One of The Most Profound Things Any Reader Has Said to Me After Reading My Book

A reader of Authorized wrote me:

I have found it interesting on the topic of italicized words in the KJV to notice the difference in the number of italicized words in the “original” 1611 KJV and the KJV of today. Using Mark 5 for instance, I believe the count is something like 20 in today’s KJV and 6 in the 1611 KJV (two of which are not even italicized in today’s KJV…“Talitha cumi”).

I responded:

As far as italics go, I felt like I never heard anyone give the other side, the “cons” of italics. And I began to feel like none of the “pros” I always heard were really pros.

One of the most profound things any reader has said to me after reading my book was this: “If my over-arching goal is to understand what God said, it changes everything in the versions debate.”

Loyalty to italics privileges “accuracy”—as sort of a disembodied reality—over understanding.

I’ll add: for every claim I’ve heard that the italics (in any Bible translation, not just the KJV) are beneficial, I hear zero stories showing that they aid understanding. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be there; not at all. Because I read Greek and Hebrew, I find them beneficial every once in a while.

But what are the italics doing there if they’re only helping scholars, and only helping them every once in a while? What they seem to do is make some lay readers feel safer, more confident that the translators aren’t putting one over on them. And that’s a bad place to be when reading a Bible translation. Simply put, all Christians—even Bible translators—have to trust other Christians when they read the Bible in translation. No one is such an expert that he or she can do without any help from others. Even the people who can read Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic fluently rely on specialized studies from scholars who’ve studied individual words.

If the very nature of the Bible is such that almost all Christians have to read it in translation (because very few people are fluent in all the biblical languages), and if the Bible never warns us to watch out for “bad” translations, and if the KJV translators themselves draw attention to the poor quality of the Septuagint translation (and they do in their preface) and yet the NT authors used it, maybe we can all lighten up a bit and be open rather than skeptical when evangelicalism’s top experts make and endorse a Bible translation.

Indeed, we have good reasons to trust our Bible translators; they’re not trying to adulterate the Word. These are the same people who are teaching in our best seminaries, writing our best books, and offering the best defenses of sound doctrines like inerrancy.

One of the most important messages I can send out to the faithful Christians filling church pews is that all the major evangelical English Bible translations are trustworthy.* There is no conspiracy to mistranslate or remove or obfuscate God’s words. I can disagree with individual translation decisions in all of the existing English Bible translations and yet say with confidence that they are all trustworthy, and all excellent tools for understanding God’s words.

The balance is off when we care more about having the words of God than about understanding them—like a kid who doesn’t follow baseball but wants to collect every last card for the 2003 Mets roster.

*I have far less expertise in Catholic and mainline Protestant translations, but in my experience it’s hard to really mess up a Bible translation unless you do so on purpose (I’m looking at you, New World Translation). If all we had were the New American Bible (Catholic) or the Common English Bible (Mainline Protestant), I think we’d still have reason to be incredibly grateful.

Halt! A Defense of My Central Example

A Facebook commenter with a PhD in English challenged my interpretation of halt at KJVQuiz.com. It was perhaps an incautious challenge to make to a person only too ready to write articles upon the feeblest provocation. Here goes.

Many of our common words trace back etymologically to physical actions or directions. One of the most common ways we get “new” words is by the development of old ones from literal to metaphorical. Let’s probe this feature of language, on our way to understanding one specific word in one Bible passage in one translation.

Here’s an example from contemporary English: when I say about Harvey Weinstein, “His actions were indefensible,” I’m speaking on an abstract level; I’m arguing that no argument could justify him. But strip off the affixes (in-, –de-, and -ible) and you’re left with what was once a quite concrete idea: fens, from the Latin fendere, “to strike.” Our current abstract term indefensible derives historically from a very concrete action: striking something with a fist or tool. Something that is indefensible is something not able to be “fended off,” “struck aside.” We no longer hear a literal idea of striking in that word—or in offense, defense, or fend—the literal and concrete has been fully metaphoricalized (this actually happened before English was born).

A (precocious) four-year-old can declare his little sister’s actions indefensible just fine without any idea of its roots in the concrete idea of “striking.” And so can we adults; in fact, we generally have no clue what our words used to mean—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Sometimes words have a literal meaning and a metaphorical extension. Try this:

I fell into a depression.

Both fell and depression could be literal—maybe the speaker was on a hike and stumbled into a low spot on the forest floor. But both could be metaphorical extensions of the literal, however—a low spot in one’s life. A tiny bit more context generally makes it clear which sense is intended:

My girlfriend dumped me, I lost my job, my hairline receded four inches in two weeks, and I fell into a depression.

I guess you could still read that last clause literally… (Language is so cool!) But change that last “and” to a “so” and I think we’re beyond the reach of confusion for any sympathetic reader. Exhaustive certainty in interpretation is not always available, but sufficient certainty usually is. We all tend to know intuitively, based on context, when a word is meant concretely or metaphorically.

How long halt ye?

If you’ve made it this far. Clearly, you are fascinated by the fun complexities of human language. So let’s dig a layer deeper into the depression into which we’ve fallen; let’s get below the pine needles and into the dirt. Let’s explore what is probably the key example in my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. The word is halt, and the passage is 1 Kings 18:21, where Elijah stands in his great contest with the priests of Baal and issues a challenge that has spawned many a sermon. Here’s a 1611 KJV:

From Wycliffe in the 1380s up through the English Revised Version 500 years later, every major English Bible translation translated the key word here the same way: halt.

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What did all these translators mean by choosing halt?

I have gone to the trouble of asking modern readers—from my six-year-old daughter to seminary professors—what they think the word means in the context of 1 Kings 18:21 in the KJV, and almost all, quite naturally, have assumed the definition of halt as we use it today. As my little cutie said confidently, “It means ‘stop.’” It’s odd to our ears to hear the word used as an intransitive verb (the intransitive use is “archaic,” says the AHD), and even then it’s usually a military term (“The troops halted at the river’s edge”), but we can make sufficient sense of it in 1 Kings 18:21. You could imagine a contemporary speaker saying, “The Israelites halted at a spot somewhere between the worship of God and the worship of Baal.”

Looking up “halt”

The ASV of 1901 was the first major English translation to break from the halt tradition. I noticed this while reading the ASV’s successor, the ESV, which renders the word the same way, “How long will you go limping between two opinions?”

Wait, what?

I remember reading this in the ESV and thinking, “How did we get from halt to limp?”

And then I remembered something else: the KJV has Jesus healing “the halt and the blind” in the Gospels. And who are the “halt”? They’re the lame, the limping.

Duh! I made a quick check of the Hebrew in 1 Kings 18:21. Sure enough, it used the word for “limp” (פָּסַח), not the word for “stop” (חָדַל or עָמַד). The Septuagint uses χωλαίνω, which also means “limp.” What the KJV translators meant by halt was “limp.”

Limp is first attested in 1523; it was available for the translators of our earliest Modern English Bibles (though not for Wycliffe, apparently). But the more common word was halt. (They even had another option you and I don’t, limphalt—language is so cool.)

Halt is what I call in Authorized a “false friend,” because when you read the KJV, it looks like a word we know. The “stop” sense makes sufficient sense in context, so no one thinks to look up halt. Who looks up words they already know? But if you don’t look up this word, or don’t happen to check one of the modern translations that uses limp, you miss the word-picture Elijah is going for: people hobbling back and forth between Baal and the Lord.

Complicating matters

However, fellow word nerds, there’s a possible objection to my argument: halt was, like fall, a word that could be literal or metaphorical. The Oxford English Dictionary, the only lexicon that traces English’s full history, offers “limp” as the first sense of halt, but it gives another sense, too: “To walk unsteadily or hesitatingly; to waver, vacillate, oscillate; to remain in doubt.” And it cites 1 Kings 18:21!

So halt had a metaphorical extension, according to the OED. Maybe Wycliffe and the translators after him didn’t mean the concrete, literal “limp” after all?

And here’s where I have to halt—because I’m skeptical of the OED, and that’s an odd place to be in for someone who relies on it so often. Yes, the overall phrase “halt between two opinions” means to waver, vacillate, and oscillate, to remain in doubt. The whole phrase is a metaphor. And I’ve got no problem with translations that use such words. But particularly because of the underlying Hebrew (and the concurring LXX), I don’t think the single word halt meant “remain in doubt” in 1 Kings 18:21 in the minds of the KJV translators. I still think it meant “limp.”

There are some fundamental uncertainties going on here, however: those translators didn’t “choose” halt; they “approved” it. They left it in the text they were revising—which was itself a revision of a revision of a revision. So do you look at English usage in the 14th, 15th, or 16th centuries to determine what halt meant? That’s tough. Literal ideas like “limp” develop metaphorical extensions like “vacillate, remain in doubt.” But is that really what’s going on in 1 Kings 18:21? When would most readers have heard the metaphorical rather than the literal idea? I don’t know. Exhaustive certainty is not available in all linguistic questions.

The clincher

But I’ve got a clincher, a secret weapon that will show that I’m right even if I’m wrong. The OED follows up the sense of halt that I’ve just doubted for 1 Kings 18:21, the metaphorical sense, with this comment:

Especially in the scriptural phrase ‘to halt between two opinions’; now often associated with halt v.2.

Halt v.2 is the “stop” sense. What the OED has been saying since 1901 is that, whether or not halt means the literal “limp” or the metaphorical “waver,” English speakers have been misunderstanding it. They have often erroneously associated it with “stop.” When modern readers see halt they misunderstand it without realizing it. Halt is—through no fault of the KJV translators or of modern readers—a “false friend.” The OED says so.

I checked the NOW Corpus, and I looked at many dozens of uses of halt—I couldn’t find a single one in which “halt” meant “limp.” I couldn’t find one in which it meant “vacillate,” either. In every instance it meant “stop” or “pause.” (I also couldn’t find it used intransitively.) I saw, “In an effort to halt the matter, the Doves Group filed papers in the Durban High Court.” I saw, “The resolution called on Israel to halt settlement activity.”

It is not a sign that you or I are intellectually deficient if we see in the KJV a common word we all know and assume it means what we all know it means, a meaning which makes perfect sense in the context of whatever KJV passage we’re reading.

It is not a sign that the KJV translators made a mistake when they failed to predict the future of the English language. Who could have predicted that the “gay nineties” would mean something very different in the “gay 90s”?

Conclusion

This post is way nerdier and more detailed than my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. I’m playing to my nerdy audience here (and, honestly, answering a challenge from a skeptic on Facebook!).

But even if you don’t read the book, I invite you to get the point: all of this nerdery should not be expected of anyone but nerds. And God didn’t give his words to nerds; he gave them to all Christians. There are two really simple solutions to the misunderstanding now created (it wasn’t confusing in 1611) by halt in 1 Kings 18:21. And every major modern English translation uses one of them. You can use the concrete “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” like the ASV and ESV; or you can translate the overall meaning of the phrase and say “How long are you going to be paralyzed by indecision?” like the NET Bible.

These two solutions actually boil down to one, and it’s the thesis of my book: English Bible translations ought to be made into the current English vernacular.

Endorsements for Authorized

My new book is out in all major print and digital formats.

I’ve been trying to pick a moment when it was “born”… Was it when my favorite seminary professor said, “You prefer the Textus Receptus? Fine. Make a new translation of it”? Was it when my long-time pastor called the KJV an “impediment” to Bible study? Was it when I watched thousands of kids at a Christian camp memorize a verse I knew they didn’t understand? Yes, it was all those things. But the one moment when the real kernel of the book crystalized in my mind was when I realized that the word “halt” in 1 Kings 18:21 meant something different than I had always assumed. I quickly discovered that other long-time KJV readers had made the same perfectly natural mistake. I stumbled onto the concept of “false friends,” and then I started to see them pretty much any time I read a KJV passage of any length. This was something the Christian world needed to know about.

A few other links of interest:

Interviews

Reviews

Endorsements

Here are some trusted names in the area of Bible translation and theology who saw at least some value in the book. Regular readers of this blog will be shocked to find that several of them noticed humor in my writing; I really broke the mold to write this book. was shocked to get these endorsements. I’m grateful to the Lord and to these men.

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“This lightly written and frequently amusing book gently hides the competent scholarship that underlies it. For those who are convinced of the superiority of the KJV, whether for stylistic, cultural, pedagogical, theological, or traditional reasons, this is the book to read. Mercifully, Dr. Ward does not pummel his readers or sneer at those who take another position. Patiently, chapter by chapter, example by example, he makes his case—all of his work geared toward fostering more and better Bible reading. Highly recommended.”

D. A. Carson, research professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL)

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“Mark Ward’s Authorized: the Use and Misuse of the King James Bible is a very cogent, concise, clear, and helpful book on the subject of Bible translations. It is full of information about how language changes and doesn’t change, and it is full of wisdom about how Christians should respond to these processes. Ward argues that we should find virtue both in the old and the new, both in ‘formal’ translations and in ‘functional’ ones. His argument is firmly based in the presupposition that Scripture is God’s word, and that we need it for our salvation and for living the Christian life. And he follows his own advice: he writes in the vernacular—to contemporary readers, in an ‘I-you’ dialogue. So the book is useful, both for beginning Bible students and for linguists. Particularly, it has the potential to gentle our arguments about translations, to reconcile factions, and, to that extent, to unify the church.”

John Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando)

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“This is hands down the most interesting, educating, delightful and understandable work that I’ve read on the question of which English Bible translation to use. In addition to being factually accurate, it’s unusually balanced. I found the first chapter, on potential losses from jettisoning the KJV, to be as compelling in its arguments as the chapters following and making the case for multiplying translations. It’s charitable—I can’t imagine any reader, no matter what his position on the issue, feeling abused or slighted. And it’s pleasurable—rarely the case with an academic work. But truly, this one’s a page-turner.”

Mark Minnick, Associate Professor of New Testament Studies and Church Ministries, Bob Jones Seminary; senior pastor, Mount Calvary Baptist Church (Greenville, SC)

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“Mark Ward’s book on the King James Version is first of all a delightful book to read. I had a hard time putting it down once I started it. Another virtue of the book is that Ward grew up loving the KJV, and thus we have a friendly criticism of its use today instead of an attack from an outsider. Ward is convincing in arguing that the KJV should not be one’s primary Bible today since it is too antiquated for contemporary readers. In fact, he shows that the KJV translators would agree with that assessment, for they were excellent scholars who desired to translate the Bible into the vernacular. As Ward says, there is no need to dispense with the KJV altogether, and the best practice is to use a number of translations, and thankfully we are blessed with many fine English translations today.”

Tom Schreiner, professor of New Testament interpretation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY)

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“Ward combines good writing and common sense to explain why English speakers today should both appreciate the KJV and benefit from excellent modern translations.”

Andrew David Naselli, associate professor of New Testament and theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary (Minneapolis)

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“Just because you know all of the words in an old sentence of English doesn’t mean you know what they meant when they were written. Mark Ward shows us, with a light but authoritative touch, that if we want the Bible to speak to us the way it did to those alive when it was written, we must adjust the vocabulary with meanings only scholars can make out—a revelation of a new kind.”

John McWhorter, associate professor of linguistics, Columbia University; host of the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley

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“This volume by Mark Ward is everything a book should be that deals with a controversial topic like the abiding value of the King James Version. It is engaging, readable, often humorous, and clever in its arguments. Most importantly, it is accurate in its facts, balanced in its presentation, and irenic in tone. I would highly recommend it not only for those involved in the KJV-only debate, but for anyone with an interest in Bible translation.”

Mark L. Strauss, university professor of New Testament, Bethel Seminary San Diego

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“Can anything useful still be said on the use of the King James Version? Yes, and Mark Ward has said it. Mark focuses on those gaps between Elizabethan and contemporary English that are hard to spot and therefore cause confusion for today’s readers. He writes with compassion, humility, sympathy, clarity, and good humor about a topic that can still spark heated arguments. Authorized makes a contribution, even if a late one, to discussion by avoiding the topic of Koine Greek textual criticism and focusing on something every reader of the KJV is supposed to know: English.”

Kevin Bauder, Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Minneapolis)

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“Authorized is a little book that packs a punch. It deals with a common issue in a helpful, humorous, and respectful way. It is worthy of any Christian’s time.”

Tim Challies, author and blogger

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“Mark Ward has done a superb job of handling a complex and sometimes delicate subject. He provides a wealth of information about the history, translation strategy, and current usefulness of the King James Version (KJV) for present-day Bible readers. He also makes a compelling case, for those of us who are native English speakers, that the best way for God to speak to our hearts is through a Bible version written in our true heart language—contemporary English. To suggest that a contemporary English Bible is better equipped to speak to the hearts of contemporary English speakers is not a denigration of the KJV; it is just sound logic. Mark Ward’s book clearly shows that the ongoing disputes about of the translation of Scripture into English, while generally driven by sincere motives, are often based on an oversimplified view of an incredibly complex process. As a Bible translator and teacher of future Bible translators, I will certainly recommend this book to any of my students who have questions or are interested in learning more about the King James Version.”

Dave Brunn, author of One Bible, Many Versions and International Translation Consultant at Ethnos360

Thanks for Praying

I talked with John McWhorter this morning for about 45 minutes to record an episode of Lexicon Valley focused on my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. I’m an even bigger fan of the guy after this experience; I’m still both shocked and over the moon that he’d pick up a book by a no-name Christian author and actually read it. He did, as his interview questions prove, and he totally got it, as I knew he would. I encourage you to sign up for his podcast, as I have done since before he even came on the show. I still think that good Bible interpretation has a lot to do with being sensitive to the way language works. McWhorter makes that kind of learning go down as easily as possible.

A few of you prayed that I’d have discretion and wisdom as I spoke. I feel as if the Lord answered our prayers with a yes, but you be the judge: the episode in which I appear should be released next Tuesday around noon Eastern time.

(Note: though McWhorter does occasionally discuss—I didn’t say “use”—explicit language, he does so in what I’d consider an appropriate way given the linguistics focus of his entertaining and nerdy show. And warnings occur before those episodes. Cf. Phil 3:8.)

Pre-order Authorized now at Amazon or Lexham/Logos; the price may change after the book releases in January.