In a conversation that I had recently with a friend, we stumbled across an excellent example of why we ought to use modern translations and not the old King James. In this case, we were looking at 1 Peter 2:9, and we struck on a significant difference in translation between the King James and the ESV (which I typically use to preach and teach from). I found that the results were both interesting and useful, dealing with the question: “are we a peculiar people” or “are we a people in Christ’s possession” as we go through life?
Initially, I compared the Greek of the Majority Text (from which the KJV is drawn) to the NA27 (from which modern translations are drawn) to see whether the difference in translation lay within a textual variant (please note that while there are variations between ancient manuscripts, they are largely minor linguistic nuances, and none of them place in question any orthodox doctrine that has been held by the church). Yet, both Greek Texts are identical in terms of this verse. Here is how the verse is literally translated (nuances of the words in parentheses):
“But you are an elect family, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for possession (could also be a people for preservation), in order that you might proclaim the moral excellence of the one who called (or summoned) you from darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
The language of “a people for possession” is the language that the King James Version translates into “a peculiar people.”
To understand this, we must recognize that the word “peculiar” in English is a word that has changed its use in meaning over the last 400 years since the KJV was translated. Today, we use the word “peculiar” to refer to something that is a little odd or strange—unique or outside of the mainstream. We might say something like, “This tastes peculiar,” to suggest that there is something disagreeable with the meal that has been set before us—in other words, it tastes odd.
But this is a more modern usage of the term and it was not what the KJV translators intended to communicate. In the 17th century, the term “peculiar” referred to something that was the exclusive property of something or someone else. When you understand this, the modern translation of “a people for possession” is synonymous with what the 17th century translators understood when they wrote, “a peculiar people.” It is only in a modern sense that we have tended to misunderstand what the KJV was saying because we no longer typically understand the word “peculiar” in the same way.
We do still have remnants of this old usage in modern English when we say things like, “the antiseptic smell that is peculiar to hospitals” or “he speaks in an accent that is peculiar to the Cajun culture of New Orleans.” Yet, even this use of the word “peculiar” seems to be falling away from common vernacular.
For what it is worth, the English word “peculiar” comes from the Latin, peculiaris, which means, “private property.” This is exactly the sense that Peter is using the term—we are the private property of Him who has delivered us from darkness and into his marvelous light—we are Christ’s exclusive property—a people peculiar to Him.
(Note: to its credit, the New King James Version translates this as, “his own special people,” which does a better job of capturing the idea in modern vernacular. The point: language changes as it is used one generation to the next and being bound to translations that use outdated language can easily lead to misunderstandings of the Biblical text.)