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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
Oswald T. Allis
The farther translators depart from the style of the document they are translating, the more complicated does their problem become, the greater will be the variety in the translations proposed, and the greater will be the danger of the translation becoming an interpretation.
Dr. Burrows lays down what we believe to be the true governing principle for all accurate translating, when he says, "The translator can only follow his text, leaving it for the commentator to explain." Many of the difficulties in which revisers have become involved are the direct result of their failure to observe this fundamental rule. An especially important example of this, because of its doctrinal implications, is their rendering of the second person singular where it occurs in the Greek text.
The Forms Thou, Thy, Thine
It is a well-known fact that in contemporary English the forms THOU, THY, THINE have almost disappeared from secular use. They are largely restricted to the language of religious devotion, in which they are constantly employed, and which is largely formed by, and owes its peculiarities to, the Authorized Version.
Consequently, it is often asserted or assumed that the usage of the AV represents the speech of 300 years ago, and that now, three centuries later, it should be changed to accord with contemporary usage. But this is not at all a correct statement of the problem.
The important fact is this. THE USAGE OF THE AV IS NOT THE ORDINARY USAGE OF THE EARLY SEVENTEENTH CENTURY: IT IS THE BIBLICAL USAGE BASED ON THE STYLE OF THE HEBREW AND THE GREEK SCRIPTURES. The second part of this statement needs no proof and will be challenged by no one. It is undeniable that where the Hebrew and Greek use the singular of the pronoun the AV regularly uses the singular, and where they use the plural it uses the plural.
Even in Deuteronomy where in his addresses, and apparently for rhetorical and pedagogical effect, Moses often changes suddenly, and seemingly arbitrarily, from singular to plural or from plural to singular, the AV reproduces the style of the text with fidelity. THAT IS TO SAY, THE USAGE OF THE AV IS STRICTLY BIBLICAL.
The first part of the above statement is not quite so easy to prove, but there is abundant evidence to support it. According to the late Professor Lounsbury of Yale, the substitution of the plural for the singular in addressing an individual, "Made its appearance in the English language toward the close of the thirteenth century ... in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the use of the plural steadily increased, and in the sixteenth century it became the standard form of polite conversation ...
For some two centuries it may be said that in a general way they (the THOU and THEE) were employed to denote affection or inferiority or contempt." Examples of these three uses are to be found in Shakespeare, for example, in Henry V. Lounsbury was especially concerned to illustrate the last of the three, contempt.
If the correctness of Lounsbury's statement is admitted, IT IS QUITE OBVIOUS THAT THE AV DID NOT ATTEMPT TO MAKE THE USAGE OF THE HEBREW AND GREEK CONFORM TO THE USAGE OF THE ELIZABETHAN OR EARLY JACOBEAN PERIOD. IT SIMPLY FOLLOWED THE BIBLICAL USAGE, DESPITE THE FACT THAT FOR SOME THREE HUNDRED YEARS THE TREND HAD BEEN INCREASINGLY AWAY FROM IT. Needless to say, the two earlier revisions--the English Revised Version of 1881 and the American Revised Version of 1901--followed the AV in this regard, despite the fact that the ordinary usage in the years 1880-1900 was much the same as it is today.
The following words of A. T. Robertson are worthy of careful pondering in this connection: "No one today speaks the English of the Authorized Version, or ever did for that matter, for though, like Shakespeare, it is the pure Anglo-Saxon, yet unlike Shakespeare it reproduces to a remarkable extent the spirit and language of the Bible" (A Grammar of the Greek NT. p. 56). This is its great claim to distinction, the reason it has endeared itself to multitudes of English-speaking people for more than three centuries: IT REPRODUCES TO A REMARKABLE EXTENT THE SPIRIT AND LANGUAGE OF THE BIBLE.
Language Addressed to the Lord Jesus
There is another very important consideration. If the second person singular is to be used only "in language addressed to God," what is to be done in the case of language addressed to Jesus the Christ? Is THOU to be used regularly, because He is God, whether so regarded by the speaker or not? Is YOU to be used regularly, because He was, or, it is assumed, was regarded by the speaker as man? Or, is the translator to exegete each passage and decide dogmatically which of these pronouns is to be used in a given case?
For example, in Matthew 16:16 the words of Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi are rendered in the Revised Standard Version (RSV), "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Here, in reply to a direct question as to what Jesus' apostles and immediate followers held Him to be, Peter affirms that He is the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy, that He is the Son of the living God. Yet several modern versions use YOU here instead of THOU (cf. also Matthew 14:33; 20:21).
We turn to Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22 and there, according to the RSV, the living God addresses His "Son" with thou. Does this affirm Jesus' Deity, or does it not? In Acts 1:24 the "Lord" is addressed with THOU (RSV). Does this mean that God is addressed, or that Jesus is addressed as God? Since Jesus chose His twelve apostles while He was on earth, it would be natural to suppose that this prayer for guidance in the choice of a successor to Judas would be addressed to Him in heaven (cf. Acts 9:13 with 4:24-27).
Is such the intent of the revisers? We note in this connection that the risen but not yet ascended Christ is addressed as YOU in Acts 1:6 (RSV). Finally, we turn to Hebrews where, in the first chapter, the unique dignity of this Son of the living God is elaborately proved by six or seven quotations from the Old Testament. In four of these the pronoun of the second singular is used. RSV renders it here by THOU or THY.
It is important to remember that the retention of the distinction between the singular and the plural is sometimes quite essential to accuracy of rendering YOU, as both singular and plural is at times confusing in English, as in French and German, and requires explanation if used for both, as for instance in Luke 22:31,32, where by the use of YOU, the distinction between the apostles (or disciples) and THEE (Peter) disappears.
In Acts 13:47 Paul introduces a quotation from the Old Testament with the words, "For so the Lord hath commanded us, saying." Then follow the familiar words from Isaiah 49:6 which a modern translation renders, "I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth." You suggests Paul and Barnabas and by implication every ambassador of Christ. Hence, it is important to note that in the Hebrew and the Greek the pronoun is not plural but singular, and the THOU suggests an individual, primarily the Messiah.
The Real Issue
The real issue is whether or not we are prepared to give up the use of the singular of the pronoun entirely, and to this there are two main objections. The first is that it gives up the attempt to retain in English a distinction which is clearly drawn in Hebrew and in Greek. The second is that it means that THOU and THEE and THY are to pass completely out of twentieth-century English.
The singular form of the pronoun is not even to be tolerated in the language of devotion and worship. It is to disappear from the Lord's Prayer and give place to "Your name be revered," "Your kingdom come"! Scores of our most familiar and best-loved hymns will then have to be discarded or more or less drastically edited. And the liturgies of the liturgical churches (e.g. the Te Deum) will need a thorough overhauling, if such a radical change is to be carried through.
It is only in very recent days that Christian people have raised objections to the former language of devotion and worship. When the present century began people did not raise objections to what we may call a scriptural and biblical style as the language of devotion and worship. They liked it. They did not want the Bible to read just like any other book, to have the up-to-the-minute style of the daily newspaper. They loved its quaint, if you wish to call it that, its distinctive, its Biblical way of putting things. And we believe that the great majority of them do so today.
Why should the THOU which is reserved for Deity be used in quotations from the Old Testament which speak of the Messiah, if it is not to be used in a New Testament passage which expressly affirms the Messiahship of Jesus as the Son of the living God?
Is the Old Testament in the RSV to have a more archaic style than the New Testament? Hardly, for YOU appears in some quotations from it. If "Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee" (a quotation from a Psalm), is a proper rendering for Heb. 1:5 in the RSV, why should we read, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God" in Mat. 16:16?
To prove that the rendering in RSV is arbitrary, inconsistent, and highly interpretive, it is sufficient to compare Mat. 20:21 with Mat. 25:37-45.