The Grassroots Ablaze: An Interview with Mark Ward

Dr. Mark Ward has written a fantastic book recently addressing numerous issues around the use of the King James Version of the Bible in the church today. Mark’s work is thorough, gracious, and scholarly, and I welcomed the chance to sit down with him recently to talk about Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. As you’ll see, his answers are robust. Check it out, and leave comments below.

TB: Why did you write Authorized? Isn’t the King James Bible a relic of pre-Internet days?

MW: I wrote because William Tyndale’s work, like laundry, is never done. I was William Tyndale in the annual school play at a KJV-Only Christian high school in 1997. Little did I know that his famous words (that I still have memorized)—“Ere many years, I shall cause that the boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost”—would ring in my own heart for the next two decades. I wrote because I want today’s plow boys to have the Bible in their English.

I came to see by my study of linguistics that the KJV isn’t difficult because it’s higher or better English but simply because it’s different and older English. All languages change over time. Even the man-made language of Esperanto has changed since its birth. As our English has pulled apart from the King’s, little misunderstandings have inevitably developed between the two. I began catching more and more of these misunderstandings in the KJV as I got deeper into Greek and Hebrew—and English—during grad school.

When I read a Mark Noll/Pew Research Center survey showing that 55 percent of American Bible readers are still reading the KJV, I knew I had to do something. I had to alert people to the ways in which language change was (often unbeknownst to them) affecting their Bible reading.

TB: What do you mean by “alert them”? What’s the danger here? And who needs to be warned?

MW: The “danger” contemporary English-speakers face in reading the KJV at first seems obvious: they might just have to get off the couch and pull down a dictionary. We all know that the KJV contains obsolete and archaic lexemes: besom, chambering, emerod. Defenders of the KJV love to point out that American 1) laziness and 2) stupidity are at record highs—and that updating or revising the KJV will be big concessions to the evil forces of 1) and 2), respectively.

Those dead words, as I call them, are a danger (as are laziness and stupidity). And the dictionary will help readers get past this danger. Now, how many KJV readers have actually looked up firmament (which actually might be called a literary lexeme, not an obsolete one)? And do they know which dictionary to use and how to use it? Only the Oxford English Dictionary can really do the job. Did William Tyndale die to hand the plowboy a Bible—and a twenty-volume copy of the OED?

But the real “danger” of the KJV actually isn’t obvious. It isn’t the dead words, the words we know we don’t know. It’s the words—and syntax and punctuation and spelling and other dimensions of written language—we don’t know we don’t know. It’s what I call “false friends.” Four centuries of language change have created many of them.

I have borrowed and adapted the term “false friends” to make a point. Generally, the term is used to describe words from different languages that “look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning” (NOAD). But then I think Elizabethan English and contemporary English can be usefully regarded as different languages. They overlap significantly, of course: the KJV is not entirely unintelligible—like, say, Beowulf.

But it isn’t just words that drop out of a language or get added in; it’s also senses. This continual process is what creates false friends. And when senses change, people may read right past a word without realizing they’ve missed something. They often won’t and can’t know to look it up in a dictionary.

The most academically responsible institution promoting the continued use of the KJV, the Trinitarian Bible Society, puts out a free booklet listing 779 words in the KJV that may trip up contemporary readers. I chose four examples at random (using from their list, all four of which ended up being false friends of various sorts:

  • cankered – eaten away with rust: Ja. 5.3
  • stay – support: Ps. 18.18; Is. 3.1 – stop, hold back: Le. 13.5; 2Sa. 24.16
  • usury – interest on money lent: Ex. 22.25
  • halt – lame, crippled: Mat. 18.8; Mar. 9.45

Cankered is still hanging on in contemporary English. We still have the word, but not in the sense used by the KJV translators (“Your gold and silver is cankered”). Someone who knows the contemporary senses—which are actually metaphorical extensions of the original “corroded” meaning—will probably realize that the modern senses don’t work, but they still may not know what the KJV translators meant by the word (see OED).

Stay is surely still used, too, but not often in the senses appearing in Psalm 18:18 (“The Lord was my stay”) and 2 Samuel 24:16 (“Stay now thine hand”). Context will likely be a sufficient guide for good readers to get the gist in these places (this is weak/easy false friend); but “the Lord was my support” and “Withdraw your hand” will obviously be clearer, less musty, and more accessible to plowboys (see OED).

Usury is also a false friend, because it now means “excessive interest,” whereas in 1611 it meant any interest (see OED). This could create real misunderstanding: “Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury” (Deut 23:20). So it’s okay to be a payday loan shark to a hard-up foreigner, but not to a brother?

It is highly interesting to me that the fourth word I found—at random—on their list is a key example in my book and in my own life with the KJV. It’s halt.

Growing up hearing and even memorizing this verse, I always assumed that “halt” here meant “stop.” I’ve checked with dozens of educated people, and they all tell me it meant either “stop” or “vacillate/hesitate.” But the KJV translators clearly meant “limp.” The Hebrew word means “limp” (see HALOT), and the OED reveals what a search of the KJV will also show: that in 1611, halt could mean limp (after Jacob’s wrestling match in Genesis 32, he “halted upon his thigh”). The OED actually mentions that this word has become a false friend, observing that people typically take “halt” in 1 Kings 18:21 to mean “stop” rather than “limp.”

False friends is nerdy stuff. I revel in it all. But I don’t think plowboys should have to be into nerdy linguistic revelry to understand their Bibles when “corroded,” “withdraw,” “interest,” and “limp” are readily available.

TB: What are some of the other readability problems you mention in your book?

MW: Dead words and false friends are the main problems I mention because they’re the easiest to understand. But language is such a complex and amazing gift of God: there are other dimensions of language, and they are subject to the same forces of change over time that have given us dead words and false friends.

Take these verses from Colossians:

Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? 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.

Colossians 2:20–23 KJV

I’m an academic editor; if someone handed this to me as part of a book, there’s so much I would mark up as deviating from contemporary norms.

  • The punctuation is off. I’d either place “Touch not; taste not; handle not” in quotes or italicize it. I’d use em dashes instead of parentheses, too.
  • Individual word choice is just odd by our standards, even if it makes sense. “After the commandments . . . of men”—we just wouldn’t say it that way (Billy Collins has a fantastic poem on the multivalence of after). We would say “which are all going to” instead of “which all are to.”
  • Words get put together in odd ways, even if we “know” the words: what is “will worship”? What is “with the using”? What is “not in any honour to”?
  • I have concluded after much study that that last one is actually Greeklish. We have to remember this additional level of language, the fact that we’re reading a translation.
  • Spelling differences pop up, of course: shew, honour. Not a huge deal, but a factor in readability. I’ve heard people mispronounce shew as shoo; were they still understanding the word? I don’t know.

I think even typographical layout is an underappreciated source of meaning in Bibles, and a lot of KJV editions commit classic errors here—though they are far from the only offenders. They commonly make every verse a paragraph, which inhibits contextually sensitive reading. I’ve thought this for many years, and I’ve been glad to see Bible publishers addressing this problem. Even the nerdy NET Bible has its own custom font now, and it comes out in a carefully wrought edition. (There are also KJV editions with great typography.)

In my book, I had a lot of fun dissecting the Flesch-Kincaid readability analysis, showing that it is almost completely irrelevant to establishing the readability of the KJV. It “reads” only two dimensions of language: sentence length and word length. It doesn’t read at all, then; it counts. It doesn’t even know if it’s reading language at all; it will keep on counting even if you provide it with nonsense syllables. And in some places, that’s what the KJV has become because of language change. “Fret not thyself in any wise to do evil”—my contemporary English brain simply can’t make full sense of that clause.

I conclude in Authorized that the best measure of readability is readers, and skillful readers who feel free to give an honest opinion without the pressure of appearing cultured or intelligent (or, in some circles, doctrinally sound) by insisting that they can read the KJV just fine will, I think, come to the conclusion I have. That is, the KJV is not entirely unintelligible, but four-plus centuries of language change have made it sufficiently unintelligible that the KJV should not be the default Bible of the English-speaking church or academy. David J. A. Clines’ advice to academics regarding the KJV was accurate: “As with Shakespeare, a commentator should look up the OED for every word.” But this is impracticable and unnecessary. We have good contemporary translations.

TB: How has your book been received so far, both from church leaders and the academy? Have you had any critical academic review of the book so far?

MW: I got to go on John McWhorter’s Lexicon Valley podcast to talk about my book, which was a great thrill for me—McWhorter is a hero of mine. And one of the questions he asked me helped me realize why it is so hard to write a book like Authorized. I found myself telling McWhorter, whose own work has led him to call for minor updates of Shakespeare (gasp!), something he already knew: it is a rather delicate matter to try to persuade people that they’re probably not understanding as much as they assume in their revered texts. When he calls for updates to Shakespeare and I to the KJV, people think we are calling them dumb or (worse, far worse) that we’re pandering to the hoi polloi who are in fact, in their view, dumb.

I try to disarm this objection by presenting a lot of examples of false friends in the book and by admitting that I myself was tripped up by them. I love what McWhorter says—and I’ve seen Moisés Silva say the same: people just can’t and shouldn’t be expected to keep up with all the subtle changes that have happened in English in the last multiple centuries. We think Shakespeare wanted to be understood; I know God did (1 Cor 14:9).

I’ve heard from a lot of younger pastors who have seen that it is time to lead their churches away from the KJV as a default text for preaching and devotion. They have often been confused by the wholly separate issue of textual criticism, a subject they feel unsuited to adjudicate, much less to explain to laypeople. They have found it refreshing to read a book that purposely avoids those intricacies by focusing on something accessible to all: English. Authorized is a slim book they feel they can hand to people in their church.

Robert Alter has a famous love for the KJV (though he’s not above criticizing it), but the academy hasn’t needed much persuading of my thesis. Academic reviews have all been positive, save one. The one critical academic review I’ve received was from Jeff Riddle, who holds a PhD from Union Presbyterian Seminary. I eagerly read his review, which he kindly sent to me, hoping that his critical eyes would see problems I didn’t see in my argument. Instead, I came away more convinced that I’m onto something. Dr. Riddle was what I can only call dismissive:

Yes, there are difficult words and even ones that have fallen out of contemporary usage (so-called “dead words”), but these can be easily found in a dictionary and learned. Who does not have ready at hand a smartphone or other device to look up such words? In fact, never has it been easier to read the KJV than now.

Bible League Quarterly no. 479, Oct–Dec 2019

But I rather think Riddle proved my point. If a Bible translation requires me to pull out my smartphone dictionary when it could just say broom, and if I won’t even know to look up false friends, then we’ve got a Bible that is no longer accessible to Tyndale’s plowboy.

TB: Thanks for sitting down with me, Mark, and talking about Authorized. Is there anything else our readers should know before they go out and purchase your book?

MW: Two quick things:

First, I have just put out a new audio edition of the book with a special bonus appendix in which I respond to that one critical academic review. It was great fun. I even do a William Tyndale impression. Listen on double speed, and in two hours you’ll get all the talking points you need for my second point . . . 

Second, there are plenty of Bible and theology professors out there who encounter KJV-Onlyism in students and need to 1) disabuse them 2) graciously 3) without shaking their spiritual and personal foundations any more than necessary. I’d humbly encourage them to use my book (or the related infotainment documentary)—and to avoid textual criticism like a canker. KJV-Onlyism is a conspiracy theory—They’ve changed the Bible!— and you don’t catch the Brer Rabbit of conspiracy theories by jumping into the briar patch of complicated technical discussions. Is it really a big deal if a student has been told to prefer the Textus Receptus? It’s not really that different from the critical text (and I’ve proved this for English readers). You handle the sensitive conscience of a young student best by pointing them to the Bible, specifically the Pauline principle in 1 Corinthians 14 that edification requires intelligibility. If someone wants the TR, give them the NKJV or MEV. It isn’t right—according to 1 Corinthians 14—to insist on the exclusive use of a translation that, because of language change, is no longer fully intelligible to the plowboy.

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger
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