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400 years of the King James Bible

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The first authorised English translation of the Bible appeared 400 years ago. The book we know as the King James Version was first published on 2 May 1611.

I decided to mark the occasion by investigating what the KJV has to say about medicinal plants. Sadly, I found nothing of interest, but during my search I did notice that the KJV is at odds with later translations in the naming of trees and their timber.

One example is the wood with which Noah built his ark. The original Hebrew text refers to gofer wood, but since none of the KJV translators knew what this meant, they wisely left it as “gopher” (Genesis 6:14). Some later translators have tended to render the word as cypress. But if cypress was intended, why did the original text not use the Biblical Hebrew word for cypress, brosh?

It has also been suggested that gofer does not even refer to a specific wood but to a way of preparing wood for boat-building purposes, such as treating with pitch (for which the Hebrew is the similar-sounding kofer).

Another type of wood that the KJV’s scholarly team left untranslated was shittim, the wood of the shittah tree. This is mentioned about 25 times in Exodus. Later translations have rendered it as acacia, with some commentators believing that it refers specifically to Acacia seyal, the gum-arabic tree. But there is no hard evidence to identify it as acacia.

All we can be sure of is that it is not cedar, myrtle, olive, fir, pine or box, since a later part of the translation (Isaiah 41:19) includes shittah along with all these others in a list of trees that God promised to plant in the wilderness or the desert.

Although the KJV’s scholars chose not to translate gofer or shittim, they did manage to turn the Hebrew ereh (Psalms 37:35) into bay tree. If the psalmist had a specific tree in mind, it could well have been the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), a native of the Middle East, but the word ereh actually means “native born”. The KJV phrase “like a green bay tree” appears in other versions as “like a green tree in its native soil”.

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