“Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the KJV"
Reviewed by Taylor DeSoto
Not so Difficult to Read
So far in this review series of Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the King James Bible, Ward has communicated to his reader that the King James, while being mostly intelligible, has many places that will trip the reader up, often times without the reader knowing they have been confused about the meaning of a passage. In this review, I have tried to highlight the central premise of the book and the audience, namely that a) the KJV is difficult to read and b) that Ward seems to be primarily trying to convince people who do not read the KJV. I have also pointed out that Ward’s arguments are often contradictory and he tends to undermine his own arguments. The reason I have chosen to also bring attention to the rhetorical elements of Ward’s writing is an attempt to draw out what seems to be the intended purpose of the work.
Prior to reviewing chapter 3 on “False Friends,” I want to show my reader why I have chosen to focus on the rhetoric so much in my review. Take for example these three quotes:
“So if the KJV is indeed too difficult to understand for modern readers, we’ve got a significant problem—the most significant problem a translation can have: What’s the point in using a translation in old English that people can’t understand anymore?”
“I thought I knew what the KJV was saying, but over the years I’ve discovered that, far too often and through no fault of anyone I can think of, I did not.”
“The KJV is not unintelligible overall. As I said earlier, the fact that 55 percent of today’s Bible readers are reading the KJV suggests that the KJV is *not* impossibly foreign and ancient.”
The reader should take notice of the conflicted messaging in Ward’s book exemplified by the quotations above, which is why I’ve decided to highlight the rhetoric so heavily. Early on in the book we are introduced with a problem – that the KJV is too difficult to read, and that Ward discovered he had difficulty reading it. Yet all throughout the book the reader is told that the KJV is intelligible, and that most people can allegedly read it. One of the goals of this review series is to comment on this conundrum. Does Ward believe that the KJV is readable, or does he not? Is Ward arguing that while most people read the KJV, they cannot understand it? More importantly, does Ward offer any solutions to this problem other than “get rid of it”?
In chapter 3, Ward introduces his reader to what I consider his pinnacle argument – dead words and false friends. He continues to develop his narrative, which is that his reader, and the readers of the KJV, are seemingly unaware of the difficulties of reading the KJV.
“There are two major ways language change affects individual words in the KJV. One we all know; the other, I’m convinced, most of us don’t recognize—through no fault of our own.”
Ward’s point is that there are many places in the KJV that seem intelligible, but are actually not, due to the change in language over time. So the reader of the KJV may believe that they understand the text, but actually do not.
Dead Words and False Friends
It is true that there are words in the KJV that are no longer used today. It is also true that there are words which have evolved in meaning since the 17th century. Ward argues that this is the “biggest problem in understanding the KJV.” He spends the chapter analyzing six examples of what he considers to be “False Friends.” This builds on the narrative that the KJV, while seemingly intelligible, is actually not.
“And each one of them will mislead you through no fault of your own—unless ignorance of the subtleties of an English no one speaks anymore is a fault. And I don’t think it is.”
According to Ward, the readers of the KJV are unsuspecting victims. I want to take a moment to highlight that this is a strange rhetorical strategy as it seems to indicate that an entire subset of Christians are being fooled by the translation they read. That perhaps they are not intelligent enough to know when they are reading an archaic word. One thing I will point out, is that even in the case where a “false friend” is misunderstood, reading a text in its context resolves almost all of these issues. This is how English, and most languages work. Let me demonstrate by commenting on an example in Authorized. Ward begins by using the word “halt” to demonstrate that this word is employed to mean “limp” rather than “stop.” His point is that if you interpret “halt” as “stop,” you are being tricked by the KJV. Yet, the sense of the passage is not lost, even if the reader takes the modern definition of halt. “How long will you pause between two opinions?” The reader does not miss the point of the passage, even if they read it incorrectly. More importantly, this highlights the flaw in the approach of using “False Friends” to demonstrate that the KJV is unintelligible in places. Context is just as important as vocabulary in reading comprehension, and even when a reader doesn’t know a word, the context supplies the meaning. American children learn this as early as grade school.
The average reader is not taught to read by atomizing every word in a sentence, defining each word, and putting the whole sentence together after defining each word. A sentence is not a puzzle, it is a thought. We read by first reading the whole sentence and surrounding sentences, and use context clues to understand words that we didn’t understand, or words that were employed in a way that is not typical in colloquial English. This is largely how children learn new words growing up, by reading above their skill level. The problem of false friends disappears if the reader simply reads the KJV like they would any other book. Ward uses “Filthiness is not convenient” as another example of a false friend. The context helps supply the meaning. And if the reader is even a little bit ambitious, a simple internet search of the word “Convenient” yields the very definition that is apparently unintelligible – suitable, appropriate, or fitting as adjectives. If we consider context as an important part of understanding a language, the average reader will easily catch this.
Ward argues that the KJV reader simply won’t know this unless they have an Oxford English dictionary on hand. This sort of sounds like the “You’ll never have a calculator in your pocket everywhere you go” argument that your grade school math teacher said in school. Assuming the reader doesn’t have a cell phone, in our example above, context tells the reader that Paul doesn’t mean “Favorable to one’s comfort,” and even the list of modern adjectives include the definition that was originally intended by the KJV translators. The only reason false friends would trip somebody up so badly is if they read the Bible word by word, rather than in complete sentences. Perhaps this is the fruit of New Testament exegesis classes in seminary, which train pastors to do exactly that. The “experts” in Greek and Hebrew are trained to read in a way that nobody has ever read. They are taught to make elaborate diagrams and to split each word out into its own organism. To demonstrate this point, Dan Wallace did his PhD work on the word “The”. The average reader knows that this is not how English, or any language, works. At this point I might invite my reader to consider the possibility that Ward’s entire thesis is aimed at addressing a problem that only an academic could have.
Ward uses “False Friends” to tell his reader that “you are not expected to keep track of all the changes English has undergone in its long lifetime” (43). That of course is not the expectation put on the KJV reader, and it is not even required to read the KJV. The KJV is written in early modern English, and anybody who speaks and reads modern English will be able to understand it. They will also be able to identify when they do not understand it, if they read the Bible normally. Ward even notes that,
“To be clear, I don’t think any Christian doctrines are affected by the undetectable (or the detectable) shifts in English that have occurred in the last four hundred years.”
This quote is imperative to understanding Ward’s argument from a theological perspective. If our doctrine of Scripture generally states that one of the purposes of Scripture is to be “profitable for doctrine” (2 Tim. 3:16), and none of these so called “false friends” and archaisms impact doctrine, Ward’s thesis has no theological basis at all. Again, I will highlight that Ward dismantles his own argument in the very chapter he introduces it. The reader is presented with a problem, the problem is described and supported, and then Ward seemingly details how the problem isn’t really a problem. The KJV is too difficult to read, but most Christians can read it. The KJV has deceptive “False Friends,” but these do not affect doctrine. The KJV has false friends, “but not very many given how large the Bible is” (49).
The largest problem for Ward seems to be that he believes the average reader simply will not know when they encounter a “False Friend.” Perhaps if they read the Bible word by word, this is true. Yet the average person does not read anything this way, they read sentence by sentence. Ward readily admits that “Many Christians simply disagree over whether archaisms in the KJV are truly a big deal.” Time and time again, the reader is presented with problems that Ward cannot demonstrate to be actual problems, except for him and the friends from his anecdotes.
As a KJV reader, from the first page of Authorized, I have noted the conflicted messaging, and the fact that the whole picture has not been presented to the reader. If the KJV is intelligible, and false friends are not as prolific or problematic as people think, what exactly is the problem with the KJV? The reader should be asking themselves if there is more to this story than difficult words. Why is a self-professed “language nerd” seemingly advocating against the most beautiful expression of the modern English language? As I read this book the first and second and third time, I had to ask myself, “What is Ward trying to say here?”