KJV and "soul" - Truth or Tradition
The Hebrew word “nephesh” (or “nefesh”) occurs 753 times in the Old Testament. The venerable King James Version (KJV) of the Bible translates it with “soul” 475 times. The New International Version (NIV), on the other hand, uses “soul” just 97 times. Why the difference?
The KJV was first published in 1611 under the sponsorship of King James I of England. The translators produced it for the Church of England. Church and state were united, and religion was, generally, a unifying force in society.
All the KJV translators were members of the Church of England. The frequent appearance of “soul” reflects the common usage of that period. Their understanding of “soul” was inherited from medieval Catholic Christianity.
The Old Testament portion of the NIV came out more than 367 years later. By that time society had become highly secularized, and religion had become a divisive force. The church had fractured into many diverse denominations.
The NIV translation was a project of Biblica, The International Bible Society; it was not sponsored by any government or church organization. The primary work was done by 15 scholars representing various denominations. Their restricted use of “soul” broke with tradition. Their translation of “nephesh” corresponds more accurately to the Hebrew sense of the word.
Pre-eminent Hebrew scholar Robert Alter has recently completed his three-volume translation of the Old Testament. According to a
New York Times article (Dec. 20, 2018), Alter decided “to reject one of the oldest traditions in English translation and remove the word “soul” from the text.”
He explains: “That Hebrew word,
nefesh, can mean many things. It can be ‘breath’ or ‘life-breath.’ It can mean ‘throat’ or ‘neck’ or ‘gullet.’ Sometimes it can suggest ‘blood.’ It can mean ‘person’ or even a ‘dead person.’ ‘corpse.’ Or it can be ‘appetite’ or something more general: ‘life’ or even ‘the essential self.’ But it’s not quite ‘soul.’”
The problem with the word “soul,” for Robert Alter, “is its Christian connotations of an incorporeal and immortal being, the dualism of the soul apart from the body.
Nefesh, to the contrary, suggests the material, mortal parts, the things that make us alive on this earth. The body.”
Without doubt, the traditional use of “soul” in the KJV and other older versions has created confusion over nature of man and the state of the dead. These topics are vitally important, especially here at the end of time, when multitudes will be deceived by the doctrines of demons.
Still, for most of us, the KJV will always hold a special place in our hearts. It sounds like the Bible SHOULD sound, with its majestic, classic, poetic language. But modern versions that are not so tightly bound to the traditional use of “soul” have an important place in doctrinal study and teaching. They can help us separate truth from error.
-- JIm Wood