The Bible in Translation Pt 4 | Book Review: “Authorized” by Mark Ward

by Glenn on November 27, 2019

The purpose of this series of blog posts is to help me think through Bible translations. I used the King James Version growing up. “Everyone” did. While I have no data to support this, my belief is that in the 1980’s, the trend away from the King James Version began in earnest for a good portion of the evangelical part of the English-speaking Church and the obvious (read only) serious choice was the New International Version. (I imagine would be telling a different story if I was in a different part of the Church.)

I found myself more than a little bugged in 2011 when the NIV underwent a major revision but didn’t call it a major revision. I may simply need to get over myself and move forward using the “New” NIV, but I’ve noticed there are a lot of options out there, now. The New American Standard and New Revised Standard Version have been available for a long time (the former is undergoing an update to be released in 2020 while the latter is used primarily in mainline churches), but there are a number of new translations, including the English Standard Version, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the New Living Translation, and the New English Translation, that are all now available in varying quantities of editions.

As you begin your investigation, you are confronted by a couple of things. One, there is this bewildering number of available choices in translations. More choice doesn’t necessarily assist decision-making. If you don’t have an authority who is telling you which translation to use, the decision which translation to use can be complicated. The issues seem to be, primarily: 1. How do you translate? (Translating is not a straightforward activity and there is a range of translating philosophy that goes from the more literal, word-to-word to meaning-for-meaning.) and 2. From what do you translate? (There are options for which source documents you use.)

Second, there are people who would like to be authoritative on this issue of translations. Of these, some want to advocate for a certain type of translation on that spectrum of more word-for-word to meaning-for-meaning. (It seems like most who want to advocate for a particular type of translation tend to recommend the more word-for-word.) Some want to tell you which specific translation you should use, for example there are people who are committed to the King James Version. Of course, if you are committed to a particular type of translation or an actual translation, you need to have reasons. I’m trying to understand those reasons.

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My introduction to the world of Bible translations was through YouTube, but I have begun reading books. I recently finished Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2018) by Mark Ward.

I enjoyed this. It’s a short book—neither exhaustive nor exhausting. He has something to say but it feels like there has been a distillation process to his thinking. Rather than write an academic treatise, it’ a conversation with people who are thinking practically about translations of the Bible, in particular the King James Version. Ward has a sense of humor, but the book isn’t flippant. There are no zingers to rally supporters and poke at detractors.

My only criticism is that I spent a good long time confused about what this book was arguing for or against. Before I started in, I read one of the endorsements on the back of the book. It was by D.A. Carson who wrote,

“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.”

I appreciated Dr. Carson’s use of the Oxford comma (a less weighty issue than Bible translations, but definitely a contentious one), but that line—“For those who are convinced of the superiority of the KJV . . .  this is the book to read.”—was kind of cryptic for me. I couldn’t tell—still can’t—what that means. Was he saying the author was in favor or not of the KJV? It feels like an unfinished sentence. This is the book to read . . . because it confirms what we know to be true, or This is the book to read . . . because it will convince you of how utterly wrong you are … whatever. And because that’s ambiguous, when Carson says that Ward “Mercifully . . . does not pummel his readers or sneer at those who take another position” it wasn’t clear what the other position actually was. Who wasn’t getting pummeled? People who believe the KJV is superior or those who don’t? I guess I heard “the superiority of the KJV” and “another position” and assumed this book was in favor of the KJV but that Ward would go easy on those of us who saw it another way. As blurbs go, this one seemed rather equivocal.

And then the book itself seemed a little vague at first about the point it was making. Authorized opens with a statistic: “Out of every 100 Americans who pulled a Bible off a shelf today, 55 of them pulled down a King James Version.” There is a “trend line” though, “for it started near 100 percent. The English-speaking Christian Church, which was once almost completely unified in using the KJV, is no longer unified around a particular Bible translation.” This felt like it could be heading toward a kind of lament. And perhaps that is part of what he wanted to accomplish. (“The world is changing. Language is changing. Things are the not the way they have been. Let’s let that fact sink in before we talk about how should we respond.”)

The first chapter of the book, then, is “What We Lose as the Church Stops Using the KJV” which I took as an argument in favor of the KJV. A book making that argument wouldn’t have been a problem but as things unfolded, things became clear and I figured out this book was actually an argument for modern translations (as opposed to a book knocking the KJV).

Aside: I’ve been trying to think if and how I would have approached this differently. It feels a little bit like Ward wants to have it two ways: “The venerable King James is being used less and that’s a problem” and “The venerable King James is being used less and that’s a good thing.” It’s okay to think both things, but as I read, I felt like he was on one side of the argument but really wasn’t. If I was strongly on the side of the KJV, would I have felt betrayed? Or was this an attempt to lure people from one side to another?

While Ward does not advocate for the KJV, he respects it. Indeed, Ward tell us that “everything [he’ll] say in this book about the quality of the KJV and the decisions of its translators will be positive.” So this is no polemical screed. Ward manages to walk a fine line, here. He is not so much critical of the KJV as noticing that changes in our language mean the KJV no longer serves the purpose it was originally intended to serve.

This is a complicated issue. When the KJV Bible was the Bible people were using, it served a unifying function in the Church and the larger culture. By moving away from the KJV we lose some things that Ward names:

—“We lose intergenerational ties in the Body of Christ.”
—“We lose scripture memory by osmosis.” (When everyone “uses basically one Bible translation, genuinely wonderful things happen” and the KJV has no “heir apparent” to serve that role in the future. Although the New International Version is a popular Bible, it has a lot of competition.)
—“We lose a cultural touchstone.”
—“We lose some of the implicit trust Christians have in the Bibles in their laps.”
—“We lose some of the implicit trust non-Christians have in Scripture.”

There is a can-of-worms aspect to the decision to change translations because it gets you into “sometimes minute questions of English style, the gender of pronouns, Greek New Testament manuscripts, and even Bible typography.”

Aside: A potential problem with this book is that Ward merely names the losses without offering solutions for how those losses can be mitigated.

This is the reason the second chapter declares, “Given all the things we’ll lose if we, the English-speaking church, continue to give up the KJV, we’d better have very good reasons for giving it up. Weighty reasons.” Again, it feels like he is nearly saying we shouldn’t give up the KJV but, ultimately, that’s not where this goes. Ward spends most of the book explaining that there are good reasons to give up the KJV.

While Ward grew up with the KJV, today it’s a mixed bag for him. The KJV is beautiful and is the source of many English expressions like, “By the skin of his teeth”, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly”, and “It was a labor of love”, but many people find it confusing to read. (I think he is also making the point that people who say they don’t find it confusing to read don’t realize they are confused.) A major problem with the KJV is found in “dead words and ‘false friends’”. “Dead words” are words that we no longer use. Ward is not complaining about them (it just happens—language changes, which is also to say that languages change, it’s not just a problem in English) and he doesn’t blame [the translators] for “failing to be prophets.” In other words, he’s not saying the committee that produced the KJV should have picked words that would stand the test of time. Neither is he suggesting that we go back in time and resurrect these words.

A bigger problem than words that are no longer used are words whose meaning has changed over the years. These are “false friends.” You see a word and think you know what it means, but you don’t. One of the examples he gives is from 1 Kings 18:21, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” We think today of halt as stopping, but in 1611 it had the idea of being lame. What was a good word choice for translation then is problematic today. Ward says a modern translation, the English Standard Version, captures the meaning correctly, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?”

Another word that has changed meaning over the years is “want,” as in “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” where “want” has to do with lack, not desire. Ward tells a story that is as funny as it is tragic:

“The changes over the centuries in the way English speakers use ‘want’ also tripped up prosperity preacher Rod Parsley. … [B]efore a wildly clapping and shouting audience, he read the following statement out of the KJV, and it was projected on the television screen in front of him: ‘And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine’ (John 2:3 KJV). ‘I’m tired,’ Parsley preached, ‘of the kind of sermons that promise that God will supply only your needs! That only goes halfway. This verse shows that God delights to give us not just what we need, but what we want!’”

The problem is that you can’t just pick up a dictionary and figure out what the words mean. Obviously, words you don’t know you can look up in a dictionary. But what do you do with words whose meaning has changed? How do you know to know to look. When you do, you can’t look in just any dictionary. You would need a dictionary from 1611 that offers the meaning at that time or something like the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives an evolution of the meaning of words. One idea he offers is a footnoted King James Version, where words that fall into these categories are explained at the bottom or side of the page.

The KJV uses a special language so that today it sounds like the Bible. But at the time, the language actually wasn’t that special. We call it the King James Bible but it was written in Elizabethan English “because the KJV is a revision of an Elizabethan-era translation, the Bishop’s Bible, and because every one of its translators came of age during Elizabeth’s seventy-year reign, 1533–1603.” That language has an other-worldly feel today. Ironically, one of the complaints at the time about making creating English translations was that it was taking the other-worldly Latin text and bringing it into the common and “barbarous” English language of the day. (Ward includes a fantastic quote from C.S. Lewis on this.)

One of the great ideas of the reformation was that the Bible should be put into the language of the people—the vernacular. Ward quotes C.S. Lewis who once wrote a foreword to a new translation of the Bible:

“The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.”

Ward says the Bible, itself, argues for modern translation. The Greek of the New Testament is a common-person Greek. It’s not elevated language. Therefore, neither should the translation be. Ward explains that there is a range in the type of Greek. There is simpler Greek (the Gospel of Mark and John) and more complex Greek (Luke and Hebrews), so he is in favor of a range of complexity in English to match the original. But the important thing is greater complexity only when it is warranted. The KJV is needlessly complex all the time and those who advocate for it are associating age with range, which are two different things.

One of the distinctions Ward makes is between having a Bible that is hard to read because the language is antiquated and a Bible that is hard to read because it says hard things. He quotes Peter who in 2 Peter 3:16 writes that “Paul wrote some things that are ‘hard to be understood.’” He also notes that spiritual blindness or immaturity will make the Bible opaque. We shouldn’t add to the problem.

Ward writes that doctrinal statements that are “KJV-Only” have “an unwitting equivocation.” He offers this example of a typical doctrinal statement:

“We believe that the Authorized King James Bible is the inspired and preserved words of God in the English Language.”

And then Ward reacts,

“These statements talk as if ‘the English language’ is a known and stable quantity, but it isn’t. What, in fact, is the English language? It’s the vocabulary and grammar (and spelling and phonology and intonation and a number of other things) of a group of people at a particular time. Every target language is a moving target.”

He includes a “simple syllogism” of “a long-time Christian friend”:

“1. We should read the Scripture in our own language.
2. The KJV is not in our language.
3. Therefore we should update the KJV to be in our language, or we should read vernacular translations.”

Ward tell us that

“revising the KJV shouldn’t scare Christians who love it. The KJV, itself a revision, underwent at least six revisions of varying significiance after 1611. The last one—for various reasons the one that ‘stuck’—occurred in 1769 and was performed by Benjamin Blayney of Oxford. One may reasonably suspect that the KJV translators expected their work to be revised.”

One of the arguments in favor of the KJV is “the reverence argument.” Ward maintains that this would not have been true for the original hearers of the KJV. He quotes C.S. Lewis, again: “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.”

Ward brings great clarity to the issue of reading-level. One of the arguments for the KJV is that it has a lower reading level, but measuring the average length of words or the number of syllables in words or the average lengths of sentences is deceptive for evaluating whether the KJV is easy or not to read. The bottom-line is that contemporary measurements of reading level only work with contemporary language. Ward’s point is that you can’t really assign a grade-level to the KJV because grammar and sentence structure have changed too much.

Most of what Ward has to say about the KJV relates to the subject of modern English, but Ward does get into discussing the two streams of manuscripts—the textus receptus and the critical edition—that, for some, are at the heart of this issue.

Aside: Something I’ve noticed in the handful of people who I have heard advocate for the KJV, is that the discussion of manuscripts is their starting point. For most of this book, Ward has been talking about the English language and not Greek manuscripts. He comes to this discussion of manuscripts very late in the book. Not saying that is right or wrong. What seems absolutely true is that this is an issue where it’s hard to move forward. It’s trench warfare and, unless you’re Wonder Woman, you can’t get past the positions people have taken.

What I think everyone can (or should) agree on is that all English Bibles are based on either the “textus receptus” (“received text”), which was ‘the first printed form of the Greek New Testament,” or the Nestle-Aland text, which “relies on older manuscripts that were discovered after the King James Version was released.” (As I understand the issue, Hebrew is less problematic. It’s with the New Testament Greek that things get contentious.)

It’s fascinating to hear a different sort of explanation than some I’ve heard on video. As I have listened to a few people talk about “the supremacy” of the King James Version, they make it sound like there is a giant chasm between these two sources. Mostly, they make it sound like there is a qualitative difference that is of the highest significance. The received text has a purity about it where the critical edition (the Nestle-Aland) is inadequate, comes from a trash heap, and was compiled by non-believers. Ward seems to know what he’s talking about because it’s an area he has examined. He even created a fascinating website (https://kjvparallelbible.org/) that compares the two text sources and notes every difference. What he learned in his examination is that there are differences, but most of them are of little significance. For example, “One Greek text says the star of Bethlehem ‘came to rest’ over baby Jesus; another says it ‘came and stood’ over him. One text calls David ‘the king’ once in Matthew 1:6, the other twice.” His conclusion,

“In my judgment, the vast majority of textual differences are just this inconsequential, and usually less so. Whole chapters like 2 Timothy 3—which happens to contain the premier statement about Scripture in Scripture (verse 16)—contain no differences that even show up in translation.”

He then goes on to lightly scold,

“Textual criticism is complicated. I think scholars should continue to debate their viewpoints, but I don’t think it’s wise for non-specialists to have strong opinions about the topic (Proverbs 18:13). At the very least, Christians who cannot read Greek should humbly acknowledge that their opinions about textual criticism are formed second- or even fifth-hand—that they are based ultimately on authority.”

And then he offers a rejoinder to those who do want their translation to be from the received text. He explains that if you want to read a translation in contemporary English using the received text, there are options: “The New King James Version, … the KJV 2000, the World English Bible, and the Modern English Version.” Ward doesn’t want to be in an argument about textual criticism. He wants people reading the Bible and understanding it so that they can apply it to their lives.

What translation should you read? Ward doesn’t say:

 “Sadly, Bible translations have become badges worn by different groups of Christians to distinguish themselves from one another. This Bible translation tribalism is not healthy.”

He includes this list of stereotypes (with some borrowings “from another blogger”):

The NIV 2011 is the Bible of the broad swatch of centrist evangelicals.
The TNIV is the Bible of egalitarian leftist evangelicals.
The ESV is the Bible of complementarian, conservative, new-Reformed evangelicals.
The NASB is the Bible of conservative evangelical serious Bible students.
The KJV is the Bible of fundamental, independent Baptists.
The CSB is the Bible of Southern Baptists.
The NLT is the Bible of seeker-sensitive evangelicals.
The NET bible is the Bible of computer nerds.
The NRSV and CEB are the Bibles of Protestant mainliners.

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I like what Ward does in this book. He acknowledges where we are: We have a Bible that was the Bible that is falling out of use. This represents a kind of loss for the Church and our world. But there are good reasons why it should happen. The English language has changed significantly in 400 years and reading the KJV has become problematic, especially when we don’t understand words or, worse, when we don’t understand that we don’t understand words. The reverence we feel for the language of the KJV is one we’ve developed over time but which the original translators didn’t have. Those with honest concerns about textual sources need to stay out of arguments where they don’t know what they are talking about and need to understand that they have contemporary options for reading from whichever manuscript tradition they like.

This is an excellent book for understanding the issue better. It doesn’t answer the question of which translation to use, although he does seem to be advocating for modern translations or a lot of parallel readings alongside the KJV.

 

 

 

2 comments

[…] I didn’t know that “King James Only” was a thing until this year. This was the first book I read on the subject. I wrote about it here. […]

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