USA Today: Has the Geneva Bible made a huge comeback?

Geneva Bible title pageDavid Ker claims that

Those who actually read the Bible prefer the KJV.

But in fact the passage he quotes from an article in USA Today seems to say something different:

82% of those who read the Good Book at least once a month rely on the translation that first brought the Scripture to the English-speaking masses worldwide.

That translation was of course the Geneva Bible, massively popular in the British Isles and the new American colonies in the late 16th and early 17th centuries – and there were no “English-speaking masses” anywhere else at the time. I see that the 1587 Geneva Bible is available for the Amazon Kindle for a mere £2.08, here in the UK. But I was surprised to see the suggestion that it had massively outsold all other Bible versions put together, even among the restricted sample in question.

But perhaps David is simply misleading us with his post. (Normally I would point out factual errors in a blog post in a comment on the post. But as he closed comments on this post before I even had a chance to read it, I have no choice but to make my comment in a separate post.) After all, the title of the USA Today article is “Bible readers prefer King James version”, so perhaps that is the version it is meant to be about. But then the article gives statistics apparently about a different version. Perhaps it is simply that the USA Today reporter is confused and ignorant of her subject matter, and doesn’t know that it was only in the late 17th century, in the wake of huge state intervention in the church, that the KJV became dominant.

David also fails to note a very important point, that the survey was apparently restricted to the USA. I suppose one would expect that from USA Today, but since David chose to quote the words “the English-speaking masses worldwide” he really should have made it clear that the sentence in which these words are found refers only to a small part of these masses.

Actually there is a more serious problem with the USA Today article, which was pointed out by Kenny who was lucky enough to get to comment on David’s post. According to the press release from LifeWay, the actual survey results are that

more than half of all American adults (62 percent) own a KJV Bible. … A full 82 percent of Americans who read the Bible at least once a month own a KJV.

But USA Today has changed “own a KJV” to state that that is the version that the 82% “prefer” and “rely on”. The fallacy is clear when one reads on in the press release to find out that

Americans who read the Bible at least once a month own an average of 5.8 Bibles.

Very likely for most people these multiple Bibles are in various versions. So it is presumptuous and indeed quite false to suggest that 82% of those Americans prefer or rely on just one version. Among my collection of several different versions, I own a KJV which was my mother’s confirmation present, and another which I had at school, but I rarely read either. Kenny’s story is similar, and so very likely is that of huge numbers of Christians among “the English-speaking masses worldwide”, and even of quite a few in the USA.

I wouldn’t expect anything better from USA Today. But here at BBB we really should try not to spread further this kind of misinformation.

Posted in: KJV

25 thoughts on “USA Today: Has the Geneva Bible made a huge comeback?

  1. White Man says:

    Well done, Peter. USA Today is not known for its high journalistic standards (well, I suppose that just about any rag on that side of the Atlantic would fall short), so it’s safe to conclude that David was not the one being duplicitous.

    But to apply the same standards to your own post, there were no “new American colonies” in the late 16th century.

    And I don’t own a copy of the Geneva Bible in any of its various editions (including one done in the late 20th century to conform the spelling to modern standards). So although I read the Bible regularly, William Whittingham & company won’t get any of the credit.

  2. Peter Kirk says:

    White Man, I did consider clarifying that statement about the late 16th century. But I didn’t partly because your objection is not quite true. Don’t forget the short-lived Roanoke Colony. I don’t know what Bible version, if any, was used there, but it certainly wasn’t KJV.

  3. Dan H. says:

    When I posted the link on the share page I didn’t anticipate it would garner this much attention!

    What’s most fascinating to me however, is that both responses and the following comments seem to miss the forest for the trees. David offers some good reflection on reasons for the KJV’s enduring popularity and Peter rightly corrects errors of fact in the USA Today piece.

    What this study contributes to the quest for a better bible is an understanding of the readers of the bibles that appears very counter-intuitive.

    1) Most Americans own a King James Bible

    2) An overwhelming majority of American regular bible readers own a King James Bible

    3) Most Americans find the KJV neither difficult to understand nor the language outdated.

    4) An overwhelming majority of Americans don’t find the KJV difficult to understand.

    In a context where the above statements are true what does it mean to make a better bible translation? How much of this discourse is informed by the actual lives and opinions of those who read the bible in translation?

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    I don’t know what kind of survey they did to give those results. But my observations and testing do not confirm (3) and (4). Our children do not understand the KJV. And, although I grew up on it, I’m not sure how well I actually understand it.

    I wonder if people have the feeling that they understand something because they are familiar with it. But if we actually test for content comprehension, they may show that they don’t understand as well as they think they do.

    “Now he that letteth will let until he be taken out of the way.”

    I’m guessing that many do not know what that sentence in the N.T. means.

  5. Theophrastus says:

    Yes, what’s with these sudden dramatic closing of comments on various threads on BBB?

    ——

    I have significant reason to doubt a poll taken by Lifeway Research. And, as you point out, a Bible that is owned is not necessarily a Bible that is read. J. G. Frazer (author of the Golden Bough) pointed out “that our English Bible is one of the greatest classics in the language is admitted by all in theory, but few appear to treat it as such in practice.”

    And there is ample evidence that Evangelical Christians in the US are in forefront of not reading the Bible. These poll results are from page 31 of Timothy Beal’s The Rise and Fall of the Bible (ISBN 0151013586):

    * Most Americans cannot name the first book in the Bible or the four Gospels in the New Testament.

    * More than 80% of born-again and Evangelical (US) Christians believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is a Biblical verse.

    * More than half of all graduating (US) high school seniors believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were man and wife, and one in ten adults believes that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

    * Almost two-thirds of Americans can’t name five of the ten commandments.

    Even Christian pop-literature is poorly known. When Sarah Palin mentioned C. S. Lewis as a source of inspiration, she was mocked by television commentators on ABC and MSNBC for citing a children’s book author.

    So here is my question: after all the effort made to make highly accessible Bible translations (such as the Good News, Living Bible and NLT, CEV, NCV, The Message), how is it that Christian Biblical education is so poor? (Note that at least the NLT and The Message both enjoy health sales, so the reason cannot be a conspiracy to suppress easy-reading translations.)

    I would hypothesize that the problem is that Bible is difficult. (A quick quiz for readers — do you remember the details of the trial for a suspected adulteress? [Look it up at Numbers 5:11-31.] Do you remember the order of sacrifices for Yom Kippur? [Look it up Leviticus 16 and Numbers 29:7-11.]) It is just difficult for a reader to plow through and understand ancient Israelite law codes. There are many similarly difficult passages in the New Testament as well (particularly in the Epistles.)

    Perhaps if some of the effort spent on translation (of which we have many in English) were instead spent on religious education, we would not have such dismal statistics.

    ——

    In the meanwhile, if you want to read the Bible in the standard English-language literary series, such as the Oxford World Classics (ISBN 0199535949) or the Penguin Classics (ISBN 0141441518) series, you’ll be reading the King James.

    ——

    Finally, the Geneva Bible (which is the butt of your jokes in this post) is in many ways preferable to the modern translations — at least the Geneva contains notes, maps, prefaces, and useful diagrams. If you want to read the Geneva, I can heartily recommend the facsimile 1560 edition (ISBN 1598562126), which can be found for $40-$43 from standard online retailers.

    I predict that owners of the Geneva are likely — on average — to be better educated in general and be better educated in the Bible in particular than owners of the NLT.

  6. Theophrastus says:

    Wayne: You misquoted the verse. “Only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” As you will note, this has significantly different meaning than “Now he that letteth will let until he be taken out of the way.” Even the comma is significant here.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    Theo, that’s what I get for trying to remember it. Thanks for the correction.

    My point still stands, with the correction. I don’t think many native English speakers today understand what the sentence means. It’s an outdated translation. A translation would communicate more accurately to native speakers today if it is worded with currently used words.

    There are many other examples like the one I gave. The KJV has been a good translation. It has beautiful cadences. It has probably affected more people than any other English translation. But it is out of date. Some of its language, as I think you pointed out a few days ago, was already out of date when it was published in 1611. Bible readers should not have to learn vocabulary and syntax from a prior stage of English to read the Bible for themselves in their own language. Those, like you, who wish, can enjoy the KJV and benefit from it. But the purpose of Bible translation is to communicate to people in their own language. The KJV is not written in the language of English speakers today. It is an unnecessary burden to place upon them to have to work through the difficulties of reading the KJV. It is possible to create English Bible translations today which have cadences and other wonderful literary features on a par with the KJV. It’s not the case that it can’t be done; it just isn’t being done.

    I thoroughly agree with you, John Hobbins, and others that not nearly enough attention is paid today to translating genre-specific features of the original biblical language texts. It is not easy to translate Bibles so that the result is accurate, as well as in the language of the target language, genre-sensitive, and with literary beauty. But it is possible. Better Bibles are possible. Until then, there are a good number of Bible versions which do communicate to English speakers what the biblical authors were communicating to their authors in ways that are accurate and often in the language of their target audience. I would run out of days to post if I posted every day about the good qualities of specific passage translations in so many English versions which have been produced recently.

  8. Theophrastus says:

    I can agree with you that the verse is hard to understand in the KJV. But to be fair,

    (1) it is somewhat easier to understand in the KJV in context of the entire passage (2 Thes 2:1-12);

    (2) it is obscure in the original that the participle in v. 6 is neutral and the participle in v. 7 is masculine — although they appear to refer to the same thing; and

    (3) it is obscure in all translations in the sense of the “the restrainer” (the Roman Empire? Satan? Paul’s own mission?) is unclear. In fact, it is not even clear if the “the restrainer” is good or evil! And this indicates the depths of our ignorance — for apparently the identity of “the restrainer” would have been obvious to the recipient of the epistle, but can not be positively identified by us today.

    I take your point that the KJV is a demanding translation. I blanch when I see editions such as KJV versions for children.– e.g., ISBNs 0310919096, 1598562924, 1433600625, 1598563513 (if you look them up on Amazon, you will note that one of those is designated by the publisher for ages 4-8, another is designated for “Baby-Preschool.”)

    But the original is also difficult.

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    Good observations, Theo. I also observed that the word “let” in this verse has a meaning that is unknown to almost all native speakers today.

    FWIW, I was taught that the restrainer is the Holy Spirit. If that’s true, that might explain why one reference to him/it is neuter and the other masculine. The Greek word for spirit is pneuma which is grammatically neuter. But spirits, esp. the Holy Spirit, are described as acting as animate, volitional beings. We would expect grammatical masculine or feminine for such beings, although there are a few other grammatical neuters, such as paidion ‘child’ which are also neuter (until the child reaches an old enough age to be called by the next term which is grammatically masc. or fem.). I suspect that this clash between grammatical and semantic gender in the minds of Greek authors, esp. the authors of the N.T., might lead them to sometimes treat “spirit” as grammatically masc.

    Fascinating. Never an end to language complexities which add to the difficulty of Bible translation.

  10. Theophrastus says:

    Actually, “let” is still used in the sense of “restraint” in contemporary English.

    The phrase “let ball” is used in tennis, and the phrase “let or hindrance” is an idiom — in fact, it appears in British passports:

    Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.

  11. Dannii says:

    I’m quite dubious about the usefulness of the results of that survey. While I think it’s very possible that 73% of people think the KJV isn’t hard to understand, that doesn’t mean that what they understand is what the text was written to mean!

  12. Wayne Leman says:

    Actually, “let” is still used in the sense of “restraint” in contemporary English.

    I’ll suggest that most Americans, anyway, don’t know what “let” in “let ball” means. I don’t think they would understand “let” in British passports.

    You’ve mentioned today’s translation equivalent for the Greek word. It’s “restrain.” It’s accurate and clear today.

  13. Dan H. says:

    Again there seems to be a lot of missing the forest for the trees here.

    I don’t mean to suggest by my questions that the KJV ends all endeavors for a better bible before they start! I think this sort of survey is useful for framing a discussion about audience.

    Wayne does raise an interesting point,

    “I wonder if people have the feeling that they understand something because they are familiar with it. But if we actually test for content comprehension, they may show that they don’t understand as well as they think they do.”

    This is one possibility.

    Another is that they could actually understand it and could confirm their comprehension through tests. (Part of this is because those answering the survey in a way are self-selecting as KJV bible readers)

    The third possibility (And I have reason to believe this would be a significant as one who has taught Shakespeare to high school sophomores) is that they do actually understand it but cannot confirm their comprehension through tests. (A surprising amount of people have great difficulty in summarizing and explaining texts they have written at any level of difficulty).

    But back to the larger issue. If many, perhaps a majority (or at least a plurality) are reading the KJV and if most who do claim to not have problems understanding it what does that tell us about those for whom the bible is translated?

    I think it tells us that the issues of complex language and syntax are not as significant to the majority of bible readers as it may seem.

    Now I believe the CEV, NLT, NRSV, KJV, and most of the rest of the alphabet soup serve a particular audience and serve that audience well. The question is what does the average bible reader look like? What is the average bible reader comfortable reading? I don’t claim to know but I do know that this study makes me think a little differently about this question.

  14. J. K. Gayle says:

    There’s no defending the language of the King James Bible for 2 Thessalonians 2:7b. Originally, with the “correct” punctuation and spelling actually read something like this:

    “onely he who now letteth, will let, vntill he be taken out of the way.”

    The authorized “English Revised Version” of 1881, updated it:

    “only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way.”

    But even following in some cases a different set of Greek texts, the ERV seems closer to the Tyndale of 1536:

    “which onlie loketh vntill it be taken out of ye waye.”

    Notice Tyndale’s unique “it.” And what’s his “loketh” mean? (See Chaucer’s “Under the sonne he loketh” in The Knight’s Tale, 839, which is under dispute today).

    Willis Barnstone, a translation theorist and practitioner both, says this interesting thing:

    “With respect to common speech for the English translation of Koine Greek, I have found inspiration in the first English translation of the New Testament made directly from the Greek by William Tyndale in 1525. Tyndale’s voice is demotic plain speech, not the high rhetoric of the magnificent 1611 King James Version. Tyndale’s pioneer texts were deftly lifted into famous later translations, including the King James, along with words and phrases he invented, which we may incorrectly assume were always there, such as ‘scapegoat,’ ‘Let there be light,’ ‘gave up the ghost,’ and ‘Passover’ for Easter. Where Tyndale writes, ‘He was a luckie fella,’ the King James will say, ‘He was a fortunate gentleman.’ Tyndale keeps his dress plain.”

    What I’m interested in is how there is no conflict between (1) “demotic plain speech” (or to use Wayne’s phrases “democratic” translation and “heart language”) and (2) “words and phrases … invented.” So, I’ve bolded these phrases in the context of Barnstone’s paragraph, above, from p 28 of his Restored New Testament.

    Can’t a translator be inventive and creative and still speak in the heart language? What does this say about field testing? What if Tyndale’s fellas and women were to hear ‘gave up the ghost’ and not get it right away? Aren’t common and high people alike able to play with language, even as readers?

  15. J. K. Gayle says:

    FYI – Barnstone translates the bit above as:

    “but the one who is restraining him will go on doing so until he is gone.”

    And Richmond Lattimore – whom Barnstone admires (as do many of us) – has this (with an “it”):

    “only there is one who prevents it until he is gone from our midst.”

  16. J. K. Gayle says:

    Or was it the Geneva Bible that influenced the KJ Versioners? Of course it was. The “Geneva” translators had:

    “onely he which nowe withholdeth, shall let till he be taken out of the way.”

  17. J. K. Gayle says:

    But the original is also difficult, reminds Theophrastus.

    with added punctuation and spacing and lower-case alphabet for reader ease, it goes something like this:

    μόνον ὁ κατέχων ἄρτι, ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται,

    Which makes us Greek readers think of it as both demotic and also creative. Did those readers and listeners in ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΗ Greece in the first century really easily understand on the first reading?

  18. Theophrastus says:

    Kurk: Your quote from the Geneva is not completely correct. In fact, the Geneva has:

    onely he which nowe* withholdeth, shall let till he be taken out of the way.

    Note the italics, which indicate that “shall let” corresponds to a term interpolated by the translators.

    Further, the side note at “nowe” states:

    He which is now in authoritie and ruleth all, to wit, the Romane Empire.

  19. J. K. Gayle says:

    “shall let” corresponds to a term interpolated by the translators.

    Good catch, Theophrastus. Seems that those working on the revision for King James of the British Empire understood. They allow the phrasing “withholdeth, shall let till” to be replaced by “letteth, will let, vntill.”

    And you’ve probably noticed that Richard Knolles’s The generall historie of the Turkes 1st edition, 1603 (1 vol., London: Printed by Adam Islip, 1603), on page 118, has this: “the Turkes without let or stay ouerranne all the countrey.” Which is hardly Tyndale’s presumably lower but more demotic and very inventive, “Let there be… “

  20. Mike Sangrey says:

    I think the ‘let’ verse is a good example, but I’ve thought a better example is 1 Cor. 12:11

    But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit.

    How many people today would understand the subject of the sentence is “the selfsame Spirit”?

  21. Dannii says:

    JK said:

    Can’t a translator be inventive and creative and still speak in the heart language? What does this say about field testing? What if Tyndale’s fellas and women were to hear ‘gave up the ghost’ and not get it right away? Aren’t common and high people alike able to play with language, even as readers?

    Yes, but speech communities have conventions for introducing new language, and Bible translations should follow those conventions. If they do most readers will actually understand it the first time they hear it.

  22. exegete77 says:

    J. K. Gayle: “Which makes us Greek readers think of it as both demotic and also creative. Did those readers and listeners in ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΗ Greece in the first century really easily understand on the first reading?“

    Methinks they had PowerPoint v. 0.1 to review with notes in MS Word 0.1. Unfortunately a power outage happened just as Paul got to this verse.

    Seriously, it is a challenging text. James Voelz spends some time on this verse in his hermeneutics book (What Does This Mean?

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