Mark 6:20: Misreading the English?

© 1996, 2005 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

The following comments involve a verse that is perhaps not on anyone's "top ten" list of alleged "KJV errors," but which demonstrates, in my opinion, that lack of awareness of all relevant evidence which prompts some brethren to claim that perfectly defensible translations in the KJV are mistakes. Since Dr. Thomas Holland alluded to my piece on this in one of a series of online lessons he prepared some years ago, and gave my web address as a reference, I thought I would make a slightly revised form of them available here for those who are interested.

In the volume God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis has an interesting suggestion for improving communication between the minister and the layman: "What we want to see on every ordination exam is a compulsory paper on (simply) translation; a passage from some theological work to be turned into plain vernacular English." One value of this, says Lewis, would be the discovery of "just how much you yourself have, up to that moment, been understanding the language which you are trying to translate. Again and again I have been most usefully humiliated in this way . . . ." ("Before We Can Communicate," in C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, p. 256.)

I am afraid that certain passages in James White's book The King James Only Controversy [Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1995] demonstrate how very badly the author has misunderstood portions of one of the paramount "theological works" of all time, the King James Version of the Bible. And self-evidently, one who misunderstands such passages is on very shaky ground indeed when he asserts that they are "errors."

In a chapter entitled "Problems in the KJV," White leads off (p. 224) with the following verse:

Mark 6:20 (KJV) For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.

In citing this verse, Mr. White attaches a note to the words "a just man and an holy." Reading his comments on these words (p. 238, note 3), one comes away utterly astounded at the very much mistaken opinion of the author:

"We note in passing how inferior even this rendering by the KJV is. 'He was a just man and an holy' makes little sense; what is 'an holy'? Instead, the Greek phrase is quite easily translated as [sic] the NASB, 'he was a righteous and holy man,' both terms 'righteous' and 'holy' plainly describing John."

One cannot help but call Mr. White's attention to the fact that the New American Standard's rendering of the phrase means the same thing as the KJV's rendering! "A just man and an holy" plainly means a just and holy man, since "man" is obviously implied by the construction of the English phrase.

If Mr. White had been reading Shakespeare, and had come across the following passage--

PRINCE HAL What manner of man, an it like your Majesty?
FALSTAFF A goodly portly man, i' faith, and a corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage . . . .
(--1 Henry IV, II.iv.400-1; underlining mine here and afterwards)

--would he have been similarly perplexed by the words "and a corpulent"? Or would have he drawn the obvious conclusion that Falstaff means "a corpulent man"? And closer to our own time, what if Mr. White were reading the following?

"But you have told us nothing!" cried the doctor.
"Oh, there can be no doubt as to the sequence of events," said Holmes. "There were three of them in it: the young man, the old man, and a third, to whose identity I have no clue. . . ."
(--Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Resident Patient.")

Can anyone really believe that Mr. White would not have understood "and a third" in the above passage to mean "and a third man"? Or, to take a twentieth century example (where the author is describing the first publication of Columbus' letter on the discovery of America by Barcelona printer Pedro Posa):

"It was an unpretentious piece of work--more than that, a slovenly--and it is to be hoped that Señor Posa spoke sharply to whoever botched it. . . ."
(--John T. Winterich, Early American Books and Printing [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935; reprint: NY: Dover, 1981], p. 9).

Would Mr. White not have recognized "slovenly" to modify "piece of work"? And for two last examples, consider--

Deut. 10:17 (KJV) For the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward . . . . 

Acts 3:14 (KJV) But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you . . . .

But although most people would easily understand the underlined phrases to mean, respectively, "a great, mighty, and terrible God" and "the Holy and Just One ," since these are also from the KJV, I'm sure Dr. White, an educated man and a scholarly, would be only too happy to assure us that these also "make little sense"!

White's statement above is, or should be, an embarrassment, and were it an isolated instance of misunderstanding, one would have to assume it was a mere slip. However, the fact that Mr. White makes other such statements in the process of pretending to point out KJV "errors" calls into serious question his qualifications to speak at all on the subject.

One might remark in passing on White's attempted correction of Mark 6:20, in the course of which he states:

" . . . One might possibly suggest that 'observe' once meant 'to protect,' but such seems a long stretch, especially since the KJV renders the same word 'preserve' at Matthew 9:17 and Luke 5:38."

It never seems to occur to the author to open the dictionary and research the matter! As a matter of fact, the august Oxford English Dictionary (ed. 2, 1989) devotes two and a half columns to defining the verb "observe," and in definition 6 we seem to have found what Mr. White failed to concern himself with:

"6. To regard with attention; to watch; +to watch over, look after (obs.)."

One of the illustrative quotations following this, from Richard Baxter's 1685 Paraphrase on the New Testament, is most illuminating; explaining Acts 15:36, Baxter writes: "Converted Souls and planted Churches, must be further visited, observed and watered."

Furthermore, Matthew Henry's gloss on Mark 6:20 seems to indicate that he understood more by "observed" than White imagines possible: "(2.) He observed him; he sheltered him from the malice of his enemies (so some understand it); or, rather, he had a regard to his exemplary conversation [i.e., behavior] . . . ."

Furthermore, as Dr. Thomas Holland comments regarding the Greek word rendered "observed":

"The basic Greek word is 'suntereo.' According to the 1978 revision of The Analytical Greek Lexicon it is defined as, 'to observe strictly, or to secure from harm, protect.' (Harold K. Moulton, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p. 392.) James H. Moulton and George Milligan note that one of the uses of this word in ancient non-literary writings is when, 'a veteran claims that in view of his long military service, exemption from public burdens ought to be "strictly observed" in his case.' (The Vocabulary Of The Greek Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949, p. 614). These definitions stand in direct contrast with White's statement that 'the Greek term simply does not mean "observe," but instead means "to protect."' Clearly, it means both. The problem is not with the King James Bible, but with those who do not fully understand either Greek or their own language." (This excerpt comes from Lesson 11 of Dr. Holland's series, which is available from multiple sites online.)

One might also remark on the readings of the KJV's predecessors. Tyndale (followed by the Great and Bishops' Bibles) gave, "For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy: and gave him reverence . . . ." Geneva only slightly altered this by changing the last four words to "and reverenced him." The KJV men dropped the "reverence" and read "observed," while adding a note in the margin: "Or kept him, or saved him."

In replacing "reverence" with a word that can be taken in more than one sense, and giving in the margin the rendering advocated by modern translations, the KJV seems to have covered all the bases--except, of course, in the patently uninformed opinion of certain critics.

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