How the King James Bible Misled Generations of Readers

A misunderstanding about mirrors, with far-reaching, metaphysical consequences.

Detail of the convex mirror from the Arnolfini portrait, Bruges, 1434. Wikipedia.

Detail of the convex mirror from the Arnolfini portrait, Bruges, 1434. Wikipedia.

July 13 2023
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Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

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How, it was asked at the end of last week’s column, can one see “through a glass darkly” if that glass is a mirror and mirrors can’t be seen through? Not even Lewis Carrroll’s Alice, who continued her adventures in Wonderland in Carroll’s sequel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, was able to see through the mirror of the book’s title. She had to step magically through it without breaking it in order to discover what lay on its other side.

This is why, when we think of the King James Bible’s phrase “through a glass darkly” in Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians, we do not think of mirrors. Rather, we assume that Paul’s allusion is to looking through a medium like a dark or clouded window pane. The problem with this, however, is not only that Paul, writing in the mid-1st century CE, used the Greek noun eisoptron, which means mirror and not window, but that glass windows did not exist in the Graeco-Roman world until that century’s end, after which they remained a rarity for a very long time. Paul could not possibly have had them in mind. He could not even have been thinking of glass mirrors, which first appeared even later, close to 300 CE. An eisoptron, as we have observed, was a mirror of burnished metal, generally bronze, copper, or—the most expensive and best element for the purpose—silver. It most often took the form of a hand mirror used for personal grooming and needed frequent polishing to avoid tarnish and a loss of reflectivity.

The Latin word for such a mirror was speculum, from which came the Hebrew aspaklariyah mentioned in the tractate of Y’vamot’s “The prophets saw in a mirror that was not bright while Moses saw in a mirror that was bright.” Another version of this can be found in the early medieval midrashic compilation of Vayikra Rabbah, which states, “All the prophets saw in a mirror that was tarnished while Moses saw in one that was polished.” Both assertions tell us that Moses and the prophets glimpsed the Divine in a mirror (b’aspaklariya), not “through” one. In this they are in agreement with two English translations of Paul’s phrase that preceded the King James Version’s, the 1382 Wycliffe Bible’s, and William Tyndale’s 1536 New Testament’s. The former has “and we see now by a mirror in darkness,” and the latter, “now we see in a glass even in a dark speaking.” (“In a dark speaking” is Tyndale’s rendering of Paul’s en ainigmati, the Greek word ainigma, the source of our English “enigma,” denoting a difficult riddle.)

Why did the translators of the King James, who had the Wycliffe and Tyndale translations before them, chose “through a glass” rather than “by” or “in” one? Well, to begin with, it wasn’t they who originally came up with this formulation; it already appears in the 1560 Geneva Bible, which the King James borrowed from freely. And the Geneva Bible’s translators did so because they wished to be closer to the Greek, in which the preposition dia in Paul’s di’ eisoptrou can mean “through” either in the sense of “from one side to the other” (as in “I traveled through the country”) or in the sense of “by means of” (as in “I traveled through a travel grant”). There are similar words having this double meaning in many languages, such as the per of the Latin Vulgate’s translation of Paul’s phrase as videmus nunc per speculum in enigmate and the durch of Martin Luther’s Wir sehen jezt durch einen Spiegel in einem dunkeln Wort, and such precedents may have influenced the Geneva Bible too.

In a word, Paul’s “now we see through a glass darkly” means “now we see dimly by means of a mirror” and invokes the same Platonic metaphor of ultimate reality partially glimpsed in its reflections that underlies the rabbis’ comparison of Moses with the other Hebrew prophets. As haunting as the Geneva-King James translation is (on purely literary grounds, it is certainly superior to Wycliffe and Tyndale’s), it has misled generations of readers, both because of its use of “through” rather than “by” or “in” and because of its calling a metal mirror a “glass.”

Did the Geneva and King James Bible’s translators not realize that in Paul’s day glass mirrors were not in use? Possibly, they didn’t. There was no history of mirrors for them to read and they may have assumed that Roman times were not much different from their own in this respect. And yet even in their own age, most “glass” mirrors were actually made of rock crystal, a highly transparent form of quartz that is hard to distinguish from glass and that—unlike the latter, which in pre-industrial times had to be rolled out by hand in a semi-molten state—could be easily cut into thin, flat sheets before being backed by a mercury amalgam. Such rock-crystal mirrors were known as “looking glasses,” a term that first surfaced in England in the 16th century. Thus, for instance, Shakespeare, urging a friend to father a child so that his good looks that will fade can be preserved in his offspring, wrote in his Sonnet 3, published with its 153 companions in 1609, two years before the King James Bible’s appearance:

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest,
Now is the time that face should form another,
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.

It is as though by looking in such a glass, the King James’s translators understood Paul to be saying, that God can be seen, however darkly, reflected in this world.

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