“Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the KJV"
Reviewed by Taylor DeSoto
Jokes & Anecdotes
In the last article, I addressed Ward’s evaluation of what is lost if the King James Bible is retired. In this article, I will review Chapter 2 of Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the King James Bible, where Ward readies his audience for the pinnacle of his argument – false friends. If you follow Ward online, you know that the thrust of his work is identifying false friends and making the case that this is a primary reason to put down the KJV. He begins chapter 2 by proposing that the NIV is the probable successor to the KJV based on sales figures for the popular translation. The reader should note that sales figures are not a reason to adopt a translation. Christians should be concerned with whether or not the translation accurately translates the providentially preserved text from the original into a target language. Ward begins to develop his case for retiring the KJV in this chapter further by saying, “we’d better have very good reasons for giving it [KJV] up” (Ibid., 17). This gives the impression to the reader that Ward is about to present an argument that justifies all of the downsides to retiring the KJV. According to Ward, this reason is that people cannot understand it. It is “foreign and ancient.” As I noted in the introduction of my book review series, Ward’s own research and anecdotal experience seems to contradict this fact, but we will see how he develops this thought as we get further into the review. Throughout the work so far, this continues to be his driving argument.
“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?”
Ward introduces his primary argument with a huge “if”. He proposes that if it is the case that the KJV is too difficult to read, then we should retire it. As the reader will see, support for Ward’s argument is entirely dependent personal experience and anecdotes. He even admits that the KJV “falls in the same category, broadly speaking, in which our English belongs.” So far the reader has learned that 55% of English Bible readers use the KJV, Ward grew up reading the KJV, and that the King’s English falls into the same category of English that we speak today. The KJV is not old, middle, or Elizabethan English – it is early modern English written in a syntax and vocabulary that matches closely with the original languages. That is why the Trinitarian Bible Society has labeled it, “Biblical English.” Ward again drives home the point that, “I could not only understand but reproduce the major features of KJV diction as a young child.” Despite writing this multiple times in the book so far, Ward introduces his reader to yet another paradox, which I will highlight below. In this chapter, Ward discusses his transition from advocating for the KJV to advocating against the KJV. I will organize my review of chapter 2 into Ward’s anecdotes, his narrative, and his problem.
According to Ward, two major life experiences led to his shift in thinking. The first is that Ward has spent more time than the average Christian studying the Bible in various translations. The second is that he has spent years sharing the Gospel. In his experience, he argues that learning the English of the KJV is not a reasonable expectation to impose on the average Christian. Here’s the plot twist: He then admits that he actually has trouble reading certain passages in the KJV. After repeatedly stating that he understood the KJV growing up, he now says he actually cannot. He recalls an experience at a summer camp, where not one person of 10,000, pastors included, could understand the phrase, “fret not thyself in any wise to do evil.” This is a perfect example where Matthew Henry could have helped Ward understand this “cryptic” passage. “Do not envy them their prosperity.”
Ward attempts to convince his reader, with anecdote, that the passage is impossible to understand in the KJV. Gill, Calvin, and Henry all share the same opinion on the verse, so perhaps that is more of a testimony to the quality of modern scholarship than anything else. I’m more concerned that there were seminary trained pastors and college students at this camp that couldn’t understand this passage. It seems that somebody at that camp should have had access to a commentary, at least. Ward ends by presenting his reader with a strange hypothetical conversation between a child and an adult, where the child is presented as a guru of sorts by saying, “Well why didn’t the KJV translators just use the word I think they should have used?” This all contributes to the narrative that drives the primary argument of Ward’s book – that not only is the KJV too difficult to understand, the KJV translators could have used easier words and syntax. Even a child knows that much! In this chapter the reader begins to see the contradictions in Ward’s anecdotal evidence. This being the case, I encourage my reader to reflect on the value of such evidence as it pertains to Ward’s thesis.
The narrative that Ward presents is that while most people can understand the KJV, there are verses that require a second look, and that many readers will not understand certain verses the first time around, if they ever do understand them. This is the entry point to Ward’s primary argument. Upon first glance, this standard could also result in every translation being considered for retirement if applied equally. The reality is, there are verses in every translation that require explanation. The NIV, for example, contains words such as “aloes,” “odious,” “stadia,” “sistrums” and so on. There are difficult concepts and words in the Bible that do not appear in our common vernacular. If we step outside of Ward’s narrative for a moment, it is plainly evident that the Bible isn’t easily understood in every place.
“As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood”
2 Peter 3:16
The quoted material above is one of the Biblical proofs Ward uses to support his argument. The reader will see later that Ward will call upon Scripture to make the claim that if something can’t be understood, it cannot be of value to the people of God. It is important to recognize that Ward has relied heavily upon anecdotes to develop his narrative up to this point, and now he is beginning to invoke Scripture to support these anecdotes. In effect, Ward is saying, “These people I knew once didn’t understand this verse.” He is beginning to make the case to his reader, that while most people read the KJV, many of them don’t even know they can’t understand it.
The problem that Ward presents to his reader is that people that read the KJV cannot understand it, and sometimes don’t even know they cannot understand it. As a KJV reader, this feels extremely condescending. It assumes that the average Bible reader doesn’t try to understand difficult passages, or is too dull to know when they cannot understand a passage. Ward offers his reader some perspective on himself, which may help understand his book in addition to how Ward can make these types of claims about other Christians who read the KJV:
“I was a somewhat intellectually arrogant kid.”
This is in effect to say, “The only reason I thought I could understand the KJV was because I was arrogant.” While this is a very strange thing to say, I believe Ward has missed the point entirely. The problem he is presenting as a reason for retiring the KJV is simply a description of learning something new. Every Christian has to learn new words, no matter which translation they read. There are times when you are a child where you will misunderstand words and get them wrong, and not just in the Bible. This happens as easily reading a Goosebumps novel while you are learning to read. Getting words wrong is a part of the learning process.
It seems the argument that Ward is making is that the average Christian must learn more words to read the KJV than they would with modern translations. Yet as Ward loves to say, this seems to be more of a problem of quantity, not kind. The problem of Christians misunderstanding the Bible is not unique to KJV readers. There are many times where Christians believe they understand a passage, but then a pastor or friend comes along and informs them that they do not. If we again step outside of Ward’s narrative, it should be common sense that Christians do not understand the Bible perfectly in a vacuum.
I will pause my review for a moment to make a point. Every Christian needs to study and be taught. What I have a difficult time understanding is why one would argue that this should be done to a lesser degree. We have seen Ward admit that reading the KJV improves literacy among other things, so why advocate for its retirement on these grounds? It is true that KJV readers must learn more words than modern Bible readers, but that is not a convincing argument for the KJV being put behind glass in a museum. In fact, it seems like a huge positive that our children would be raised with a higher reading comprehension vocabulary. And if this principle were truly adhered to among the academic types, why do these scholars constantly advocate for learning multiple languages to read the Scriptures? The same scholars who claim the KJV is too difficult to read also recommend learning the original Biblical languages to “go back to the Greek and Hebrew.” In any case, Ward’s argument takes the anecdotal experience of the few and projects it to the many. As we have already seen, and will see more later in this review, the case that Ward is building contradicts itself to such a degree that he presents and refutes his own thesis within the cover of his own book.
It is clear that so far in Authorized, Ward relies heavily upon rhetoric, anecdotes, and narrative building to convince his reader that the KJV should not be read. In this chapter, his primary argument is that KJV readers may think they understand what they are reading, but actually do not. The reader is led to believe that Ward’s difficulty must be a problem for everybody. Again I will highlight that the people who are likely to be convinced by these arguments are people that do not actually read the KJV. He uses an anecdote of a summer camp where not a single person, pastors included, could understand Psalm 37:8 to support this point. Ward uses personal experience and anecdotes to establish his premise to build a narrative that the KJV simply cannot be understood. What Ward seems to miss is that the average Bible reader cares deeply about the words in the pages of their Bible. They study the Bible. They try to understand the Bible. It is not prideful to have a sound working knowledge of Scripture. I tested all of Ward’s example passages against some commentaries that are available online for free and all of them provided helpful and thorough explanations of the passages in question.
The most off-putting part of Ward’s book so far is the juvenile tone he takes. He inserts poorly placed and in my opinion, inappropriate jokes and commentary in the middle of a very serious topic. In a piece of persuasive writing, Ward discusses his failed attempts at impressing girls and his “smug satisfaction” of being intellectually superior than his peers in grade school, among other things. His premise for chapter 2 is also incredibly demeaning and insulting to the people who read the KJV. Ward discusses how smart he is, how much he has studied, and his self-proclaimed expertise in linguistics in order to make the concluding point: that God broke him of his pride and showed him that he didn’t actually understand the KJV. Ward seems to be making the point that if he, in all of his learning, cannot understand the KJV, neither can his reader. Thankfully he clarifies that,
“just because I was arrogant and ignorant doesn’t mean all other KJV readers are the same.”