I still remember when I first came to really enjoy reading the Bible. I had begun to be interested in spiritual things and even liked going to church and hearing all the Bible stories each week. However, whenever I sat down to read the Scriptures I would quickly become discouraged because it was hard to follow what was really being said in my pocket-sized King James New Testament. All those -eths and -ests and thee’s and ye’s simply left my fifteen year old head swimming after a few minutes of concentrated effort. It was discouraging to hear how important it was for a Christian to spend time daily in the Word and then to be bored out of my skull whenever I opened The Book. Fortunately that all changed one day at the doctor’s office.
Sitting in the waiting room for my appointment, I started to look around for something to read. There were slim pickings on the table in front of me so I started looking around and spotted some pamphlets on the wall across from me. Among these pamphlets was a small Gospel of John from the New International Version. Picking it up I started to read. And read, and read. After my appointment I kept reading and before the end of the day I had read all twenty-one chapters of John. With that, I was hooked on my Bible reading and the New International Version became my translation of choice for several years.
But as I grew older and read more books I found my tastes changing. Increasingly I would gravitate toward those very -eths and -ests and thee’s and ye’s that I had found so daunting before. When I asked myself why the answer that came to me was that the older English was simply more beautiful and more elevating. As I learned more about the early English Bible versions I also found out that they were more precise.
One of the most common complaints against older translations of Scripture is that many moderns are uncomfortable with all those thee’s and ye’s. But we can gain an appreciation for those archaic pronouns once we realize that they are communicating important information about the original Greek and Hebrew texts to us. Most languages of the world make a distinction between singular and plural “you”. Ancient Greek and Hebrew did as well. In English we no longer make that distinction so sometimes it can be confusing. Unless, of course, you have the good fortune to live in the South. Here we use “you” for the singular and “ya’ll” for the plural.
The rule of thumb to follow when reading early modern versions of Scripture like the King James or Douay is this: if the pronoun begins with a “T” it is singular, if it begins with a “Y” it is plural. So, whenever the Bible uses thee, thou, thy, or thine one individual is being addressed. When you, ye, your, or yours is used more than one individual is being addressed. Perhaps this chart will be helpful as we explore these archaic but useful words:
A Helpful Chart of KJV Bible Pronouns:
- “T” pronouns are singular (and always 2nd person)
- Thou = subject form
- Thee = object form
- “Thy” & “Thine” show possession
- “Y” pronouns are plural (and always 2nd-person)
- Ye = Subject form
- You = object form
- “Your(s)” shows possession
A few examples will be enough to show how great an impact this simple distinction can have on our understanding of a passage:
In Exodus 4:15 God is giving Moses some instructions about how he and his brother are to interact. In the NIV this verse reads, “You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.” Exactly who is God going to teach? Moses or Moses and Aaron? In the KJV this is clear, “”And thou (2nd person singular, object form) shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy (2nd person singular, possessive form) mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you (2nd person plural, object form) what ye (2nd person plural, subject form) shall do”.
Or how about this verse in Second Samuel 7:23? The KJV has, “And what one nation in the earth is like thy people, even like Israel, whom God went to redeem for a people to himself, and to make him a name, and to do for you great things and terrible, for thy land, before thy people, which thou redeemedst to thee from Egypt, from the nations and their gods?” Here David is praying to God in the second person singular but he refers to the people of Israel as “you”. Without the clear distinction of thee’s and ye’s one could misunderstand and think that David was praying in part to the nation of Israel and in part to God, or that the land belonged to the people rather than to God.
Here are two interesting examples from the New Testament: In Luke 22:31-32 Jesus is speaking to Peter, “And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” The KJV brings out the meaning of the Greek much better than modern English versions do. Satan had asked to sift ALL the apostles like wheat (“you”= 2nd person plural, object form) but Christ had prayed especially for Peter (“prayed for thee”, “thy faith”, “thy brethren”= all 2nd person singular forms) showing Peter’s special role as leader of the choir of the apostles.
And, finally, consider Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:7 which the KJV renders as, “”Marvel not that I said unto thee (2nd person singular), ye (2nd person plural) must be born again.” In Greek and in the older versions Christ’s message is more clear. Although he is speaking directly to Nicodemus, His message is that ALL men must be born again. The NIV, however, renders this great truth flatly as “You should not be surprised at my saying, You must be born again.”
So the next time you pick up a King James or Douay-Rheims be sure to pay closer attention to those strange pronouns. The older English sometimes conveys finer distinctions of meaning that can open up new trails in our meditation on the Holy Scriptures. Try it for yourself. Spend half an hour with that old family Bible and see whether or not this is helpful. You may just be glad you did.