(This post had its origins in a question on a previous post. I thought it was worth making into a front page article.)
We use the Authorised (King James) Version for our Bible translation in our church. There are many factors in choosing a Bible translation. I’m not going to speak to them all in this post! But I would like to address one thing that many people cite as a reason to use a more modern translation — the use of antiquated words such as “Thou,” “Thee,” and “Thy.”
Certainly, these words sound strange to the modern ear. We don’t go around using them in daily conversation. Wouldn’t it be better if we just went to using “you”? Well, there would be something to be gained in that. If we want modern readers to understand the Bible, it would help to use words that modern readers know, wouldn’t it? But something would be lost, too. So I’d like to take a post to briefly show the value of these old words, and why I’m persuaded their presence in the Authorised Version is a plus rather than a minus.
Peter, or All the Disciples?
For comparison purposes, I’d like to start by giving a few verses in the New King James Version, which doesn’t use these old words (or the old word “ye”). Starting with John 13:37:
Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You now? I will lay down my life for Your sake.”
Jesus answered him, “Will you lay down your life for My sake? Most assuredly, I say to you, the rooster shall not crow till you have denied Me three times.
Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me.
In My Father’s house are many mansions;if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
To whom is Jesus speaking in His prophecy of the denial? To Peter, apparently, but then He goes on with, “Let not your heart be troubled.” Is He still speaking to Peter, or is He speaking to all of His disciples? And if to all of His disciples, then was He speaking to them in the previous sentence and telling them that they would all deny Him? He mentions many mansions, so maybe He is talking to all of them, but then He says, “a place,” not places, so maybe He is talking to only Peter. Which is it? Jesus says “heart” (not “hearts”) so maybe He really is speaking to Peter alone throughout the passage, right?
Forget everything you know about these verses and just look at them in the NKJV translation [New King James Version], which uses the modern “you.” Can you answer these questions from looking at the verses?
The answer is obvious in the Greek — but the NKJV translation doesn’t let us know that. The modern “you” could be speaking to one person or a group of persons, could be the subject of the sentence or the direct object (“You hit the ball” or “the ball hit you”). And in fact, since Jesus said “heart” and “a place,” a person reading the NKJV could easily think Jesus really is just talking to Peter.
What the Old Words Mean
The Authorised Version answers all of these questions clearly — as long as you know what the different old words mean. If you don’t know what they mean, the following can help you understand the AV (KJV) better, and get insight into the original language text which the modern translations can’t provide.
- “Thou” — this is you in the singular, referring to one, not many. It is the subject of a sentence. “Thou anointest my head with oil” — the one God (singular), “Thou,” is the subject, telling us who is doing the action. The modern equivalent is “you” — we would say, “You anoint my head with oil.”
- “Thee” — this is also you in the singular. However, it is the object of the sentence, the person receiving the action. The Jewish leaders asked Jesus, “Who gave thee this authority?” They were talking to one person, and referring to Him as one who had (or had not) received an action — the giving of authority. Again, the modern equivalent is “you” — we would say, “Who gave you this authority?”
- “Thy/Thine” — these two words have an identical meaning, differing only in form. They are similar to “a/an” in that the form varies depending on what follows — if followed by a vowel sound or at the end of a sentence, “thine” is used, otherwise “thy” is used. These words are the possessive form of “you.” When the Father said to Jesus, “…until I make thine enemies thy footstool,” the words identified the enemies as Jesus’ enemies, the footstool as His. These words are singular, addressed to one person. The modern equivalent is “your” — we would say, “…make your enemies your footstool.”
- “Ye” — this is you in the plural as the subject of the sentence (like “thou” above, only more than one person). “Ye believe in God” — multiple people are doing the action (believing).
- “You” — this is you in the plural as the object of the sentence (like “thee” above, but more than one person). “If it were not so, I would have told you.” More than one person would have been told.
- “Your” — this is your in the plural (like “thy/thine”, but more than one person). “Let not your heart be troubled.” The heart of more than one person is in view.
Let’s use a table for easy reference:
|Old Singular||Old Plural||Modern Singular||Modern Plural|
|Subject (does the action)||Thou||Ye||You||You|
|Object (receives the action)||Thee||You||You||You|
When you see these old words, they may seem strange to you at first, but they are actually very helpful. On rare occasions in modern English, there may be doubt as to who is doing the action and who is receiving it. There is no doubt in the original Greek, and these old words remove that doubt in the AV, if you understand them. And in modern English, there is often doubt as to whether “you” or “your” addresses more than one person. Again, in the Greek, there is no doubt, and the AV uses these old words to let you know what the Greek is saying.
Back to the Peter / Disciples Question
The questions I asked above immediately become clear in the AV.
Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake.
Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.
Peter and our Lord are addressing only each other here. Peter says he wants to follow “thee” — one person, the Lord, is receiving the action of being followed. Peter wants to follow Him “for thy sake” — we would say, “for your sake,” but we know by “thy” that Peter is talking only about Jesus’ sake. We would have known all of that from the context, but the next verse, we get some help we didn’t get in the NKJV.
We would think Jesus is probably talking to Peter if the next few verses didn’t make us wonder, and the AV confirms it. Jesus addresses Peter as “thou” (singular) and “thy” (also singular), and then goes on, “I say unto thee” (again singular, Peter is the one who is receiving the action) that “thou” (singular, Peter) will deny Him. Jesus is speaking only to one person, Peter, in this verse. Peter and the other disciples would have known this immediately from the Greek Jesus was speaking. We only know it definitively if we know the Greek or if we have an English translation that uses the old words.
Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.
In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
Previously, Jesus addressed Peter alone, but in the very next verse, He makes a transition. In the AV, “your” means plural, so when He says “your heart” He is speaking to more than one person — all the disciples. As one, they are troubled in heart, so heart is singular, but He is addressing all of them, so He uses the plural form of the possessive, “your.” A modern English translation obscures it, but Jesus’ disciples would have recognised His transition at once.
He goes on to say, “Ye believe in God” — again, the plural. And in the next verse, when He says, “I would have told you” and “I go to prepare a place for you,” the use of “you” in both cases again reflects the plural. In these two verses, Jesus is talking to all His disciples, not just Peter.
The Purpose of Translation
A translation is, more than anything, supposed to carry over the meaning of the text in the original language into language which the reader can understand. The use of old words which have dropped out of current usage is usually a disadvantage.
In this case, however, the old words do a much better job of conveying the meaning of the original language text. For the average person, it is much easier to learn the meaning of “thee, thou, and thy” than it is to learn Greek or Hebrew, and these old words give aspects of the original language text which the modern “you” and “your” cannot.
The passage I’ve used for an example in this post is a familiar one. Few people today would misinterpret it, and if they did, no great doctrine is at stake. But other passages, perhaps less familiar, might be at greater risk of a misinterpretation by someone who doesn’t know the original languages and is using a modern translation.
If we encourage people to read the Bible for themselves (and we certainly should), the use of modern translations which use only “you” and “your” comes with a cost. These old words, when understood properly, are not just archaic oddities, but are valuable aids in proper interpretation for a person relying on a translation. They convey more facets of the original language text than do the modern words. They are a benefit, not a detriment, to the translation we use.