Answering a Few More Objections to Authorized: Part 2, Not All False Friends Are False Friends to All Readers
I’m in the midst of a short series answering objections to my viewpoint in Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, objections that for various reasons didn’t make it into the book already. (Most objections I hear I already addressed.) On Monday, we looked at Objection 1: The modern versions are copyrighted; a.k.a., they’re all in it for the money. Today, Objection 2. Friday, secret surprise Objections 3, 4, and 5.
2. Not all false friends are false friends to all readers.
This objection came from one of my most thoughtful and capable critics. I think he’s right in his criticism, though I’m stating his argument in a form more congenial to my viewpoint. Indeed, there are some very sharp readers of the KJV out there who have already caught some of the false friends I listed in the book (as well as others). I need to emphasize a little more, then, something I did say in the book.
In Authorized I defined a false friend as a word that is 1) still used today but 2) meant something different in 1611. And, crucially, I added this idea: false friends are words 3) that have “changed in such a way that modern readers are unlikely to notice” (119). Aa number of the examples I gave unquestionably meet these three criteria. But that third one is squirrelly, and I didn’t account for rodents adequately. Take this example that I gave in the book:
Men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good. (2 Tim. 3:2 KJVOpen in Logos Bible Software (if available))
I wrote of this word incontinent:
Today this means men will lose control of their bowels. In 1611 it meant lacking in self-restraint. (45)
I do think some readers will stumble here and and fail to notice that incontinence is an odd character quality to put in a vice list. Incontinent, for some readers, meets all three criteria of a false friend. But surely some readers today, many readers, will notice that our modern sense doesn’t make sense in this context. Almost the definition of a skillful reader is that he or she will notice that a word doesn’t seem to fit in its context. So is incontinent still a false friend?
In a future edition of my book I’ll spell out these three criteria explicitly and be a little more careful to distinguish words that meet two from those that meet three. But I’ll say this: there is no saying once and for all which words are dead words, which are false friends, and which aren’t either. Different readers have different skill levels and knowledge bases. What kind of skill level should a Bible translation aim at? Defenders of the exclusive use of the KJV are commonly confused on this point. I often hear them say, “Complaints about KJV readability are ludicrous! It’s on a fifth-grade reading level, as computers prove!” But a short time later I hear them say, “Modern versions dumb down the Bible by using contemporary English!” It’s like an accessible reading level is a good thing in the KJV and a bad thing anywhere else.
So, sure, ideally every Christian would be a great reader. But they’re not, and they’re never going to be. Not many wise, not many noble are called. I think it is acceptable for contemporary translations to aim at somewhat different audiences. The NIV is pegged at a seventh grade level—and, again, before any KJV readers scoff, they should remember how many of their own have insisted that the KJV is on a fifth-grade level. The ESV and NASB, in my estimation, aim at a more difficult reading level. The CSB is somewhere in between. And as I said in the first edition of Authorized, I’m happy to use multiple different translations. I read only at a tenth grade level because of all the TV I watched as a kid (kidding…), and I still get help from translations pegged below and above my level.
Now, some readers of my book complained that some of my examples of false friends were not exactly important passages. Does it really matter if some of today’s readers stumble over incontinent (whether they know it or not)? It’s not like they’re changing Christian doctrine when they misunderstand a false friend.
And that’s true. But I can easily turn the tables here: if the false friends I cite are matters of no consequence, then why fight so hard to keep them as they are? Is it okay for our main Bible translation to include many words like incontinent when without self-control is readily available?
Alan Jacobs, one of my favorite writers, commented once about “what C. S. Lewis…, in his book Studies in Words, called the ‘dangerous sense’ of an old word or phrase.” Then Jacobs quoted Lewis:
The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us into misreadings.
Lewis saw what I see.
Now, not every reader falls into every potential trap. Not all “false friends” are false friends to all readers. I grant that. But at what point should we all be concerned about false friends that are false friends to some readers, especially in a book as important as the Bible? I made the case in the book that the point has come; the time is now; we need to keep the Bible in the hands of the plow boy as Tyndale taught us to do.
The KJV contains not only dead words, words we know we don’t know, but false friends, words we don’t know we don’t know. The list of those false friends will be shorter for some readers with prodigious reading skill and longer for others without knowledge of the historical form of English we call Elizabethan. But I am perfectly confident that there is not a single English speaker alive for whom the list has no entries.