KJV-Only People Are Asking the Same Questions I Am about the Readability of the KJV
The UK’s Trinitarian Bible Society is one of the most serious and sober KJV-Only organizations active today. They are involved in Bible translation projects around the world. It is their printing of Scrivener’s Greek New Testament that is used in all KJV-Only educational institutions that teach Greek. The TBS is also probably the most academically responsible institution promoting KJV-Onlyism. Compared to a not insignificant number of (especially) American defenders of the KJV, their rhetoric is toned down by a sincere piety and, I think, a British sense of decorum and reserve. My interactions with them have shown them to be unfailingly polite and gracious.
Recently, TBS published an article that was actually written shortly before the release of my book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. In it they answer “Five Questions about the Authorised (King James) Version.”
And it seems the logic behind my book has been gaining momentum since before it came out: I’m riding a wave along with some unexpected fellow surfers. The questions TBS answers from their own constituency focus largely on the readability of the KJV—and the possibility of a KJV revision. In some cases these are precisely the same questions I raised and pressed in my book. Here’s what I observe after reading the piece: KJV-Only people are asking the same questions about KJV readability that I am. And if, as I have argued, the best measure of readability is readers, this TBS article’s mere existence is a powerful argument against its viewpoint. The people most sympathetic to their mission, their subscribers and supporters, are raising questions about KJV readability.
We’ll take a look at some of the questions KJV-Only people are asking. Then I’ll evaluate TBS’ answers.
1. Why update other translations and not the KJV?
The Society is engaged in revising Bibles in several languages such as the French, Chinese and Bulgarian but does not seem to see a need to revise the Authorised (King James) Version. How can she claim that the Authorised Version needs no revision while other versions dating from roughly the same time period do need revision or retranslation?
TBS answers with two major arguments:
First they say that these other languages have changed far more than English has, in part due to the influence of language academies—which English does not have (this feels backwards to me: language academies are inherently conservative; but it’s a minor point). TBS, however, establishes a principle: languages do change sufficiently that traditional Bible translations may need to be updated. I cannot speak intelligently about the level of change in Bulgarian and French as compared to English (I wonder who can), so TBS may be right here. I can speak and read Spanish fairly well, and I’m skeptical that they are right when it comes to Spanish—which has a language academy. I’ve read some pretty old Spanish, and the distance between it and current Spanish seems roughly (?) similar (?) to that between Elizabethan and contemporary English. But I’m not willing to chase down an official answer to that question right now, I admit! Again, TBS may be on to something.
I think they’re also onto something in they’re second argument, though I ultimately disagree with where they take it:
There is no consensus among the English-speaking churches today as there was in the days of King James I of England when everyone engaged in preparing the AV—even with the involvement of both Puritans and High Churchmen—operated within the Anglican Church and under the authority of the king. Today, English Christianity is massively fractured and fragmented, and it would be an almost impossible task to gather together a strong team of sufficiently-qualified men who would hold the widespread respect and support of English Christendom.
I think they’re right on an important point, not so right on a less important one, and simply and clearly wrong on the key but implicit point.
- TBS is right that there’s no way English-speaking Christianity could come together to produce a universally accepted Bible translation. This will never happen again under any future I could possibly imagine.
- TBS is not so right that it used to be so united: it was only an accident of history (and, yes, surely, a plan of providence) that English was spoken at the time mainly in one locale, and that that locale had a powerful monarchy ruling the church. Even the crown couldn’t keep other English Bibles from coming into existence: it did not sponsor the Geneva Bible. But it had the power necessary to make the KJV the One Ring to Rule Them All, even when Puritans and other Anglicans were not united. Such power no longer exists. Multiple nations speak English, from the U.S. to the U.K. to Kenya to Singapore to Australia. If we have to wait for a day when English-speaking Christians will be able to unify behind a new Bible translation, we will be using the KJV until it is as unintelligible as Beowulf—and, if the history of the Vulgate is any indication, people may be using it long after that. I’ve been asking and asking my brothers in TBS’ world, “At what point will our English have diverged far enough from Elizabethan English to justify a revision or replacement of the KJV?” I haven’t gotten a clear answer.
- This is key for me: I believe that TBS is wrong to think that a revision is worth producing only if it can achieve wide acceptance as a “successor to the AV.” They complain that if they created a revision of the KJV, even along very conservative lines (they mention retaining thee and thou), that this would result only in “fragmentation among our support base as a disaffected and disappointed majority would either move to other versions or cling to the old standard edition of the AV.” They observe, rightly I think, that “a new revision of the AV by the Society would thus damage our work.” And yet I say: a revision of the KJV would still be a good thing. TBS is trusted by a lot of people in the KJV-Only movement. That movement as a whole will never, ever be satisfied with a replacement of the KJV. They have to know that there are people who “cling to the old standard” in a way that even TBS finds extreme. But a not-insignificant number of people in the TBS constituency might still benefit from a revision sponsored by a TR-only organization they all respect. I would encourage the society not to let the perfect (100% adoption of a KJV revision) be the enemy of the good (50% adoption of a KJV revision?). In fact, I am prepared to help. I have laid out principles for a KJV revision that will do the least to change the text and the most to make it as accessible as possible to modern readers. With the help of TBS, we might be able to build significant support for such a project. TBS says, “In principle the Society is not opposed to there being a revision of the AV.” And I say: biblical principle, specifically 1 Corinthians 14’s teaching that edification requires intelligibility ought to guide us here, not likely success with one’s constituency.
(TBS goes on to say that, even if there proved to be a need for a new English translation, there aren’t any English-speaking scholars godly and educated enough to produce it. I hear this objection often enough that it deserves its own post at a later date. So many rabbits, so many trails—thankfully the internet is infinite. I shall write another post!)
2. If it’s okay to put modern words in the margins, why not in the text?
The margins in the Westminster Reference Bible include contemporary terms for archaic words (leasing, kine, prevent) as well as definitions for theological terms such as propitiation. Would a light revision that replaces the archaic terms with contemporary terms not be in order?
Indeed, this seems like am eminently reasonable question. Can we update leasing, kine, prevent, besom, chambering, bewray, beeves, bolled, and countless other words that have dropped out of English, or have changed in meaning? I call these “dead words” and “false friends.”
But TBS finds “several fundamental problems with this suggestion.” I’ll interact with them one by one (save the last, which is a restatement of the previous point about splintering their support base).
How do you know what counts as “archaic”?
1. Determining exactly which words and terms are archaic and which are not [is difficult].
Yes, some judgment is involved. Editors will differ. But once again we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is a common problem in the KJV-Only movement, because they tend to treat the KJV precisely as perfect.
But there are objective means available for doing revision work on archaic words, and I am chagrinned to have to say that I have never seen any defenders of the KJV who have shown awareness of these means, or the linguistic concepts underlying them. And yet anyone with an internet connection can check a linguistic corpus like the freely available NOW corpus to see how English words get used today around the world. You can also use the Oxford English Dictionary—a tool I use online many times each week—to check to see what a given KJV word meant in 1611. I have worked very, very hard to hone my abilities in this area. I offer them to TBS for their use. I will help them identify all the archaic words (and constructions and punctuation conventions—words are one of many features of language that change over time).
Updates would be clumsy compared to the KJV.
2. There are not always precise equivalents in contemporary English for archaic words. A text which requires several contemporary words to replace an older term would be clumsy and awkward, detracting from the succinct beauty of the AV.
Succinct beauty is a genuine value, one I’d like to retain if at all possible, but when the two values conflict, isn’t understanding even more important? Is God incapable of speaking contemporary English?
And TBS seems to presume that in the revision process, no gains in brevity or beauty might be achieved. Only if the KJV is perfect can we expect that it could never be improved upon. And the KJV translators specifically and emphatically denied this in their preface: only inspiration brings perfection, they said.
What do you do about spelling?
3. If a revision is undertaken on the terms suggested there would be an immediate outcry: why not change the older spellings as well, such as ‘shew’ to ‘show’ and ‘musick’ to ‘music’? However, even the change of spellings is not straightforward. What of the difference between British and American spellings: which should have precedence?
I actually think that British spellings should take precedence, because the KJV is well known as a British document (the name is a bit of a tipoff). And yet I think that key archaic spellings such as spake should remain as they are, because they form an unmistakable part of the character of the KJV as a text for public reading, and they aren’t hard to learn. Indeed, my hypothesis would be that shew and spake are intuitively understandable from context by most contemporary readers. There are objective means for assessing this.
TBS raises some important difficulties and questions, but they’re not insurmountable or unanswerable. Let’s get the scholars together and assess!
3. What about other translations of the Masoretic Text/Textus Receptus?
The Society has critiques of several critical translations including the NKJV. However, there are several other recent translations that claim to use today’s English while remaining transparent to the Received Text. Does the Society have concerns about these translations such as the King James 2000 and the 21st Century King James Bible? These claim that they are the ‘same’ as the KJV except for replacing the archaic expressions.
Let’s skip over their comment about the NKJV for a moment; I’d like to express agreement with what they go on to say about other translations based on the same texts used by the KJV translators—translations such as the King James 2000 and the 21st Century King James Bible. I could add more, like the KJV Easy Reader. TBS says that these translations have “not found widespread acceptance,” and this is perfectly true. They say that they “bare [sic] all the hallmarks of individual idiosyncrasies” and are not “usable editions of God’s Word for congregations.” I completely agree. These translations “self-evidently disqualify themselves as being viable alternatives to the AV.” Again, I agree.
Several principles arise out of what TBS says. Bible translations ought to come from committees so they smooth over individual idiosyncrasies, and so that they can promise some level of acceptance among Christians. And only institutions that command large constituencies (like TBS) can hope to make Bible translations that large numbers of people will adopt.
That’s because very few people can, and even fewer people do sit down to do the hard work of evaluating whole Bible translations with any degree of completeness—“sufficient sampling,” one could say. Everyone else does what we all must do with so many things: we trust authorities. Institutions collect trusted authorities, and they therefore become stewards of people’s trust. If we ever get a new King James Version, that’s what will need to happen: respected institutions will have to work together.
But wait: we have all of that, and we’ve had it for almost forty years. We need to talk about the New King James Version.
The New King James Version is not idiosyncratic, it was put together by a solid committee, and it has achieved a wide level of acceptance. It just hasn’t been accepted in “TR-Only” circles, such as that inhabited by the Trinitarian Bible Society. And why?
In part because of a culpable falsehood that TBS repeats in this article, one I’ve heard repeatedly on the lips of my KJV-Only brothers over time. They call the NKJV a “critical translation.” What they mean (as best I can tell) is that it, like the ESV and NASB and NIV and nearly all major modern English Bible translations, the NKJV uses the “critical” text of the New Testament. And that is simply not true. The NKJV translates the same text used by the KJV translators.
As I never tire of repeating, I’m not saying my brothers in Christ at TBS have told a lie. I’m not saying that they have self-consciously said something they know to be false. I am saying that they ought—in the moral, culpable sense of ought—to know better than to say what they did. The NKJV preface clearly states that the NKJV is not a “critical translation.”
Because the New King James Version is the fifth revision of a historic document translated from specific Greek texts, the editors decided to retain the traditional text in the body of the New Testament and to indicate major Critical and Majority Text variant readings in the popup notes.
KJV-Only Christians have commonly objected to those marginal (“popup”) notes, but the KJV translators did basically the same thing. The NKJV is not a critical translation.
I find myself disheartened. I love the King James Version, I truly do. It will never leave my heart, till the day I die. I wrote a whole chapter in my book in which I lament the good things we’ve all lost as the KJV has lost its role as the common standard among English-speaking Christians.
But dear brothers and sisters at TBS, if I may address you directly, your own constituency is telling you, through its questions, that it is concerned about the readability of the 400-plus-year-old Bible translation on which you have staked your existence. Their children don’t understand “and you hath he quickened.” They don’t understand “with all thy getting, get wisdom.” They stumble over countless other minor, and some major, readability difficulties that are not at all the fault of the KJV translators nor the fault of poor English education in our day, but solely the “fault” of the inevitable process of language change.
If, in principle, you’re open to a revision of the AV based on the same original language texts; if, in principle, your real and ultimate concern is to preserve the Greek Textus Receptus and Hebrew Masoretic Text—then the NKJV ought to satisfy you. The fact that it doesn’t, and the fact that forty years after its release you still repeat a common falsehood about it, suggest that you’re not open in principle to a revision of the AV.
I call on you to be truly open, and indeed to help me put together a coalition of KJV lovers with the necessary knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, Elizabethan English, and contemporary English to produce a careful, minimalist revision of the KJV. I am such an one. I have friends who are.
1 Corinthians 14 says that edification requires intelligibility. Tyndale’s work for the plow boy was not a one-and-done. The KJV translators did their work for the “very vulgar,” and those common people still need our help. Vernacular translation is a gift that requires constant defense, which is precisely the reason we have Bible societies.