Fallacies of Difficult Words
By Martin A. Shue
The charge that our Authorized Version (AV) is filled with difficult words and simply cannot be understood by a “contemporary audience” is routinely leveled against our Bible. It is also asserted by many that our AV is written at a “12th grade level” and that this is simply too difficult for the “average reader” to grasp, and therefore, we need more modern translations that are written on a much lower grade level. It is my goal in this article to address these complaints head-on and to dispel these myths once and for all.
I suppose the first order of duty should be to define “Fallacies” – lest I also be charged with using ‘difficult and hard’ to understand words. A ‘fallacy’ is a misleading notion or an erroneous belief. This, I assert, is exactly what Bible critics are fostering when they condemn our AV as being ‘too difficult to understand by a contemporary audience’ or by claiming that most cannot read it because it is written at too high of a grade level. For this article I will be drawing heavily upon the book “The Word of God in English” by Leland Ryken. In this book Mr. Ryken gives 8 common fallacies about Bible readers. For the sake of brevity I will only list 5 of these fallacies and will offer a few comments under each heading.
Before we look at Ryken’s “fallacies” I wanted to momentarily take a look at who typically makes the assertions that I have outlined above. Usually these claims are made by seminary graduates or individuals with doctorates and/or masters degrees. I’ve always found it rather ironic that this group of people normally seems to make the biggest fuss over the wording of our AV. Nearly every ‘scholar’ (and I use that term loosely) bemoans the words of our AV and uses this excuse to promote more modern dynamic equivalent versions. These ‘scholars’ complain that the Bible needs to be translated into more modern language (yet we are never told what “modern language” actually means) and that it is their duty to “clarify” what the Biblical authors were “trying” to say. In their mind the mass of Christianity is of low intellect and have very low comprehension skills. Additionally, since this commoner is of low intellect, they reason, it is their duty to simplify the Bible. By so doing it becomes their translational responsibility, they further reason, not to give the “contemporary audience” what the authors originally said (for that would be too difficult for the commoner to grasp) but what they perceive the original authors meant to say. For years now I, along with many others, have pointed out that this kind of reasoning rings of Roman Catholicism, viz. they are the intellect and the “contemporary reader” is the commoner and must be taught by them. On this matter I was quite delighted to see that Leland Ryken was in absolute agreement. Ryken writes, “As we ponder the matter, an odd paradox emerges. The very translators who make so much of the need to translate the Bible into immediately understandable terms, with all interpretive problems removed from readers, have themselves become the counterparts to medieval Roman Catholic priests. (Ryken, The Word of God in English, p. 78)”
Fallacy #1: Contemporary Bible Readers Have Low Intellectual and Linguistic Abilities
We often hear of “contemporary readers” (cf. Theodore Mann)
and “contemporary audience” (cf. John Wolf). We are told that it is this group
that simply cannot understand our AV. The interesting thing is that I have
never seen any writer clearly identify exactly who this mysterious group, known
as “contemporary readers”, is so one is left to wonder just who these people
actually are. It is my opinion, and the opinion of Leland Ryken, that these
‘scholars’, along with practically every modern version translational committee,
have created this fictitious group of people for the sole purpose of taking
liberties with the Sacred Deposit. Moreover, this fictitious group is assumed
to be of low intellect and to have very low linguistic abilities. Leland Ryken
remarks, “It is time to ask bluntly, who are these alleged readers who cannot
rise above a grade-school reading level? What do they read?”. He then
concludes, “They obviously do not read Sports
Illustrated...The Wall Street Journal…
Those that criticize our AV will never identify their “contemporary readers” because no such group of people exists on the planet earth. They have conjured up this audience for the sole purpose of trying to overthrow our King James Bible. It is not the words of our Bible that truly bothers them. For, as Ryken pointed out, we all read worldly material that is far more difficult to read and understand than our Bible. The problem lies with that ol’ King James Bible; they want to get rid of it so they have invented the fallacy that it is simply too difficult to understand by “contemporary readers”. Ryken notes, “Most of the English-speaking adult world operates at a level of vocabulary and style beyond the grade-school or even high-school level. It is a dishonor to the Bible to expect less of people when they read the Bible than when they read their favorite magazine or newspaper.” Finally, Ryken concludes, “My own conclusion is that we have fabricated a hypothetical audience for English Bibles that represents only a relatively small minority of Bible readers.”
It is my belief that just the converse of our current fallacy is true; viz. our Bible will raise the intellect and linguistic ability of its readers. This had been the case for hundreds of years; however, with the onslaught of more modern ‘easy-to-read’ translations many are being denied this privilege. Leland Ryken quotes John Skilton on this matter with the following words:
“Far from pampering or patronizing the reader by reducing all things…the translator will not stand in the Bible’s way as it enlarges the reader’s horizon, acquaints him with the culture not his own, and challenges him to break the bonds of parochialism and insularity. He will not impede the Scriptures in their educative work; he will not try to bring the Bible down to where its readers may be; but will rather let the Bible bring them up to where it is.”
Fallacy #2: Bible Readers Cannot Handle Theological or Technical Terminology
Most modern translations have deliberately removed many theological terms from their versions because they believe that modern readers will not be able to understand such terms. Leland Ryken notes that “A member of the American Bible Society claimed that the Good News Bible was designed for the “unsophisticated” or “average” reader, who would be grateful for “being delivered from theological subtleties.”” One article commented that, “Propitiation, Sanctification, and Regeneration. None of these theological terms are contained in the New International Version translation.” It is believed by many that these wonderful words of the church are no longer understandable by today’s Bible readers. The CEV boasts that it has purposely avoided such “traditionally theological language and biblical words like ‘atonement’, ‘redemption’, ‘righteousness’ and ‘sanctification.’”
All of these theological words above can be found in our AV (and some other translations). Sadly, it has become the fashion as of late to condemn our AV for containing these great words that have been cherished by Christians for centuries. What a great travesty it is to think that a whole generation of Christians, who are raised on the modern versions, will never know these comforting words. Once again we find that our fallacy isn’t true at all. It is just another smoke-screen used to further tamper with the words of God. Leland Ryken comments, “Previous generations did not find the King James Bible, with its theological heaviness, beyond their comprehension. Nor do readers and congregations who continue to use the King James translation find it incomprehensible. Neither of my parents finished grade school, and they learned to understand the King James Bible from their reading of it and the preaching they heard based on it.”
The great theological words of our AV are the basis of some of the most magnificent expository preaching you will ever hear. When these words are examined and expounded upon, the character of God is brought more clearly into focus. However, those that read only the modern versions will miss out on these great attributes of God.
I want to close this fallacy with the poignant words of Leland Ryken. Ryken concludes, “Finally, after a quarter century of easy-read Bible translations designed to make the Bible accessible to the masses, biblical illiteracy continues to spiral. Instead of solving the problem, modern translations, with their assumption of a theologically inept readership, may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “ Selah!
Fallacy #3: Bible Readers Cannot Be Educated Beyond Their Present Level of Ability
This is certainly one of the most interesting fallacies, in my opinion. It is a given that most all translational committees believe that Christians are among some of the most uneducated people on the earth. Of course they never come right out and say such a thing but their actions prove this. Ryken believes that this fact can readily be inferred by a simple reading of the many prefaces of the modern versions. This, once again, is why they believe it their calling to “interpret” the biblical text instead of simply translating what the biblical text actually says. They surmise that if they actually gave us the biblical text as written then we wouldn’t understand it because of our low education. Therefore, they feel compelled to give the Bible reader a translation at “a lowest-common-denominator level”. This type of reasoning actually does more harm than good; though most modern version proponents don’t see it this way. As Ryken points out this type of thinking actually leaves the modern Bible readers stuck in their presumed “low level of ability”. The Bible student should be expected to grow in his/her knowledge and should be given a Bible that encourages this growth. This is impossible with translations such as the NIV, which is fixed at about the 8th grade level.
Our King James Bible is always criticized for being written at a higher level than most modern versions. But is this really a negative? I say it isn’t. Even if an individual finds the KJB more difficult than other modern versions at first perusal at least he/she has room to grow. Isn’t this exactly how we conduct the rest of our life? Can you name any other area of your life in which you are expected to remain at a grade school level? I can’t. Why should we expect this from our Bible? Ryken writes, “The whole orientation here is wrong. In what other areas of life do we make the assumption that people will remain at a grade-school level of understanding? What are high schools and colleges for if not to educate people beyond the grade-school level? If we were to apply to the rest of life what lowest-common denominator translations espouse for the Bible, we might as well close our schools and give up on the hope of educating citizens and workers in various specialized spheres of knowledge.”
King James Bible Believers are often ridiculed as being some ‘backwoods’, ‘uneducated hillbilly’. Will it be that anyone will see the irony of this all? Those that profess to be so ‘smart’ and ‘educated’ cannot, seemingly, read and understand our KJB; however, those that are ridiculed for being ‘ignorant’ have no trouble whatsoever in reading and understanding every word of our King James Bible. Those that profess to be seminary trained demand a Bible written on a 7th grade level while those they chide as being ‘uneducated’ have no problem reading a Bible written on a 12th grade level.
Fallacy #4: The Bible is More Difficult For Modern Readers Than For The Original Readers
Here we come to one of the major complaints against our Authorized Version. Critics of our AV complain that it is simply too difficult for modern readers to understand. They believe that if you come across a passage of scripture and don’t immediately understand it then the fault lies within the Bible itself. Therefore, they advocate more dynamic equivalent translations so that they can essentially interpret the biblical text for you. This will save you from having to think at all and God forbid that you would actually have to “study” a passage of scripture to find its meaning. What ends up happening in the final product is that the English reader is robbed of many important concepts because his modern version has strayed far away from what the original text said.
Ryken quotes one scholar as saying, “One cannot escape the fact that the Bible contains many concepts and expressions which are difficult for the modern reader. There is no evidence that they were much less so for the original readers. They, too, had to cope with technical terminology, with thousands of OT allusions and with Hebrew loan words, idioms and translation that must have been very strange to many of them.” With this being true, why do translators seek to remove all these unique “concepts and expressions” in favor of an easy-to-read translation, which has obscured the meaning of the original?
Leland Ryken concludes with the words of Robert Martin. Please read his words carefully.
“It is better to teach each new generation the meaning of the Bible’s technical terms than to eliminate them and produce a generation [of people who] are biblically and theologically illiterate from having suffered long-term exposure to inaccurate and imprecise versions of the Bible”
This is exactly why we argue against “updating the wording” of our Authorized Version. It would be far better to teach this generation the meaning of a few words than to give them an “inaccurate and imprecise” version of the Bible. This has been our contention with the new versions all along. The accurate words of God have been replaced with “inaccurate”, corrupted words.
Fallacy #5: Readers, Not Authors, Determine Meaning
We have truly entered an interesting age in Christendom. We live in a day when each individual reader wants to determine how a given passage of scripture “should read”. Gone, for now, is the day when the text did the talking for itself. Now many don’t want to know exactly how the text reads but ‘what did the original authors MEAN by what they wrote’. Well, the answer is rather simple – they MEANT exactly what they wrote! Offering to the Christian what the original authors ‘meant’ is the crux of what a dynamic equivalent translation is. They are not so much concerned with what the text actually says as they are with what THEY think it says. E.D. Hirsch stated, “When critics deliberately banished the original author, they themselves usurped his place.” This is exactly what is being done in most Bible translations today. The translator has replaced the original author – the original author is no long allowed to speak for himself but the translator believes it is his job to speak for him. Bibles today are being printed, not based upon what the original text says, but rather upon who the target audience of the translation will be. This is one problem critics have with our AV, viz. it doesn’t say what they want it to say. When they stumble upon a passage that doesn’t agree with what they believe they label our AV in “error” and scurry to find a different translation that says what THEY want it to say. Ryken comments, “Who is calling the shots here? The authors and their original text? No; the modern reader is dictating the translation.” Later Ryken laments, “the translators have made the reader rather than the original author and his text the arbiter of meaning.”
We are often confronted with statements such as “this is a mistranslation in the AV”. It is always funny to see on what grounds such individuals cry ‘mistranslation’. For years, those of us who promote and defend the King James Bible have stated that those that don’t believe ANY Bible is the preserved words of God have become his/her own final authority. This is always met with opposition and denial but the fact remains the same. They will pick and choose a Bible translation based upon their own personal opinion. Additionally, they will never stick with just one translation but will find fault with it and move on to another translation because they ‘like such and such a reading in it’. They criticize every translation extant and declare that all Bibles have errors. This gives them the latitude to pick and choose as they see fit – ultimately becoming their own final authority as to what the Bible should and shouldn’t say. Please pardon the following lengthy quote but Leland Ryken sums up what we’ve been saying for years in precise words.
“What are the results of elevating the bible reader to the status of the one who determines the shape of an English translation? Well, what are customary commendations of this or that English translation? “I like this translation. It speaks to me.” “I find this translation refreshing.” “This translation makes the Bible come alive for me.” All of these commendations assume that the ultimate court of appeal is the reader. None of them is rooted in fidelity to the biblical text and its authors. This is, indeed, the apotheosis of the reader.
The very proliferation of English translations feeds the syndrome of readers as the ones who determine the shape of translation. The result of the multitude of translations has been a smorgasbord approach to choosing a Bible translation. The assumption is that there are no longer objective or reliable standards for assessing a Bible translation; so readers can simply take their pick. Carried to its extreme, this mentality produces The Amplified Bible, which multiplies English synonyms for words in the biblical text, leaving readers to simply pick the word that pleases them, with no attempt to pin a preference to what the original text actually says.”
We are often told by those that criticize our stand for the King James Bible that we are limiting God or that we are limiting our understanding of what God’s word says by not consulting a plethora of translations. We are repeatedly told that in order to get a ‘clearer picture’ of what the original text is saying we must resort to the “smorgasbord approach” that Leland outlined above. But does this approach to Bible reading really work? Well, for many years we have declared that this approach simply does not and will not work. Consider what Leland Ryken says regarding this very concept: “Furthermore, when I consult half a dozen dynamic equivalent translations, I more often than not find that they vary so widely that I end up confused and with a new sense of the unreliability of them as translations.” This is exactly what we have been saying for years now. It is impossible for ALL Bibles to be valid translations when they vary so “widely”. This is just plain everyday common sense!
At this point I would like to bring this study to a close with a few final thoughts. The main reason for writing this paper was to defend our AV against the attack that it is written at a level that is simply incomprehensible to readers today. Even if the “12th grade level” assessment is correct I believe that I have adequately demonstrated that that in and of itself does not disqualify our AV as inaccessible by today’s readership. The fallacies I have listed above are nothing more than that – Fallacies!
Not many years ago Dr. Rudolf Flesch, a well known scholar of the English language, wrote a small book titled “The Art of Plain Talk”. The basic theme of the book is to teach readers how to write in a ‘plain’ way that will be easy for their target audience to understand. He produces a “chart” to measure language --- from Very Easy to Very Difficult. He analyzes several pieces of popular English literature and mentions our King James Bible several times. Each time he references our KJB it is always used as an example of “clear and readable” English.
On his chart, which rates the average number of affixes per 100 words, “Very Easy” is 22 or less and “Very Difficult” is 54 or more. Dr. Flesch clearly states, “Again, for the time being, the average-reader standard of 37 is most important for you to know. The BEST example of very easy prose (about 20 affixes per 100 words) is the King James Version of the Bible; literary writing tends to be Fairly Difficult; scientific prose is Very Difficult. This book has on the average 33 affixes per 100 words” (caps mine).
For an understanding of how we got where we are now in regards to comprehending the English language and the ridiculous cry for “easy-to-read-translations” please read Dr. Flesch’s other book, “Why Johnny Can’t Read”.
In closing I would like to once again quote from the book “The Word of God in English” by Leland Ryken. Mr. Ryken sums up the matter very poignantly when he writes, “Having had a quarter of a century to ponder the matter, I have concluded that the criterion of readability, when offered as a criterion by itself, should be met with the utmost resistance. To put it bluntly, what good is readability if a translation does not accurately render what the Bible actually says?” (emphasis Ryken’s) I honestly couldn’t agree more with Mr. Ryken’s words. The complaint that our AV is too difficult to read and understand is nothing more than a fallacy created by Bible critics who seek only to promote Bibles that do not “accurately render what the Bible actually says” and we as Bible Believers must meet this attack with “utmost resistance”. Selah!