Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Bible Readers Prefer ‘Sacred Dialect’ Over ‘Contemporary Language’

Bible Readers Prefer ‘Sacred Dialect’ Over ‘Contemporary Language’
by Mr. Vernon Kneprath

The WELS Translation Evaluation Committee (TEC) put a lot of emphasis on “readability” in their advocacy of the 2011 New International Version Bible translation (NIV). In Forward in Christ, “Evaluating Translations”1, Professor Wendland made the following statements:
    We expect, with Luther, that a translation will communicate in the language of the people, using idioms and expressions that are understandable and in common, current use.

    We expect that the translation will be aimed at native English speakers who can handle Standard American English at a late primary school or early high school level, people who are neither professional theologians nor biblical illiterates.

    We believe that a translation should sound good when read aloud.
In Forward in Christ, “Translation Evaluation Committee Present Two Options”2:
    The NIV 2011 was frequently mentioned as the most polished of the three translations, the one that communicates in the smoothest and clearest way.
According to the Christian Booksellers Association, the NIV translation continues to hold the #1 position on their CBA Best Sellers list for Bible Translations3. Interestingly, the dated King James Version Bible translation (KJV) continues to be a consistent #2 on the list, and the New King James Version Bible translation (NKJV) is frequently #3. But does the #1 top seller status of a Bible translation identify a translation that people actually read? Two recent reports, “The Bible in American Life4 and “The State of the Bible, 20135 suggest otherwise.

Consider first “The Bible in American Life.”6 Here it was found that among self-identified Bible readers, 55% used the KJV, while 19% used the NIV. Some conclusions regarding the KJV in this report:
    Although the bookstores are now crowded with alternative versions, and although several different translations are now widely used in church services and for preaching, the large presence of the KJV testifies to the extraordinary power of this one classic English text, Professor Noll commented. It also raises most interesting questions about the role of religious and linguistic tradition in the make-up of contemporary American culture. Project advisor Sylvester Johnson also remarked on the peculiar cultural power of the King James Bible, noting that its language seems to function for many Americans as “a type of lingua sacra or sacred dialect.
The State of the Bible, 20137 reported similar findings. Of adults who read the Bible at least 3-4 times a year, the KJV was the translation of choice by 38%, the NKJV was selected by 14%, and the NIV was third at 11%.

These findings, relating to a translation 400 years old, belie the claims that a 30-year-old translation is too outdated to be useful.

In Christianity Today, Zylstra8, discussed these findings, and reported yet another interesting piece of information regarding the KJV vs. the NIV:
    The KJV also received almost 45 percent of the Bible translation-related searches on Google, compared with almost 24 percent for the NIV, according to Bible Gateway's Stephen Smith.

    In fact, searches for the KJV seem to be rising distinctly since 2005, while most other English translations are staying flat or are declining, according to Smith's Google research.
In light of this information, it is unfortunate that the WELS TEC didn’t include the KJV for consideration as the translation for use in WELS publications. The TEC’s great concern with “readability” biased them toward the NIV translation, a translation respectful of human concerns such as gender neutrality. But most Bible readers express a different preference in their choice of a translation that they actually read. In the KJV they have a translation that has stood the test of time for centuries. In the KJV they find a translation with a language that communicates a respect for God and His Word. And finally, but most importantly, with the Holy Spirit working faith through reading of God’s Word, readers of the Bible become mindful that they are reading God’s Word, not the daily edition of a current newspaper.

  1. Paul O. Wendland, “Evaluating Translations,” Forward in Christ, Volume 98, Number 12, December 2011.
  2. Translation Evaluation Committee Present Two Options,” Forward in Christ, Volume 100, Number 3, March 2013.
  3. CBA Best Sellers list for Bible translations” at the hyperlink
  4. Philip Goff, Arthur E. Farnsley II, Peter J. Thuesen, “The Bible in American Life”, The Center for Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University, March 6, 2014.
  5. The Barna Group, “The State of the Bible, 2013”, American Bible Society, 2013.
  6. Goff, Farnsley, Thuesen, p. 12-14.
  7. The Barna Group, p. 17.
  8. Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “The Most Popular and Fastest Growing Bible Translation Isn't What You Think It Is”, Christianity Today, posted 3/13/2014 11:17AM


Ichabod the Glory Has Departed said...

This is an excellent essay, Mr. Kneprath.

The English language is based on the KJV and Shakespeare (Oxford).

The best solution would have been to adopt the KJV family of translations. The New KJV is very popular and easier to read for many - I cannot help that. I use the KJV in all publications and sermons. However, if someone is using a New KJV with someone who prefers the KJV, the differences are slight. Some of the older words are given the current usages. The only reason for the New NIV was feminist language and UOJ barbarisms - neither one found in the Scriptures.

Mequon is infallible and cannot admit it sinned against its pastors and members by persecuting the KJV adherents a long time ago - even to point of mocking it and kicking out pastors who preferred it over the wretched NIV.

I would definitely adopt the New NIV if I started a surfer mission in California. Nothing else does justice to surfer culture and heavy drug use.

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...


I thought the information in your post was very interesting. One point of interest I though worthy of further comment is this: though the NIV remains the most popular according to sales, the KJV remains number two. I've heard that it is a close second, but don't know what the figures are; and I'm not sure if this is the position of the NIV-bible-product with respect to total units sold or sales revenue. But either way, it would be interesting to compare sales of the NIV-bible-product to the KJV Bible with respect to average profit per unit sold.

There is great variety in the NIV-bible-product. Just a quick look at the CBD website shows twenty-one different audiences -- including children, boys, girls, tweens, teens, teen boys, teen girls, students, women, men, mothers, fathers, leaders, seekers, etc. -- with over 675 distinct bible-product choices among these categories. Each one of these choices represents significant investment in terms of content development, packaging and marketing. In contrast, the KJV offers only around 250 distinct choices, and many of these look to be the same bible-products developed for the NIV, which were then retrofitted with the KJV after the fact. More variety is more costly to produce, with greater investment and smaller production runs, and generally results in narrower profit margin per unit. There is far less variety in KJV Bibles that are sold to genuine Bible readers. All of the product development has long been completed, so there is relatively no investment in the development of new content or packaging. Most of the variety in KJV Bibles is in choice of binding. And yet, despite its relative lack of variety, the KJV remains the number two seller.

And, as everyone knows, the marketing pressure to purchase an NIV-bible-product is immense. Colorful promotional materials for NIV-bible-products accompany most communication from bible-product publishers, who advertise bible-products for specific demographics, preach consumers into a purchase, or otherwise attempt to separate Christians from their money in exchange for “new-and-improved” bible-products. Nearly every Christian bookstore is filled with attention-grabbing signage directing consumers to the “new-and-improved” NIV-bible-products, which are strategically placed on shelves in easy to find, high-traffic areas, and wrapped in compelling packages that cry out to the Christian shopper, “Buy me, buy me!” Large internet merchants drive visitors to these new bible-products in the same way, with widgets, graphics and animations that are designed to catch the human eye and pique human interest. In addition, publishing and merchandising businesses openly partner with Church bodies to assist them in promoting their “new-and-improved” bible-products -- the perceived authority and integrity of church leaders being a powerfully coercive factor. In contrast, no such marketing efforts stand behind the sales of KJV Bibles, and yet the KJV Bible remains the number two seller.

Frankly, in a comparison of relative profit per unit sold, strictly from Bible sales, I would think that the KJV would be more profitable per unit sold, given that there is no marketing overhead, nor is there really any investment in the development of new KJV resources... though a comparison of total profit would depend on the relative number of units sold. On the other hand, if one includes profit from spin-off products, like new NIV commentaries, dictionaries, concordances, etc., every time a new edition of the NIV is published, the total profit potential behind the NIV-bible-product is probably immense.

Continued in next comment...

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

...Continued from previous comment.

It seems strange that publishers would work so furiously to promote a “new-and-improved” bible-product like the NIV, when the KJV sells so well without any significant development and marketing investment at all, if what they want is to put Bibles in the hands of genuine Bible readers and to equip Christians in the Church Militant to “fight the good fight” and “finish the race”. If... And yet it is not so strange, if not. The observations posited above ought to amply suggest the real reason for new translations of the Bible, and for the rather artificial success of the NIV-bible-product itself; however, the following comments from Mr. Seaman "Skip" Knapp, President of World Bible Publishers, that were published in the “Open Forum” section of Bookstore Journal (a CBA publication), ought to make that reason abundantly clear:

Why do we need another Bible translation? Adding translations is the single most significant aid in achieving the critical goals and objectives of Christian retail... Nothing does more to accomplish these objectives than a successful new Bible translation. First, it expresses the gospel in a new and different way... Second, a new translation can cause believers to read and study Scripture again... Furthermore, new translations can bring new and repeat customers into your store. No other product has such enormous spin-off sales potential. A great book may sell a few thousand copies, reaching a few thousand people. A block-buster album will sell very well, but most likely for a short time. A Bible will sell for years and years. The market potential for complementary products, styles, and editions is huge. Book after book will be created using the translation as a reference as will study guides, commentaries, dictionaries, parallels, handbooks, and concordances. Music lyrics and gift plaques will quote the verses.

Mr. Knapp's comments were forwarded to me via email by a concerned friend in the late 1990's. I think that the Bookstore Journal was a print-only publication back then, and that these words were published just prior to date I received that email. The only reference I can find to them now, online, are from a 2001 bulletin-board entry at this location. It is clear from his, yes, rather conservative comments that PROFIT is a primary motivating factor behind the development of new translations -- and it was this motivation -- to profit from the name of Christ -- that was a topic of concern and discussion back then, as well, as the 1996 Christianity Today article, “Mass Marketing the Good News” attests.

Yet, the KJV, with no marketing strategy behind it to speak of, and really no development of new spin-off products, maintains remarkably competitive sales on the basis of a genuine and growing readership. While people continue to want the KJV Bible all on their own, they have to be persuaded by marketing pitches and coerced by church bodies to acquire something different.

As Vernon pointed out, genuine Bible readers don't really need or want a new Bible translation. Bible sellers are the one's who need the new translation. Unfortunately, Bible sellers seem to only be interested in creating Bible owners, rather than genuine Bible readers -- it's all the same to them, after all.

My Opinion.

Ichabod the Glory Has Departed said...

More is involved that selling the Bible itself. Curriculum based on the NIV earns them fees. If a book's content is more than 5% from the NIV, they receive a commission for each book sold. That adds up.

Dr. Joseph Jewell said...

Bonus: the so-called "sacred dialect" of the KJV, having retained a number of words, pronouns, and verb forms since elided out of casual speech, is capable of expressing content more precisely than postmodern street English, obviating some of the concerns repeatedly expressed by members of the TEC that whatever translation was selected, it was an expectation that laypeople would need to consult their pastors to use the Bible with any confidence. No, this is not the longed-for 8th grade reading level by any means. But it's something that any English speaker can understand and work towards mastering, even with what today would be considered quite a basic education. I'm not so sure that a process of growth like that isn't healthy in the life of a Christian, anyway. (Was a book like Hebrews 8th grade level reading for native Greek speakers?)

Also, Mr. Kneprath (and Mr. Lindee), the KJV actually IS the top seller in terms of unit sales, as the source you provided shows:

In other words, more KJV Bibles are sold than NIV Bibles. That the NIV still sells more dollar-value of products is completely expected: the NIV is under copyright and therefore there are fees to cover for every single copy sold, which inflates the price per unit (hardly a virtue that would suggest adoption!). KJV Bibles, on the other hand, can be printed up by anyone freely, with the only intrinsic cost being that for materials.

ReWood Products, LLC said...

Dr. Jewell,

You are correct that for the most recent month of data provided, the KJV outsold the NIV on a volume basis. But earlier monthly updates show the NIV higher by sales dollars and volume. This is typically the case, as you work your way back into prior years. So, I acknowledged the NIV as #1, even though it is not always the case for volume.

Still, I think the KJV presence in the market is astonishing, considering the absence of promotion, particularly compared to the NIV.

I appreciate yours and Lindee's and Jackson's comments.


Joel Lillo said...

The results of this survey aren't surprising since the KJV only crowd probably make up most of the people identified as Bible readers. When you have a cult like mentality that says that one translation is the ONLY reliable translation in the world, it would tend to skew the results a bit.

ReWood Products, LLC said...

Pastor Lillo,

It's interesting that you choose to describe people who prefer to read the KJV translation when they read the Bible as "cult like". Is this how you would characterize members in your own congregation who prefer the KJV? The probability that they are there is high, although the chances of you ever knowing are slim, considering your open bias against those who prefer the KJV, regardless of their reasons. That bias could also be considered "cult like".


Joel Lillo said...

I don't refer to all readers of the KJV as cult like. I'm speaking specifically of the radical KJV only movement found in a lot of Baptist type churches. These are the ones who claim that all other translations are the result of demonic activity and that the KJV is almost supernatural. Some of their publications give and almost ex opere operato view of reading the KJV. That's who I'm talking about. I have very few in my congregation who prefer the KJV. Most of them want to understand what they're reading.

ReWood Products, LLC said...

Pastor Lillo,

I'm glad to hear that most of your members want to understand what they read in Scripture. Then they must prefer the KJV when it comes to the Messianic prophecies, since there is no way to understand them in the 2011 NIV.


Post a Comment

Comments will be accepted or rejected based on the sound Christian judgment of the moderators.

Since anonymous comments are not allowed on this blog, please sign your full name at the bottom of every comment, unless it already appears in your identity profile.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License