A Vow Regarding the KJV

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An online interlocutor with genuine intellectual acumen engaged me graciously but firmly on a recent post I wrote promoting the use of multiple Bible translations. He’s essentially KJV-Only, though his professed allegiance is actually to Scrivener’s Textus Receptus. He linked me to a lengthy bibliology statement by one Thomas Ross which he affirmed.

To my knowledge, I have made two vows in my lifetime: 1) a vow to love my wife with the true love of delight (with all the attendant vows of a wedding), and 2) a vow never to vote for a pro-abortion candidate. After lengthy consideration, I’m adding a third in this post—to protect me from forgetting what’s really at stake in the KJV debate, such as it is.

Here’s my reply:

That bibliology statement has some oddities that I’ve never seen before, but I at least appreciated the way Ross distinguished his viewpoint from Ruckman and Riplinger. I look in vain for most KJV-Only churches (and I am all the time reading their bibliology statements) to understand that, if indeed there are scriptural promises of preservation, the KJV is not “the preserved Word of God for English-speaking peoples.” Rather, as Ross says, “the promises of preservation are specifically made for Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words, not English words.” What a relief to read this. And this: “no verses of the Bible promise a perfect English translation.” I also appreciated the acknowledgment that, in principle, the KJV might need to be replaced some day. I have never seen a KJV-Only bibliology statement offer that admission.

However, the principles by which one may discern whether or not the KJV needs to be replaced leave much to be desired:

In the unlikely event that the Lord were not to return for some hundreds of years into the future, and the English language changed in such a manner that the early modern or Elizabethan English of the Authorized Version were to have the comprehensibility of the Old English of Beowulf, it would certainly be right to update Biblical language.  However, I believe that the Holy Spirit would lead Biblical Baptist churches to have general agreement that such a revision of the English Bible is needed.  Without such clear Divine leadership, any revision would be inferior to the Authorized Version (as such versions as the NKJV most certainly are), and detrimental to the cause of Christ.

Leaving aside the irresponsible eschatology of the first lineBeowulf’s English is absolutely unintelligible (it opens with “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon“)—do we have to wait till the KJV reaches that stage before we can ask for a new translation into the vernacular? Presumably not. So when can we ask? When the English is 50% unintelligible? Presumably before that… How about 10%? 5%? No KJV defenders I’ve ever met seem in the least interested in this question.

The NKJV is dispatched in a line, and a (frankly) airy call for “clear Divine leadership” of “Biblical Baptist churches” (why not the CofE?) is made when that call has already come in the very word of God you seek to defend. Vernacular translation is arguably modeled by Ezra (Neh 8:8) and is most certainly modeled in the NT’s use of translations of countless OT passages. Even the little efforts throughout Scripture to “translate” not-so-very-old, or merely foreign, words and customs for the intended reading audience—these provide authoritative examples for us. (I have in mind the passage in which “today’s ‘prophet’ was formerly called a seer,” and others in which anything from Talitha cumi to Immanuel to Rabbi to Tabitha to Barnabas is translated for the reader.) Richard Muller dedicates a whole section to “Vernacular Translation” in his summary of the views of the Reformers. He summarizes the views of one German reformer:

In the first place, the prophets and apostles themselves spoke and wrote in the vernacular in order that their hearers might understand: translation thus enables the Scriptures to be read by all, as the prophets and apostles themselves intended. Second, the Scriptures are the “weapons of the faithful” for defense “against Satan and the heretics.” Even so, third, all believers are commanded to read and study the Scriptures (John 5:39; Deut. 31:11) as, indeed, the apostle praised the Bereans (Acts 17:11). Beyond this, the command to preach to all nations implies the need to translate Scripture, as does the great effort of the early church to produce translations in all of the languages of believers—such as the Syriac, the Chaldee paraphrase, the Septuagint, the many Latin versions, and even the Hexapla of Origen. (Muller, 425)

Every KJV defender I’ve met would profess allegiance to this Reformation value, vernacular translation. They excoriate medieval Catholics for their fear that putting the Bible in the hands of the people would lead to doctrinal novelty. They thrill to repeat the stirring words of Tyndale,

I defie the Pope and all his lawes. If God spare my life, ere many yeares I wyl cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he doust.

But they all turn on the plough boy, whipping out their pikes and mattocks, as soon as he observes that he’s having trouble understanding the KJV.

No matter which text you prefer, or how you get to that preference, the practical upshot is the same: English speakers, including “the least of these” to whom I ministered in West Greenville for 15 years, will not get to have the Bible in their language. And I won’t get to have it in mine.

You’ve led me to a decision: henceforth and forevermore, God helping me, I will not discuss textual criticism with people who insist on the exclusive use of the KJV. I’m not saying I won’t listen to others; I’m saying I won’t engage them on that one issue. Textual criticism is a red herring. Vernacular translation is the only issue I’ll debate. Resolved: the KJV is not—or rather, is no longer—a vernacular translation. Let’s talk English.

The greatest and saddest irony of the KJV-Only movement has to be the list of words that modern versions have supposedly “taken out” of the Bible. In reality, my King James Bible Word Book details hundreds of words that the KJV, through no fault of its own, “takes out” of Scripture. Every besom, every emerod, every shambles—is a word the KJV-Only folks take out of the hands of God’s people. The vocabulary words can be looked up, yes, but in my experience people don’t do it. They don’t know how to do it—they don’t even always know when to do it (because the modern senses of some words still make sense in context; see halt and let). They have no idea what the Oxford English Dictionary is or why it is necessary for KJV readers. And it’s not just archaic words that take the KJV out of the “vernacular” category—this is so often missed; it’s phrases, and it’s syntax. Every “give place,” every “fetch a compass,” is a phrase taken out of people’s hands. Every “not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh,” every “fret not thyself in any wise to do evil” is a clause whose syntax keeps God’s words locked in obscurity. I know all the individual words in those sentences, but I still can’t understand them. Difficult syntax cannot be looked up in a dictionary. You get it or you don’t—or you take a graduate program in the different phases of English and do a great deal of reading in late 16th and early 17th century English literature. Needless to say, this is not an acceptable way forward.

Educated KJV defenders are putting a burden on people’s shoulders that they themselves are not willing to bear. I’m a professional theological writer and have been, more or less, for 14 years. I love words. I grew up on the KJV (and I won five spelling bees in a row in the 1980s and early 1990s, I’ll have you know). I can read Greek and Hebrew. I cannot understand many verses in the KJV, and I trip for at least a moment on countless others. I could be flattering myself, but I have reason to believe that others are faring less well than I—largely because I was them. I used to think I understood the KJV just fine. It took me many years of study in Greek, Hebrew, and English to figure out how much I was missing.

I don’t want to overstate my case; the KJV is still (early) modern English, and it is indeed deeply beautiful. Many individual words and sentences don’t need updating. But when I read the Bible I want to understand every word, and the KJV—through no fault of its own, but merely because of the passing of the years—won’t let me.

Until KJV defenders take more interest in what the Bible actually talks about, namely the importance of understanding, than what it doesn’t, namely the perfect preservation of ancient manuscript copies—until then I love the plough boy (and the bus kid and my own children) too much to waste time discussing the origin and provenance of scales on a red herring.

I have to ask again: why can’t we have the Bible in our own language?

A Question about the New King James Version

A friend wrote me (and I have his permission to post this):

I have a serious interest in using the NKJV as the ministry Bible of choice for our congregation. It corresponds to my textual preference for TR/MT/Byzantine tradition (though I appreciate good CT translations on a scale). And it provides a more relevant form of English expression, which motivates me greatly (which gains your empathy, I am sure!). Furthermore, the vast majority of our congregation would support such a change (a major plus).

He did, however, have a gracious objection from a member of his congregation who is not KJV-Only but who felt he had reason to consider the KJV the most accurate translation of the Hebrew. It doesn’t matter what his reason was; I believe he was sincere. Everyone who objects to moving away from the KJV will have a reason—of course they will. And a pastor is called to patiently instruct them.

This was my reply to my respected friend…

Part One

You have more than my empathy—you have my very great excitement! You’re the very first person I’ve ever met or heard of who has made this very good, very logical move. Let me trace that logic if I can:

  1. The TR is the best Greek text.
  2. The KJV and NKJV are the only believable contenders for the title of “well-known, respected, English translation based on the TR which has multiple editions available even in local bookstores.”
  3. Our Reformation heritage (and, more importantly, the Bible itself) makes vernacular translation an essential tool for the church’s work of growing people into maturity and stability (Eph 4).
  4. The KJV is difficult for people to read today because English has changed; it is no longer a vernacular translation.
  5. So let’s use the NKJV.

Can you tell me if you know anyone else who has not only followed this logic but carried through and done something about it? I would love to see tons of people doing this. The fact that no one but you is doing it is what has always led me to doubt that the TR defenders actually care about the TR rather than preserving the KJV. When I have asked leading TR defenders why they don’t use the NKJV, they typically shrug their shoulders and say, “I’ve never really looked into it.”* That means they’re denying points 3 and/or 4 above. And that’s why my upcoming book is focused on point 4; I fear that, like a much younger me, people have persuaded themselves that they can understand the KJV but don’t know how much they’re missing.

Part Two

This situation is delicate, and you’re the pastor—you know how to deal with people, and you know this brother whom I don’t know. But I’ve got three major thoughts:

1) The translators of the NKJV OT include a number of major OT scholars who have written significant exegetical commentaries on major OT books: Smith in the NAC on Isaiah, Hamilton in the NICOT on Genesis, Ross, Beitzel, Van Gemeren, Merrill. He needs to recognize that you are in the spot of either trusting his judgment or that of multiple respected people with similar gifts and specialized training.

It’s a question of epistemology: how do you achieve justified, true belief (i.e., knowledge) with regard to a question about the quality of a huge Bible translation encoding tens of thousands of individual decisions? I wrote a post about this: you have to know Greek/Hebrew, you have to know English, and you have to be able to generalize from those thousands of decisions.

Assuming someone knows (OT) Hebrew and English really well, the only way you can possibly adjudicate your different positions is to look at tons of examples together. So I wonder if the way forward is asking him to get together thirty examples from across the corpus, and asking him if you can then send that on to an expert. I’d be very happy to take a look, or you might try James Price, who worked on the NKJV and I believe is now retired.

I suspect that, in the end, about 10 of his examples will be persuasive, 10 will be contestable, and 10 will be wrong or misunderstandings. And give James Price the time and he’ll come up with his own list of 30 going the other direction.

And that’s just thirty examples on one side and thirty on the other. There are, again, thousands of relevant examples. I have not used the NKJV extensively, but my impression over time has been that it is not clearly better or worse than the KJV. It is extremely similar.

Even if you’re not confident in Hebrew, what you do know is English, and so the question becomes this: are the (contestable) “inaccuracies” in the NKJV OT really of sufficient weight to overcome the problem that the KJV is no longer a vernacular translation? Sure, the KJV may be more accurate (again, that’s contestable), but if so it’s an accurate translation into a language no one speaks anymore. If accuracy is the main thing you’re going for, the Hebrew is the most accurate; why don’t people just read that?

2) My understanding is that the NKJV was designed to be as little different from the KJV as possible. I checked the preface again, and this is what their stated goal was:

A special feature of the New King James Version is its conformity to the thought flow of the 1611 Bible. The reader discovers that the sequence and selection of words, phrases, and clauses of the new edition, while much clearer, are so close to the traditional that there is remarkable ease in listening to the reading of either edition while following with the other.

If anything, the criticism people (or people like me) tend to give of the NKJV today is that it wasn’t bold enough in straying from the KJV. One very gifted TR-only friend of mine, even though he uses the KJV, has told me that he finds criticisms of the NKJV from the KJV camp to be very weak, grasping at straws. I agree. When I read KJVO reviews of the NKJV I think, Nothing will ever please these people. Nothing.

3) There are other translations of the MT/TR: the MEV, the KJVer, and I’m sure some others that are more obscure (Darby is one I know of).

***

I am praying right now that the Lord would smooth your way with this man and with the congregation. Thanks for sending me this interesting question.

mlwj

*My friend told me he’s heard four objections to the NKJV:

  • I know some good men who have concerns about the NKJV, but I haven’t asked them for more information.
  • The footnotes refer to other manuscripts, which raises reader concern about manuscript reliability or undermines their faith. This could be harmful.
  • It’s a good translation, but it would be too hard to make a change. Good co-laborers would misunderstand.
  • It would be great if we could come up with a new translation that avoids the pitfalls of the NKJV (whatever they are), updates the KJV understandability, and we all (fundamental Baptists) could agree on!

Answering Joel Beeke on the KJV

I’m super late to the party on this one, but I just ran across an article by Joel Beeke offering thirteen “Practical Reasons for Retaining the KJV.” Dr. Beeke is respected for good reason, and I have profited in multiple ways from his ministry. He also avoids the extremes of much of the KJV-Only movement.

However, I cannot agree with his conclusion, nor with most of his points. I failed in my efforts to resist the temptation to answer each one… Here’s a screenshot of the post, followed by my replies. I apologize in advance for the awkward reading this will require. If you’re really dedicated, perhaps you might try reading the two articles side-by-side. If you’re not really dedicated, the Internet is large and surely there are better things to read than my post. Hey, here is something you could read instead.

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  1. This is all undoubtedly true, but by this reasoning the English-speaking church will never be permitted to acknowledge that English has changed to such a degree that the KJV is no longer a suitable standard translation.
  2. Laypeople—who bear the greatest impact from the choice of their church leaders to stick with or move on from the KJV—simply cannot evaluate on their own the intricate arguments over textual criticism of documents in languages they cannot read. They must simply trust their leaders. But a lot of smart, orthodox people (in fact, most of them) disagree with Beeke. This point of his should, therefore, not be determinative. Notice I didn’t say whether I agree or not—only that this point shouldn’t be determinative. And even if the point is given a great deal of weight, it isn’t necessarily an argument for the KJV. The NKJV is also based on the TR.
  3. Missionary translator Dave Brunn has demonstrated that all the major modern English translations use “dynamic equivalence” and “functional equivalence” at different times. The KJV certainly lands on the more literal end of the commonly used translation continuum, but it’s not the most literal. It’s willing to translate μη γενοιτο as “God forbid,” to give just one example. I’m afraid it is simple bluster—and dangerous bluster—to say that the “KJV gives you what biblical authors wrote, not what a committee thinks they meant to write.” This kind of talk contributes to the conspiracy theorizing among the fanatics (note: I don’t believe Beeke is a fanatic). Doug Moo is the head of the Committee for Bible Translation, the group responsible for the NIV. Does his commentary on Romans give any indication that he is anything less than consummately careful with the text of Scripture?
  4. Italics are meaningless at best, misleading at worst, to people who can’t read Greek and Hebrew. The only instance in which I have ever heard anyone make something out of those italics is in Psalm 14: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.” We are told, with the air of being given a hidden key to understanding, that what the psalmist was really saying was, “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘No, God!'” But one glance at the Hebrew reveals he is not a disobedient believer; he is an atheist. אֵ֣ין means “non-existence of,” not “No.” Reality is that Bible translators must make countless interpretive decisions, major and minor, which they can only describe or defend in footnotes, if they even have space for that. Ironically, directing people to distrust contemporary translations forces them to adopt the KJV translators’ viewpoints by default—something I feel confident would have mortified them. I’ve read the Translators to the Reader several times. It is remarkable to me how prescient they were regarding the KJV-Only movement. Instead of seeing the existence of multiple translations as a liability, it should be seen as a great opportunity not afforded to any other culture in history.
  5. Yes, it is helpful to see number distinctions through KJV pronouns, but this is a trade-off: what about KJV punctuation? I would argue that the absence of quotation marks makes accurate reading difficult more often than the distinction between thee and ye makes accurate reading easier. Context generally distinguishes the singular and plural second-person pronouns sufficiently—or we’d be having neverending trouble in spoken English. Beeke has chosen one respect in which Jacobean English is closer to Greek and Hebrew than is contemporary English. But there are multiple ways in which Jacobean English diverges so far from contemporary English that I am inclined to think the distinction between thee and ye is a small gain.
  6. God could have chosen a higher, even grandiloquent form of Greek for the New Testament, but he chose Κοινή, the “common” tongue. One could do little better on this than listen to someone who could read Greek of all sorts better than you or I ever will, C.S. Lewis:

    In the first place the kind of objection which they feel to a new translation is very like the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all. Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street. The answer then was the same as the answer now. The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety…. When we expect that [the Bible] should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King.

  7. I disagree rather profoundly here.
  8. I liked a lot about this point, especially the poignant touch about seniors. I have no wish to rip the KJV out of anyone’s hands, least of all people who have loved it lifelong. But the first spiritual benefit I wish to give my children is that of reading the Bible in their own language. Later we can pick up the heritage of the KJV.
  9. When will English have changed sufficiently to justify moving to a new ecumenical text for Reformed Christians? I believe that time passed some decades ago. And who will take on the burden of carefully, lovingly moving us? By holding on to the old standard (which, it must be confessed, was all but inevitable), we have lost our opportunity to be unified on the new one. It’s like the Galactic Empire in the Foundation trilogy. After its fall, a time of fragmentation is unavoidable, but the period between empires could be shortened with wise preparation.
  10. I’m not sure when and where Dr. Beeke wrote this article originally (can someone enlighten me?), but the ESV has surpassed the KJV in these areas. ESV gift Bibles are very inexpensive, and there are many high-quality and innovatively useful formats whose beauty and quality exceeds that of most KJV editions I’ve seen.
  11. I have heard this before—the idea that the KJV purposefully used then-archaic forms—but I’ve never seen it substantiated (I would be most grateful to someone who could do so for me, because I’m writing a book on this topic and I can’t help it). If it’s true, which seems possible but unlikely to me, I’d really like to know how we know. The only ways we could know, it seems to me, is if 1) the KJV translators said so, and I’m not aware that they did in their preface or anywhere else; or 2) if the language of the KJV was so clearly out of step with the times that it could only have been done purposefully. Judging by the preface (and other writings I’ve read from the time), I would say that the language is remarkably similar to that of the translation. It would take some expertise in 16th and 17th century English literature to make a good judgment here. I would also say that maintaining allegiance to a reverentially religious form of English isn’t all good.
  12. I read Adam Nicolson’s book God’s Secretaries, and I am familiar with many of the translators of the ESV, HCSB, NASB, and NIV. I simply do not believe Dr. Beeke is accurate here, and I’m not sure how much it matters if he is or isn’t.
  13. The best things have been calumniated. I feel genuine sorrow in my heart as I read words like these. On the one hand, I’m a conservative Christian—yea, a fundamentalist of the old sort—who would agree with Dr. Beeke that stripping worship services of their dignity and reverence in favor of the casual and the contemporary is shameful. But I do not see “the penchant for new translations” as arising from this trend. Perhaps some translations do (I won’t name names), but the ESV, NKJV, NASB, and HCSB certainly don’t. New translations arise from the same “trend” that supports and sustains Dr. Beeke’s own pulpit and publishing ministry: people want to know God’s word. They want to hear it in their own language.

The KJV is a wonderful translation which deserves its legendary status, and it deserves to be read and used today. But not as a common standard for devotional reading or preaching. No one on the planet speaks the version of English the KJV uses. And the problem goes beyond individual archaic words such as besom, emerod, or chambering. When a reader encounters those words, he knows he doesn’t know them, and he knows just what to do: look them up. (Though few readers will know that the only suitable place to look up those words is the massive and expensive OED; and why they should have to look up words when there are common contemporary English equivalents—broom, tumor, and sexual immorality—has always eluded me.) That is problem enough, but there are many, many places where English has changed in more subtle ways, and readers will not realize it.

For example, what does “halt” mean in the famous phrase we’ve all memorized, “How long halt ye between two opinions”? I’ve collected numerous similar examples in my book, which may or may not ever see the light of day.

The kind of people who can—and care to—read a post like this, bear a responsibility to help lead and guide those who can’t. Dr. Beeke is a dear brother and a wonderful gift to the church, but I do not agree with him on these points.

Bart Ehrman and King James Onlyism Share Two Important But Highly Contestable Presuppositions

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In biblical scholar Peter Williams’ excellent review of atheist Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Williams writes,

Time and again Ehrman claims to be able to tell us…something of the theological convictions and motivation of those who introduced a variant in the text [of the Greek New Testament]. The text he prefers may sometimes be in the mass of Alexandrian witnesses and may at other times be only attested in late manuscripts. At times it will be a difficult reading while at others a difficult reading is rejected. The one thing, however, that does run through most of the discussions of variants is Ehrman’s historical reconstruction of what scribes thought, how they were motivated, and how they acted in an environment of theological debate.

As I read this I thought immediately of King James Onlyism. To be clear, Bart Ehrman is a foe to the Christian faith while every KJV-Only person I’ve ever met was clearly my brother or sister in Christ. The theological motivations Ehrman sees are efforts to buttress whatever version of “orthodoxy” that particular scribe favored; the theological motivations the KJVOs see are nothing short of satanic efforts to water down the truth of the Bible. But Ehrman and the KJVOs share two very key presuppositions:

  1. The text of the New Testament has been purposefully altered.
  2. We know why.

In other words, we know what the scribes were thinking when they (purposefully) made those changes to the Bible.

Here’s my question: how could they possibly know the motivations of completely anonymous scribes copying the Bible at hard-to-pin-down locales and hard-to-verify times? The manuscripts themselves are pretty much all the evidence we have.

This is also Williams’ question for Ehrman:

The historical reconstruction [Ehrman relies on] is not some datum [available to us from the external world], but something itself supposedly derived from the manuscripts. This derivative construction has been given decisive authority, just as another textual critic might give decisive authority to a manuscript. Clearly, however, the construction needs its own verification before it can be given such decisive weight.

I don’t buy Ehrman’s reconstruction of the historical circumstances surrounding textual differences in the New Testament. One of the most basic reasons I don’t buy it is cited by Williams: how could anyone at any point in the history of the church possibly get away with purposefully changing the Bible? They would have to wield nearly absolute power over a church spread out over a massive area of the world at a time before telecommunications and air travel. They’d have to be able not only to introduce these changes—at a time when relatively few codices put the whole New Testament together, let alone the entire Bible—but to suppress the original readings.

The same point is telling against the KJVO position. Yes, a massive conspiracy to alter God’s words over the course of many centuries and spanning huge geographic regions is possible… The same way it’s possible that President Obama and Vladimir Putin are just puppets of the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission. KJVOism is a conspiracy theory, as is Ehrman’s viewpoint (at least on this issue), the kind of thing that cannot be disproven because every evidence against it will be swallowed up into a tiny circle, spun around, and spat out again as evidence for it.

I have seen KJVOs half acknowledge that some of the differences between manuscripts are due to human finitude rather than human fallenness—a misspelling, a meaningless word-order change that doesn’t even show up in translation, an accidentally repeated or omitted line. But, they’ll say, those minor changes were just put there to fool us into swallowing the bigger ones.

I often find snarkiness creeping into my posts on the KJVO controversy (such as it is; the sides are almost completely polarized and stratified, I think). I do my best by God’s grace to remove that bitter taste, and please do try to read what I just wrote as straightforwardly as possible. I take this issue quite seriously because people I love are damaged by it. Those Christian brothers and sisters who insist on using the KJV are missing out on things God said because they don’t speak 400-year old English as well as they think they do. And non-Christian people who desperately need to hear the gospel in their own language are getting that gospel in an unnecessarily garbled way.

By the way, if you don’t know Peter Williams, you’ve just got to watch this fantastic video. The man is a stalwart defender of the Bible, not a critic of it:

The Reading Level of the KJV

HomeworkI love the King James Version; it deserves its honored place in English church history. Its words will never leave my heart. But to be honest, I have trouble reading it in places—even though I grew up with it. And this is a concern to me, because I want to understand what I read in the Bible.

People who believe in exclusive use of the King James Version are sensitive to my plight. They have worked to demonstrate that the KJV is actually easier to read than modern English Bible translations. Says av1611.org:

Every new Bible that hits the market attacks the King James Bible with the flat-out lie that the KJB is too hard to understand. They all claim that the King James Bible is too archaic. You can’t understand the Elizabethan language. It’s just too difficult to understand. This is the number one reason people lay down their King James Bible.

KJV defenders confidently claim that all those Bible readers who think they can’t understand the KJV because of its archaic language are simply wrong. Says R.B. Ouellette:

Recent evaluation shows the reading level of the King James Bible to be fifth grade, as a whole—many individual passages would be lower. The modern Bibles are shown to be between sixth and ninth grade levels as a whole. The modern versions claim to increase readability when in reality, they often make readability more difficult.

How do they know the KJV is more readable? The folks at av1611.org, to their genuine credit, actually sat down and did the work:

We “scientifically and grammatically” compared the ESV to the archaic, hard-to-understand King James Bible…. Anyone with a PC, a Bible Program, and WordPerfect can easily (in less than 30 minutes) duplicate the following tests. Utilizing Quickverse Bible software, we copied the complete New Testament text of the King James Bible and the ESV into text files. With no modifications, no editing, but exactly as they came from Quickverse, we opened the KJB and the ESV New Testament text files in Corel Wordperfect. We then simply performed the Grammar checking function within WordPerfect….

And what was the result? The King James Bible literally “blew the doors off” the ESV! The following verifiable scientific results do not lie. [emphasis original]

These are the relevant results as reported at av1611.org:

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for the New Testament

  • KJV: 4.32
  • ESV: 8.22

Game, set, match. KJV wins.

Right?

Why Flesch-Kincaid is (Mostly) Irrelevant to the KJV Debate

Computers are smart; they can do a lot of stuff I can’t do, like copy the entire New Testament in less than a second.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 10.29.30 PMBut one thing computers can’t do (so far) is interpret human language reliably. Have you met Siri?

Me: Siri, where’s the nearest Chick-Fil-A?

Siri: Calling Chicken Filets, Inc., 144 Mackinaw Avenue, Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Me: No, don’t call them, Siri.

Siri: I did not call them “Siri.”

Me: Nevermind.

Siri: I’m really sorry about this, but I can’t take any requests right now.

Siri’s great for simple things like setting alarms and calling sisters, but interpreting complex language is not a simple thing. It’s unbelievably amazing—any human brain can beat the biggest super computer when it comes to understanding human language.

So what, exactly, is the computer-aided Flesch-Kincaid analysis doing when it “reads” the KJV New Testament and spits out a grade level? I’ll tell you:

flesh-kincaid
(image courtesy Wikipedia)

It’s doing what computers do best: math. There are precisely three elements Flesch-Kincaid measures: 1) the number of words, 2) the number of sentences, and 3) the number of syllables.

All the other major reading-level measures—ARI, SMOG, Coleman-Liau, Gunning fog—are performing variations on the same three elements (plus letters in the case of one of them).

As rough-and-ready measures, these are useful tools. Readability-score.com even gives an aggregate from all the numbers provided by these scientific measures.

But when it comes to comparing the KJV and modern English Bible translations (ESV, NIV, etc.), all these measures are (mostly) irrelevant, for two big reasons and at least one little one:

1) None of these computer grading tools can judge how rare words and phrases are, or notice their spellings.

Wikipedia’s entry on the Gunning fog index says,

While the fog index is a good sign of hard-to-read text, it has limits. Not all complex words are difficult. For example, “asparagus” is not generally thought to be a difficult word, though it has four syllables. A short word can be difficult if it is not used very often by most people.

Succour” is a two-syllable word; “besom” too. The phrase “to wit” contains two one-syllable words. Not too complicated. But I’ve never used any of these words or phrases in my entire life outside reading and discussing the KJV. Nobody—nobody—uses these words. That’s what “archaic” means. And Flesch-Kincaid has no idea.

Likewise, “shew” and “saith” and other words inexperienced KJV readers may stumble over aren’t difficult, per se. But their spellings are strange by modern standards, and that has to be a factor in readability. But Flesch-Kincaid doesn’t measure spelling.

2) Word order (syntax) plays no role in these reading-level analyses.

Play no role word order can—Yoda has pointed out—until smarter computers get. For example, Col. 2:23 in the KJV has always tripped me up. I understand every word individually, but not when you put them together:

Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.

What is “will worship”? Each word is simple and commonly used, but put them together and I don’t know what they mean. And what does that last phrase mean—“not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh”? I know what satisfying the flesh means, but “not in any honour to” is too hard for me. I don’t understand it. Does Flesch? Does Kincaid?

I can make much better sense of the modern translations at Col. 2:23—they’re all easier to read. But several of the major modern translations have higher readability scores for that verse:

  • KJV: 15.4
  • NKJV: 17.8“These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”
  • ESV: 18.1“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

(I recognize that these measures were not designed to be used on one sentence, so I measured the whole paragraph, Col. 2:20–23. And see also the NASB and the NIV, which have lower reading-level scores than the KJV here.)

Vocabulary is a big enough issue—I do not believe that competent speakers of respectable contemporary English should be required to look up English words in a Bible translation when common equivalents are available. Why translate the Bible at all if you aren’t going to use the language as it stands? But word order is, in my judgment, actually a bigger readability issue in the KJV than vocabulary. Take a look at the word order, for example, in Habakkuk 2:18?

What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it? (KJV)

Is “the graven image” a direct object of “profiteth” or the subject of “profiteth”? Modern versions use modern syntax, which is easier to read for modern people:

What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it? (ESV)

Flesch-Kincaid can see that the KJV rendering is longer, but it can’t see the most significant readability difference between these two translations—because it doesn’t measure word order.

3) Typography plays no role in these reading analyses.

This point is admittedly minor compared to the other two, but I do think it matters: the ESV and other modern translations characteristically use paragraphing and indenting of poetic lines more than most KJV editions do. Let me hasten to add that there have been KJV editions with excellent typography, even paragraphed editions, going back into the 19th century. But most KJV editions (and, admittedly, a lot of NASB editions) I see today turn every verse into a separate paragraph, and that’s not helpful for careful, contextually sensitive reading.

Also, the KJV uses a different system of punctuation marks than we’re accustomed to as contemporary readers. I don’t blame the KJV translators at all for the lack of quotation marks; they weren’t standard in 1611, when our modern punctuation system was still developing. And the use of colons and semi-colons in the KJV is something I’d love to find more information on; I looked in the standard sources and found little help. But we’re left with “missing” punctuation and punctuation that just doesn’t fit modern rules. And yet Flesch-Kincaid does not measure these things.

(And one more minor thing: the practice of italicizing English words supplied by the translators should be dropped. I’ve never heard anyone use this convention well in interpretation. People who don’t read Greek and Hebrew simply don’t understand what it means for a word to be “supplied,” and the practice, I’ve read, is haphazard anyway.)

What Is the Reading Level of the KJV?

I’m not accusing any KJV defender of lying or of purposeful deception, not in the least (although I’m compelled to say that I did not get the same Flesch-Kincaid results Gail Riplinger did, and I have no explanation for this fact). And I’m not saying that computer-aided reading-level analyses are worthless. I’m saying that KJV defenders are using these mathematical tools for a purpose for which they were not designed, and are therefore getting erroneous results.

Still don’t believe me? Go to Readability-score.com and run a Spanish text or an Italian one through these analyses and the computer will have no idea. It’ll just keep doing math like it’s been told. In fact, the Swedish translation of the book of James has a Flesch-Kincaid score of 6.3 while the KJV score for that same book is 7.3. But even I, dumb as I am compared to a computer, can tell you that the KJV is easier for 21st-century Americans to read than the Svenska Folkbibeln.

Reading-level analyses run by computers will not yield reliable results when used on archaic English. So what is the reading level of the KJV? I ran the numbers, too, and you can see them here. But I’m not putting them in my post—even though my results show that the ESV was more readable under every major measure—because I still believe they’re (mostly) irrelevant. A computerized test is simply not the best way to measure the readability of the KJV.

I suggest that av1611.org mentioned and then dismissed the best measure: people. If reading difficulty is the number one reason people set aside the KJV in favor of a modern translation such as the ESV, then perhaps they know better than their computers. It’s a little odd, in fact, that someone would presume to tell numerous Bible readers, “Stop complaining—you can read the KJV just fine.” How do they know?

A courteous Christian brother who is KJV-Only told me recently,

I have found that people living in the jungles of Guyana [the lone English-speaking country in South America] are having no problem reading and memorizing passages of the King James Version.

I find this simply unbelievable, not because a computer told me the KJV was harder to read than the ESV, but because I’m a person, a reader. I know when something is easy or hard to read. When KJV defenders not only refuse to admit that the KJV is more difficult to read than modern translations, but insist that no one should have any trouble—and that the KJV is actually easier to read than the NIV or ESV—I’m at a loss. Where does the discussion go after that? I prefer the person who says, “I know the KJV is tough to read; the Bible isn’t supposed to be easy. So do some study.” I can have a conversation with that person.

Conclusion

I’d like to end on a positive note: I don’t think readability ought to be the sole criterion for choosing a Bible translation. And I actually do think that Flesch-Kincaid analyses end up giving a kind of praise and support to the beautiful, enduring King James Version.

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 10.27.08 AMYes, using every available measure, the KJV came out as less readable than the ESV—but only slightly. How much difference is there, after all, between 7.1 and 9.2? Very little.

I think these numbers suggest that not much revision may be needed to make the KJV understandable to contemporary readers. Keep the same original language texts (the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Greek Textus Receptus), replace archaic words with respectable modern equivalents, shift the syntax and punctuation a bit to fit contemporary conventions, and I believe you’ll end up with an excellent translation.

In fact, I’ll give you one. It’s called the New King James Version. If King James Only brothers and sisters are truly concerned to have a readable and reliable translation of the best original language texts, they would do well to start with the NKJV.