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.

The Preserved Word of God for English-Speaking Peoples

“Preserved” is the key word in KJV-Onlyism these days. Just about every KJV-Only doctrinal statement I see uses that word “preserved.” But I’ve been thinking for a long time along with famous systematic theologian Inigo Montoya, I do not think it means what they think it means.

A new friend from KJV-Only circles contacted me on Facebook, asking me how I would assess the bibliology statement from a KJV-Only mission board. It turns out that the language is used elsewhere, and my best guess is that the original source is Heartland Baptist Bible College. So I’m going to use their text. I will bold the statements that concern me in this post, the ones about preservation.

Here’s Heartland:

We believe the Holy Bible was written by men supernaturally inspired: that it has truth for its matter without any admixture of error; that it is and shall remain to the end of the age, the only complete and final revelation of the will of God to man; and that it is the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.

We believe the Authorized (King James) Version, Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God kept intact for English-speaking peoples by way of God’s divine providence and work of preservation; and that the Authorized Version translators were not “inspired,” but were merely God’s instruments used to preserve His words for English-speaking peoples.

By Holy Bible we mean that collection of sixty-six books, from Genesis to Revelation, which, as originally written and providentially preserved, does not only contain and convey the Word of God, but is the very Word of God.

By inspiration we mean that the books of the Bible were written by holy men of God as they were moved by the Holy Ghost in such a definite way that their writings were supernaturally and verbally inspired and free from error, as no other writings have ever been or ever will be inspired.

By providentially preserved we mean that God through the ages has, in His divine providence, preserved the very words that He inspired; that the Hebrew Old Testament text, as found in the Traditional Masoretic Text, and the Greek New Testament text, as found in the Textus Receptus, are indeed the products of God’s providential preservation and are altogether the complete, preserved, inerrant Word of God.

We therefore believe and require that the Authorized Version (King James Version) be the only English version used and or endorsed by the staff, faculty, and student body of this college.

There is much here that I joyfully affirm, of course: inspiration, inerrancy, the 66-book canon, the final authority of the Bible. I don’t want to fail to stress my wholehearted agreement with these historically orthodox beliefs. And I believe the people confessing them are truly my brothers.

But I find the language of “preservation” applied (repeatedly and insistently) to a translation to be confusing and misleading at best. We must guard against all language in doctrinal statements—where precise language is the whole point—which suggests that any one translation is perfect, or that it is the best available, or that all other translations should be avoided and viewed as untrustworthy. The Bible simply does not teach these things, even by “good and necessary consequence.” If the Bible is our “supreme standard,” and it is, we must refuse to go beyond its claims in doctrinal statements. When we do, we are building our doctrine on the same foundation on which Wile E. Coyote often found himself.

I’m going to bracket in this post the question of whether the Bible teaches that God will preserve his words in an unbroken line of perfect manuscript copies. I certainly have an opinion on this important question, but it actually isn’t relevant here. No matter what answer a KJV-Only brother might give to that question, I would like to urge him to stop using “preservation” language of any translations; this word properly belongs only in a discussion of the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words God inspired.

“To Preserve, v.”

I looked up “preserve” in the three major contemporary dictionaries I always use. Here are the relevant senses, or so it seems to me:

New Oxford American:

maintain (something) in its original or existing state: all records of the past were zealously preserved

Merriam-Webster:

1 to keep safe from injury, harm, or destruction: protect
2 to keep alive, intact, or free from decay

American Heritage:

To keep in perfect or unaltered condition; maintain unchanged: fossils preserved in sediments; a film preserved in the archives.

I have earnestly tried, with some encouragement from two intelligent friends (one KJV-Only and one not), to read “preserved” in KJV-Only doctrinal statements to mean something different than “maintained in its original, unaltered, unchanged, intact state.” Maybe by calling a translation “preserved” they’re only saying that an accurate translation of God’s preserved words are themselves God’s words. I can affirm that, but I don’t think that’s what preserved means in standard English. English can bend pretty far under appropriate circumstances, but I’m just not seeing it. No, to “preserve” is to “keep intact.”

To call a translation a tool for “preservation” of the source text is therefore a serious confusion of categories. It’s like saying that an ornamental bush trimmed to look like a mushroom really is a mushroom. It’s like saying that a bus is a plane because, clearly, they are both oblong vehicles which can move many people at once.

I am troubled when Heartland calls the KJV “the Word of God kept intact for English-speaking peoples” (the language I see more commonly [here’s an example] is that the KJV is “the preserved word of God for English-speaking peoples”). Never mind for the moment that the English speaking peoples speak a different English than they did 400 years ago (that’s the problem my new book focuses on); I want to know: what is this “preservation” language supposed to mean when applied to a translation? If a translation “preserves” God’s words, then that translation would seem to be keeping them in perfect or unaltered condition.

What “Preserve” Appears to Mean

And that, friends, is either nonsensical or a doctrinal innovation I can’t accept. Let me state the obvious: every word in the KJV is completely different from every word in the Hebrew and Greek. Ἀ-γ-ά-π-η is 100% different from l-o-v-e. The KJV in that sense “alters” every last jot and tittle of the originals by putting them in an entirely different language with an entirely different script (I borrow this point from Bible translator and linguist Mark Strauss). Sure, the originals and the KJV mean the same things, and I’m glad to affirm that they do. But it’s still nonsensical to say that the KJV (or any translation) “preserves” the originals—if “preserve” means “keep intact.”

But I don’t like to attribute nonsense to people; I want to believe that Heartland is affirming something definite. So when this doctrinal statement confesses that a particular Bible translation revision made by a few dozen Anglicans between 1604–1611 was the object of “God’s divine providence and work of preservation” to the exclusion of all others (they’re not even allowed to “use” other translations, much less “endorse” them), they seem to me to be saying that the KJV can serve as a standard fully equal to the originals. By words like “intact” they seem to me to be saying that the KJV is perfect. I spoke at length on the phone with a Heartland professor in the last year (a gifted and dedicated guy), and when I asked him whether he would update any of the language of the KJV if he could, he said, “Well, you can’t alter the Word of God.”

This—viewing the KJV as perfect and inviolable—is a significant deviation from orthodox bibliology. Yes, a translation is God’s word, and this is important to affirm; but a translation is not God’s word in the same, ultimate sense as those originals. If we’re unsure what a passage means, the ultimate appeal is to the inspired Greek and Hebrew. Translations don’t trump the originals. Ever. And they don’t fully equal them. Nowhere does the Bible itself tell us to expect perfect Bible translations. “All Scripture is God-breathed,” yes—and the human subjects involved were “holy men of God who spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21; Bibliology 101). The KJV—and Reina Valera and Louis Segond—translators are not properly considered among the group of men moved by the Spirit. The Bible never tells us to expect this.

I’m not even sure what a perfect translation looks like: what is a “perfect” translation of a difficult word like στοιχεῖον (stoicheion) in Col 2:20? What’s a perfect translation of the disputed phrase in Rom 1:5, ὑπακοὴν πίστεως (hupakoen pisteos), often translated “obedience of faith”? To have a perfect translation means, in these and many other cases, making perfect interpretations of those phrases—do we really think all those Anglicans managed it? They certainly didn’t think so.

And what about the tiny judgment calls abounding in Bible translation—ones for which the KJV translators themselves felt compelled to add notes mentioning alternative renderings? Is it “trusted” or “hoped” in Eph 1:12? The KJV translators weren’t certain:

What about the even tinier judgment calls—like the one I came across while reading a new translation of the NT during my lunch break:

“The foxes have lairs…” The KJV has, of course, “The foxes have holes…” Which is it? Is it the more general holes or the more specific lairs? The referent is clearly the same in each case, and the lexicons give both glosses. Which translation is “perfect” and “intact”?

And what about the times when a MT/TR-based translation into another language, like the Spanish Reina-Valera of 1909, makes a different interpretation of a text than does the KJV? Who’s got God’s words, the English speakers or the Spanish ones? To pick a random example, the last word in Numbers 23:21 is translated them by the KJV and él (“him”) by the Reina Valera of 1909. Presumably this is a matter of interpretation on someone’s part. Who got it right? Who has God’s word there and who doesn’t?

KJV-Onlyism is a search for a perfect, physically accessible doctrinal standard: the KJV. I suppose I wouldn’t mind having a perfect translation, but that isn’t what God gave us, or promised to give us.

The Preserved Vulgate

One of the signal errors of the Roman Catholic Church was that for many centuries it treated their preferred Latin translation as possessing an authority which even they now recognize it did not. I say they recognize this because it is my understanding that Catholic translations are now made from the Greek and Hebrew originals. Even today there are Catholics who wish to go back to the days of the Latin rite. But some of the Vulgate’s translations, like poenitentiam agite, led to major problems over centuries. (Footnote: interestingly, the TR now preferred by the KJV-Only was originally accompanied with a new translation into Latin by Erasmus.)

No one, I guarantee you, stood up one day in any Catholic church and said, “Starting next Sunday, we’re going to read the Bible and conduct our services using a language no one can understand.” So how in the world did it happen? Slowly. Latin became Spanish and Italian and Portuguese and French; and the last one on that list just happened to pour numerous words (from multiple French dialects in different parts of France, it turns out) into the language of a nearby island country through successive invasions, and we got modern English. But the Latin Vulgate was “preserved.” It remained basically unchanged, kept intact. And eventually it became unintelligible to the common people.

One of the reasons we can’t have a perfect translation is that you can’t say a language is, once and for all. A language is always changing, always becoming something new and slightly different, until the changes add up and misunderstandings begin to occur more and more often. The “English-speaking peoples” of today don’t all speak precisely the same English—witness Kenyan, UK, Aussie, South African, Guyanese, Singaporean and other Englishes. And the “English-speaking peoples” of today most certainly don’t speak the English of the Elizabethans. One of the reasons translations can’t be perfect bullseyes is that languages are moving targets.

Charitable Hermeneutics

It just so happens that a friend of mine knows the now-deceased (?) gentleman who says he came up with the “preserved word of God for English-speaking peoples” language. I have not been able to track down more information, but my friend says this guy said he didn’t mean for that language to become what it has become.

So I’m not sure what the language originally meant, but I believe I know what it’s being used to mean now. The most charitable interpretation I can put on the common KJVO language—“The KJV is God’s preserved Word for English-speaking peoples”—goes something like this: they want to accord exclusive status to the KJV, but they recognize they can’t call it “inspired” (to be clear, I applaud this recognition). So instead they call it “preserved” (or “intact”)—which is somehow less than “inspired” but still makes the KJV superior to all other English Bible translations; yea, even perfect.

I have looked at hundreds of KJV-Only doctrinal statements, and not one of them explains whether other English translations are also “God’s preserved word”; this tends to leave the impression that they are not. More commonly (maybe 25% of the time?) these statements reject all other English translations, as Heartland does, and they insist that only the KJV will be “used” in their church or school or mission board. Recently I’ve even seen a few of them calling the KJV itself the “ultimate authority” for faith and practice.

They don’t actually tend to call the KJV “perfect” outright, but that’s the only thing I can get out of all the “preservation” language when applied to a translation.

Brass Vernacular Tacks

Some KJV-Only leaders, the ones working on developing the theological rationale for the movement, have come up with some impressive argumentation for their viewpoint. It is not irrational, I think, to conclude from “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” that we need every one of God’s words. It’s not a huge step from there to assume that, well, we must have all these words somewhere. It’s not an impossible step from there to say that a good God would give us all the words, and just those words, in our language.

I do think there are significant flaws in this reasoning, and I’ve discussed some of them in the past. But I’m supposed to be bracketing this question… So let me get to brass tacks, two foundational reasons why I’m skeptical of TR-Only views:

  1. The Bible never tells us to expect perfect translations. The Septuagint used by Jesus and the apostles was not perfect, just good. (Don’t believe me? Listen to the KJV translators in their own preface: “The translation of the Seventy dissenteth from the Original in many places, neither doth it come near it for perspicuity, gravity, majesty; yet which of the Apostles did condemn it? Condemn it? Nay, they used it.”) I don’t want language in my doctrinal statement to claim more than the Bible claims.
  2. And after spending multiple years on the issue of vernacular Bible translation and the KJV, I’m utterly convinced of this: the end point (I’d actually say the beginning point) of TR-Only reasoning is that we have have to accord top or exclusive status the KJV. And that means we have to read and memorize and teach from a translation people can’t fully understand because we no longer speak the English it uses. And that just can’t be right. What good is it to have all the right words if people can’t understand them? Paul speaks directly to this issue in 1 Cor 14. And the KJV translators do, too, in their excellent preface:

Without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which is deep) without a bucket or something to draw with; or as that person mentioned by Isaiah, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with this motion, “Read this, I pray thee,” he was fain to make this answer, “I cannot, for it is sealed.”

This is why I’m always saying to the TR-Only: give us a translation of the Bible into our English using whatever texts you prefer.

Crossing Sea and Land

In the two weeks since my book’s release I’ve started to get letters from people who are in the process of leaving KJV-Onlyism. KJV-Onlyism has little to fear from me: I get the impression that these people were already skeptical and bought my book immediately upon release because they knew it would help them know how and why to leave KJV-Only bibliology behind. Also, I want to say that I cautioned all of them to be respectful and gracious toward—and grateful for—their heritage. I think it’s ugly to feel arrogant over people you agreed with yesterday, a denial of 1 Cor 4:7.

I also think it’s ugly to crow about the proselytes one has made within Christianity; that is, from one doctrinal view to another, even if one is aberrant. I don’t feel like saying to the KJVOs, “See my converts? Ha, take that!”; I just feel sad. I feel sad that we can’t be unified because of the KJVOs’ doctrinal innovation. I feel sad for the missionary, the assistant pastor, and the senior pastor who’ve contacted me recently and told me of their return to bibliological orthodoxy—because I know they’re going to lose friendships, and I don’t want them to be cast adrift relationally. I feel sad for the kids who are taught verses they can’t understand when the NIV and ESV are a click away. The idea that Christians would forbid not just the endorsement but the “use” (!) of Bible translations other than a 400-year-old one people struggle to read—I’m just at a loss. This is divisive extremism of the saddest and most unnecessary kind: how could regenerated people engage in it? This whole topic fills me with dread.

But the Bible fills me with hope: regenerated people have God’s Spirit; they have gifts and brains and love and Christ’s righteousness. Loving, rational, Bible-based appeals can make a difference. I’m seeing that difference, even if the results are currently small. So here’s my double appeal to the KJV-Only: 1) take advantage of the riches of modern English vernacular Bible translation: “all are yours” (1 Cor 3). And 2) don’t go beyond the Bible to “preserve” the Bible.

KJVParallelBible.org Launches!

I’ve been so busy with the launch of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, I failed to announce the soft launch of KJVParallelBible.org to either of my blog readers! The launch is “soft” because it’s a strong proof-of-concept, not a full New Testament. But a lot of the work is done; I just have to get a few more volunteers and a bit more time for me to process the completed work of other volunteers and put it up on the site.

The project is supposed to show intuitively that the differences between the Textus Receptus and the Critical Text (CT) are so minor—and the similarities so overwhelming—that the TR-Only (who are almost always also KJV-Only) would be forced to acknowledge, “Boy, this is what we’ve been fighting over?”

So I was disappointed, though not surprised, when the first email I got through the contact form looked like it came from an ardent KJV-Only partisan who was finding a conspiracy to advance the perpetual virginity of Mary in Matt 1:25 (which would mean he looked at the very first page on the site, but possibly no others…).

Nonetheless, I followed up with the guy, and it turns out I misjudged him. He seems to me to be a genuine searcher, not a partisan. And he isn’t KJV-Only. I ended up writing the following in our exchange, an exchange I found instructive and edifying. I was glad to have read him wrong initially, and glad he had the grace to explain himself.

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Yes, the TR, by calling Jesus Mary’s “firstborn,” makes it difficult to hold to Mary’s perpetual virginity. And yes, the Critical Text (CT) leaves that possibility open by calling Jesus only “a son” of Mary.

But I think you’re reading the motivation of a person or persons that are very, very remote from you. I also think that to read intention into one difference commits you to finding a pattern: you have to look at hundreds of differences and discern unified theological purposes behind them. I think you’ll find that rather difficult…

I also think, to be fair, you need to try to come up with an alternate story for every difference. Indeed, why wouldn’t it work the other way? The indefinite article—”a son”—doesn’t require the perpetual virginity view, it just leaves it open. So what’s to stop a zealous, orthodox scribe from “clarifying” that Jesus was only her firstborn? Why not say that the TR “added” to the New Testament rather than that the CT “removed” text or “changed” it?

It’s a lot easier to view the differences as something far less exciting than a conspiracy to alter God’s word.

But… If you aren’t insisting on exclusive use of the KJV, then my disagreement with you over textual criticism matters comparatively little. I care about vernacular translation far above right textual critical views.

I prefer the CT, yes. But since the point of my KJVParallelBible.org project is to highlight the similarities between the CT and TR and show how minor are the differences, I just don’t find a lot of energy in my heart to push me to disabuse you of textual critical notions I disagree with. I’m not saying, “You’re not worth my time”; not at all. I’m saying that as long as you accept the need for a vernacular Bible, I’m completely happy if you still prefer the TR.

I suppose, if I had to read between the lines in your response and offer one response of my own, it would be that every attempt to “throw out” the “bad” manuscripts seems to find itself attached to a narrative about who allegedly tampered with them. I look at the TR vs. the CT—the historical heirs of each supposed major line of manuscripts (Byzantine and Alexandrian)—and I just have a hard time building such a narrative. There are so, so many outliers for any story you could tell. And so many differences for which I just can’t find a story to tell in the first place. Is it that the star “came to rest” over baby Jesus or “came and stood” over him? What doctrinal motivation, what narrative, can you build to explain that difference?

I think one of the things that this project has done for me is shown me the sheer number of non-doctrinal statements there are in the New Testament. Don’t get me wrong, it all adds up to sound doctrine. And I want to incorporate every word. But I’m hard-pressed to find a doctrinal difference between…

Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

…and…

Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in faith, in purity.

And that’s actually one of the more substantive differences out there. (I got this one from 1 Tim 4, a passage I picked at random.)

Most differences seem to me to be even less significant than that one. Like this:

Requiting one’s parents is “good and acceptable before God” or it’s merely “acceptable before God.” (This is from 1 Tim 5.)

What’s the difference here? I don’t see one. (If there’s a problem for understanding the verse, it’s not in the inclusion or non-inclusion of the word “good.” It’s in the “false friend” in the KJV, the word “acceptable” is a “false friend.” In 1611 [or perhaps in British English? I’m a bit unclear on this one] it had a more positive ring that isn’t available to us now. For them it meant “pleasing”—four out of five stars. For us it means two stars: “The performances varied from excellent to acceptable” [see Merriam-Webster].)

And in both 1 Tim 4 and 1 Tim 5, the two texts are nearly identical. Any manuscript tossed out as “bad” is likely to agree 99% with the “good” ones—so why call them “bad”? I want people to use this site and conclude, “Why are we fighting about this!?”

I often feel like the TR side wants to tell stories that could easily be countered with different stories that would work just as well. The fact is we don’t know what was motivating long-dead scribes. I think they’d laugh uproariously at some of our guesses. And then I think the TR side wants to find one plausible story and run with it around the globe—without being willing to come up with a story that actually includes all the evidence.

I take that back, sort of. They do have a story that includes all the evidence: the meaningless variants were placed there to throw us off the scent, I’ve heard them say. They’re supposed to fool us into accepting the meaningful ones. That sounds like classic conspiracy-theory thinking to me, especially when you consider what it takes to change a text that exists in multiple locales in a world without planes.

So when the TR view tells contestable stories about meaningful variants, when it resorts to conspiracy theories to explain the non-meaningful ones, and when the TR position in my experience is used to support the KJV 99% of the time (am I wrong?), I find it hard to accept. If they all move to the NKJV or MEV, I’ll take note. Then we’ll talk.

Because I can still respect someone who takes a TR position (or a Majority Text position)—as long as they support vernacular translation. Give me a contemporary, intelligible translation of a “bad” Greek New Testament any day over an archaic, sometimes unintelligible translation (unintelligible because of language change, not because of bad translating) of a “good” Greek New Testament.

Endorsements for Authorized

My new book is out today in 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:

Endorsements

Here are some trusted names in the area of Bible translation 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