Answering a Few More Objections to Authorized: Part 1, The Modern Versions Are Copyrighted; They’re in It for the Money
Since its release, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible has received what I would consider to be a very positive response. Except when it hasn’t. It’s one of those books that tends to collect mainly five-star and one-star reviews on Amazon. This is what happens when a book takes a side in a hot debate. And I did take a side. Clearly, I’m not KJV-Only.
But I have also heard from many brothers from the KJV-Only portion of the church who were grateful that I attempted to be gracious and, they said, evenhanded. My whole first chapter is about what the English-speaking Christian church loses as the KJV ceases to be our common standard. One of my friends questioned my sincerity when he read that chapter before the book came out. Why praise the KJV and lament its loss when, by the end of the book, I’m encouraging its use to recede? I was a bit shaken by this feedback; was I indeed being disingenuous? So I prayed and talked with others—and I determined that I meant every word I wrote. I see the Christian debate over the KJV as the weighing of legitimate values that stand in tension, not a fight between good and evil. It is good to maintain continuity with the Christian past when possible, to preserve good traditions, to avoid shaking up the sheep.
So I insist that faithful Christians can disagree on when exactly the effects of language change will render the King James Version sufficiently unintelligible that it needs to be replaced as the main translation of the English-speaking church. I think we have reached that point; other faithful, orthodox Christians do not. This is the debate I am trying to have with my brothers who prefer the KJV. I think—I hope—readers can tell that I am not a partisan hack. One KJV-Only pastor, who used to be on staff at one of the biggest KJV-Only churches in the nation, sent me a $50 Amazon gift card out of gratitude for my spirit, despite our disagreement. Then when my Authorized documentary came out, he sent me another one! Just yesterday as I write, I heard from a major leader of KJV-Onlyism in Britain. He signed his email to me with “warm greetings.” I thanked him. And I thank God. I don’t want to score points; I want to score people.
I have tried not to believe all my positive press, however. I have listened carefully to my one-star reviewers. Most of their objections were answered already in the book, particularly in chapter six, “Ten Objections to Reading Vernacular Bible Translations.” I also handled a few in a blog post I wrote for the Lexham Press blog after the book had been out for six months. But in a debate like this one, the objections never really end. And I think there are a few more that merit attention. This week on the blog I will handle a few more objections to reading vernacular Bible translations:
- Today: 1. The modern versions are copyrighted; a.k.a., they’re all in it for the money.
- Wednesday: 2. Not all false friends are false friends to all readers.
- Friday: 3., 4., and 5.—secret surprise objections!
1. The modern versions are copyrighted; a.k.a., they’re all in it for the money.
The KJV-Only debate has long been a subject of my attention (sometimes obsessive attention, but if I call it a “calling” then most people don’t look at me quite so funny). Because of my long experience, I almost never hear anything new from either side. The discussion has long reached what I call the sloganeering stage. Everybody’s out in front of each other’s houses carrying signs. On one side we have variations on, “U R changing the Bible!” On the other we have variations on, “U R ignorant!” Slogans are what you shout at people you no longer hope to win over. And I refuse to treat a large group of fellow Christians this way. Because I have tried to keep listening to my KJV-Only brothers, I have occasionally heard them say something new. We’ll get to one of them in a few moments.
But on my way I have to talk through a two-part objection I’ve heard countless times but did not address in the first edition of Authorized; namely, “The modern versions are copyrighted; they exist solely so publishers can rake in big profits.”
Here’s Theodore Letis making the latter part of the charge (rather eloquently and punchily, I think!) in his The Ecclesiastical Text: Criticism, Biblical Authority & the Popular Mind:
Pandora’s box has been pried open and the Bible, no longer in the possession of the Church and her specific theological criteria for a religious understanding of the translation task, is now a commodity of the “Bible society” and the Bible landlords of the corporate world. In this, one has an inkling of what must have enraged Luther when he saw Father Tetzel at work. Things had simply gone too far.
Ouch. The NIV is like a medieval indulgence, an egregious sin calling for a new Reformation.
Here’s Ambassador’s Charles Surrett in his Certainty of the Words: Biblical Principles of Textual Critcism:
The proliferation of English translations and versions of the Bible is a popular trend that has kept the presses running and the profits increasing for the publishing companies.
And here’s R. B. Ouellette in the West Coast Baptist College publication, A More Sure Word: Which Bible Can You Trust?:
[In most] of the world, the King James Bible text is free of copyright restrictions. This entire approach is quite different from the copyrights held today on modern Bible versions. The modern versions are tightly controlled by secular publishing empires for the primary purpose of revenue.
So, should Bibles be copyrighted?
I didn’t reply to this argument in the book because I’ve always felt that the answer is so simple that I didn’t want to insult people by giving it out. But I’ve gotten this question so many times from sincere people that I cannot avoid it. It appears to cause genuine confusion.
My answer to this question is double Bible. Here’s Scripture quoting Scripture:
The Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:18 ESV)
When a Christian does some work for other Christians, even spiritual work like preaching the gospel, the Bible says we should pay them money. When an ox spends thousands of hours getting the education necessary to translate ancient Greek and Hebrew, one should not muzzle this ox by making him translate for free. As I said in Authorized, translators need sandwiches. (A friend who read the book in manuscript and who is now with Wycliffe Bible Translators commented on that line: “Yes, and good ones.”)
When an organization such as Crossway works hard to gather resources, write up policy documents, enlist scholars, contract with proofers and typesetters, organize a marketing campaign, tag each English word in their English Standard Version with its underlying Hebrew and Greek word for software companion tools, and negotiate with rights holders—when they do all that for our benefit, they deserve a wage. A copyright is a way of protecting the wages of the Christian people at Crossway. It’s a way to keep them from investing lots of money and time only to see someone in China steal their labor by printing up a big batch of bootleg Bibles.
And did I mention that Crossway is a non-profit?
The first printer of what came to be known as the King James Version, Robert Barker, paid a tidy sum to have exclusive rights to printing the new Bible. I have zero idea about his spiritual life; maybe he was a greedy wretch, maybe he was an angel going around entertaining people unawares—I don’t know. What I do know is that I have a Bible verse telling me that his efforts to make certain he had a return on his investment were not inherently immoral. They were commanded in Scripture. As my wife’s sprightly grandmother once said to me, “Everybody’s gotta make a buck.”
As with major new cancer drugs, so with Bible translations: they are expensive endeavors requiring the extensive labors of large groups of skillful people. If a drug company knows that their new drug will be instantly copied and sold for a pittance, they won’t invest in the R&D required to produce it. We won’t have new cancer drugs.
That would be just fine with many users of the KJV, of course! No new English Bibles! But I wrote Authorized to show why they shouldn’t be pleased for all English Bible translation effectively to end in 1611: we need God’s word in our English. And I think—no, I know from vast experience over decades—that multiple translations complement one another, making for rich Bible study.
Now, surely, no one should make a new Bible translation solely for financial reasons, and I admit that when I first heard that a secular, for-profit business, HarperCollins, had a stake in the NIV, I was vaguely uncomfortable.
But Biblica (formerly known as the International Bible Society) is sensitive to this issue, and they are driven by Christian concern to answer it. Listen to what they say on their website:
The NIV is translated by an independent, self-governing team of Bible scholars. No publisher, commercial or otherwise (not even us]!), can tell them how to translate God’s Word. The translators come from dozens of denominations and churches, and they can only make changes to the text if 70% of the committee agrees—safeguarding against theological bias.
The profit motive is a subtle thing. It can corrupt otherwise good work. But it need not—or all business would be sin, and Scripture would never have instructed people to pay their pastors. The Christian people in charge of the NIV have set up safeguards to protect its content.
And I want to ask those who still insist that the NIV exists solely to make a profit: how much profit is it making? And how much is too much? Are the various organizations involved likely to be making a great deal of money, given that market forces will keep the prices on NIVs around the same as comparable Bibles from other publishers? Those who point to greed as the sole motivation for the production of modern versions, it seems to me, are making a serious charge without (in my experience) answering these simple questions or presenting any evidence. I made money on Authorized—I even took my family out for a meal at a fancy restaurant after I got my first royalty check. Was it wrong for us to enjoy our Five Guys Burgers and Fries? Should I have given Authorized away for free? I actually have done so on numerous occasions—does that help?
People who make this first objection are also guessing at the motives of people they do not know. I’m not much of a mover or a shaker in the academic biblical studies world; I play a bit part in the drama, a role that many other people could fill. But even lowly me knows personally a few of the scholars who have worked on the major modern Bible translations. One of them, who told me he wishes to remain anonymous, is my favorite. I’ve done some work for him and with him over several years, and I’ve gotten to know him in quite a number of email exchanges and personal conversations. I also read his adult son’s testimony about him, and it confirmed what I had already seen: this man is exceptionally godly, gracious, and generous. (Some of you know who I’m talking about.)
He’s also brilliant: he has multiple advanced degrees from prestigious universities and a long, respected career serving the academy and the church. And, get this, he gives away his books for free. I have twenty-two of them on my laptop right now, for which I have paid a grand total of zero dollars US. I’ve done the currency conversions, and that amounts to zero dollars Canadian, zero rubles Russian, and zero goats Afghani. Anyone with an internet connection and a PDF reader app can have the fruit of tens of thousands of hours of this man’s work over the course of decades.
I feel a personal offense on behalf of this godly man when someone tells me that the new Bible translations exist for profit. So I emailed him and asked: “What kind of car do you drive? Were you made wealthy by your work on the popular modern English translation of the Bible you helped translate?”
He wrote me back within two hours (he answers lots of private questions from random readers around the world, I happen to know):
My wife and I are a one-car family. We have a 2004 Honda Odyssey with about 180,000 miles on it. We have lived in the same house for our entire married life, a house bought for $65,000. It’s worth more now, of course, because of inflation.
No, we were not made wealthy by that work. Moreover, I can say for sure that money was not a motivation. I several times tried to hand on the work to other people, thinking that I was not needed and that other people could carry on if I bowed out. Other people wouldn’t hear it. I was gently but persuasively pressured into continuing. That was particularly so for one of the revisions. I told the leaders, “It is time for a younger generation,” but they said, “No, we want you.” I mention these things because the motivation was personal connection with people whom I respected, whose judgment I respected, and who recruited me. And their motivation for seeking me out was to try to make the [translation] the best quality that they could.
Philosophically, [the organization that produced this translation] is a ministry, not a business. I know, because I know [the leadership].… Of course, the employees, the printers, and the scholars who worked on the [translation] got paid, according to the principle that the laborer deserves his wages (1 Tim. 5:18).
There’s that verse again.
I haven’t met very many other Bible translators, but I’ve read their books. Let me give you just a brief rundown.
- Doug Moo wrote what is widely acknowledged to be the best commentary on Romans.
- Craig Blomberg has written good Bible commentaries and an insightful introduction to the Gospels that had a major impact on me.
- Tom Schreiner, one of the top leaders in charge of the CSB, never fails to edify me with his careful, conservative study of Scripture.
- Marty Abegg of the CSB teaches Sunday School at my friend’s church a few miles away from where I live.
- Andreas Köstenberger has produced a solidly helpful volume on sex and gender that I have used for various projects.
- Robert Stein has a commentary on Luke I’ve used many times, and in another book he made a key point about baptism that has helped me greatly over the years.
- Vern Poythress is one of the smartest men I know, and he memorizes Scripture like you wouldn’t believe.
- Gene L. Green wrote some of the most helpful articles on biblical linguistics that I’ve ever read.
- Moisés Silva, a graduate of my alma mater, wrote some of the most helpful books on biblical linguistics that I’ve ever read, including the single most helpful paragraph about biblical hermeneutics that I’ve ever encountered.
I just can’t bring myself to believe that the people who love the Bible most, study it the hardest, give their whole lives to it, and help me see it more clearly, are slave of unrighteous mammon. And if its the publishers of these Bibles who are greedy, not them, I can’t know that. I have no access to the figures. I choose to believe the best—because all I know is that the translations help me understand God’s Word.
A new argument
And now, finally, I turn to the new argument I just heard for the first time. A pastor from KJV-Only circles who read Authorized and found it to be helpful emailed me with a question from his relatives: the problem with copyright, they told him, is that it constrains current translators. They can’t use the best words to translate a given verse—if those best words have already been used by existing translations (such as the KJV). In other words, the KJV already chose the best words, and everybody else has to use inferior ones because of copyright.
This objection makes sense if English is the only language you know. But if you’ve ever studied another language to the point where you could read, hear, or even (especially) speak it, you know it just doesn’t work. As the great writer on translation, David Bellos, has said, there is a near infinite number of ways to translate a text of any length.
We’re almost always talking about super minor differences here, questions like these from John 3:
- Was Nicodemus “a ruler of the Jews” or “an important Jewish leader”?
- Did he come to Jesus “one night” or “by night”?
- Did he call Jesus “Rabbi” or should we translate this as “Teacher,” the way the New Testament itself does in John 20:16?
- Did he think Jesus performed “miracles” or “signs”?
In each case, there are good reasons to go with one of the choices, and there are good reasons to go with the other. It’s not clear that there really is a “wrong” choice listed here. It depends on your purpose, your audience, and an undefinable thing we call “art.” And they all mean pretty much the same thing. You have to work to mistranslate the Bible (thank you, JWs, for showing it can be done!).
The best way to see how many viable options there are for translating individual words and phrases in Scripture is to go to a really cool project online called The Expanded Bible. It shows where some major translations differ, and it offers their differences as clickable choices.
If you really wanted to, using this site, you could cover the entire Bible, and what you’d end up with is Bible translations that all pretty much say the same thing in mildly different ways. There is no evangelical Bible that says Jesus wasn’t divine; or that adultery and idolatry are okay in some circumstances; or that, actually, Joseph sold his brothers into slavery and not the other way around.
Once recently I did scratch my head at the choice of the NIV translators to use “forebearance” instead of “patience” in the list of fruits of the Spirit. Why the big word when a small one is more common? But pretty much all the major translations choose pretty much all the same words—with the exception that the KJV (and NKJV) use “longsuffering,” which is no longer an active English word. Pretty well every major evangelical English Bible translation used “love,” “joy,” “peace,” “kindness,” “goodness,” and either “faith” (like the KJV) or “faithfulness.” No copyright lawyers, to my knowledge, have attacked any of these major translations for using the same words as the KJV or any other version.
The KJV is itself is sort of copyrighted in Britain. So sue me: I don’t want to get into the details. You can read them here. But it’s this simple:
In the United Kingdom, rights in the Authorized Version of the Bible (AV), also known as the King James Bible or King James Version (KJV), are Crown copyright. Only a small number of publishers have entitlement to reproduce the KJV.
If copyrighting the Bible is morally wrong, should British Christians look for an alternative to the KJV?
Well, maybe—but not because the KJV is copyrighted.
TL;DR: copyrighting Bibles is okay because the Bible says the worker is worthy of his wages.