Ask a Scholar

KJV and Isaiah 9:1 by Leonard Greenspoon

Q. Why is the KJV translation of Isaiah 9:1-3 so different compared to most other translations or versions of the Bible? It appears that the KJV translation is opposite in meaning compared to the other Bible translations. Why is that so?

A. In Isaiah 9:1, the King James Version (KJV) has “he lightly afflicted the land…and…did more grievously afflict.” These are renderings of the Hebrew verbal roots q-l-l and k-b-d, respectively. The New International Version (NIV), in common with other modern English translations, translates it, “he humbled the land…but…will honor.”

The wording of the NIV seems to contradict what the KJV translators wrote. As it happens, the first Hebrew root, q-l-l, can mean both “to humble” or “curse” and “to be easy” or “to be light.” In like manner, the second Hebrew verb, k-b-d, signifies both “heaviness” or “grievous affliction” and “honor.” It is rare in Hebrew (as in most other languages, I suspect) that the same root can convey opposite meanings, but this is not the only occurrence of the phenomenon in the Hebrew Bible.

Thus, it’s possible that the KJV translators, in part because they relied on earlier English renderings, understood Isaiah’s words here to describe the movement progressively (“and”) from moderate to grievous affliction. More modern translators, faced with the same Hebrew text, have interpreted the process as contrastive (“but”) from severe punishment to singular reward. Given the difficulty in fully comprehending the meaning of this verse as a whole, such disagreement in translation is not entirely unexpected—or unwelcome.

In Isaiah 9:3, KJV has “Thou hast…not increased the joy,” where NIV (again in common with other modern versions) has the exact opposite: “You have…increased their joy.” This variation in translation, unlike the example in Isaiah 9:1, is not the result of differences in interpretation, but instead is based on different Hebrew wording.

As handed down from antiquity, the Hebrew word for “not” (two letters: lamed-aleph) appears in the text, and this is what the KJV translators rendered. However, an influential group of medieval Jewish scholars, whom we call Masoretes, judging that the traditional text was in error here, instructed that instead of lamed-aleph (“not”) we should read lamed-yod (“to him”).

The NIV translators rendered this into smooth English as “their.” This is consistent with modern interpretations/translations in general, where the Masoretic instructions (generally called qere; that is how we should “read” the Hebrew) are almost always given preference over what is written (ketiv) in the Hebrew. Additionally, in this instance the negation of “to increase” (as in the ketiv = KJV) makes little, if any sense.

Postscript: In the text of the Hebrew Bible itself and in Jewish translations based on the Hebrew text, Isaiah 9:1-3 appear as Isaiah 8:23 and Isaiah 9:1-2.

Leonard Greenspoon, "KJV and Isaiah 9:1", n.p. [cited 21 Aug 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/kjv-and-isaiah-9-1

Contributors

Leonard Greenspoon

Leonard Greenspoon
Professor, Creighton University

Leonard Greenspoon is Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University, where he is also professor of classical and Near Eastern studies and of theology. He is coeditor (with Sidnie White Crawford) of The Book of Esther in Modern Research (T&T Clark, 2003), for which he also wrote an article, “From Maidens and Chamberlains to Harems and Hot Tubs: Five Hundred Years of Esther in English.” In addition, Greenspoon is a columnist for Biblical Archaeology Review, for which he writes “The Bible in the News,” a humor column.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

An English translation of the Christian Bible, initiated in 1604 by King James I of England. It became the standard Biblical translation in the English-speaking world until the 20th century.

A group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text and developed the system of vowel markings that eventually were added to the consonantal text.

Relating to the Masoretes, a group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text of the Bible. Or, the Masoretic Text itself, an authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible.

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

a 1978 translation of the Bible intended to convey the message of the biblical text in contemporary English; its preface emphasizes its translators’ commitment to biblical authority

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