Above is pictured the first part of an essay the translators prefixed to the King James Version of their 1611 Bible. In this they defended their work against "criticisms they expected to be brought against it." They wrote: "The Apostle excepteth no tongue; not Hebrew the ancientest, not Greek the most copious, not Latin the finest."—Bible-researcher.com
If you ever think, I think Isaiah is plain or simple, I have left you with the wrong impression! In fact, one of our scholar podcasts offers insight on the subject: Why is Isaiah Hard to Understand.
After six months of working on the SearchIsaiah project, I have a few of my own ideas:
First, Isaiah was a highly educated Jewish writer who used the most sophisticated writing styles of his day. What he wrote 2700 years ago was in ancient Hebrew. Back then there was already two forms of Hebrew; just miles north the Kingdom of Israel spoke a dialect that differed from Isaiah’s Jerusalem Hebrew. This makes anyone wonder how a translator could figure word meanings from back them. Following the diaspora, the spoken language was virtually lost, finding a revival only again in the late 1800s. By then the Hebrew of Isaiah’s day was dead.
Second, a lot of what Isaiah considered day-to-day conversation would escape the best translator today. He lived in a time of relative prosperity and neglect of the poor and he used common idiomatic phrases of his time to explain his vision. As the meaning of those words and phrases have evolved, translators have had trouble determining actual meaning. A simple example during my life is cited in Wikipedia: “When we hear the word ‘wicked’, we automatically interpret it as either ‘evil’ or ‘wonderful’, depending on whether it is uttered by an elderly lady or a teenager. Deutscher, [an Israeli linguist] speculates that in “a hundred years’ time, when the original meaning of ‘wicked’ has all but been forgotten, people may wonder how it was ever possible for a word meaning ‘evil’ to change its sense to ‘wonderful’ so quickly.'”1
With that as background, let’s look at the third problem:
In the very early 1600’s King James commissioned Bishop Richard Bancroft and a team of 50 scholars to make a new translation of the Bible. According to Ken Curtis, Ph.D., the King ordered, “it was to be accurate and true to the originals,” but “that the translation use old familiar terms and names and be readable in the idiom of the day.” I can attest to that from my reading; (a crisping pin in 1610 may clearly be a coin purse to those translators, but not so much to me).
Still, as the August 2011 Ensign reports, “The unique skills possessed by those who translated the King James Bible were at their apex during this time. The translators were all learned, biblical scholars and linguists. It would be difficult today to gather 50 scholars with the knowledge of ancient languages possessed by these men.”2
These scholars were organized into six committees working in three different locations. John Harding headed the team that translated Isaiah. Together, they had a formidable task taking a dead language like Hebrew and making sense of it for an Englishman in the early 1600s.
As each group “completed their assignment, they passed it onto the next company, so that all companies reviewed the entire Bible. This process took four years.”3 Then each of the six teams sent two translators to London to review all their work until the final product was made available in 1611. That is a lot of peer review and committee debate to get the words we use today—I served on a school board with seven members that struggled to get consensus, but I cannot fathom 50 scholars agreeing on much of anything.
The Bible, as it has been transmitted over the centuries, has suffered the loss of many plain and precious parts. ‘We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.’ (A of F 1:8.)…While other Bible versions may be easier to read than the King James Version, in doctrinal matters latter-day revelation supports the King James Version in preference to other English translations. All of the Presidents of the Church, beginning with the Prophet Joseph Smith, have supported the King James Version by encouraging its continued use in the Church.4—LDS First Presidency
Now move forward 400 years to our day and look at how the King James Version uses archaic words and expressions that meet the King’s request of using “old familiar terms and names and be readable in the idiom of the day.” Many of these are unfamiliar to us as modern readers, so it is no wonder it is hard for us to understand Isaiah’s words.
Each week as I share a chapter from Discover Isaiah experience, I have read from several translations, (usually five in all) and I have read a dozen or more commentaries about those chapters. I can hope that I have added to finding the correct meanings of words and phrases, but I doubt it; remember Isaiah got his words from the Lord and as the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “the Holy Ghost is a revelator,” so you can call on him to get your own revelation and understanding of Isaiah.
1 The Unfolding of Language, 2005, chapter 2, esp. pp. 63, 69 and 71
2 Richard N. W. Lambert and Kenneth R. Mays, 400 Years of the King James Bible, Ensign, AUGUST 2011
3 Lambert /Mays, ibid.
4 The First Presidency Statement on the King James Version of the Bible, Ensign, AUGUST 1992
5 Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith , p 132