Jeremy Sarber / Preaching Christ crucified

The use and misuse of the King James Bible according to Mark Ward

Memories are funny things. I don’t know why some stick around for years while others disappear almost as quickly as they form, but the following memory is still with me. Perhaps its accompanying embarrassment served as the glue.

I want to say I was in my early twenties when my pastor asked me to offer a public prayer one Sunday morning. I was never thrilled at being appointed to the task, but I got used to it. Ducking behind other congregants never worked. One did not need to make eye contact with the pastor to be called into service. I prayed to the best of my ability, ended with a customary amen, and, our time of worship being over, proceeded to mingle with others in the building.

One gentleman approached me with haste. Men on a mission, especially one of godly importance, tend to move fast. “Brother,” he asked me, “why do you speak to God with such irreverence?” I pleaded ignorance which has never been difficult for me. In many cases, it has been my only honest option. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he was ready and willing to inform me.

I had unknowingly drifted dangerously close to blasphemy while I prayed. Though this man admitted the area was gray, he still felt a word of reproof was merited. When I spoke to our Father which art in heaven, I occasionally let a vulgar pronoun slip from my tongue. Rather than refer to God exclusively as Thou and Thy, I mistakenly said, “You” and “Your.” (Hallowed be your name, for example.)

The KJV’s decline

Anyone who has grown up under the King James tradition, and maybe some who did not, can relate. The Elizabethan English of olde is much more than an archaic version of what we speak today; it is the language of God himself. When God speaks English, we think, he talks like William Shakespeare. It’s hard for us to imagine God using a degraded albeit contemporary form of a once beautiful, precise, and even spiritual language.

According to Christianity Today in 2014, fifty-five percent of Bible readers in America used the King James Version. While still a majority, that number is down from one-hundred percent in the beginning. According to Christian Book Expo, the KJV lost its second-place bestsellers spot to the New Living Translation last year. The English Standard Version is also encroaching. The KJV is falling out of use, and I have a pretty good idea why.

The year is 2018, not 1611 or even 1769. More than four hundred years have passed since the King James Version was first published. The United States wasn’t even a country then. The printing press was the latest and greatest technology. I’m no linguist, but I have a sneaking suspicion that our vernacular has changed over the last four centuries. Perhaps people want a Bible they can read without needing an Oxford English Dictionary by their side.

The best translation?

I’ve thought a lot about the English language of our Bibles since having my prayer corrected. I’ve studied Bible history, textual criticism, and translation methodology extensively. Lectures and books that would bore most people to tears make me almost giddy. I’m not an expert, but I know enough to make this statement with absolute confidence: The KJV is not the best translation for 21st-century English speakers.

“But,” you ask, “why dumb down the Bible with modern English? Doesn’t the KJV preserve the important distinction between singular (thee, thou, thy) and plural second-person pronouns (ye, you, your)? Why give in to the debasement of our mother tongue? The KJV is easier to memorize than modern versions. It’s a faithful, literal translation, unlike today’s paraphrased Bibles. Plus, it sounds like the word of God while other translations are so banal. Didn’t the KJV translators choose timeless language on purpose?”

‘Authorized’ by Mark Ward

While I would love to answer these common objections, I don’t have to because Mark Ward has already done it with precision and grace in his new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. I eagerly anticipated its release for weeks, read all 168 pages in just two days, and found that it did not disappoint. Mark has finally covered a much-needed subject that tends to be little more than a footnote in other similar works.

Authorized contains no Hebrew or Greek words. There is no mention of P45 or Codex Vaticanus. Instead, Mark focuses on the English of our Bibles. His book is not for scholars or history-language geeks such as myself; it’s for anyone and everyone who cares about reading and comprehending God’s word. He shares the spirit of the KJV translators themselves who wrote, “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,” that is, the common people.

Mark writes primarily to those of the fifty-five percent who either refuse to touch a translation other than the KJV or feel apprehensive about doing so. After lauding the KJV’s benefits and addressing its faults—neither the KJV nor its readers are to blame—he attempts to answer the inevitable follow-up question: What should we do with the King James Version? Should we teach people to read its outdated vernacular, revise it, or chuck it? Spoiler alert: Mark says no, no, and no.

King James Bible only

I won’t be obscure here. I want every believer, pastor, and church who insists we must use the KJV exclusively to read this book. I desperately want us to understand that KJV Onlyism is, as George Ladd once said, “a reversal of the action of the Holy Spirit by insisting that for us the best idiom for the word of God is not the modern colloquial idiom, but the ancient classical language of Shakespeare.” Even the KJV says, “Except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken?” (1Co 14:9).

The King James Bible is not a bad translation, but it’s also not the best for modern readers. Never mind its thees, thous, and verbs that end in eth. Even laying aside the words we don’t use anymore, there are words in the KJV which we don’t know that we don’t know. Mark calls them “false friends.” What is the definition of “halt,” for instance? (1Ki 18:21). We think we know, but the Oxford English Dictionary will destroy our assumptions.

The fundamental problem with the King James Version is this: No longer does it effectively communicate God’s word to us. Our language has changed, obscuring the text of the Bible if we rely on the KJV alone.

Corrupt manuscripts?

I’ll leave the rest of the discussion to Mark. His book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, is well worth your time. I’m grateful to him for having written it.

If you read Mark’s book yet still protest modern versions of the Bible because they are allegedly translated from corrupt manuscripts—first of all, some modern translations are based on the exact same text as the KJV such as the Modern English Version (MEV). Second, I invite you to dig deeper into the history of the Bible. Read my two-sermon series on the preservation of the Bible. Read Dr. James White’s excellent resource, The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? You might as well be informed. As I like to say, an ounce of evidence is worth more than a pound of presumption.

Sign up for my Sunday letters—see the form below—before Sunday, February 11, for a chance to win a free copy of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.