One of The Most Profound Things Any Reader Has Said to Me After Reading My Book

A reader of Authorized wrote me:

I have found it interesting on the topic of italicized words in the KJV to notice the difference in the number of italicized words in the “original” 1611 KJV and the KJV of today. Using Mark 5 for instance, I believe the count is something like 20 in today’s KJV and 6 in the 1611 KJV (two of which are not even italicized in today’s KJV…“Talitha cumi”).

I responded:

As far as italics go, I felt like I never heard anyone give the other side, the “cons” of italics. And I began to feel like none of the “pros” I always heard were really pros.

One of the most profound things any reader has said to me after reading my book was this: “If my over-arching goal is to understand what God said, it changes everything in the versions debate.”

Loyalty to italics privileges “accuracy”—as sort of a disembodied reality—over understanding.

I’ll add: for every claim I’ve heard that the italics (in any Bible translation, not just the KJV) are beneficial, I hear zero stories showing that they aid understanding. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be there; not at all. Because I read Greek and Hebrew, I find them beneficial every once in a while.

But what are the italics doing there if they’re only helping scholars, and only helping them every once in a while? What they seem to do is make some lay readers feel safer, more confident that the translators aren’t putting one over on them. And that’s a bad place to be when reading a Bible translation. Simply put, all Christians—even Bible translators—have to trust other Christians when they read the Bible in translation. No one is such an expert that he or she can do without any help from others. Even the people who can read Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic fluently rely on specialized studies from scholars who’ve studied individual words.

If the very nature of the Bible is such that almost all Christians have to read it in translation (because very few people are fluent in all the biblical languages), and if the Bible never warns us to watch out for “bad” translations, and if the KJV translators themselves draw attention to the poor quality of the Septuagint translation (and they do in their preface) and yet the NT authors used it, maybe we can all lighten up a bit and be open rather than skeptical when evangelicalism’s top experts make and endorse a Bible translation.

Indeed, we have good reasons to trust our Bible translators; they’re not trying to adulterate the Word. These are the same people who are teaching in our best seminaries, writing our best books, and offering the best defenses of sound doctrines like inerrancy.

One of the most important messages I can send out to the faithful Christians filling church pews is that all the major evangelical English Bible translations are trustworthy.* There is no conspiracy to mistranslate or remove or obfuscate God’s words. I can disagree with individual translation decisions in all of the existing English Bible translations and yet say with confidence that they are all trustworthy, and all excellent tools for understanding God’s words.

The balance is off when we care more about having the words of God than about understanding them—like a kid who doesn’t follow baseball but wants to collect every last card for the 2003 Mets roster.

*I have far less expertise in Catholic and mainline Protestant translations, but in my experience it’s hard to really mess up a Bible translation unless you do so on purpose (I’m looking at you, New World Translation). If all we had were the New American Bible (Catholic) or the Common English Bible (Mainline Protestant), I think we’d still have reason to be incredibly grateful.

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.

4 thoughts on “One of The Most Profound Things Any Reader Has Said to Me After Reading My Book”

  1. Just some friendly pushback. Juxtaposing “accuracy” and “understanding” and critiquing the privileging of one over another strikes me as somewhat fallacious reasoning. My ultimate goal is not either accuracy or understanding, but accurate understanding–and as accurate an understanding as possible. Understanding without accuracy is misunderstanding, and surely that’s not helpful to any Bible reader. To that end, I would think things like italics can often be helpful not just to scholars but to any moderately educated and alert reader. And I say “often” because not all italics are created equal. Since Mark 5 was mentioned, I’ll use that as an example (KJV), though I have to use brackets in place of italics here. In 5:3, instead of “he had [his] dwelling” why not just say “he had a dwelling” and be done with it? Surely that’s clear enough. Similarly, in 5:8 do we really need [thou] to indicate direct address? On the other hand, if a word is virtually demanded to make translational sense and the translational option is universally clear (like 5:9, “What [is] thy name?”), it shouldn’t be in italics in the first place. IMO, the time for italics is when the translators seek to aid understanding by inserting words not clearly reflected in the original that are to some degree interpretively subjective. Finally, I would agree that “all major evangelical English Bible translations are trustworthy”; I would, however, add two caveats: (1) If you do not have access to original languages, you should not confine yourself exclusively to any one English translation, because even equally trustworthy translations can differ from one another in translational nuance; that kind of translational flexibility is just the nature of language. (2) The idea that “trustworthy” means that translation is a purely objective science that can never be swayed by or reflect a translator’s personal theological persuasions is naïve; that kind of translational variety is just the nature of humanity.

  2. I agree with all that. 🙂 If I’ve been “pushed,” it’s only to be clear that *accurate* understanding is indeed what I’m aiming for. I’m just questioning whether a translation can truly be accurate if it causes misunderstandings. The KJV does this, I argue, through no fault of its own or of modern readers.

  3. Mark, I was not an English major, but I do enjoy people who strive to put forth accurate writing, which is one of the reasons I enjoy your site.

    Speaking of correct correct writing and punctuation, do you think that this King James guy was some kind of early adapter of texting? For example, what is with the smiley face in Matthew 6:32? And what is with the wink in Job 30:5? More smiley faces in 2 Samuel 14:26 and 2 Kings 7:13. Why did he put so many emojis into the Bible? Why is the KJV generally known as the only version with emojis? (These are just a few random samples; the KJV is replete with them.) Perhaps more importantly, why did King James put this in the Bible? When I text with my grand kids I use emojis and it’s fun, but I surely wouldn’t do it in formal writing, much less the Bible!

    And what’s up with the weird spelling errors? Didn’t King James consider having a proofreader before going to the presses? For example, why does Leviticus 25:9 say “jubile” instead of jubilee? And why is there not even one mention in the KJV of a jubilee and every reference to it is misspelled as “jubile”?

    I do not understand why there are KJV-only people. If you’re going to be something-only, don’t you think you would have chosen a different version that doesn’t have all of these silly emojis and grammar mistakes? People who are KJV-only surely did pick an interesting version to use as the only one! 🙂

  4. I just wanted to leave a comment that I did not mean my last comment as a dig at KJV-only people. I do not subscribe to that belief neither agree with it, for a variety of reasons. However, I know that many of the people who do are sincere and do mean well. I have used the KJV since childhood and still prefer it many times myself.

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