When Will the KJV Be Sufficiently Unintelligible to the “Plow Boy” That Change Will Become Necessary?
The following was written as an appendix to the audio version of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. But there’s a longer story: I sent Dr. Jeff Riddle a review copy of my book, and he submitted a review to a theological journal but kindly sent it to me as well (or first—I do not now recall). I suggested a back-and-forth, a review and response in the journal. Brother Riddle liked the idea, and so did the journal’s book review editor. I spent many hours on my response—especially on shortening it after discovering that it was initially far too long! I sent it in, and the book review editor liked it. But the top editor at the journal felt the debate was too touchy for his readership, and he declined to publish either piece. Riddle ended up sending his piece to the Bible League Quarterly (you can read it here at Riddle’s blog). I ended up using my response in the Authorized audio book. I now offer it to my blog readers.
A year and a half after its release, Authorized has been reviewed hundreds of times. But there is one kind of review that I have especially wished for, a review that is both 1) academic and 2) critical. One such review has indeed been published, and the author, Dr. Jeffrey Riddle, was kind enough to share it with me. I wish to respond to Riddle’s review (a response I have, in turn, sent to him) in this special addendum to the Authorized audiobook. Listeners will get a chance to hear me respond to some of the most common objections to my work—objections given by a well-trained source.
I am grateful both that Dr. Riddle took the time to critique my book, and that he listened hard enough to it to understand my argument. Dr. Riddle is correct that my “case against contemporary use of the KJV is primarily … that it is no longer adequately intelligible for modern readers.” I, of course, argue that this is due to no fault in the KJV and no fault in us, but due solely to the ineluctable process of language change.
My brother in Christ, Jeff Riddle, and I agree on a great deal. I am certain he cares deeply, as I do, about the Reformation battle cries of sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers. I am certain he agrees that vernacular translation of the Bible is an essential correlate of those doctrines—that Tyndale’s plow boy still today deserves a Bible he can read. I even think Riddle would agree, in general, with my use of the apostolic principle, stated repeatedly in 1 Corinthians 14, that edification requires intelligibility.
If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:9 ESV)
What Riddle and I appear to disagree on is something I insist 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; Dr. Riddle does not. This is the debate I am trying to have with my brothers who promote the use, even sometimes the exclusive use, of the KJV.
My response below answers Dr. Riddle’s four points, all in an effort to pull us back to that question. When will the KJV be sufficiently unintelligible to the “plow boy” that change will become necessary?
1. An inconsistent argument
Dr. Riddle sees an inconsistency between my assurances in the book that I have no wish to “chuck” the KJV and my conclusion that, nonetheless, “Children and new converts should not be given copies of the KJV.” But there is a way to harmonize these statements, and here it is: ours should be the generation which takes upon itself the burden of change, especially institutional change—for the sake of the plow boy.
I will not tell any individuals who have grown up on the KJV to close its covers forever. I still use the KJV daily in Bible study. But I ask: is it inconsistent to tell existing readers to hold on to the KJV but nonetheless to help engineer a change for the next generation? If the plow boy is struggling with the KJV, when will Protestant institutions (churches, schools, camps, publishing houses), heirs of the Reformation, see the need for change on his behalf?
2. Dead words and false friends
Brother Riddle does not see such a need. He acknowledges that there are “dead words” in the KJV, but, he contends, “these can be easily found in a dictionary and learned.” Because of smartphones, Riddle says, “never has it been easier to read the KJV than now.”
First, if we want plow boys to know their Bibles better than bishops—Tyndale’s heart cry—we need to choose language average people can understand whenever possible. I do not believe that high-school-educated English speakers should be required to use a dictionary to look up words in a Bible translation when commonly known equivalents are available. Why should I have to look up besom (Isa 14:23) when broom is ready at hand? (See also chambering, gainsay, scrip, strait—etc., etc., etc.)
And are the dead words in the KJV really so easy to look up? There is only one dictionary that reliably, by design, records all English words, including what they used to mean at all historical periods. It is the expensive, twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, the “OED.” But I think plow boys should not have to take out £90/year OED subscriptions to fully understand the English in their Bibles.
Second, as I said clearly in my book, the Bible contains difficult words, and it ought to. Yes, “filigree,” “breast piece,” and “ephod” are uncommon, to say the least. I could also add “mandrakes” and “hyrax” and theologically significant words such as “propitiation” and “sanctification.”
I think such words should remain in most English Bible translations. Where the Bible is difficult in Hebrew and Greek, it should be difficult in English. (I will say, though, that having a version such as the NIrV for kids or the functionally illiterate is also beneficial, as I know by long pastoral experience.) I simply do not think we should add unnecessary difficulty by requiring contemporary plow boys to learn obsolete words, syntax, and punctuation when current equivalents exist that they already know.
Third, all acknowledge that the Elizabethan English of the KJV contains dead words, words we know we don’t know—but far fewer see that it also contains “false friends,” words we don’t know we don’t know. These are words (and syntax, and punctuation, and other even subtler aspects of language) that we use differently than did the Elizabethans, but similarly enough that modern plow boys are unlikely to notice.
“False friends” is the key idea in my book, and I gave thirty-five examples; Dr. Riddle critiqued one. He thinks KJV readers may indeed divine that halt in “How long halt ye between two opinions” (1 Kgs 18:21) meant “limp” in 1611, not “stop.” And even if they misunderstand the false friend here, Riddle says, they will still get the basic point of the passage.
But I am not content for people to miss Elijah’s metaphor and get the overall gist when a very simple word change—from “halt” to “limp”—would allow them to get both. (And “stopping” and “limping” are not the same thing.)
Riddle argues that no change is necessary at 1 Kings 18:21. But I have polled dozens of lifelong KJV readers, mostly highly educated ones, and I have run into only four who accurately understood the intent of the KJV translators there. Three had biblical studies PhDs and could read Hebrew; the other was a Bible translator. Everyone else was as surprised as I was, at age 30, to learn what the KJV translators meant by this false friend.
How are even educated people supposed to look up words (and other features of Elizabethan language) they do not realize they are misunderstanding? My conscience is captive to the OED: it has repeatedly revealed lifelong misunderstandings for this KJV reader. And I think the plow boy is in an even weaker position. We, the strong, ought to bear his infirmities rather than insisting that he attain our linguistic competence in Elizabethan English.
3. Omits textual criticism
I studiously avoided textual criticism in my book; Dr. Riddle argued that I should not have. Most modern versions, he says, translate a “completely different underlying text.”
I disagree with Dr. Riddle over textual criticism, and I am not ignorant of debates on this topic. I wrote a Bible Study Magazine cover story on textual criticism not long ago. I also took two years with the help of volunteers to build a website, KJVParallelBible.org, that demonstrates how very similar Dr. Riddle’s preferred Greek New Testament edition and mine really are. The differences are, to me, not worth a fight. I will not engage this issue with Dr. Riddle, because I argue that someone who prefers the Textus Receptus tradition, as he does, can agree 100% with the case I make in my book. All such a one has to do is make or use a translation of his preferred Greek and Hebrew texts into contemporary, vernacular English. Sound contemporary translations of the Textus Receptus exist for today’s plow boy: the NKJV and MEV are waiting and ready. One may have his Textus Receptus and read it, too.
4. Focused too much on the individual
I think Riddle’s best point is his final one. He notes that God gives shepherds to help struggling readers. I did acknowledge this in the book, though I think I should have said more. Elders are indeed supposed to be “apt to teach” (and “apt” here is a false friend I cover in my book).
But I do not believe this qualification includes expertise in historical forms of English. Pastors, in my lengthy experience, are just as tripped up by false friends as their people are—and I do not blame them.
The KJV translators said in their excellent preface,
We desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.
Vulgar is, of course, a false friend, though one that many educated people will recognize. It meant “common” (like Koine, the language God chose for the New Testament). But I wonder if many readers have ever connected vulgar to Vulgate. Yes, the Latin Bible that kept God’s words locked away from medieval European plow boys was originally intended as a gift to them. It became unreadable only over time. And that is what you get when you fail to revise dead words and false friends, slowly but very surely: a new English Vulgate. I fully agree that we are not there yet; I agree that reasonable people can disagree over when the tally of KJV readability difficulties will require change.
Perhaps my language-change smoke alarm is too sensitive and has gone off too early. But over two years after my book was released, I can say that I have had terrible difficulty finding defenders of the KJV who will meet me anywhere near the middle. Literally none will acknowledge that the tally of difficulties is any real cause for concern; rather the opposite. Dr. Riddle thinks, in fact, that the KJV has “never … been easier to read.” The closest I have come to an acknowledgment of my case from a KJV defender comes from a mutual friend of Dr. Riddle and mine, Robert Truelove, who holds views on the KJV very similar to Dr. Riddle’s. Truelove, in a Facebook discussion on my wall that I repeat with his permission, said,
The problem is not that Mark Ward’s examples are not relevant, it’s that these particular problems and the frequency of them are being vastly overstated. … All that said, there will come a time when the overall argument Mark is making will be valid.See more context here
And I ask: when? When in between now and a new Vulgate should we change? The answer I generally get from KJV defenders is, “By the time Modern English becomes a fully different language, like Beowulf is to us now.” And I find that unsatisfactory. Surely at some point between now and then, maintaining the valuable tradition we call the King James Version will come to stand in tension with Paul’s principle in 1 Corinthians 14, namely that edification requires intelligibility. Some generation has to endure the discomfort of change, lest the beautiful KJV calcify into something it was never meant to be. I think it should be ours.
“Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light,” the KJV translators said. And yet every dead word and false friend is a smudge on that window, obscuring that light. I have read their preface repeatedly and carefully, and I believe the KJV translators would side with me—and with the plow boy. That preface is, in fact, an extended defense of the need for revision of a translation then only forty years old! There are multiple such revisions in the KJV tradition: the NKJV, MEV, ESV, and others (I personally use all good translations). We do not lack for contemporary options, no matter our respective views of textual criticism. We should make contemporary options open in institutional contexts.
Now, I myself have read negative book reviews and then spirited rejoinders from jilted authors. In these cases, both are smart people who make good points—and I have often halted between their two opinions. I pray for God to give me light, but I tend, as we all do, to fall back to the viewpoint favored by my network of trusted authorities and institutions.
And that is precisely why I urge my readers, many of whom are leaders in Christian institutions (particularly churches), to take upon themselves the burden of translation change. I speak particularly to the many pastors who I happen to know are reading my book. Bible translations are excessively complicated: your people will generally trust that you know best about them. If you use the KJV, they will, too. If you say that it is “more accurate” or the “best English Bible translation,” they will believe you. They will assume that their difficulties in understanding are all their fault, when a good number of them are actually the “fault” of language change. Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible makes a case that has not been made anywhere else to my knowledge: that language change has made the KJV, not entirely unintelligible, but sufficiently unintelligible for today’s plow boy that it is time for change. I do not believe Dr. Riddle adequately countered that case; I think pastors who use the KJV owe it to the plow boys who trust them to read my book for themselves.