The primary audience of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible was not actually KJV-Onlyism, per se; I aimed instead at those Bible readers who use the KJV out of habit, or perhaps because they are simply unaware of the existence of more contemporary options.
But, of course, numerous KJV-Only Christians—especially pastors—have expressed interest in or have read my book. I’ve gotten very interesting, very gracious responses from all over that part of the church, from people who believe the KJV is “translated without error,” or at least the “preserved Word of God for English-speaking people.” I’ve gotten numerous Facebook friend requests from such pastors.
And my non-KJV-Only friends keep asking me: What do the KJV-Only folks say after they read your book?
I’m going to share with you the five most common responses so far to Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.
But first a prefatory comment: KJV-Onlyism has sometimes produced online abrasiveness, and I’ve surely seen this; but the first wave of their responses to my book has reminded me that the Spirit indwells many people with whose theology I disagree. I have heard from some of the nicest and most earnest people. I’m pleased.
Now to the responses.
1. What about textual criticism?
I argued in Authorized that textual criticism is an entirely separate issue from translation. The former deals with which Greek and Hebrew texts get translated; the latter deals with how you translate them. So in my book I spent just ten paragraphs on the issue of textual criticism, all in an effort to say, We don’t need to talk about this right now, because my entire argument has nothing to do with textual criticism; it is solely focused on English readability. Whatever texts you prefer, have them translated into the current vernacular.
But the most common response to my book among the KJV-Only has been, “Let’s go back to talking about textual criticism.” Two men in particular, teachers at KJV-Only Bible colleges, both did exactly the same thing: they read my book; they said nothing about its contents; they immediately started talking about textual criticism. One of them was exceptionally gentlemanly in his disagreement; I couldn’t help but like the guy. The other was the one respondent who was a bit curmudgeonly. And both independently said the same thing to me: “We have such different views of Scripture that we can’t even begin to talk.”
My view of Scripture is what I take to be the orthodox, evangelical, Reformation Protestant view: the original autographs of the Bible, the Greek and Hebrew, are inspired and authoritative; translations are the Word of God, too, but they are subject to human limitations.
But these men elevate a translation—and only one—to the level of the originals. In effect, they treat that translation as itself inspired. This is a serious doctrinal issue with many ramifications in bibliology and in pastoral care. We do indeed differ. I had hoped I could still get them to engage in conversation about something that, theoretically, we should be able to agree on: Bible translations should use language readable by normal people. With many, I failed.
2. You’re taking 1 Corinthians 14 out of context: it’s talking only about speaking in tongues.
But a few KJV-Only brothers and sisters who read my book did listen to me carefully and agreed to engage on the ground I chose: the Bible’s teaching on vernacular translation, particularly in my key passage, 1 Corinthians 14.
There Paul argues repeatedly that the Corinthians should not speak in tongues without a translator. Why? Because edification requires intelligibility. Paul goes so far as to say that unintelligible words should not be used in church (14:9).
But quite a number of my KJV-Only interlocutors have questioned my use of 1 Corinthians 14. It’s clearly about tongues, not about Bible translation, they’ve said.
And in a way they’re right. But if we can’t distill principles from past situations, much of the Bible becomes useless. Paul states the principle so clearly and repeatedly that I feel very safe in applying it beyond tongues. I find it hard, for example, to imagine Paul forbidding untranslated miraculous tongues but allowing Quechua to be used for the service in a Chinese-speaking congregation—or even just a few Quechua words tossed in for effect. Edification requires intelligibility.
I also find it hard to believe—and I argued so in the book—that Paul would be happy with a little unintelligibility when intelligible options are available. The principle of 1 Corinthians 14 does apply to debate over the Elizabethan English of the KJV.
3. We can just explain the false friends.
The key concept of my book—the one major advance it makes in the long discussion over the KJV (though the idea is not new; I am merely resurrecting it)—is that of “false friends.” We all know there are “dead words” in the KJV, words we know we don’t know, such as beeves, bolled and bewray. But I argue that there are also plenty of “false friends,” words we don’t know we don’t know—not because the KJV translators were obscure or because modern readers are intellectually deficient, but simply because language changes over time and we shouldn’t be expected to keep up with all those changes in order to read our Bibles.
I gave examples like “How long halt ye between two opinions,” and “Remove not the ancient landmark,” and “God commendeth his love toward us…” These are not obscure passages but common ones, and I contend that 99.999% of all contemporary readers of the KJV are misunderstanding what the KJV translators intended in each case, because English has changed over time.
I further argued that no contemporary readers are ever likely to discern that they are in fact misunderstanding, because the contemporary senses of these words make sufficient sense in context that no one will think to look them up in the Oxford English Dictionary, the only source that tells readers what English words used to mean centuries ago.
But my KJV-Only readers insist that this problem is surmountable. One pastor wrote,
If we use the King James for preaching, teaching, discipleship, training, and evangelism, we must take care to plainly teach and explain the truths of the Bible. Should you choose to give the KJV to a child or a new believer, great priority and care should be given to their discipleship and biblical education.
This point (quoted by permission) came from the single most gracious KJV-Only brother I’ve heard from. His church uses the KJV exclusively as a matter of doctrinal conviction. But he doesn’t harp on the issue, he says—and I 100% believe him. He has as much ability as anyone I’ve known to do the discipleship and biblical education he urges; he’s a sharp guy who writes clearly and cogently. But, sadly, I don’t think he can succeed in teaching children or new believers to read the KJV with the level of understanding its original readers would have had. Too many specialized linguistic skills are required.
I’ve had basically only one person from a KJV-Only perspective engage me directly on my central point. He read the book of Philippians looking for “false friends,” and he found ten. He said that wasn’t enough to cause concern.
I countered that if there are ten in such a brief book (and I found more than ten in just the first chapter, including apparently common words like supply), that would average out to about 5,000 total in the Bible. “Is that enough to cause concern?” I asked.
I sent my book to dozens of KJV-Only leaders, and many of them read it. None has explained how pastors or laypeople can go about discovering the “false friends” created by four-plus centuries of the apparently random changes in English. How are you supposed to know you’re misunderstanding when the English word in front of you—halt, commend, remove—looks perfectly familiar, and seems to work in context? And yet one prominent KJV-Only pastor of a large church—a nice, nice guy—ended his clever review of my book with, “Pass me the OED!” He’d rather use a twenty-volume specialists’ dictionary than a modern translation.
4. The KJV translators didn’t produce a translation readable by the plough boy.
Several KJV-Only respondents have suggested that the KJV translators themselves didn’t produce a translation that the “plough boy”—the man on the street—could understand. In other words, the translators asked readers to rise to the level of the KJV rather than lowering the Bible to meet readers. My calls for readability, they say, are really calls for dumbing down the Bible.
I think this objection confuses the inherent difficulty of many portions of the Bible with the difficulties that are posed by archaic language. Peter acknowledges that Paul wrote things that are “hard to understand” (2 Pet 3:16). I don’t think the hard parts should be forced down to lowest common denominator level in every translation (I’m happy to have the New International Reader’s Version try, however). But neither do I think that it’s good to add unnecessary difficulty through the use of archaic words, syntax, and punctuation.
Whatever the KJV translators actually accomplished, their aim was understandability. They said so in their preface:
We desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.
The very vulgar is the common people, the man and woman on the street. I quoted this line in my book, and one KJV-Only respondent said that, yes, the “Translators to the Reader” preface does say that, but it represented the opinion of only one man on the committee, the one who wrote the preface. I permitted myself one pregnant sigh at this point.
5. Accuracy trumps readability.
The final theme among my KJV-Only readers has been that having an accurate translation is more important than having a readable one.
I’ve always felt that the concept of accuracy in translation rather requires readability: if people can’t read besom (Isa 14:23 KJV) but they can read broom, then besom is actually “inaccurate” in a definite sense. As one scholar I quoted in my book asked, “If a translation is published but fails to communicate, is it really a translation?”
I’ve also repeatedly thought, “Who has the right to say that a given translation is more accurate than another?” How many people have the Hebrew, Greek, and English abilities necessary to assess the quality of a Bible translation—and how many of them have done such work on multiple Bibles? I think the KJV fares very, very well under analysis. But evaluating an English Bible translation is an excessively complex task, especially when the standards of evaluation themselves are under constant debate. I just don’t think that many people have a right to the certitude of opinion they seem to carry into Internet debates on the topic (and here I speak not only of those favoring the KJV but of those favoring other translations).
The most astute KJV-Only readers of my book have come up with examples of “functional” (“dynamic”) renderings in modern translations, pointed to the corresponding “formal” (“literal”) renderings in the KJV, and equated “literal” with “accurate.” For example, one pointed out that the KJV gives us “bowels of mercies,” a literal translation, at Phil 2:1. Contemporary translations tend to say something like, “affection and sympathy,” a less literal translation. If “literal” indeed equals “accurate,” they have a point.
But the issues are more complicated, because “bowels” means something different to today’s readers than it meant in 1611. “Bowels” just doesn’t communicate “the seat of the tender and sympathetic emotions” as it once did. It communicates, well, something else you can look up for yourself if you don’t already know.
And the KJV itself translates σπλάγχνα (splanchna) non-literally in two out of its eleven New Testament occurrences. The very translation practices that are supposed to make the NIV and ESV “inaccurate” are found in the KJV itself.
This sort of analysis could be repeated over and over. But it gets dry very, very fast. I don’t expect people to whom God has not given the opportunity to learn Greek and Hebrew to follow all the arguments back and forth. Authorized suggests we cut through all the impossible layers of disagreement by ceasing our search for the one, best translation and instead seeing the value in all major modern English Bible translations. I like literal translations; I also like less-literal translations. A basic grasp of each approach—possible to explain in a Sunday school lesson, I should think—will equip Bible readers to get benefit out of both kinds.
Accuracy and readability are both important, but they exist in some tension. The way to solve this problem is to pick up multiple translations in your study, not to anoint one winner-take-all champion in a zero-sum battle to the death.
I offered my KJV-Only readers in the book the one objection to my work that I myself consider to be the strongest: The readability problem is there in the Elizabethan English of the KJV, but it’s not as bad as Authorized makes it seem. But so far no one has attempted to flesh out this objection.
I look forward to more interactions with my KJV-Only friends, as well as those from other readers. I tell my little book what poet Billy Collins told his:
Stay out as late as you like, don’t bother to call or write, and talk to as many strangers as you can. (Aimless Love)
Mark Ward received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as an Academic Editor at Lexham Press, the publishing imprint at Faithlife. His most recent book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, contains fun linguistic explorations and also jokes that his wife, at least, found amusing.