The Reading Level of the KJV
I 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.
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.