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.

Conclusion

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.

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.

11 Comments

  1. Jim Welch on December 31, 2019 at 5:30 am

    Thanks Mark for your careful and clear and Christlike analysis! Our Lord is using you for our good and His glory.

  2. Friday Favorites (03 JAN 20) - Brent Niedergall on January 3, 2020 at 2:39 am

    […] Mark Ward critiques the response of the Triniarian Bible Society’s handling of five questions on the readability of the King James Version. Read his insights here.  […]

  3. Stephen Brown on January 3, 2020 at 6:27 am

    “One Ring to rule them all.”

    Wow. I think that’s your best. That, along with “AV” or some such, should be on a T-shirt. Or maybe not, but it made me smile.

    • Mark Ward on January 3, 2020 at 6:16 pm

      I would wear that shirt.

      In an ironic, hipsterical fashion.

  4. Joe Hamm on January 10, 2020 at 8:58 am

    How do you define KJV-Only? I’m not sure TBS would identify itself as such. While they do have some KJV-Only supporters, I suspect that this is only a portion of their customer base which collectively supports the making of many Bible translations from traditional Hebrew and Greek texts. Therefore, its probably not even accurate to say that KJV-Only people are the ones asking these questions. Labeling the proponents of traditional Greek/Hebrew texts (ie not modern eclectic texts) as “KJV-Only” appears to be a category error. Do you acknowledge that these are two different categories?

    • Mark Ward on January 10, 2020 at 10:00 am

      This is an objection I am taking seriously. I do not want to mischaracterize my brothers in Christ. I also gave sincere praise of them in that opening paragraph, and it didn’t even occur to me that I was insulting them with that label. I have dialogues going with some TBS leadership right now; perhaps they will help me understand why that label does not apply to them. And if only Ruckman and Riplinger count as “KJV-Only,” then TBS is not KJV-Only: they are clearly different from Ruckman. But conventionally, over the many years that I have been in and then near KJV-Only circles myself, “KJV-Only” wasn’t seen as a mean name but as a pretty no-nonsense description of the position, one that even its (IFB, at least) adherents used to describe themselves.

      As best I understand, no alternatives to the KJV satisfy TBS—even if those alternatives use the same Greek and Hebrew texts (such as the NKJV and MEV). The KJV is the only English Bible they approve of. They also use all of the same basic argumentative strategies to support exclusive use of the KJV—and rejection of all alternatives—that were used in my independent fundamental Baptist church growing up. They give these reasons with greater knowledge and ability than people I heard at the time did, but they’re the same arguments:

      1. The KJV is the only (TBS adds only *viable*) translation of the pure, uncorrupted texts of Scripture.

      2. Westcott and Hort were very bad men, and anything they touched is corrupt. Textual criticism itself is wrong, especially as practiced by today’s scholars.

      3. The KJV is perfectly understandable if you just have a little gumption and a dictionary.

      4. The English language has gotten worse over time and we shouldn’t dumb the Bible down for plow boys who have bad education.

      5. A lot of bad things have happened in evangelicalism that are traceable to the use of modern versions. [One TBS article I quoted in my book blamed the lack of Scripture memory today on the modern versions, for example.]

      6. The modern versions are a sign/harbinger/portent/example of doctrinal downgrade.

      7. The modern versions are all less literal and therefore less faithful than the KJV.

      8. The KJV was translated by a group of exceptional men whose abilities and godliness will likely never be matched.

      9. The KJV is not perfect, exactly, but it contains no flaws that we are aware of.

      10. Scrivener’s GNT is best/perfect/pure [depends on who you ask] GNT.

      What TBS does NOT do is add the beliefs specific to Ruckmanism:

      1. The KJV is a perfect—because inspired—document that corrects our faulty Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.

      2. We have the right and duty to be hateful and to use invective against the terrible heretics promoting modern versions.

      Praise God, TBS does not share Ruckman’s distinctive beliefs and hateful practices. TBS is NOT Ruckmanite. But they are KJV-Only.

      I haven’t read all of TBS’ available materials. Am I missing something? I am truly willing to be corrected!

  5. Matthew M. Rose on January 19, 2020 at 2:11 pm

    In my experience…The plea to reserve the label of KJV-Only for primarily those of the Ruckmanite/Riplinger persuasion is a more recent development among the “Confessional Text” crowd. Previously, those who wished to divorce themselves from the label of KJV-Only (due to a progression in stance & perspective) moved on to the TR-Only position and label. It’s quite probable that some who subscribe to the newer “Confessional Bibliology”, may also be newer to the conversation and therefore not necessarily familiar with the general cadence (historically) of KJV-Onlyism as a whole. For it should be noted that for every Ruckman, Riplinger and Gipp,–there’s a Fuller, Waite and Moorman. Thus there has always been the more moderate form of KJV-Onlyism.

    Although it can be difficult to draw a hard line through the gray area of where KJV-Onlyism ends and TR-Onlyism (& advocacy) begins. I tend to apply one simple litmus test to TR-onlyist and TR advocates who fit the KJV-Only bill, yet deny the label of KJV-Onlyism as an accurate identification for their position. Simply ask them if the KJV has Textual and translational errors. If you can get a direct answer from them and it’s in the affirmative; ask for specific cases. This is the heart of the matter. If one believes that the KJV is without fault in *Textual* and translational elements–then whether or not they use the Geneva Bible, NKJV, MEV or some other similar translation occasionally is basically irrelevant. And therefore this nuance cannot be used with any significant force against (to check) the KJV-Only category distinction being placed upon them. Furthermore, as long as TBS promotes the KJV as their standard English version, as well as it’s very underlying Greek Text as their standard Greek NT; they will be considered KJV-Only by many. Maybe TBS could supply an official list of locations where they consider the KJV & 1894 Scrivener to be in error. This would help to alleviate much confusion in this matter.

    P.S. Those who desire a mildly updated version of the KJV may enjoy the 1833 Webster’s edition. A perusal of the preface & introduction (approx. 12 pgs of text) will give the reader a full explanation of the changes and slight modifications. A fair facsimile of the original work can be found here:

    https://books.google.com/books?id=PV9bAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

    • Mark Ward on January 19, 2020 at 2:47 pm

      I’m interested in our KJV-Only brothers’ reasons for rejecting the NKJV. So I’m working on a lengthy reply to something else TBS put out on this topic, a 38,000-word piece by Albert Hembd. And though I very much like and agree with you your proposed litmus test for “KJV-Onlyism,” Matthew, I think I want to reserve the right to apply the label even to someone who acknowledges, as I think Hembd would, that the KJV is not perfect and would be willing to say that “faith” in Heb 10:23 should be “hope.” There is a style of argumentation, an I-know-it-when-I-see-it spirit that I want to be free to pin with the label “KJV-Only.” Joel Beeke does not have that spirit. Alfred Hembd does. Hembd questions the NKJV translator’s spiritual state based on the slimmest of conspiracy theories; he assumes that any translation that agrees with the NASB is deeply suspect; he builds wild and elaborate descriptions of the NKJV translators’ motivations based solely on a few word choices (and no effort whatsoever to check commentaries or lexicons to find out what *actually* motivated them). I will demonstrate all this when my piece comes out. It really saddens me. It’s divisive; it’s wasteful of the good mind Hembd has.

      People always fight over labels; as soon as a label attracts bad mojo people want to abandon it and their opponents want to tag them with it. Right now, “KJV-Onlyism” has gathered to itself overtones of obscurantism and ignorance; naturally people as intelligent as Truelove and Riddle (they are smart guys) don’t want the label. I don’t want to be in the business of insulting other Christians, but sometimes I’ve also got to keep my spine stiffened and say, “Spade!” when one walks by.

      If the Trinitarian Bible Society is not “KJV-Only,” then Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. The marks are all over their work on the topic, even if they technically, when pressed, acknowledge that the KJV could—theoretically—need to be replaced at some point.

  6. Matthew M. Rose on January 29, 2020 at 12:40 pm

    Thanks for the reply. Early today I noticed that Chris Thomas (www.confessionalbibliogy.com) has basically given a declaration of KJV-Onlyism in the comments section of a recent blog post. (In a rather high-minded and rude tone no less!)

    https://confessionalbibliology.com/2019/12/04/restorationist-textual-criticisms-verification-problem/

    The comments may get deleted eventually; so here is the pertinent quote.

    “Now you’re straw-manning by asserting that ALL TR editions are equally authoritative. That is not our position. The final winnowing of the TR was completed by the translators of the AV in their textual choices. This TR is reflected in Scrivener’s 1894 GNT. And no, it is not a back-translation, fake text, etc.” –Chris Thomas

    When taken in context: “authoritative”, “the final winnowing of the TR was completed by the translators of the AV in their textual choices” and, “This TR is reflected in Scrivener’s 1894 GNT.”–can only spell KJV-ONLYISM.

    Considering how long I have been trying to get something solid out of the “Confessional Text” camp on this point, I thought it may be of use to you. –MMR

    • Mark Ward on January 29, 2020 at 1:53 pm

      Yes, Matthew, I make precisely this point in my upcoming article for the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal: Confessional Bibliology insists that they are not “KJV-Only.” But then when you press into the details, you find that they are not just KJV-Only when it comes to translation but when it comes to text. The KJV was the final revelation of God regarding which textual variants ought to be selected from among the available variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament (and the Old Testament, though that hardly ever gets discussed). Chuck Surrett has also pointed to Scrivener’s GNT as the perfect TR, as has Steve Coombs of Bearing Precious Seed.

      And why are the KJV translators’ textual-critical choices held to be final, and not the choices of the Dutch translators of the Statenvertaling, who made slightly different choices in places? I pressed that question in my recent review of the work of Charles Surrett. Nobody else I’ve talked to has seen much potential in this argument, but I see a great deal and plan to do more work on it (work I haven’t seen anyone else do).

  7. […] centuries since Tyndale laid the foundation for their work. They wouldn’t shy away from this task out of fear of what their constituency might think. They wouldn’t see every suggested revision as automatically suspect, driven by malign motives. I […]

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