The Reading Level of the KJV

HomeworkI love the King James Version; it deserves its honored place in English church history. Its words will never leave my heart. But to be honest, I have trouble reading it in places—even though I grew up with it. And this is a concern to me, because I want to understand what I read in the Bible.

People who believe in exclusive use of the King James Version are sensitive to my plight. They have worked to demonstrate that the KJV is actually easier to read than modern English Bible translations. Says av1611.org:

Every new Bible that hits the market attacks the King James Bible with the flat-out lie that the KJB is too hard to understand. They all claim that the King James Bible is too archaic. You can’t understand the Elizabethan language. It’s just too difficult to understand. This is the number one reason people lay down their King James Bible.

KJV defenders confidently claim that all those Bible readers who think they can’t understand the KJV because of its archaic language are simply wrong. Says R.B. Ouellette:

Recent evaluation shows the reading level of the King James Bible to be fifth grade, as a whole—many individual passages would be lower. The modern Bibles are shown to be between sixth and ninth grade levels as a whole. The modern versions claim to increase readability when in reality, they often make readability more difficult.

How do they know the KJV is more readable? The folks at av1611.org, to their genuine credit, actually sat down and did the work:

We “scientifically and grammatically” compared the ESV to the archaic, hard-to-understand King James Bible…. Anyone with a PC, a Bible Program, and WordPerfect can easily (in less than 30 minutes) duplicate the following tests. Utilizing Quickverse Bible software, we copied the complete New Testament text of the King James Bible and the ESV into text files. With no modifications, no editing, but exactly as they came from Quickverse, we opened the KJB and the ESV New Testament text files in Corel Wordperfect. We then simply performed the Grammar checking function within WordPerfect….

And what was the result? The King James Bible literally “blew the doors off” the ESV! The following verifiable scientific results do not lie. [emphasis original]

These are the relevant results as reported at av1611.org:

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for the New Testament

  • KJV: 4.32
  • ESV: 8.22

Game, set, match. KJV wins.

Right?

Why Flesch-Kincaid is (Mostly) Irrelevant to the KJV Debate

Computers are smart; they can do a lot of stuff I can’t do, like copy the entire New Testament in less than a second.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 10.29.30 PMBut one thing computers can’t do (so far) is interpret human language reliably. Have you met Siri?

Me: Siri, where’s the nearest Chick-Fil-A?

Siri: Calling Chicken Filets, Inc., 144 Mackinaw Avenue, Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Me: No, don’t call them, Siri.

Siri: I did not call them “Siri.”

Me: Nevermind.

Siri: I’m really sorry about this, but I can’t take any requests right now.

Siri’s great for simple things like setting alarms and calling sisters, but interpreting complex language is not a simple thing. It’s unbelievably amazing—any human brain can beat the biggest super computer when it comes to understanding human language.

So what, exactly, is the computer-aided Flesch-Kincaid analysis doing when it “reads” the KJV New Testament and spits out a grade level? I’ll tell you:

flesh-kincaid
(image courtesy Wikipedia)

It’s doing what computers do best: math. There are precisely three elements Flesch-Kincaid measures: 1) the number of words, 2) the number of sentences, and 3) the number of syllables.

All the other major reading-level measures—ARI, SMOG, Coleman-Liau, Gunning fog—are performing variations on the same three elements (plus letters in the case of one of them).

As rough-and-ready measures, these are useful tools. Readability-score.com even gives an aggregate from all the numbers provided by these scientific measures.

But when it comes to comparing the KJV and modern English Bible translations (ESV, NIV, etc.), all these measures are (mostly) irrelevant, for two big reasons and at least one little one:

1) None of these computer grading tools can judge how rare words and phrases are, or notice their spellings.

Wikipedia’s entry on the Gunning fog index says,

While the fog index is a good sign of hard-to-read text, it has limits. Not all complex words are difficult. For example, “asparagus” is not generally thought to be a difficult word, though it has four syllables. A short word can be difficult if it is not used very often by most people.

Succour” is a two-syllable word; “besom” too. The phrase “to wit” contains two one-syllable words. Not too complicated. But I’ve never used any of these words or phrases in my entire life outside reading and discussing the KJV. Nobody—nobody—uses these words. That’s what “archaic” means. And Flesch-Kincaid has no idea.

Likewise, “shew” and “saith” and other words inexperienced KJV readers may stumble over aren’t difficult, per se. But their spellings are strange by modern standards, and that has to be a factor in readability. But Flesch-Kincaid doesn’t measure spelling.

2) Word order (syntax) plays no role in these reading-level analyses.

Play no role word order can—Yoda has pointed out—until smarter computers get. For example, Col. 2:23 in the KJV has always tripped me up. I understand every word individually, but not when you put them together:

Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.

What is “will worship”? Each word is simple and commonly used, but put them together and I don’t know what they mean. And what does that last phrase mean—“not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh”? I know what satisfying the flesh means, but “not in any honour to” is too hard for me. I don’t understand it. Does Flesch? Does Kincaid?

I can make much better sense of the modern translations at Col. 2:23—they’re all easier to read. But several of the major modern translations have higher readability scores for that verse:

  • KJV: 15.4
  • NKJV: 17.8“These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”
  • ESV: 18.1“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

(I recognize that these measures were not designed to be used on one sentence, so I measured the whole paragraph, Col. 2:20–23. And see also the NASB and the NIV, which have lower reading-level scores than the KJV here.)

Vocabulary is a big enough issue—I do not believe that competent speakers of respectable contemporary English should be required to look up English words in a Bible translation when common equivalents are available. Why translate the Bible at all if you aren’t going to use the language as it stands? But word order is, in my judgment, actually a bigger readability issue in the KJV than vocabulary. Take a look at the word order, for example, in Habakkuk 2:18?

What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it? (KJV)

Is “the graven image” a direct object of “profiteth” or the subject of “profiteth”? Modern versions use modern syntax, which is easier to read for modern people:

What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it? (ESV)

Flesch-Kincaid can see that the KJV rendering is longer, but it can’t see the most significant readability difference between these two translations—because it doesn’t measure word order.

3) Typography plays no role in these reading analyses.

This point is admittedly minor compared to the other two, but I do think it matters: the ESV and other modern translations characteristically use paragraphing and indenting of poetic lines more than most KJV editions do. Let me hasten to add that there have been KJV editions with excellent typography, even paragraphed editions, going back into the 19th century. But most KJV editions (and, admittedly, a lot of NASB editions) I see today turn every verse into a separate paragraph, and that’s not helpful for careful, contextually sensitive reading.

Also, the KJV uses a different system of punctuation marks than we’re accustomed to as contemporary readers. I don’t blame the KJV translators at all for the lack of quotation marks; they weren’t standard in 1611, when our modern punctuation system was still developing. And the use of colons and semi-colons in the KJV is something I’d love to find more information on; I looked in the standard sources and found little help. But we’re left with “missing” punctuation and punctuation that just doesn’t fit modern rules. And yet Flesch-Kincaid does not measure these things.

(And one more minor thing: the practice of italicizing English words supplied by the translators should be dropped. I’ve never heard anyone use this convention well in interpretation. People who don’t read Greek and Hebrew simply don’t understand what it means for a word to be “supplied,” and the practice, I’ve read, is haphazard anyway.)

What Is the Reading Level of the KJV?

I’m not accusing any KJV defender of lying or of purposeful deception, not in the least (although I’m compelled to say that I did not get the same Flesch-Kincaid results Gail Riplinger did, and I have no explanation for this fact). And I’m not saying that computer-aided reading-level analyses are worthless. I’m saying that KJV defenders are using these mathematical tools for a purpose for which they were not designed, and are therefore getting erroneous results.

Still don’t believe me? Go to Readability-score.com and run a Spanish text or an Italian one through these analyses and the computer will have no idea. It’ll just keep doing math like it’s been told. In fact, the Swedish translation of the book of James has a Flesch-Kincaid score of 6.3 while the KJV score for that same book is 7.3. But even I, dumb as I am compared to a computer, can tell you that the KJV is easier for 21st-century Americans to read than the Svenska Folkbibeln.

Reading-level analyses run by computers will not yield reliable results when used on archaic English. So what is the reading level of the KJV? I ran the numbers, too, and you can see them here. But I’m not putting them in my post—even though my results show that the ESV was more readable under every major measure—because I still believe they’re (mostly) irrelevant. A computerized test is simply not the best way to measure the readability of the KJV.

I suggest that av1611.org mentioned and then dismissed the best measure: people. If reading difficulty is the number one reason people set aside the KJV in favor of a modern translation such as the ESV, then perhaps they know better than their computers. It’s a little odd, in fact, that someone would presume to tell numerous Bible readers, “Stop complaining—you can read the KJV just fine.” How do they know?

A courteous Christian brother who is KJV-Only told me recently,

I have found that people living in the jungles of Guyana [the lone English-speaking country in South America] are having no problem reading and memorizing passages of the King James Version.

I find this simply unbelievable, not because a computer told me the KJV was harder to read than the ESV, but because I’m a person, a reader. I know when something is easy or hard to read. When KJV defenders not only refuse to admit that the KJV is more difficult to read than modern translations, but insist that no one should have any trouble—and that the KJV is actually easier to read than the NIV or ESV—I’m at a loss. Where does the discussion go after that? I prefer the person who says, “I know the KJV is tough to read; the Bible isn’t supposed to be easy. So do some study.” I can have a conversation with that person.

Conclusion

I’d like to end on a positive note: I don’t think readability ought to be the sole criterion for choosing a Bible translation. And I actually do think that Flesch-Kincaid analyses end up giving a kind of praise and support to the beautiful, enduring King James Version.

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 10.27.08 AMYes, using every available measure, the KJV came out as less readable than the ESV—but only slightly. How much difference is there, after all, between 7.1 and 9.2? Very little.

I think these numbers suggest that not much revision may be needed to make the KJV understandable to contemporary readers. Keep the same original language texts (the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Greek Textus Receptus), replace archaic words with respectable modern equivalents, shift the syntax and punctuation a bit to fit contemporary conventions, and I believe you’ll end up with an excellent translation.

In fact, I’ll give you one. It’s called the New King James Version. If King James Only brothers and sisters are truly concerned to have a readable and reliable translation of the best original language texts, they would do well to start with the NKJV.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

26 thoughts on “The Reading Level of the KJV”

  1. I had someone remark to me recently that modern translations all carry copyrights, and that that one fact showed they were all the work of men, not God. I did not succeed answering back as politely as I should have. You’ve done a much better job than I did.

  2. I was KJV-Only when I came to college, and I still very much love and appreciate the teachers in the KJV-Only high school I graduated from. I have a simple, straightforwardly biblical answer to the copyright claim: the laborer is worthy of his hire. Someone who goes to the trouble of translating and editing and printing a Bible should not be expected to do it all for free. And all a copyright does is keep unscrupulous people from stealing all that work.

  3. My reply was very similar to yours. Unfortunately the only result was for her to remark that she needed to find a better argument for defending her position. Today’s equivalent of William Tyndale’s “common ploughboy” has enough trouble reading even the newspaper on a serious level. The KJV puts much of God’s Word completely out of reach for such a person. In that light, the value of the updated translations seems so self-evident that I find it hard to get my head around why this is so hard to agree upon. I have heard the arguments. They just don’t track for me.

  4. “In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2Ti 2:25 KJV). I’ve often seen real irony in this rendering: I think the KJV-Only movement is only hurting themselves and their own children—they’re “opposing themselves.” My heart goes out to them. I’m not angry. And yet we must be patient, Paul says. God seems to be pretty patient with my faults.

  5. Claudia, you may have to confirm this but I believe the KJV was copyrighted when it was first produced.

    Note that the WEB version of the Bible has never been copyrighted.

  6. If Wikipedia is correct (and I’ve heard from other sources that it is), the KJV *still is* copyrighted in the UK (even though that’s not the word being used):

    “The Authorized Version is in the public domain in most of the world. However, in the United Kingdom, the right to print, publish and distribute it is a Royal prerogative and the Crown licenses publishers to reproduce it under letters patent… Cambridge University Press permits the reproduction of at most 500 verses for ‘liturgical and non-commercial educational use’ if their prescribed acknowledgement is included, the quoted verses do not exceed 25% of the publication quoting them and do not include a complete Bible book.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_James_Version#Copyright_status

  7. This post represents the familiar winsomeness that so impressed me the first time I heard it (which was during the VIP Bible integration presentation in April 2011. It is possibly the most “manifesto-like” of all your writings on the topic (that I have read).

    As usual, I agree with your points and still find it hard to read, though not as hard as some others. This doesn’t have the same “gotcha” feel as some other posts, including but not limited to the enlightening and oft-cited (by me) article on Romans 5:8 you wrote and recommended.

    And again, as usual, I insist that the reason that I continue to be only-KJV (I’m still waiting for widespread recognition of the distinction between KJVO and OKJV) is because I have committed so much Scripture to memory that to introduce ESV or NASB (two versions I am fine with) to my regular reading routine would dilute some of the memorization that has been so valuable to me my whole spiritual life, while I expect (I can only expect without actually conducting the experiment) the benefit of clarification of some arguably obscure KJV renderings would not, from a cost-benefit standpoint, be valuable enough to make it worth my while.

    You know how I feel about the KJVO people. They set my teeth on edge most of the time. I, like you, count many (most) of my friends among them, and I never bring it up (most of my life is lived at the cost-benefit analysis level). I don’t have a problem with others using other versions; I actually encourage my 6th-8th grade Sunday school boys to do so, though I have to be careful because some of their parents are KJVO (my current church is not KJVO, but about 50% of the people are).

    But one point I might make in the KJV’s defense, not a novel one by any means, but one that has educational significance as well: how do we best serve those who lack the cognitive skills to access a text, be it a textbook or The Book? Do we serve them most by providing them access to the text at their current reading level, or do we provide scaffolding for them to reach a higher reading level? Is it a disservice to students (whether in school or Sunday school or neighborhood Bible study) to deprive them of the rich experiences we enjoy by failing to challenge them? Reading Shakespeare is a challenge. Reading poetry is a challenge. Reading many (I almost said most) things worth reading is a challenge! It is reasonable to expect that reading the Bible will be a challenge.

    Caveat: Shakespeare and the Bible is a false comparison. Shakespeare has no eternal consequences, no divine inspiration, no living power, etc., so the fact that a reader would struggle to understand the Bible has much more significance than the same of Shakespeare. And one of my mantras is that it is wrong to erect any unnecessary hurdle between a person and the gospel. The readability of the KJV may well fall into that category.

    At the end of the day, having the gospel in one’s native language is the essence of accessibility. So while I’m not opposed in principle to anything that you are saying (KJV is harder to read, the Flesch-Kincaid scores are not relevant to this discussion, and good alternatives exist), if most people who complained about the KJV did so on the basis that it is cognitively inaccessible to them, I would grant them some license. But I would not excuse the same person for employing the same excuse about Shakespeare. That apparent double standard is the fountain head of much of the KJVO argument: that we do people an academic disservice by dumbing down the language to give them better access to it. What, would you have us update Shakespeare? Don’t you realize how much of the essence of Shakespeare would be lost by a modern translation? This failure to distinguish between academic disservice and spiritual disservice is significant, and I fear, overlooked.

    And one final point: there are two parallel conversations happening in the KJV debate, and I fear that the failure to distinguish them results in an unfortunate fallacy. There are at least two types of readers who react against the lack of readability in the KJV: those who are genuinely unable to comprehend it due to educational background or cognitive deficiency. There are others who react the same way to the KJV that they react to Shakespeare, and without merit. They are capable of applying themselves more carefully to the text than they do, and it is this type that solicits the frequent accusation from KJVO that “lazy readers should not be accommodated by dumbed-down translations.” And for these readers, that’s a lot of what other versions are, though in my limited experience, this type of reader often opts for a version that most sensitive Bible readers would recognize as being problematic. And if I could venture a guess at your response to the point that “lazy readers just want a more accessible translation”: “why shouldn’t they?”

  8. Some good points, Austin. I do wish we could bring people up to the level of the KJV. I wish I could bring myself up to that level. I think I’m close, but maybe I’m “cheating” because 1) I’ve read several contemporary translations all the way through and I know what some passages are saying thereby, 2) I can read Greek and Hebrew and check myself if I need to. There are still some sentences in the KJV that I can’t make any sense of (Col. 2:23b is one—and I’ve checked it with some folks with a lot of English training who didn’t persuade me that they understood it any better than I. Ps. 37:8b is another.)

    I’m not as concerned about bright people with good education—though I am convinced that, unless they possess those two criteria I just mentioned, they’re all missing more than they could know. I’m primarily concerned about the boy that driveth the plough. God used Κοινή Greek, the common tongue. Some New Testament books are more difficult than others, but as best I can tell (borrowing from at least one person who knew Greek better than most men alive), the KJV is more difficult to read for English-speakers than the Greek New Testament was for Κοινή Greek speakers with comparable levels of education. I’m not as qualified to speak of Hebrew, though I have read that narrative portions, especially, are relatively simple. I can confirm this regarding the portions of the Old Testament I have read through in Hebrew (the poetic portions are more difficult).

    After discussing readability level we have to bring up the delicate question of overall translation quality. And this I can speak to with confidence: the KJV is stupendous, but it is one translation among many stupendous translations we have. And it isn’t as stupendous as several of the modern translations. I view the KJV as a genuine peer of main translations I use. I take its “vote” seriously on difficult-to-render passages. Sometimes I think it has the best rendering. But after many years of constantly comparing translations with the originals, it’s clear to me that the KJV has more poor translations than the others. It’s still stupendous, and I mean that with utter sincerity. But several modern translations are simply better, even setting aside archaisms of vocabulary and syntax.

    Your Shakespeare analogy, as you grant a little, is actually pretty dangerously misleading in my opinion: it muddles the issues and borrows cultural cachet for a viewpoint that is keeping God’s words out of people’s hands. Of course no one wants to dumb down Shakespeare. But what about translations of Homer? Should they be placed into Shakespearean language? Would that produce an “accurate” translation? Perhaps, but accurate for whom? A long-dead generation of English-speakers.

    I’m concerned about your kids and mine, Austin. I’m concerned about the average Christian who spends all day on the factory line or in an insurance office or changing diapers. It sounds honoring to Scripture to say that we don’t want to dumb it down, but if I’m right, that’s a criticism against God Himself. God had access to a classic literary form of Greek, and He did not use it. People should not read the KJV as their main translation, anymore than Filipinos should use classic literary forms of Tagalog or Italians should use the Italian of Dante. Such people will be missing out on many of God’s words.

    People should still use the KJV, and often. We should all use the many good translations we have. And I plan to give my kids some exposure to the KJV at least for cultural reasons—for Christian culture and the broader culture, which still is full of beautiful KJV phrases. But handing my children a Bible translation which speaks a language they will never fully learn is something I refuse to do, on deep principle.

  9. One other thing that causes KJVO to be so intractable (though they would probably not agree) is what I first heard from Dorothy Sayers, though not original to her: laudator temporis acti (praiser of times past). As I’m sure you know, that is not my motivation, but it is a pervasive psychological influence, often covert, and especially so to those infected with it. I’ve experienced enough of that for several lifetimes.

  10. Excellent point. One of the saddest ironies I know of in this world is the very first paragraph of the KJV Preface, “Translators to the Reader”:

    The best things have been calumniated. Zeal to promote the common good, whether it be by devising anything ourselves, or revising that which hath been laboured by others, deserveth certainly much respect and esteem, but yet findeth but cold entertainment in the world. It is welcomed with suspicion instead of love, and with emulation instead of thanks: and if there be any hole left for cavil to enter, (and cavil, if it do not find a hole, will make one) it is sure to be misconstrued, and in danger to be condemned.

  11. Speaking of that preface, Austin, have you read it? (I found this great copy.) By the second sentence, we reach a linguistic problem prescriptivists have a very hard time even understanding, let alone explaining: namely a word which we use commonly but which meant something different (when used in that context) in 1611—in fact, a word which now generally means the opposite of what the KJV translators meant by it. Can you find the word? =)

    By sentence three we’ve got another word which is being used in a way no one today ever uses it. I puzzled over it, because I could sort of make sense of it. It took a trip to the OED to clear up my confusion.

    Unless we’re going to say that language should not change (which would be odd because 1. our language is the result of change and 2. so were the languages God used to inspire Scripture), we’re going to have to grant the reality that translations will need to be updated. I persist in saying that the OED is a specialist’s tool which we should not require laypeople to purchase before they can read their Bibles.

  12. Woah, woah, woah! This is extremely interesting for many reasons, including one secret reason! =) I have to tell someone else I know immediately. This information could be very helpful to people: it could show—in English—what difference the textual basis actually makes. But I have to see if they changed any renderings in the ESV or if they just added “missing” verses. I say “missing,” of course, because to say it without quotation marks would be to imply that the TR is the standard.

  13. Huh. This page shows that the Gideons didn’t bring their ESV wholly in line with the TR. They just seemed to have picked out the most obvious differences… I need to look into this a little more.

  14. Our church includes a very diverse selection of individuals. Many college educated, but also there are some who are having trouble passing the GED as adults. I do not understand the logic that says that not only should we not only want them to understand Scripture, but we also want them to–essentially–learn to speak 1600’s English, practically a foreign language for them. ESV sufficiently balances readability and accuracy. Is this not an area where we need to bear with those who would find the KJV an impediment to their ability and confidence in reading Scripture for themselves and studying it as a church?

    I’m sympathetic to the discussion about verses that a person has already memorized. That’s even an issue for me, because I already had so many committed to memory.

    I wonder, Mark, if you might comment on how a church would go about Bible memory when there is such a diversity? Many of our folk were raised on the KJV, but we now use ESV. Any tips?

    I appreciate your blog.

  15. Great question, Andrea. And I’m totally with you on serving the poorly educated. There will be things in the Bible that are difficult to access for them, even in the easiest translation—that’s true of the bright and highly educated, too, and I say that on the authority of 2 Peter 3:16. But reality (in my experience) is that once you hit a certain age, your reading skills are unlikely to improve much. We should indeed bear with those who are weak. And as you say, we don’t have to give up an accurate translation to do it.

    The ESV is actually very similar to the KJV. That’s one of the reasons I chose it. Switching one’s memorization to the ESV shouldn’t be a terrible jump. I am sympathetic to the problem, too, but I have to wonder how many adult Christians actually memorize Scripture. I honestly don’t know.

    And to answer your last question, I have to wonder how many churches engage in much church-wide Bible memorization. When we do that at my church, every year or couple years, we have a KJV bunch, a NASB bunch, and an ESV bunch. Memory verse sheets for kids are printed up in all three versions.

    Rather than seeing this as a terrible situation placing undue burden on Christian unity, I choose to see the bright side: my kids will be inoculated against any-version-onlyism. They will, I hope, take for granted the value of having and using multiple translations. This is something I hope to do more work on in the future: helping laypeople confidently receive the value of multiple translations rather than being afraid that two “Bibles” will disagree and they’ll be stuck.

  16. Thank you so much for going through this, this is the best analysis I have seen on the topic. KJOers are simply cutting and pasting this Flesch-Kincaid claim, but – perhaps not surprisingly, given what they do with Burgon or Riplinger – no-one seems to check the math.

  17. Glad to be of service! Hey, we all do things like this. Who has the time and inclination to check out every claim that fits with your worldview? But it’s still the calling of Bible teachers to patiently instruct those who oppose themselves. I really like the KJV wording there for this situation, because the KJVOs who use this readability argument are only hurting themselves. Since they’re my brothers and sisters in Christ and I care about them, I’m trying to patiently instruct them.

  18. What I got out of this article was that Mark dislikes the KJV Bible. He even goes so far to say that the KJV is not a reliable translation and we should use the “modern” NKJV instead!

    Think of those poor KJVO’s sticking to one Bible and “hurting” themselves and “hurting” their children. How will they ever recover from the “shame” of using one Bible. Why doesn’t the ESV just add an 11th commandment that says, “Thou shall read from modern Bible versions based on the Greek text of Westcott-Hort.” Because everyone knows that new Bible versions aren’t big business (wink). It’s not like the Bible is the best selling book EVERY single year (wink wink).

  19. Derek,

    This is not true. I like the KJV very much. It will never leave my heart or my head. I have difficulty understanding it in many places, despite trying for years to understand it better.

    And I did not (in this post, though I have done so elsewhere) recommend a Bible version based on the Greek text of Westcott and Hort. I recommended the NKJV, which is based on the same Greek text as the KJV.

    Have you ever read the NKJV?

  20. Are you insinuating that people are getting dumber, hence the need to dumb things down? My problem is that the new translations have omitted complete text and even changed their original meanings. As far as getting paid for producing these bibles, I am not completely opposed to that. But, we all know that these publishers are doing more than just that. They’re literally lining their pockets. It’s what the KJV calls filthy lucre. There are many churches that make copies of the bible in different languages and don’t make a profit. They depend on donations. Are we trying to spread the gospel, or make a business out of it? I don’t condemn anybody for using a different bible version, but don’t feed me this nonsense about these translations being superior. During Great Awakening, the Authorized Version was used and God honored it. This was during a time of great persecution.

  21. John, you say publishers of new translations are lining their pockets. This is a serious charge to make against other believers in Christ. Can you point to any evidence that this is the case, evidence which required someone to leave his armchair to gather? What are the profits of these publishers? What counts as acceptable profit, 4%? What counts as excessive, 25%, 50%? Which companies, precisely, are engaging in this sin?

    I didn’t say that modern translations are superior to the KJV. I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s apples to oranges: the KJV was a translation into a different, earlier form of our language. It’s not the KJV translators’ fault that their excellent work needs revision because of the natural process of language change.

    And what does “lucre” mean? Can you tell me without looking it up in a dictionary? This is all my point: why can’t I have that verse (Titus 1:11) in my language? Why do I have to have a word like “lucre” in there that I don’t know and never use (except when talking about the Bible)? “Lucre” was a great word to choose in 1611, I’m ready to believe (I can’t know because I don’t know that form of English very well). But today I know for certain that no one uses it. I just want to know what God said!

    This post of mine has been out for over a year; I happen to know it has had a large number of views in that time. And no KJV defender has written me publicly or privately to say, “We’re sticking with the KJV, but we now see that we were wrong to claim that computer readability tests prove the KJV is more readable than the modern versions.” I predict that as long as I live, KJV-Only individuals will be repeating their claim that computers prove their point. I’d like to see one of them, just one, publicly admit that they’ve been wrong to use this particular argument.

  22. Great post! Thank you. If you’ll notice, the Gunning-Fog gives a much more accurate portrayal of the difficulty of the KJV (grading it around 12 instead of 7-9); that’s b/c they use a word list to determine vocab complexity, not just a syllable count. I would guess that the folks who cite non-native speakers who can “easily read” the KJV probably are just don’t realize the difference between “decoding readers” (being able to speak the words, ie, “quote the scripture”) vs. actually having full “reading comprehension” (understanding what they are reading). From my experience teaching English in other countries, speakers have a tendency to over-estimate their ability—they will read a passage (of a newspaper or anything really) and if I ask, “Did you understand?” they will say, “Yes.” Of course, if I ask them to explain back what they read, I will find out that they misunderstood much of it. As you yourself experienced with the KJV, you can “know all the words” without really understanding the meaning. And, as you point out, the whole point of having scripture in the common tongue (English in our case) in the first place is for it to be understandable…

  23. An excellent point. This fits my personal experience as a reader—I could “decode” in that sense just fine beginning at a young age. But I overestimated by ability to understand the English I was reading.

    But as for Gunning-Fog using a word list to determine vocab complexity, perhaps you’re talking about a specialized form of the index—because Wikipedia says Gunning-Fog doesn’t have a word list. If I’m wrong about this, I’d really like to know, because I’m about to take this blog post into print.

  24. In reply to Mr. Ward’s comment of Sept. 3, 2016 11:55pm:

    The King James Version is, without a doubt, the greatest achievement of the English language, albeit it is hard to read in places.

    You mention the word “lucre” as a word most readers would have to look up to know what it means. And what’s so wrong with that? Even though “lucre” is not not used much today, it is still being used by writers (see dictionary.com).

    Noticed that I used “albeit” in my first sentence. Another great word. I never used it much until I started to use the KJV again. You can find it in Ezekiel 13:7 and Philemon 1:19. Ever since I started using the word in my writing, I’ve noticed it in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and, believe it or not, The USA Today!

    Another word I like is “suborn”. I heard it on TV and read it every once in awhile in detective novels, but never really knew what it meant. One day I’m reading in the book of Acts and, lo and behold, there is suborned! (Acts 6:11)

    The context of the verse made it’s meaning clear to me (a bribe or otherwise induce [someone] to commit perjury).

    But you’re right. The KJV has a lot of words we don’t use any longer. However, the edition I use defines those obsolete words at the end of the verse. And it’s hard to read. But remember what St. Peter said? He said that some of the stuff St. Paul wrote is hard to understand! (see 2 Peter 3:16)

    My point is this: the majesty of the KJV is undeniable (can you honestly say that any other translation even comes close to the Psalms of the KJV?). Why not encourage people to read the KJV and get educated at the same time?

  25. These are good questions, and I appreciate you writing in and using real-life examples.

    I’m a writer. I like words. I’d like to think I have a pretty large active vocabulary, and that the availability of so many lexemes with so many individual nuances is one of the reasons English is such a great language for a writer to inherit. I have no complaint against someone who wants to use suborn, albeit, and lucre in their written or even spoken vocabulary. I have no complaint against someone who wants to teach those words to his or her students or children.

    I will observe only that there is a difference between eat and dine, and between rest and repose. The difference is the level of formality, or perhaps (a related issue) of social register. Yes, in one sense eat and dine mean the same thing: to consume a meal. But each also belongs in a particular context. Eat is an every-day word. Dine is a hoity-toity word. People are free to use hoity-toity words when those words suit their purposes. There are highly formal occasions in which “Shall we dine?” can be uttered with no trace of irony and “Let’s eat!” would be rightly interpreted as gauche.

    And there are such formal contexts in the Bible. Some of the psalms included. A translator should feel free to use the word dine when the context calls for it. The NIV is completely right to use it in this sentence from Proverbs, for example:

    When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you (Pr 23:1).

    Ancient rulers didn’t “chow down,” they “sat to dine.”

    But should a Bible translation make it a policy to choose the more formal word in every single case? Should Romans 14:2 be translated, “One person believes he may dine on anything, while the weak person dines only on vegetables”? No. And why not? Because the Greek of the New Testament is not typically formal, stuffy, elegant Greek but day-to-day Greek. The very name for it is “Koine,” or “common.” God chose to inspire the NT not in a special religious argot but in the language of the people.

    My complaint about the KJV is not a complaint about the level of formality chosen by the KJV translators; I don’t have an ear sensitive enough to 17th century English (beyond the KJV) to know how the KJV struck its original hearers (and I don’t know anyone who does), but I don’t imagine it all sounded elegant, majestic, formal, and religious to them—the way it does to us. That’s my “complaint” about the, yes, excellent translation we know as the KJV. It makes God’s word sound like he purposefully chose an exalted, formal, language distant from where we live, when that’s simply not true. The KJV language sounds majestic to us because of many accidents of history. But did not generally choose majestic language, even for majestic statements.

    Peter’s comment about the difficulty of some of Paul’s writing is not a warrant for us to make it even more difficult, unnecessarily difficult. And that’s the other problem with the now-archaic vocabulary and syntax of the KJV: it doesn’t just give readers the wrong idea about the formality God chose; it actually causes readers to stumble. Why should someone be required to look up an obscure word in a dictionary when a well known equivalent is available? What’s the point of translating if we’re going to use words people don’t know (when, again, words they do know are available)?

    I do not say that we ought to remove all difficulties from the Bible. That’s both impossible and undesirable. Some passages, some words, will always be obscure. We don’t have “eunuchs” or “mandrakes,” so there are no equivalent words to use. We don’t have “chamberlains,” either, but in most cases in which the KJV uses that word we have more perspicuous alternatives—and the modern translations typically use those.

    The call of the Reformation was to put the Bible in the language of the people. As best I can tell, the KJV translators were attempting to answer that call. We actually betray their legacy when we insist that no one else be permitted to do precisely what they said they were doing:

    We never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one… but to make a good one better.

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