Thursday, January 26, 2017

Bible reading ease (or not)

Last week I posted about difficulty reading the Bible. The post contained links to Bible Gateway's and Mardel Book Store's attempts at defining the reading level difficulty of various Bible translations. I was able to contact and receive a response from Bible Gateway’s Customer Support. They replied, “We got the reading levels/ages from information provided by the publishers of the various translations.” In other words, The Lockman Foundation supplied the reading levels for the NASB, Thomas Nelson for the NKJV, Biblica for the NIV and NIrV, and so on. Bible Gateway was not sure what method or methods the publishers used to determine the reading levels, or whether the publishers used the same method. In addition the information may be colored by the publishers’ own sense of promotion.

Three years ago, I wrote about Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease and Grade Levels Tests and Bible versions. I concluded that the Flesch-Kincaid tests actually tell us very little about comparing actual readability of various Bible versions. I cannot respond specifically to the Bible version reading levels provided by Bible Gateway and Mardel, since I am unable to determine how they arrived at their comparisons. If one publisher uses a different method than another publisher, we are not even “comparing apples to apples.” According to the featured reading levels, the New International Readers Version is “generally accessible” for 3rd graders and can be “fully read" and understood at age 7 and up. On the other hand, the Common English Bible is “generally accessible” for 7th graders and can be “fully read” and understood at age 12 and up, while the King James Bible is “generally accessible” for 12th graders and can be “fully read” and understood at age 17 and up. Regardless of supposed “scientific method” there is a certain amount of subjectivity and distortion in reaching these conclusions. For example, in promoting his NIrV, executive editor Ronald F. Youngblood wrote “...the children’s Bibles now available have all been evaluated at a fourth-grade reading level or higher.” Yet the Bible Gateway material lists two editions other than the NIrV that have the same readability. In considering the topic we will focus on the New International Readers Version.

The NIrV was a simplification of the already-existing New International Version. This Bible version (the NIrV) was “developed to enable early readers to understand God’s message.” The project was conducted by the International Bible Society (now Biblica). According to the executive editor of the NIrV, their goal was to produce a Bible at a 3.5 level (third grade, fifth month). The complete NIrV (Old & New Testaments) was first published in 1996, but perhaps has not caught a lot of attention until now. It was released in an updated form in 2014. Promotional materials identify it as “the ideal choice for children and adults who are learning to read, adults who are unacquainted with the Bible, and readers for whom English is a second language.”

On the surface the stated goal of making the Bible easier to understand seems a commendable endeavor. We want everyone to understand the Bible, right? William Tyndale, pioneer of English Bible translation, is often brought to the bar to testify. He supposedly told a Roman cleric, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.”[i] This however does not demonstrate that Tyndale wanted a translation that grade-schoolers could read. He wanted a translation accessible to those who did not read or speak Latin. His statement should not be equated with the concept followed by such bibles as the ICBNCV, and NIrV. The work of Tyndale and other Bible translators was originally intended to provide the Scriptures to the people of the world in their own languages. Now American Bible publishers try to tap every available market from toddler to slang to Klingon!

The proliferation of English Bibles can’t be explained by citing the simple desire to have an accurate readable translation. Bible Gateway has 55 English Bibles alone – 52 complete Bibles and 3 New Testaments. There must be something else operating under the surface.

The idea of creating a 3rd grade reading level Bible is built on a false premise. Its arrival is a symptom of our modernity and individualism. It removes edification and accountability from the community of faith. Certainly we should study the Bible alone, but we must study together as God’s people (Acts 17:11). It pridefully wishes to never ask the question of the eunuch of Ethopia “How can I (understand it), except some man guide me?” Rather than a Bible “developed to enable early readers to understand God’s message” perhaps we should return to Christian parents reading the Bible to their children and guiding them in the understanding of it (Deuteronomy 6:7; Proverbs 22:6; Ephesians 6:4; 1 Timothy 1:5, 3:14-15).

Those who focus on grade reading level and reading ease should take their cue from the reading and maturity level of the original writings. Though none seem to speak of it, it seems fairly obvious that Moses and Joshua, Isaiah and Daniel, James, John and Paul did not write to an eight year old audience. Even the NIrV translation of 2 Peter 3:16 acknowledges that “Paul writes…some things that are hard to understand.” Merely composing short sentences with simple words will not substitute for the experience needed by those who “have trained themselves to tell the difference between good and evil.” (For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. Hebrews 5:13-14)

Bibles like the NIrV simply can’t deliver what they promise. I’m nearly 60 years old, but when I read Exodus 28:17 or Leviticus 11:19 in the NIrV,[ii] I have to pull out a dictionary or other study helps to determine what carnelian, chrysolite, beryl and hoopoes are. (And since I’m nearly 60 years old, I may have to pull it out again the next time I read it!) No matter how much one changes, simplifies and interprets,[iii] there will always be things in the text that are hard to understand.

Simple words and grammar are not the main problem of understanding the Bible, though many would like to reduce it to that. It is a spiritual issue. It is a book unlike any other. It is a spiritual book that is spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:11-14). Yes, we need to study words and grammar, but an atheist can comprehend words and grammar – and sometimes do so at a higher level than many Christians. To understand the Bible we need the Spirit of God to guide us into all truth. We cannot, we must not, decide there is some better way!

See also

[i] Ironically, promoters of easy-reading expect us to be able to understand what Tyndale said.
[ii] Exodus 28:17 (NIrV) Put four rows of valuable jewels on it. Put carnelian, chrysolite and beryl in the first row. Leviticus 11:19 (NIrV) They also include storks, hoopoes, bats and all kinds of herons.
[iii] One weakness of the NIrV and other “simplified” Bibles is that in order to achieve the desired for simplicity interpretation is supplied in place of translation.

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