Verily, God Did Not Say “Thou Shalt Not Steal”


The title thou hast lately read art not a clickbait and switch. Verily, I believe it to be one of truth and importance.

Let me put you at ease right away by telling you what I mean by it.

God did not say, “Thou shalt not steal.” He said “You shall not steal.”

He did not say, “I AM THAT I AM.” He said, “I AM WHO I AM.”

Jesus did not say, “Whosoever believeth in him should not perish.” He said, “Whoever believes in him should not perish.”

As linguist Steve Runge has often observed, “Choice implies meaning.” And the choice to use Elizabethan English today adds another message on top of whatever the Bible is saying—a message the KJV translators never intended. It says, “Behold! Thou art reading solemn, elevated, religious verbiage!”

For many people I respect, this elevation is a selling point for the KJV. But one major argument of my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible , is that the Spirit of God did not choose elevated, archaic, “religious” forms of Hebrew or Greek—and neither should we in English. When the Spirit of God inspired the Old and New Testaments, he used then-current Hebrew and Greek. In our Bibles we should use now-current English.

A new book on an old one


On the surface level, it isn’t hard to grasp what “Thou shalt not kill” means, so I am not saying that everyone should throw out their KJVs. I certainly won’t throw out mine—I use it every day in Logos. The KJV still has important and valuable uses. But when translating, reading, or teaching a text as important as the Bible, we have to be attentive to the language we use. What connotations do we add to the text when we use Elizabethan language in 2018?

As I point out in my new book, all native English speakers intuitively catch the strong overtones of religious authority that Elizabethan English now carries. When you use this form of our tongue, what you say feels, well, authorized. Why else would the Book of Mormon and the Pickthall translation of the Qur’an, published in 1830 and 1930, respectively, use thee and thou and -eth on the ends of verbs?

Here’s the Book of Mormon, with all the Elizabethan English bolded:

Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever. (Alma 31:15)

Here’s the Qur’an:

Verily there cometh unto you from Me a guidance; and whoso followeth My guidance, there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. (2:38)

These quotations may not sound odd to you. Maybe you expect religious talk to be vaguely otherworldly. But it is odd, historically speaking. It shouldn’t fit; it should feel like Shakespeare translated into Valley-girl. No one alive spoke or wrote Elizabethan in 1830 and 1930, so why did their particular form of English, one that flowered mostly in the 1500s, become the “religious” English? Why wasn’t it the English of the 1300s, or the 1800s? The English of every century is recognizably distinct. Jane Austen’s prose will never be mistaken for Winston Churchill’s, or vice versa. It’s just an accident of history that Elizabethan English has the meaning it does for us.

An accidental sanctity

It’s obvious how the accident happened. The King James Version has exercised a massive influence on our speech—and even our cultural psyche.

I’m not too upset about this; this was in many ways a good accident. KJV English is very beautiful to many, and its phrases have leavened the English loaf in wonderful, fragrant ways. My book opens with a full chapter acknowledging the valuable things we lose as the KJV slips from its position of dominance; its elevated, archaic beauty is one of them.

But KJV English has what C.S. Lewis called “an accidental sanctity.” It didn’t sound antiquated or religious to its original hearers. It was just the way people talked. But as the way people talked (and wrote) changed, KJV wording began to gather religious-y overtones its translators couldn’t have known to expect. Even by the time of the first major English lexicographer, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), King James English had become “solemn language” (Johnson’s wording), something recognizably distinct from normal English.

KJV Readability

These sanctified overtones have left us with a situation in which KJV English gives a certain air to God’s speech that he, like the translators, never intended. And the process of change in English has caused some serious problems for readability—at least for those people who didn’t grow up speaking Elizabethan English. And, given that the oldest human now alive was born multiple centuries after everyone stopped speaking this way, I think it’s safe to say there’s nobody left who speaks native KJV.

Readability isn’t yet something computers can truly measure (I have a whole chapter explaining why in my book); it’s not the kind of straightforward, mathematical activity computers comprehend. Written language has so many elements, and every one of them contributes to readability in profound ways. Computers can count word and sentence length, yes. But punctuation, word choice, syntax, and even formatting have an impact on the reader’s experience, and computers have a much harder time gauging these. A computer doesn’t know that righteousness is actually an easier word than caul, or that a semicolon and a colon can be powerful tools for meaning. Computers can’t “understand,” they can only count.

If you marked up a random chapter of the KJV like an editor would, highlighting all its differences from the way we  would write today, you’d get something like the colored “heat map” below (taken from Authorized).

  • Yellow means something pretty easy to understand.
  • Orange means something that might trip up readers.
  • Red means something that today’s readers will almost certainly misunderstand—through no fault of their own,  but merely because of the inevitable process of change in English.

To be fair, I did the ESV, too—it’s on the right (click here for full-size version of these heat maps).

Other things being equal—and they generally are, because we have so many good Bible translations—a translation that uses modern English is going to be easier than one that doesn’t.

I am not criticizing the KJV; in the book I say not one negative word about the decisions of the KJV translators. I think their work was sterling. I’m not nearly as smart as they are; my only advantage is that I happen to be breathing. I speak today’s English. They didn’t. If English continues to change at the rate it has been for the last few centuries, the ESV and NIV and NLT and all of today’s translations that speak my English will start gathering yellow, then orange, then red highlights, too. It is no one’s fault that language changes. Authorized argues, however, that we have a moral obligation to change with it. The Bible’s message is too precious—we can’t let any other messages compete with it.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a writer for Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

Comments

  1. Deacon Rick Bauer says:

    Great article, Mark.

    And let’s not forget…..ahem….that Shakespeare helped to write the KJV.

    He did! And I can prove it.

    When the KJV was being written, Shakespeare was 46. In the 46th Psalm, the 46th word from the start and the 46th word from the end are “shake” and “spear.”

    I rest my case :)

    I use this strange coincidence with my students not to prove anything except that sometimes things occur that “prove” a point from coincidence but have nothing to do with causality. I usually use this illustration when I teach Revelation, when I share that
    666 = R-O-N-A-L-D W-I-L-S-O-N R-E-A-G-A-N. :)

    Deacon Rick Bauer
    Instructor in Sacred Scripture
    Diaconate Formation Program
    Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs

    (and passionate Logos/Verbum user!)

    • A serious question I’d like some insight on from other word nerds: I find the KJV much easier reading than Shakespeare. Is that merely because of my familiarity with the contents of the former? Is it because the latter is more self-consciously demanding, dense, and literary-poetical?

      • Deacon Rick Bauer says:

        I have an MA in English Literature, and became a Protestant in graduate school, went on to seminary, and after 15 years of preaching in Churches of Christ, entered the Catholic Church.

        I do believe that Shakespeare and Elizabethan literature made the KJV much more digestible for me, and I had to always keep that in mind with archaic words, to explain them to my modern-day audience.

        Its economy of words is a key to its density, and still is stunning. One of the ways I test that aspect of any later translation (surely not the only aspect) is in the John 7 story, when the guards are sent to arrest Jesus. In 7:46 they say, in the KJV, “Never man so spake.” I have preached on those 4 words–the uniqueness of the occasion (never), the uniqueness of the speaker (not a man), the clarity, power, and grace of his words (“so), and those words themselves (“spake”).

        Nerd exercise: Get any translation and see how many words it takes to express that thought of the guards (the arresters who were arrested by the words of Christ). And I have never preached the KJV, but nevertheless have a great respect for its contribution to Western Civilization.

        self-confessed “word-nerd”

        Rick

        • Nice. Word nerds are my home boys. But I’m going to press you on this, because I truly need help: is Shakespeare inherently more difficult prose to decode than the KJV, as I think? Or am I biased by exposure to the latter?

          • Deacon Rick Bauer says:

            Mark, sorry if I but seem a trifle dodgy, but I don’t think so. It’s transitive–if you “get” one, you get the other. Less iambic pentameter in the Bible, so maybe the KJV is slightly easier. But vocabulary? Not much difference.

            For someone immersed in this world, that is. And most people today who speak English obviously aren’t.

          • That’s just the kind of answer I was looking for! Thank you. That’s genuinely helpful. I need to pick up the bard (I’ve got the standard, one-volume collection of his plays) and see for myself again, but I’ve attended something like 20 Shakespeare productions, and though I enjoyed myself I always had the sense that certain words were flying past my understanding.

            John McWhorter has done some work on the difficulty in Shakespeare, advocating for “10% translations” of his plays. I concur, and I discuss this in the book. He and I had a great chat about it on Lexicon Valley…

          • Deacon Rick Bauer says:

            “If we spirits have offended, but say the word and all is mended.”

            Let me close for a plug of the best Shakespeare summer festival in America, the Colorado Shakespeare festival every summer in Boulder. 3 plays all summer long, and my wife and I love attending. https://cupresents.org/series/shakespeare-festival/

            We have been going for 15 years.

  2. Rev. Dr. Jaime Lopez Ortega says:

    My Dear Mark,
    As much as I dislike to disagree, especially with a Doctor I must protest never the less.. At the time of the writing and release of the venerable KJV no one in England spoke the Elizabethan dialect as their casual and daily speech form.. Elizabethan had long past as the cotidian spoken dialect of the realm.. No one used thees and thous.. There was and is a higher purpose for the use of this dialect that goes beyond the ken of many educated preachers who none the less lack in ability to discern spiritual things.. There is nothing wrong with the KJV that dedication, memorization and meditation will no cure and thereby mark the man and his calling…Peace… Jaime…

    • I appreciate this opportunity to acknowledge a little obfuscation of which I am guilty in this post. I just didn’t feel I could get into this without being confusing. Maybe I should have. But as Alister McGrath shows in his work on the KJV (and as my book also discusses), the KJV is a revision of a revision of a revision. So the real “synchronic” place to look for usage data is Tyndale’s time. I acknowledge that people in England in 1611 probably no longer spoke quite like the KJV.

      I still say, however, that the KJV translators did not have a “higher purpose” in choosing (or merely retaining) the particular variety of English that wound up in the KJV. They say they didn’t: they say they were trying to reach “the very vulgar.” And even if they secretly did aim for a higher, elevated, reverent, formal, solemn speech (and, again, McGrath and I don’t think they did!), they had to shoot higher than the Greek and Hebrew to do so. There are elevated, poetical sections of the Bible, surely. But the Greek New Testament in particular is written in Koine, the common (“vulgar”) speech of the people.

      Rev. Dr. Jaime Lopez Ortega, you need my book! =) I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, as one of the regular commenters around here.

      • Edward Barclay says:

        Curious here. Doesn’t the “Dedication” and “The Translators to the Reader” of the 1611 KJV use the word “you” and “your” in the singular, unless otherwise quoting Scripture? I wonder what bearing this has on whether or not English speakers at the turn of the seventeenth century spoke regularly with “thee” and “thou” pronouns. I’m not speaking of comprehension here, just the typical vocabulary of common people. And I am not speaking of whether English speakers came to use “thee” and “thou” more commonly later in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries due to the influence of the KJV. Have you done any research on this?

    • Deacon Rick Bauer says:

      well said.

  3. Daniel Welch says:

    Any literate person can and does read Shakespeare. Shalt and shall have the same meaning.I can understand people preferring one version or another. What I can’t understand is the half baked unreasonable disdain for the KJV. There must be a reason for it beyond “words are hard”. Almost all the criticism of the KJV here could be made of the Greek new testament and yet no one continually disparages it.

    • Friend, I am decidedly *not* disparaging the English translation of the Bible that still fills my own heart. Almost all of the Bible verses I’ve memorized are from the KJV. I love the KJV.

      It is not disparaging the KJV to point out that English has changed since it was first published, anymore than I would be criticizing John Wycliffe to note that I have trouble reading this:

      It’s not his fault or mine that English has changed a good deal since 1390.

      And I take myself to be a literate person, but I have trouble understanding Shakespeare (I discuss this in a little detail in my book). The problem is not that the Elizabethan words in Shakespeare and the KJV “are hard,” like eleemosynary and pestiferous are hard. The problem is two-fold, as I explain in Authorized: dead words and false friends. There are many words we don’t know in the KJV, because no one uses them anymore. These “dead words” can be looked up. But there are also many “false friends,” words we don’t know we don’t know—because we still use them, just in a different sense than the KJV translators did.

      I am not disparaging anyone, not the KJV translators and not myself or any other modern reader, for failing to keep up with all the changes English has undergone in the last five centuries since the Tyndale-KJV tradition began. I do not disdain the KJV; I love it. But I follow Paul’s teaching inside it:

      Except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.

  4. Kirk DiVietro says:

    Did anyone check the HEBREW? Even the Logos interlinear finds that
    לֹא תִּגְנֹב is second pers masculin SINGULAR. Please don’t let the facts get in the way of a pitiful argument against the KJV. You may not like it. That’s your choice but you don’t have to lie to justify your bias.

    • Ouch! I’m not sure what bearing this has on what I said… =| (Can another commenter help me understand?) I wasn’t saying anything about singular vs. plural. In fact, in my book, I acknowledge that the move from Elizabethan second person pronouns to modern ones is a genuine loss: you is ambiguous; it could be singular or plural. Thou is not ambiguous: it’s singular.

      I’m talking in this post about the solemn, elevated, religious feel Elizabethan verbiage now carries for modern hearers, something that was not intended by the translators who first gave us that verbiage.

    • Deacon Rick Bauer says:

      after all, if it was good enough for Paul and Silas, it’s good enough for me :)

      Lets be nice here. To disagree with an honorable man should not require dishonoring him. The social media world is too much with us, I might suggest.

  5. Tom Hanson says:

    ref Shakespeare difficulties.
    I was lucky having come to Shakespeare very young–as in 10 years old– and was for whatever childish reason, unknown, thoroughly charmed. In grad school Elizabethan drama was my “minor field.” And I think that a lot of the difficulty in Shakespeare results from the wit so esteemed at the time, which was endlessly verbal. Part of the reason that Shakespeare’s best work still works is his “uneducated” concern for the vulgar part of his audience from which he came. Thus a good director has to study like mad to pick up the clues he gives for the groundlings of his time. Many will still work today in the theater, but not all. For those that don’t, good directors must supply them. Thus an overweening pedantic answers a bragging peasant character in Latin “haud credo” (“I don’t believe you”), the peasant answers back “weren’t an old gray doe, it were a young buck!” and proves it by taking antlers out of his sack. Large laugh from the audience if timed right for today’s humor. No antlers, smaller laugh. Endless punning. There are also various Elizabethan dialects involved which make things more difficult for us than the KJV.

    • Great comment. Excellent.

      I know that England still has multiple accents and even dialects. And in the past, in a time before mass media, they surely had accents and dialects (the History of English podcast I so love has mentioned them). So just as “y’all” immediately communicates a particular region to Americans today, I would have to imagine that Shakespeare had similar resources—that are totally lost on modern audiences.

      • Tom Hanson says:

        And even today, if you just read a contemporary play, even a masterpiece will seem simply flat until you have learned to use your imagination about how lines should be spoken, and that means you have to read the play twice, unless you’ve seen it, because you need to know the entire story before you can start intelligently imagining the way the words should work to make the last act work properly. Should this character at this point be bored? Angry? Cynical?
        Reading plain fiction demands imagination also, but not nearly the work needed to properly understand and enjoy reading a play. It is a learned skill. I was blessed at the age of ten when the imagination runs freely and Shakespeare entered my life.

  6. When the revelation of God has received all people can understand what God is saying it’s just about God given the Revelation from His Spirit of the exact meaning as I have heard the spirit of the truth speaking to me take heed to what you hear,
    I’ve had heard the spirit of the truth speak hearken unto my voice

  7. Dan Hooton says:

    I use several English translations for study, but when it comes to memorization, I find the KJV sticks better, perhaps because of its very distinctiveness. Poetry is easier for me to commit to memory than a paragraph of ordinary, every-day English. The rhyming of words helps to
    seal in the thoughts being expressed. The hymns of Gerhard Tersteegen are especially good in this regard. For what it’s worth, the Professor of New Testament Greek at one Texas seminary, who was a strong advocate of the NASB and I believe he would have been of the ESV, said that other than the Greek text, he preferred to read “The Revelation” in the KJV.

  8. Pastor Richard Gill says:

    I appreciate this topic very much, I am a 57 year old pastor who was called to the ministry at 51. I do not have a doctorate, only an associates degree as I am still trying to show myself a workman approved. I will say this, that there are a great deal of people who read the KJV because they were taught, incorrectly, that, “if it aint king James it aint bible.” I preach and teach from the ESV because I am afraid to teach the Word of God incorrectly. If I were to try to teach Gods Word from A translation I struggled to understand I would surely work harder at the language than the text.
    I believe what you said that, they spoke that way then…we do not talk that way now.
    And I also teach my congregation that if you can grasp what God is saying in the KJV then by all means use it.

  9. Bauer Tim says:

    I believe, Mark, what you are saying is the reason I don’t use the KJV in preaching (except for reference or occasional emphasis) or with my neighbors or in discipling others … no one speaks that version of English today! Thank you for clarity in both upholding the KJV for what it is/was, and the need for clear communication of the gospel in 2018.

    Although maybe the gospel in 2018 might have more emojis and LOLs, etc. As Deacon Rick said, “The social media world is too much with us!”

  10. Hi Mark, please check out this link at your convenience.https://dispensationalpublishing.com/15773-2/
    I may be wrong, but I sense that you may not be a dispensationalist and are possibly A-mil/reformed, which of course is your right to be able to do. Now if I may, lets get to the core of the issue. It is not so much bible translations, but “which manuscripts”. The overwhelming majority of manuscripts back up the King James and the New King James. So they are based on textus receptus and the majority text. All other translations are in the Wescott and Hort camp and are based on the Vaticanus and Alexandrian texts of which, one was pulled out of a trash can. These are the minority of extant manuscripts and come from the likes of Origen- the heretic. All new bible translatons are based on these. The translators can use only what is in front of them to translate, and the whole lump is leaven and corrupted. The KJV / NKJV are drastically different then the other literal counterparts NASB / ESV / NIV. Why? Because the manuscripts do not have the same wording. This is not a “Greek” issue. Things that are different are not the same. Major theological issues abound. Yes they do! Corrupt / Incorrupt.
    Now I personally do not like the archaic words, and there is an KJV-ER, that updates only the obsolete words and makes it more readable. I personally have tried to use the NASB and the ESV, and I noticed missing words and phrases immediately. I compared NASB next to KJV and it is like reading two different bibles. Words matter. If a person is not comfortable with the KJV, I recommend the NKJV or the KJV-ER {easy read}. By the way I am a Moody grad from the past and also LBU Seminary grad. Thanks for your time and for the book.

    • Mark, thank you for the comment, and for reading.

      My new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, is neutral when it comes to textual criticism. If you believe that there are massive differences between the TR and the critical text, my book will not try to dissuade you. The sole point of the book is to urge vernacular English translation. I think you’d be surprised to find what modern readers miss in the KJV.

  11. Mark,
    Can I purchase in any book store?

  12. Although I don’t know enough grammar in detail to be labeled a “word nerd,” I have enjoyed (and mostly followed) the conversation above. And I feel very “flighty” to share what popped into my mind as I read your blog. But I won’t let that stop me.

    I once read of a lady who insisted in using the KJV of the Bible because she wanted the exact words that Jesus spoke!

  13. Felmar Roel Rap. Singco says:

    Appreciating the olden but beauty full Elizabethan language of the Authorised King James Version of the Holy Bible does not usually happen in an instant, but most often takes some time, after much reading, cross reading, reference reading, and rereading of the text.

    It is much like a hip hop connoisseur or a heavy metal amateur suddenly trying to appreciate the musics of Classical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Renaissance master Giovanni Pier Luigi da Palestrina.

    But one will finally, all ways, succumb to appreciation, and will love what will happen, and will announce it to the world with bliss full glee, and will thank the heavens for introducing him to the new musics.

    The language of the AKJV is not dead: it is still living English, with a few archaic or obsolete words and usages in it, but only a few ones, and few ones that are not ugly archaisms nor tacky obsolescence, and few ones that really are not that hard to under stand given the proliferation of extra version aids such as the dictionary or the thesaurus.

    The glories and majesties of the AKJV will live on for ever, and no doubt, when the first Earthling colonisers will arrive at Mars, traditional and digital book copies of the AKJV will accompany them in their new lives there.

  14. Felmar Roel Rap. Singco says:

    I would say, Dr. Ward, that that even enhances the attractiveness of the AKJV.

    The Elizabethan English used are really not that opaque to modern ears and eyes, and I believe that youths of our days will even appreciate and thank us if we train them to not only read the new versions, many of which are really also excellent, but to also read and appreciate and respect the AKJV, which has been the foundation of the English speaking families of nations and cultures since the 15th Century.

    They will be happy, when they learn how rich and varied and historic the English language is, how alive it is be cause it is constantly evolving and yet not abrogating its beauty full past, and how anchored it remains to the old traditions and old ways in spite of new advancements and global neologisms.

    The AKJV is important, be cause it serves not only as an anchor for traditions in the English language, but it also serves as a bridge that allows readers to go back in history, to learn that God’s message was important in times past as it is to day in our times.

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