In my experience talking to people about the KJV, the most common comment I hear is that it is too difficult to read. This was also my impression for the first ten years I was a Christian. It was the reason that I adopted the NKJV initially upon switching to the Traditional position on Scripture. From the time that I converted to Christianity I had heard that the KJV was a “beautiful translation” but that it wasn’t worth using over other translations because it was “too hard to read.” I was explaining this to my friend, who had been telling me to read the KJV for years for its value in understanding the Puritans better, and he asked me an important question, “Have you tried reading it?” I hadn’t. I was simply going off the opinions of all the people that had told me it was difficult. At the time I was doing a reading plan where I was reading 10 chapters from the Old Testament, 5 chapters from the New Testament, a Psalm, and a Proverb every day. I decided to do my next day’s daily reading in the KJV to test if it was too difficult to read. I figured that my daily reading offered a balanced sampling of the text and I’d be able to determine for myself if what I had heard was true. What I found was that it was surprisingly easy to read. It wasn’t much more difficult than any translation I had read before. Here is a sampling from the KJV to demonstrate my point.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)
“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2)
“Whoso loveth instruction loveth knowledge: But he that hateth reproof is brutish. A good man obtaineth favour of the Lord: But a man of wicked devices will he condemn.” (Proverbs 12:1-2)
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:1-3)
If I were to listen to Mark Ward, or any one of the number of people that told me the KJV was too difficult to read, I would have never found out that the KJV is quite easy to read in most places. The above sampling is demonstrative of the average syntax and vocabulary you will find in the KJV. If I had simply used John 1:1-3 as an example, my reader might not have even known I was quoting the KJV. That is not to say that there are not difficult passages, or that one will pick up a KJV and read it without having to look up any words. What I am saying is that the KJV is not as hard as many people describe. In this article, I am not going to focus on how easy or difficult the KJV is, however. I am going to make a case that the reading comprehension level of a translation should not be a primary deciding factor in whether or not a translation is “good.”
Reading Comprehension Levels and Translation
I have advocated before that the primary criteria for choosing a translation should be theological. Most people know that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, but often times do not understand how that relates to translation. I was watching a video the other day, and the creator of the video stated that, “The original Bible translation was in Hebrew and Greek.” This statement is incorrect, because the Hebrew and Greek texts are not translations. When it comes to the Bible, a translation is something that takes the Hebrew and Greek original text, and converts it into a target language, like English or Spanish. Theologically speaking, that translation is the Bible insofar as it translates the original accurately. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion about this part of the discussion. Many people believe that translations are simply tools and not the Word of God. Others believe that a translation cannot be completely accurate. Even more believe that meaning is lost in translation to such a degree that the original message of the text cannot be communicated into a target language. That is why you will often see people chained to an online lexicon as they try to decipher the “true meaning” of every word. The reality is that Hebrew and Greek can be translated, and have been translated for hundreds of years.
These opinions on Scripture form the theological basis for a reality in which there isn’t a single translation of the Hebrew and Greek that can be called “perfect,” or more precisely, “accurate.” See, if a translation cannot adequately communicate the original to a target language, then learning Greek and Hebrew is absolutely necessary to read the Bible so that the “true meaning” can be ascertained. This is also why modern scholars advocate for reading multiple translations, because according to them, no one translation gets it right. This is an argument made by Mark Ward in his book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Version. The situation is far worse in reality, according to the scholars. See this quote by Dan Wallace,
“We do not have now – in any of our critical Greek texts or in any translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it. There are many, many places in which the text of the New Testament is uncertain.”Elijah Hixson & Peter Gurry. Myths & Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. xii.
We see here that the scholarly opinion is that the modern church does not have “exactly what the authors wrote” in any Greek text or translation. So the problem is twofold – the originals cannot be ascertained, nor can they be accurately translated. According to these scholar types, the modern reader must stitch together a number of translations, but for what purpose? If “exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote” aka “What Paul said” cannot be determined, what value does reading any translation carry for the Christian?
One of the critiques I have had of the “KJV is too difficult” approach is that it isn’t the real issue for the modern critical text types and from a Traditional perspective, it is extraordinarily low on the list of things that should be discussed first. The scholars are first saying that we do not know what the Greek and Hebrew originals contain. They are then saying that that text cannot be perfectly or adequately communicated by way of translation. What is the importance of a translation being too difficult if one believes the theological principles of the Modern Critical Text exemplified by Dan Wallace in the quote above? At that point, the text could be written in Latin or Twitter vernacular and it wouldn’t actually matter because the reader would be just as uncertain of the text no matter how easy or hard it is to read.
As much as I’d like to suspend reality and have a discussion over the translational choices of the KJV, it is impossible to avoid the theological core that undergirds many critiques of the Authorized Version. Those that critique it, for the most part, do not even believe the Bible as it was originally written exists today. To people who believe the modern critical text paradigm, the conversation over translations is actually irrelevant, because they do not believe any translations set forth the original accurately. They will usually add a major caveat that this “does not effect any major doctrine,” but how would they even know that? If they do not know what the original said, they have no basis for making such a claim. There is a fundamental disagreement that cannot be resolved by discussing issues of translation methodology. In order to have that debate, everybody must agree at the very least on what the Bible is, and whether or not we have it. You have to have a translatable text to discuss translations of that text. This being the case, it does not make sense to establish reading comprehension level as our primary reason to select a translation. There are two criteria from a theological standpoint that serve as the basis for such a decision: 1) The translation made from the Hebrew and Greek originals and 2) the translation accurately sets forth those original texts. The Modern Critical text paradigm does not believe either of these criteria is true for any translation, and so it does not follow that they would make a claim regarding the accuracy or quality of any available translation.
The Modern Critical Text paradigm does not make the case that any original language texts available today are the original text penned by the writers of the New and Old Testament, nor does it make the case that any translations perfectly translate the available original language texts. This being the case, any discussion with somebody who believes the Modern Critical Text paradigm regarding the quality of such texts is nonsensical. We first have to establish what the Bible is and whether we have it for that conversation to mean something. That is why I have made the case that discussing whether a translation should have “thee” and “thou” is irrelevant if one believes that the original Word of God is not set forth in any available text or translation.
It is only fruitful to have a conversation about “which translation is best” if the premise is that the translations in question accurately set forth the original. But that is not the case currently. The scholarly opinion at the moment is as Dan Wallace describes it – that there is nothing available that qualifies in that category. In other words, there is not a Bible today, only later, incomplete, representations of different bibles. This is not the position of those who advocate for a Traditional position on Scripture. The Bible has not fallen away, it has been preserved. And that preserved text can be and has been translated accurately. It is possible to have a Bible translation that is the inspired Word of God. Though there are a variety of opinions on which translation meets this criteria the best within the traditional camp, most would agree that the KJV qualifies as an accurate representation of the original texts in English. This being the case, it is not burdensome to learn some new vocabulary to read the Word of God, which every Christian does regardless of the translation they read. The very same scholars who say that the KJV is too difficult to read also advocate for learning Hebrew and Greek to read the Bible. This, in my opinion, is a contradiction that refutes the “KJV is too difficult” argument. If learning thousands of new vocabulary words and entirely new systems of grammar is not too cumbersome to read the Scriptures, then becoming acquainted with the archaisms of the KJV certainly is not.