways. Everyone who can afford a copy should have and use one but it is important that we take the time to understand it on the basis of its word usage rather than that of modern English.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. For those using the KJV, we have put up a webpage with a list of the 200 words that are most likely to be misunderstood by modern readers: