Hi-tech meets the KJV

So I haven’t been too anxious to post while I’m in the middle of teaching a class about English Bible translation because I don’t want the students reading my reactions online. I’ll have things to say next semester.

However, I got something for my birthday last month that has revolutionized my life — an iPhone.

My older son asked me if I wanted one, and since my Sprint contract had lapsed, and my Palm Treo was dying, I said yes — little expecting how much different the iPhone experience is from the Treo. Two things are of relevance to this audience.

No, not the one where you can watch the GPS blue dot follow you down the freeway on Google maps. (Don’t try this while driving.)

First, I don’t have to lug around Bibles anymore. They have a free app that brings you 21 versions. While listening to the sermon you can check what the other translations say. I don’t have to make notes and wait until I get home and get on the computer. Very, very handy.

Second, I get to listen to Scripture, instead of just reading it. And that’s what I want to talk about. It turns out that all the spoken Scripture that we had around the house was on old cassette tape collections (some more than 20 years old with missing tapes). Because of the inconvenience, we had long ago ceased listening. But a couple years back, I bought some CD’s of the NT on sale. They were on sale because they are Alexander Scourby reading the KJV.

In the 1940’s Scourby recorded the whole Bible for the blind. See the Wikipedia article here.

Now as you may well have surmised, I’m no fan of the KJV. I respect it for its place in history. I memorized from it, because that’s what we did in those days. But it is not suitable for everyday home use.

Nonetheless, I loaded it on my iPhone and started listening while I walk our dog, Pixie. I was amazed. Of course I know that Scourby had one of the most listenable voices in the history of recorded sound. But what surprised me was how easy it is to understand the gospels and how hard it is to understand the epistles.

And if I, as a linguistics professor who regularly teaches the English  vocabulary course, and has an extensive knowledge of the history of English, if I am having trouble understanding something, what about ordinary folk.

The problem seems to be that while I can work out what the author likely meant — for example, conversation in I Peter for behavior, lifestyle. It eats up too much of my attention to keep making the mental jumps. Even after hours of listening, the odd morphology (like –eth for –s: wanteth for wants) is the only thing that’s fully automatic. I still have to work to get

Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles … (I Pet. 2:12a)

to come out as

Live your life among non-believers honorably … (RAR)

(Compare this with some other contemporary translations:

… having you behavior seemly among the Gentiles … (ASV)

Always let others see you behaving properly … (CEV)

Keep you conduct honorable among the Gentiles … (ESV)

Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles … (HSCB)

… and maintain good conduct among the non-Christians … (NET)

Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles … (NASB)

Live such good lives among the pagans that, … (TNIV)

etc. )

That use of mental band width keeps me from simply hearing God. Listening to Scripture becomes an exercise in mental gymnastics, not an enterprise of the heart.

Since we at Berkeley Covenant are in the middle of a sermon series on I Peter, I decided I’d listen to it over and over because that’s a good way to get Scripture into your heart. But I find there is a problem. Because the language is so hard to process, I end up caught on particular wordings, and tuning out 5 or 10 seconds worth while I work out what a particular phrase is supposed to mean. Listening to a translation in Biblish, as beautiful as it sounds read by Scourby, just doesn’t work.

This is why I’m so passionate about getting a translation that speaks to the heart of English speakers.

20 thoughts on “Hi-tech meets the KJV

  1. codepoke says:

    Wayne’s drum-pounding on this has really made a deep dent in my KJV-only mindset. Your report, Rich, speaks to another aspect of the same correction.

    I, too, had Scourby sitting around my house for a long time. I listened to him a time or two and decided hearing the bible was for those who could not read it. He made the bible sound huge, sweeping, distant and theological. Then, a year ago my girlfriend loaned me her copy of, “The Bible Experience.” It’s a dramatic reading of the NIV, and listening to it is a penetrating experience.

    Hearing the bible in something close to my mother tongue is arresting. The readers of The Bible Experience make it easy to hear people instead of proof texts. I want to be in my car (no iPhone here) so I can hear what’s on God’s mind next in Leviticus. Yes, really.

    The very act of hearing, rather than reading, the bible is arresting – when it’s human. And KJV just isn’t human any more.

    I never thought I’d hear myself say that.

    Thanks, Rich.

  2. Mark says:

    I’ve used the Bible Experience as well and would highly recommend it. It’s actually the TNIV not the NIV. In a few places the dramatization (background sound effects) overwhelm the spoken word of the passage but not often. The cool things is that the whole cast is African American and many of them are professional actors. Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Denzel Washington, LL Cool J, Blair Underwood and Samuel L. Jackson. Something that’s not so cool is that some other folks some how made it on the list who (at first glance) don’t seem to belong like celebrity reporter Star Jones or famed health and wealth preacher “Bishop” T. D. Jakes. It was named audio book of the year in 2007.

    Dr. Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary gave it a positive review here. You can buy it on CD or I think it’s also available via itunes.



  3. Wayne Leman says:

    I like the CEV in podcast. The CEV is the first English Bible version translated for hearing. You can download all of the CEV to put it on your new iPhone. Oh, the main man behind this CEV recording project and website upkeep is Tim Bulkeley, a sometime visitor to BBB. He has a passion for others to hear God’s Word accurately and clearly. I like that passion. And I can sure identify with the mental bumps you have experienced as you’ve listened to non-standard English recordings of the Bible. I face it listening to Scripture read in church, when it is from a version which is not written using natural English. There is a more effective route for brain processing of oral material when it is in language whose syntax and lexical combinations are already sanctioned by our brains. Our brains still get to work, but work as they were intended to do so, with the content, rather than having to detour off to the special odd language decoding unit.

    OK, end of drum beating for now, at least for a few minutes, or a couple of hours!

  4. Charles says:

    “But it is not suitable for everyday home use.”

    Ah, spoken like a true professor 😉

    I assume you mean, you don’t find it suitable for your everyday use, but maybe others might and maybe others might have uses that would differ from yours. YMMV

  5. Charles says:

    I’m really, sorry. I thought this site allowed edits. Must have been the old one.


    “And KJV just isn’t human any more.”
    come-on, how sad…….. 😦

    “language whose syntax and lexical combinations are already sanctioned by our brains.”
    how do you know what is sanctioned by my brain?

    “The cool things is that the whole cast is African American and many of them are professional actors.”
    as opposed to uncool white evangelical non actors?

    I honestly don’t mean to offed anyone, just to provide a counterbalance. Thank you

  6. codepoke says:

    It’s funny, Charles, how similar and how different we are. It’s true, anyone’s mileage will vary.

    I grew up reading The Mighty Thor which probably explains more about me than I should really reveal. At any rate, all the cool dudes spoke in hack-elizabethean English. Suddenly the KJV spoke the real stuff that the cool dudes spoke, so I grew up with a genuine comfort and affection for it. That was probably half the reason I had such an easy time defending it.

    Having heard the TNIV, though, my mileage is very much different now. It is amazing hearing Moses’ words with no filters, not even beloved ones. I continue to see the value of the Majority Text, but the text is subtlely opaque. It’s like watching a play through a stained glass window. The window itself is beautiful, but the play is obscured.

  7. exegete77 says:

    Wayne wrote: “The CEV is the first English Bible version translated for hearing.“

    Actually, it was a split decision about “first.“ God’s Word (GW) was developed during the same time period, under the NET acronym from 1986 to 1995, when the entire Bible was published under the name God’s Word. On the other hand, CEV OT was published in 1995, and whole Bible in 1999. I remember that during the testing phases (1988-1994) that we (pastors and congregations participating in the testing) were asked to pay particular attention to how well it read during worship. In fact, the pericope system was sent to us and used so that a sampling of all types of Biblical literature were used in the oral presentation of the translation.

    Regardless of that history, the oral ability of a translation is critical. BTW, the single column format of God’s Word (GW) assists the one who reads in public settings. That too resulted from studies on effectiveness for reading. I know I greatly appreciate the format of GW when reading orally.

    Rich S

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    Rich, my comment about the CEV was meant to refer to the actual process the translators used to produce a translation for hearing. The translators themselves read the translation to each other, trying to ensure that the text sounded right for the ears. It’s good to have the field testing stage that the GW did. But at that point it is not so easy to change each and every phrase that doesn’t meet a high standard for oral translation.

    Your point is well taken that GW reviewers were asked to be alert to how GW sounded to their ears. I would suggest, however, that the linguists who did the CEV had the training and experience necessary to do oral translation. They knew what factors are required for a translation to be good orally.

    I am not suggesting that one of these versions is better than the other, only that the process used to actually produce the text of the translation was different. One had orality as a central part of the translation process itself; the other had it as a post-translation check. Both are important. The CEV approach stands a better chance of producing an oral translation due to the production design.

  9. exegete77 says:

    I wasn’t clear enough on this point. The GW team included an English stylist as part of the translation team, who reviewed and worked with the translators in the process of translating; and this was long before we as testers saw/read the texts.

  10. Wandering Friar says:

    I recently upgraded to an ITouch (didn’t need the phone part) and it is quite a remarkable device. I am continually amazed by its ease of use. I’ve been downloading all the free Bible apps that I can find and I particularly like the NET Bible app. I am curious, though, as to the name of the free Bible app that has the 21 different translations. Care to share?


  11. Rich Rhodes says:

    Wandering Friar,
    Sorry it’s taken a while to get back to this. The app is just called Bible. It’s from LifeChurch.tv and gets 4 stars. (It’s also free.)

  12. Jason Elder says:

    Having been converted in an independent blood bought born-again King James only Baptist Church, I’m naturally biased.

    Yet I don’t see many of the modern versions as “inherently” evil any more than a preacher expounding a passage of Scripture is evil.

    Still, I find it hard to listen to other Bible versions being read. The only thing I can compare it to is, trying to listen to Shakespeare, set to modern vernacular. It just doesn’t seem right. And that’s not meant to be an apologetic for the King James only position, I’m just stating how I feel. I refuse to learn John 3:16 all over again! lol

  13. Daryl Campbell says:

    The argument that the KJV is just too difficult to understand is a straw-man argument. Babes drink milk because they have no teeth to chew. As maturity comes, teeth are developed and food is processed by chewing, then swallowing. By chewing the food, the taste is enjoyed, and the body begins the process of digestion. Ironic how the Bible itself alludes to this illustration in a few places (unless that, too has been removed by critical thinkers.) God forbid that we should have to “think” about what the Word is saying. Much better are we if we can just enjoy the “sound” of the Word, or the “taste” of it, without actually having to chew on it.
    I am grateful to have a translation from a period when men were actually thinkers, and the resulting translation causes me to “think”.

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