The Translation of "Devils" in the KJV

© 1997-99 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

This e-mail was sent in response to a question that was referred to me by a brother in Christ who operates a Christian web site. Someone had written to him asking why in the King James Bible the word "devils" is used because many commentaries "say this is 'not the best wordage' because 'devil' is a title of Satan and should not be used to refer to demons. . . . Could you give a response to the charge that the KJB is not correct to use the term 'devils'?" I responded as follows:

Subj: Re: "Devils"
Date: 97-08-13 12:25:18 EDT
From: BasFawlty
To: [ . . . . . . .]

Dear Brethren:

I must confess to astonishment that so many "learned men" have condemned the KJV for using the word "devils" when referring to the hosts of Satan. On a quick look, I find that Adam Clarke, Marvin R. Vincent, W.E. Vine, and A.T. Robertson all condemn "devils" as a translation and say that "demons" is the proper word. Such men were obviously stronger in Greek than in knowledge of their own English tongue. (However, it's only fair to note that Robertson may be criticizing the Revised Version of 1881, which he uses throughout Word Pictures in the NT, rather than the KJV in making his complaint; he himself refers more than once to "she-devils" in this work, so he obviously was aware of the legitimacy of the English term.)

To put it plainly, when the KJV men used the word "devils," it meant what we mean today by the word "demons." In fact, if you could go back to the days of the KJV men, you would be perhaps more likely to hear the word "demon," or "dæmon," used in the Gk. mythological sense of "An inferior deity" or "An attendant spirit; a genius" (American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd college ed., "demon," senses 4 & 5). Shakespeare uses the word both in the sense we usually use today, and the Gk. mythological sense:

If that same demon that hath gulled thee thus
Should with his lion gate walk the whole world,
He might return to vasty Tartar back
And tell the legions, "I can never win
A soul so easy as that Englishman's."

(--Henry V, II.ii.121-5.)


Therefore, O Antony, stay not by his side.
Thy demon, that thy spirit which keeps thee, is
Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable
Where Caesar's is not. But near him thy angel
Becomes a fear, as being o'erpow'red. . . .

(--Antony and Cleopatra, II.iii.18-22.)


"Devils," on the other hand, was "used from the earliest times in English, as equivalent to or including demon1 (sense 2 ["An evil spirit"]), applied a. (in Scripture translations and references) to the false gods or idols of the heathen; b. (in Apocrypha and N. Test.) to the evil or unclean spirits by which demonaics were possessed; c. in O. Test. translating Heb. sheirim hairy ones 'satyrs'" (--Oxford English Dictionary, devil sb., sense 2).


This continued to be good English well after 1611, even though the Greek mythological sense of "demon" faded somewhat as that word came to be used for the host of Satan, as opposed to "the Devil" himself. John Wesley's Explanatory Notes on the NT shows the dichotomy well, for even though he gives the word "demonaics" in his translation of Matt. 4:24, he glosses it with the note "Men possessed with devils." He also continued to use the word "devils" in the same sense used by the KJV men:


By the same faith we feel the power of Christ every moment resting upon us, whereby alone we are what we are; whereby we are enabled to continue in spiritual life, and without which, notwithstanding all our present holiness, we should be devils the next moment. But as long as we retain our faith in him, we "draw water out of the wells of salvation."

(--Sermon 14, "The Repentance of Believers," in Wesley's Works, Vol. 5.)


And in the 19th century it continued to be used:


A building consecrated to the true God is no place for idols. Men cannot combine the worship of God and the worship of devils.

(--Charles Hodge, Commentary on 2 Corinthians [6:16].)


Comfort? comfort scorned of devils! this is truth the poet sings,
That a sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier things.

(--Tennyson, "Locksley Hall," ll. 75-6.)


When the demoniac had the devils cast out of him -- I may compare that to repentance; but when he put on his garments, and was no longer naked and filthy, but was said to be clothed and in his right mind, I may compare that to conversion.

(--Charles H. Spurgeon, "Apostolic Exhortation" [sermon of April 5, 1868].)


In fact, Marvin R. Vincent remarks that "The Rev[ised Version of 1881], unfortunately, and against the protest of the American revisers, retains devil for both words [the Gk. word diabolos (Strong's Concordance G1228) and daimon (Strong's G1142)]" in the NT. Apparently even the English Revisers considered "devils" acceptable (although the "American revisers," when they got the chance in the ASV of 1901, switched the word to "demons").

Of course, it would certainly be all right for people to use the word "demon" today instead of "devil" to describe a member of the host of Satan; more people probably use "demon" in this context nowadays. But that does not make the KJV wrong. Anyone who has breadth of knowledge of English--and even people who do not but who pay attention to the context--should instantly realize that "devils" in the KJV means "demons." The only problem here seems to be how little English the "scholars" know--or how willing they are to impress others with their "scholarship" at the expense of truth and fairness.

Hope this has been helpful . . . .

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