Often, discussions about Bible translations sidetrack away from the topic of "translation" and instead focus on manuscript differences in the underlying Greek and Hebrew texts. Yet, if the question is one of translation, the more interesting cases are the instances where everyone agrees what the original text says in Greek or Hebrew yet they seem to disagree on what it means or how it should be interpreted in English. A classic example of this is 1 Thessalonians 5:22.
In the King James Version, the verse reads:
"Abstain from all appearance of evil," (1 Thessalonians 5:22, KJV).
This has traditionally been interpreted to mean that not only should we not do evil, but we also should not do anything that even looks like its evil. We should avoid even giving someone the false impression that we are doing evil. This is certainly sound advice, but is that what the verse is saying? Many modern translations seem to point another way, reading in ways such as:
"Abstain from every form of evil," (NASB, see also ESV, NKJV).
"reject every kind of evil," (NIV, see also CSB).
In these translations, the passage is not addressing other people's perception of our actions. It is not advising us to avoid things that are not evil because they might appear evil. Instead, it is warning us to avoid every sort of evil. There are many types and expressions of evil, and this verse (if these modern translators are correct) is warning us to avoid them all. We ought not to get so focused on one type of evil that we fail to guard ourselves against another. We must be vigilant against every form of evil that might creep into our lives.
The fact of the matter is that both interpretations make sense. Both seem like sound instruction. So, which did Paul actually mean in this specific context?
The Source of the Dilemma
It is important to note that there is no difference between the Greek text of this verse used by modern translators and the Greek used for the KJV. All agree that the verse reads:
"ἀπὸ παντὸς εἴδους πονηροῦ ἀπέχεσθε."
The key word here is "εἴδους." The word literally means the form, shape, or outward appearance of a thing. Thus, the dilemma here is not "what are the words." Everyone agrees on the same Greek words for this verse. The issue isn't even really "What do the words mean?" The same basic meaning for each word is assumed by all translators. The difficulty is, what do these words mean when put together as a phrase? What would it mean to abstain from every εἴδους of evil? Well, our translations above give us the basic options. It could mean to avoid all outward appearances of evil. Or, it could mean to avoid every shape or form of evil. Evil comes in different forms, different kinds, and we are to avoid them all. Both meanings are equally possible, given the Greek wording. Indeed, that seems to be why both versions exist. The NASB even notes "appearance" in a footnote as another possible translation. That is what this comes down to. It is a question of translation. Which translation better represents Paul's intended meaning?
Determining the Meaning
The first and most obvious approach would be to look at the surrounding context. Does one meaning better fit the flow of Paul's argument here than the other? When we take the verse before into consideration, the passage reads:
"Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil," (KJV).
"But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil," (NASB).
In this context, it makes much more sense for Paul to be saying to abstain from every kind or sort of evil. Paul's point here is that we are to carefully test (prove, examine) all things. Having done that, we must firmly hold on to all that is good and reject all that is evil. For Paul to change gears suddenly mid-thought and start instructing on how we ought to concern ourselves with how outsiders will perceive our actions would be out of place. It may well be true that we should avoid even appearing to do evil, but that does not fit as well in this particular context. Thus, the translation of "every form of evil" better fits the passage.
Further, we have an example of how a very early Greek-speaking Christian understood this verse. How did someone from the time period who spoke the language grasp Paul's words? Polycarp, a pastor in Smyrna in the early second century, wrote:
"I exhort you, therefore, that ye abstain from covetousness, and that ye be chaste and truthful. 'Abstain from every [appearance/form] of evil.' For if a man cannot govern himself in such matters, how shall he enjoin them on others? If a man does not keep himself from covetousness, he shall be defiled by idolatry, and shall be judged as one of the heathen," (Epistle of Polycarp, Chapter 11).
Again, note the context. Polycarp cites these words in an exhortation to abstain from covetousness, be chaste, and be truthful. He is warning against coveting, unchastity, falsehood, idolatry, etc. His point here has nothing to do with things that merely appear to be evil even though they are not. He is addressing different kinds of evil and he cites 1 Thessalonians 5:22 to make his point! Polycarp clearly understood Paul's words to refer to forms of evil rather than things that outwardly appear to be evil. Similarly, in the fourth century when Jerome translated the original Latin Vulgate from the Greek, he did so in words that clearly meant "kinds" or "forms" of evil. Thus, when the John Wycliffe Bible (the first full Bible in English) was translated from the Latin in the 14th century, it read:
"Abstain you from all evil species," (Wycliffe Bible).
"Species" here is not being used in its later technical sense of a biological category of organisms but rather in the more general sense of kinds or types of a thing. Thus, the earliest readers and others for many centuries understood Paul's words to mean every form or kind of evil. The modern translators are not novel in their interpretation.
Finally, as we have learned more about the ancient Greek language and the range of meanings for various words, it has become increasingly clear that, while the word εἴδους most literally means the physical appearance of a thing, it was indeed often used by extension to denote forms or kinds of a thing. When the first English translations from the Greek New Testament began in the 16th century, ancient Greek had not been studied in the west for centuries. The language was only recently being "rediscovered." Knowledge of the finer points of grammar, syntax, and word usage was still in its infancy. This is why there were so many translations in that time period. Knowledge of Greek kept advancing, and with it came improvements to the translation. The KJV marked a huge step forward in this process, but the scholars involved could hardly be said to have arrived at a full and complete knowledge of the language where nothing was left to be learned or discovered. Four hundred years later, we have learned a great deal more. And what we have learned has led scholars to pretty much universally agree that "form" or "kind" is the proper translation rather than "appearance."
Do the Translations Actually Disagree?
There is another factor to consider here. As languages change, phrases that once carried one sense can later seem to carry a different sense. When the KJV translators chose the English words "Abstain from all appearance of evil," did they actually mean by those words what we think they meant? The words seem rather clear in English as we know it. The obvious meaning is to avoid doing anything that might even look like its evil. But is that what the phrase meant to the KJV translators when they chose it? Perhaps not.
Dr. Mark Ward suggests, for example, that the term might have meant something more like "abstain from every 'instance' of evil."1 In other words, whenever evil appears, each time it presents itself, avoid it. Do not indulge in any evil at any time. One modern translation which utilized all the same underlying texts as the KJV and often tried to follow the KJV's wording when possible seems to allow a similar idea of how the King James translators wanted to be understood, ever so slightly updating the wording to read:
"Abstain from all appearances of evil," (MEV).
While one could still read this wording in the traditional manner, it leaves open the possibility that Paul is warning against the various ways that evil appears, evil's different "appearances," rather than talking about times when we are not doing evil but might unintentionally appear to be doing so. Given older English expression, it is entirely plausible that this is actually what the KJV translators meant. If that is so, then modern translators are not actually correcting or parting ways with the KJV but are rather removing our misunderstanding due to changes in the language and bringing us back to the proper understanding which even the KJV translators intended all along. Either way, the language of the KJV, at least when read today, does not convey Paul's actual point to modern readers. English has changed. We have learned more about the Greek language. Updated translations are a great help to Christians today and should not be dismissed on account of these kinds of differences. Indeed, these differences, when examined, actually commend the modern translations!
- 1. Mark Ward, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018). Kindle Location 758