One of the common arguments against the King James Version is that it is too difficult to read. The archaic words are said to be, at least to one degree or another, impossible to learn. I am going to use Mark Ward as an example here, because he is the architect of many versions of this argument. He often makes the case that even if you think you understand what a passage is saying, you likely don’t. He then will give a handful of anecdotes explaining how he didn’t understand the KJV growing up, or how he still can’t understand the KJV. I personally don’t believe that a man who sounds like a thesaurus has trouble understanding what the word “meat” means in the KJV, but that’s another conversation. This is one of the foundations for advocating for something like the Message or the New Living Translation. According to modern Bibliology, the Bible ought to be readable at every place, no matter your reading comprehension level. If you can’t understand every passage in one version, you are to adopt or consult another version rather than learning the word you don’t understand.
Now let’s set aside the fact that this is an absurd practice. The Bible is going to have words you need to learn, no matter the translation. We should be encouraging Christians to simply learn new words, rather than abandoning a translation every time they encounter a word that is too difficult. That being said, since the argument is often framed around the difficulty children have at learning difficult words in their Bible translation, we have to talk about what the real issue is here: parents and pastors. What is almost always left out of the discussion is the role that parents and pastors have in teaching both children and adults the Bible.
Like a Children’s Cartoon, the Parents Are Nowhere to Be Found
If you’ve ever watched a lot of children’s cartoons with your young kids, you may notice that many of them rarely give screen time to parents. In Disney movies and shows meant for young kids, a lot of the time it’s the kids figuring things out on their own without a parent to be seen. Instead of seeking help from their parents to solve a basic problem, these characters go on grand adventures and put themselves in great peril to figure things out on their own. Almost every argument I have seen leveled against the intelligibility of the KJV is the same way. These arguments seem to exclude the most important component of the discussion, which is how people learn to understand their Bible.
In this case, there should be two category distinctions that are almost never made: people raised in the church and people not raised in the church. In the case of Mark Ward, he was raised in the church, yet his arguments never seem to include stories about how he learned to understand his Bible. In fact, the only stories he does include are how pastors were too inept to understand relatively easy words in the KJV (For more, see my series on Authorized). He paints this picture that out of all of the people he knew growing up, none of them really understood what the KJV was saying. It is quite a condemnation on the community Ward grew up in. I often find myself feeling bad for the faithful men and women who Ward grew up with, because he often only highlights how inept they were. Clearly these people deserve more credit than Ward gives them, because he grew up to be somewhat of a leading scholar in understanding the KJV.
Perhaps it is true that the people in Ward’s community had remarkably low reading comprehension or that the parents in his community really didn’t invest in teaching their kids to read the KJV, but it seems very unlikely. If that is truly the case, his book must have been a harsh and necessary rebuke to all of the people he grew up with. In a recent video called, “A Pastor Asks: What if I Prefer the KJV Because it Gives My Kids a Broad Vocabulary?”, Ward really demonstrates his lack of understanding of the average parent. It also demonstrates how committed Ward is to steering people away from the KJV at all costs.
Ward makes the case against learning “historical” English because “the Bible values intelligibility more.” I have commented on this rhetoric before as being extremely condescending and disconnected. Despite Ward constantly asserting that the KJV is unintelligible, there are many, many Christians who can understand it. It also speaks to Ward’s lack of understanding of how English is taught and learned. I was brought up in the public school system, where as a foundation I was taught basic Latin root words as well as Shakespeare prior to getting to 9th grade. I imagine Ward had a similar experience, since he was educated in America. As Christians, we should never set the bar lower than secular institutions when it comes to our education. If you want to get a reality check on just how low the Christian standard for education is in 2020, spend ten bucks on this book that William Sprague wrote to his teenage daughter.
That point aside, Ward’s argument speaks especially to the fact that he sees pastors and parents as essentially irrelevant to the discussion of learning how to read the Bible. The only real way Ward has set forth to understanding difficult words is by having access to his preferred dictionary. In the real world, parents and pastors are the dictionary. I am currently watching my 2 1/2 year old learn English right now, and I am quite literally her dictionary. She asks, “What does that [word] mean?” and “What is this thing?” and “What does that do?” and “What is this color?” and so on.
As parents, we should be involved in the formation of our children’s vocabulary. When they do not understand a word, we teach them. If we do not know the definition of a word, we find out, and then teach our children. Our pastors do the same thing when it comes to our Biblical vocabulary. Yes, there is such a thing as “Biblical vocabulary.” I can’t count the times I’ve heard pastors take a moment to explain what the word “propitiation” means, because it is a word that we don’t normally encounter in our vernacular English.
In KJV churches, pastors do this all the time when they encounter an archaic word. If you’ve ever listened to KJV preaching, pastors pause briefly throughout the sermon to provide a definition for a word that is not a part of our normal vernacular English. If you are a KJV pastor that doesn’t do this, I highly recommend doing it. In the context of the Christian church, parents and pastors are the primary means that people learn new words that are outside of their daily vernacular.
The basic argument that the KJV is unintelligible speaks to a low view of parents, pastors, and the English language altogether. If you told my sister, a high school English teacher, that we should only be teaching kids contemporary vocabulary, she would laugh at you. If you told my mom, who runs a schoolhouse, that teaching middle schoolers Latin and Greek roots was unnecessary because it’s not “intelligible” to an English speaker, she’d write you off immediately.
If you listen to a conversation of what “contemporary vernacular English” sounds like, you would especially be exposed as disconnected. The irony of it all, is that Ward constantly uses flowery language that the average person has to google to understand. He sounds like a thesaurus that has the flu. Understanding “historical” English is a part of our toolkit for learning new words and understanding literature that is technically higher than our current reading level. Latin, German, and Greek are all a part of “historical” English, and we learn root words in these languages all the time to help us understand “contemporary” English. Even the secular system recognizes the importance of this.
The standard educational route of American children is adequate to read at least 95% of the KJV. Most passages in the KJV are written at a fourth grade reading level, with some pushing up to a 12th grade reading level. The same can basically be said for the ESV. The problem with continuing to paint the KJV as “unintelligible” is that it is actually not. Further, with the help of parents and pastors, most people can easily bridge the small gap of archaic words to fully understand the KJV without a dictionary or footnotes or commentary or internet search.
If you throw these tools into the mix, it is quite absurd to even make the argument that the KJV cannot be understood. You basically have to admit that you’ve never tried to read the KJV all the way through. The strategy of highlighting 20 difficult passages can be applied to literally any Bible translation. Most people are not so willing to insult their own intelligence, or the intelligence of the people in their church. Think about how ridiculous this argument is in a context where nearly everybody has access to a smart phone. In order to actually accept or make this argument, you not only have to believe that the average Christian is quite stupid, but you also have to believe that you are quite stupid.
Now it is true that many Christians pretend to understand things they don’t actually understand. It is true that there are KJV readers out there who think they understand every word but don’t. That is why we are a part of churches. That is why we have pastors and friends to help us. If your pastor preaches verse by verse through Scripture, you will learn difficult words organically through sermons and sermon discussions. If you read your Bible daily, this is especially true. If you grow up in a faithful house that does family worship as the confession prescribes, you will be equipped to read any translation you want, even the KJV.
The point is that the discussion of Bible intelligibility is primarily a discussion about education. When somebody makes the case that the KJV cannot be understood, it is really a condemnation of pastors and parents who did not bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We have to stop setting the bar so low for Christians and be reminded that Christians have always valued learning, not scoffed at it. Christians should be offended by Ward’s argument, because at its core, all it really is saying is, “You are too stupid to learn new words.”