Authorized Review – Chapter 4: Learning Words is Difficult

This article is the fifth in a series reviewing Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the King James Bible.

Introduction

Thus far in Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the King James Bible, the reader is being introduced to the idea that the King James Bible is more difficult to read than people may think. The problem with the KJV, according to Ward, is the “False Friends,” which give the illusion to the reader that they understand what they are reading while in reality, they do not. Though he admits that these “False Friends” do not occur that often in comparison to the whole of the KJV, the reader is presented with the reality that they are seriously problematic, despite not affecting doctrine. In Chapter 4, Ward addresses the topic of how readable the KJV is as a whole by responding to the claim that many KJV readers make regarding its reading level. 

This of course needs to be addressed by Ward, because if the Flesch-Kincaid tool is used to assess the KJV’s readability against the ESV’s readability, the KJV apparently wins. Ward argues that the tool is not suited for the English of the KJV, and therefore this line of reasoning is null. If you read the previous article in this series, you should know that I agree with Ward here – counting syllables and words is not a sufficient gauge to determine readability. Since I agree that computer tools are not an absolute rule for determining readability, I instead want to use this space to again comment on Ward’s rhetorical strategy. 

Rhetoric 

After four chapters, Ward reveals what seems to be a key motivation for writing this book. 

“I do not believe that competent speakers of contemporary English should be required to look up English words in a Bible translation when commonly known equivalents are available.”

Ibid., 55

The problem does not seem to be the KJV, the problem is that Ward takes issue with people needing to look up words while reading their Bible. He goes on to say that computer models should not be used to gauge readability, people should.

“So how can we determine the reading level of the KJV? I suggest that av1611.org passed right over the best measure: people. If reading difficulty is the number one reason people set aside the KJV in favor of modern translations, then perhaps they know better than their computers. In fact, 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.””

Ibid., 59

So now the foundational premise of Ward’s argument is again presented as something that must be established upon anecdote. Further, he seems to have misunderstood the entire purpose of KJV readers producing a computer based model for the readability of the KJV. It is not to tell KJV readers that it is readable, it is to demonstrate to KJV critics that it is readable. Further down in the chapter, the reader is introduced to more confused messaging when Ward appeals to an anecdote of his friend who is doing mission work in South America. 

“And yet a KJV-Only acquaintance of mine who is a missionary in the lone English-speaking country in South America told me, “I have found that people living in the jungles of Guyana are having no problem reading and memorizing passages of the King James Version.” I know my friend is not a liar, but I also have a hard time accepting that what he’s saying is true—not because a computer told me the KJV was harder to read than the NIV, but because I’m a flesh-and-blood reader. I know when something is easy or hard to read, and so do you. I have regular trouble following the KJV. I think you and the jungle dwellers of Guyana do too.”

Ibid., 59-60

At this point the reader has to ask, “Okay Mark Ward, you say that ‘people’ are the best gauge for determining readability, but when a person tells you that people living in jungles can understand it, you don’t believe him?” Ward continues to prop himself up as a “language nerd” and a “flesh-and-blood reader,” but I am beginning to question the reliability of Ward’s self-praise. Even if we place the KJV at a college reading level, which is an exceedingly high evaluation, Ward has a doctorate. How is it that a textbook author, doctor, and self-proclaimed “language nerd” have “regular trouble following” a book that is commonly accepted as being between a 5th and 12th grade reading level? Am I really supposed to buy this? Does his reader actually believe this? 

Ward continues his argument by saying that,

“In my judgment, the KJV isn’t at any recognized “reading level.” Not fifth grade, not twelfth grade, not grad school, not age eighty-six. The whole concept of “reading level” assumes that we’re talking about more or less contemporary language.”

Ibid., 60

Am I, as a reader of the KJV, actually to believe that the KJV simply cannot be categorized into a reading level? If this is the case, what exactly is going on when I’m reading it? Am I a master decoder? I really do not think so. If the argument is that the KJV cannot even be classified into a reading level, I’m afraid we’ve ventured into the realm of absurdity. It is for this reason that Ward’s tone is rather insulting to the KJV reader, and further demonstrates that Ward’s audience is people that read another translation. 

Conclusion

Ward ends the chapter by offering a solution that already exists in many KJV text blocks. 

“I could imagine that footnotes (“halt here means limp”; “commendeth here means showcases”) would allow us to have our KJV and read it too.”

Ibid., 60

There is an important point to note here. Ward indicates in this chapter that the KJV cannot be assigned a reading level because apparently it’s not a “contemporary language.” I have argued that the KJV will need an update when today’s written literature is as far from the KJV as the KJV is from middle English. If you have ever read a page of Chaucer, you know that this is not the case. The discerning reader should see past the rhetoric of Ward’s argument and recognize how absurd it is to suggest that the KJV is so archaic that it cannot even be assigned a reading level.

The most interesting observation I have about Authorized thus far is that every single one of Ward’s arguments is contradicted by his own words. He says that the KJV is difficult to read, while most people who read a Bible read it. He says that the KJV has “False Friends,” but not very many in comparison to the whole book. He says that “False Friends” deceive the reader, and at the same time do not affect doctrine. He says that the readability of the KJV should be established by what people say, but if they do say it’s readable we shouldn’t believe them. The amount of confused messaging in this book is staggering. 

If it is true that Ward’s issue with the KJV is that people shouldn’t have to look up difficult words when an easier one exists, it should be noted that this problem is solved in many KJV text blocks, most notably the Westminster Reference Bible sold by Trinitarian Bible Society. If this is our approach to the Bible, it is also important to ask the question, “How colloquial do we want our Bible to be?” Even more importantly, I have yet to determine why this book was even written. So far, Ward introduces problems, explains how the problems aren’t actually problems (except for him and people who don’t read the KJV), and then offers a solution which already exists. Again I have to ask, is there more going on here? I hope we will find out in the upcoming chapters.

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