Authorizedby Mark Ward
Length: Approximately 5 hours. To read (145 pages)
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What is the “best” Bible translation? In Authorized Mark Ward explains why that’s the wrong question to ask and what 21st century Christians should do with the King James version.
Who should read this?
This book initially attracted my attention because of my earlier experiences with KJV Only groups. Mark Ward’s book, however, is certainly not that narrow in its scope or its usefulness for the church. From the outset, the author is clear that his book is for the “regular, English-speaking, Bible-reading public.” Scholars of Greek and Hebrew will be disappointed if they expect a deep analysis of original-language Bible manuscripts. Authorized is unapologetically written for the modern-day equivalent of William Tyndale’s “boy who drives the plough” and it succeeds in being accessible on that level.
Perhaps Mark Ward’s doctorate in New Testament Interpretation is a major reason that a reference to Master Yoda of the Star Wars franchise (to make a point about readability scores and word order) was somewhat unexpected. That quirky sense of humor, however, goes a long way toward bringing the subject of this book out of the ivory tower and to “the man in the hotel” (explained below).
When the topic is Bible translation it would have been all too easy for the author to overwhelm the average reader with lengthy Hebrew word studies or technical comparisons between different manuscript families. Mark Ward would undoubtedly be up to those kinds of scholarly tasks, but that was not his goal. Instead, this book is sprinkled with the personal experiences of the author and a surprising (but entirely welcome) amount of humor.
The book is divided into seven, topically-organized chapters discussing such topics as dead words, readability scores, and what the church loses as use of the KJV declines. The topical organization makes it a practical resource for anyone who might want to discuss the use of the KJV and other Bible translations with family, friends, or members of his church.
The King James Version of the Bible is the translation that I grew up reading. In fact, I don’t recall having anything but the slightest awareness of other English translations until my last few years of high school.
The experience for many other Christians is almost the exact opposite of mine. They are almost certainly aware of the KJV (as Ward points out, even within the last few years 55% of Christians report reading the KJV), but they may never have seriously considered actually reading it on a regular basis.
Authorized has something for readers that fall on both ends of that spectrum and for everyone in between. Mark Ward says of the KJV “We need to discover its proper place.” Indeed, the point of this book is to show both those who cherish the KJV with its Elizabethan English and those who may struggle to see the continued relevance of a 400 year old translation, how to answer the question “So what do we do with the KJV?”
Authorized starts off on a strong note in Chapter 1, titled “What We Lose as the Church Stops Using the KJV.” The book’s introduction shows that Ward will have much to say about the problems the KJV poses for modern readers, but in his first chapter, he makes it abundantly clear that he will not be tearing down the KJV in the process.
“Parents who teach their kids the KJV rendition of the Lord’s Prayer,” Ward writes “are tying one little string between them and our rich English Christian history–a history that has much to teach us.” The intergenerational ties created by a Bible translation such as the KJV and the broader cultural touchstones that it has created are not things that should be lightly tossed away.
Many Christians might decide that those benefits (and others, such as an implicit trust that Christians and non-Christians have in Scripture) are ultimately outweighed by the hurdles the KJV can create for understanding for the average, modern-day reader. Even if the vast majority of Christians reach that conclusion, however, they should do so only after carefully considering the points raised in the first chapter of this book.
In the second chapter, Ward introduces the theme that runs throughout the rest of his work. He relates a story told by Christians businessman, Howard Long, about how he tried to share the Gospel with a man in a hotel lobby, reading verses from the KJV. The man “grew red-faced and then simply burst out laughing.” The Elizabethan English Long had read to him was unlike anything he had ever heard; it might as well have been a different language. Long determined to see the Bible translated into English that people could immediately understand. We now have the New International Version as a result of his hotel lobby experience.
Implicit in Howard Long’s story is the weightiest reason Mark Ward can think of for giving up the KJV: “I can’t understand this.” In a sense “God’s Word is precisely foreign and ancient,” having been “written by and about people far, far away . . . [and] long, long ago.” Christianity, however, is God’s truth for all humanity at all times, including for believers today. Therefore, Ward writes, “if the KJV is indeed too difficult to understand for modern readers, we’ve got a significant problem.” He puts the question pointedly: “What’s the point in using a translation in old English that people can’t understand anymore?”
Even for people who have grown up with the KJV (among which group Ward places himself), their level of understanding might not be quite as good as they think it is. This is because of the way that English has changed over the four centuries since the KJV was first published. Many words have simply fallen out of usage, words like “collop” (Job 15:27) or “trow” (Luke 17:9) or “bruit” (Jer. 10:22). It is possible to look up definitions for archaic or obsolete words, but because “people simply don’t do it, even from common words in very common passages–like firmament in Genesis 1” expecting them to look up hundreds of words (provided they have the right dictionary in the first place) is not terribly realistic.
A greater barrier to understanding the KJV are “words that are still in common use but have changed meaning in ways that modern readers are highly unlikely to recognize.” Ward refers to such words as “false friends.” We know to look up words like “emerod” or “pate,” but modern readers can easily be misled due to their own “ignorance of the subtleties of an English no one speaks any more,” something Ward acknowledges is no one’s fault.
He takes the examples of words like “halt,” “commendeth,” “remove,” and “convenient” to show how the inevitable evolution of language can stand in the way of understanding. The issue “is not words you know you don’t know; it’s words (and phrases and syntax and punctuation) you don’t know you don’t know.”
“But,” someone will object (as I have done in the past, in fact), “it has been shown that the KJV is actually on a relatively low reading level compared to other translations.” Readability analyses do show that the KJV scores better than some modern translations. What is often left unasked, is just how relevant those computer readability analytics are when it comes to the English of the KJV. As Ward points out, the relevance is minimal.
Flesch-Kincaid and other tools measure a word’s complexity by syllable count. So, for instance, an easily-understood, modern word like “asparagus,” with four syllables, is considered more complex than the antiquated phrase “to wit,” which consist of two one-syllable words. This, Ward says is “not reading; it’s counting.” In addition, “the major computerized tests don’t take [word order] into account.” Yet, as the aforementioned Yoda reference points out, word order and sentence structure play just as significant a role in readability as vocabulary.
Reading level analyses are not worthless, but they were never intended to analyze the English of 400 years ago. Given that fact, perhaps a reader’s unscientific impression means more than a computer analysis. “In fact,” Ward points out, “it’s a little odd that some would presume to tell numerous Bible readers, ‘No, you can read the KJV just fine. My computer says so.’”
Ward concludes the book with a chapter entitled “Which Bible Translation is Best?” The “best” translation of the Bible into English is something that just doesn’t exist, something that God never promised us in the first place. Asking which translation is “best,” then, is the wrong question. Rather, Christians should be asking whether a particular translation is useful for the various tasks Christians face.
One translation might be useful for preaching and another more useful for reading to children. One might be useful for reading through in a year while another is more useful for memorization. The fact that we English-speaking Christians have access to such a broad array of good Bible translations can be a tremendous blessing to us if only we will let it.
This book not only met my expectations, but exceeded them. I confess that at least some small part of me wanted Ward to bludgeon the “KJV Onlyists” into submission, but he did not do that. In fact, the charity with which he treated that issue and the respect he gave to those who might disagree with some of his conclusions served as a gentle but firm rebuke to me.
The author’s use of humor is one of the book’s strengths. Bible translation is a topic that some readers might find dry or obscure, but the occasional bit of humor (coupled with the overall style) gives the book a conversational feel.
The primary success of this book is in emphasizing the importance of these questions for the average Christian. Ward makes a convincing case that although we all will have to rely on outside authorities to some extent, Bible translation issues are important for everyone, not just for seminary professors or other academics.
Most of us will probably choose to use the translation our pastor uses in the pulpit on Sundays, but there might be other translations that would prove useful for personal study, family devotions, or evangelism. It is for that reason, Ward argues, that Christians can rightly view the wide variety of English Bible translations not as troubling or confusing, but rather as blessing and a means for better understanding God’s message to his church.
Someone scrolling past this book online might be forgiven for asking “Why should I care?” As a well-known, historic church documents puts it: “The Word of God . . . is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.” The Bible, then, is of paramount importance in the life of the Christian; there would little sense in talking about Christians having the Bible if they cannot read and understand it in their own language. That Mark Ward is so passionate about the translation of the Bible into the common language of Christians everywhere (particularly to his fellow English-speakers), should come as no surprise.
The KJV has held the unofficial position of “translation of choice” for the Protestant, English-speaking church for so long that the church can neither lightly cast it aside nor continue to use it as if nothing has changed in the past four centuries. This book brings into sharp relief the importance of these issues and gives Christians a solid foundation for understanding what to make of the KJV and the many other English versions of God’s Word that are available to us today.
- Bible reading is a difficult spiritual discipline for many Christians to develop; giving readers a translation containing unnecessary difficulties provides them a temptation not to read at all, a hurdle they simply don’t need to overcome.
- The existence of multiple English translations is a benefit to us all, not a justification for banner-hoisting and wagon-circling. I hate to see Bibles becoming symbols of division: “I am of Crossway!” “I am of Zondervan!” “I am of B&H!”
- Stop looking for the “best” English Bible. It doesn’t exist. God never said it would. Take up the embarrassment of riches we now have. Make the best of our multi-translation situation, because it’s truly a great problem to have.