The trouble with the King James Bible

It's hardly sufficient that every copy will come with a brief introduction penned by Michael Gove.

So, as reported, every school is to be sent a copy of the King James Bible. Quite right too, many believers will say: the Bible is, after all, the inspired Word of God.

But does that statement of faith possibly stand up to what we now know about the Bible's origins?

By the time the King James Bible was put together four hundred years ago, arguments were raging over which versions of many of the scriptures were the genuine ones. Since then, several discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls have aroused further doubts about those which made it into the KJV (King James Version).

This is hardly surprising. Take interpolations. This word is used to describe third parties inserting various passages into the books of the New Testament many years after they were originally composed.

I will mention just two examples because they go to the core of Christianity.

If you turn to the end of Mark in the King James Bible you will find an account of Jesus' resurrection along with stories of a few appearances which he made after the crucifixion. Yet the early manuscript copies of the gospel finish midway through a sentence -- crucially, before the resurrection has been mentioned.

What follows was added probably more than a hundred years later and so scholars cannot agree whether the original manuscript included the resurrection at all.

Or how about this? The central Christian dogma of the Trinity occurs primarily in two short verses in a letter in the New Testament, said to have been written by St John. When the letter was first written in Greek, the crucial verses were nowhere to be found.

Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman explains in his new book Forged that it was only some time after the letter was translated into Latin, that the passage was inserted and the doctrine of the Trinity became a crucial piece of Christian dogma: so much so that the passage was retranslated back and inserted into the Greek text to appear authentic. And that is the version which now appears in several Bibles including the King James Version.

Besides, thousands of Bible manuscripts survive from before the printing presses started to roll. Crucially, no two are alike. This is hardly surprising. Scholars have studied the way in which these texts developed over the centuries. They have discovered that scribes were copying from sources which were many times removed from the original manuscripts. Each new copy piled fresh errors or deliberate changes onto whatever corruptions were contained in the prior version.

Take the Gospel of Mark. The earliest manuscripts now available date from about 220CE and the earliest full version was transcribed around 350CE. We cannot possibly know how even these earliest surviving texts differ from the original gospel, written in about 70CE. After all, research has shown that the further back in time we go, the more errors were made in the copying process.

Quite frankly, when you read the King James Bible, you have no way of knowing whether any particular line would have been in the original manuscripts. This poses an interesting question for those who believe that all scripture is God-breathed: if God was not going to preserve the original manuscripts, why would he have bothered to inspire them?

But many believers disregard these difficulties. For them, the Bible offers the moral code of a just and merciful God. What is more, the King James Version expresses God's love in beautiful poetic language which would grace any classroom. Perhaps, they're right in part: sit back and admire the poetry with which God's words are expressed in just these 3 passages:

Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.

Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling

Yes, I suppose it is poetic. The vibrant and vivid language enables your mind's eye to see God exacting his revenge on pregnant women and infants. You can even picture the Hebrew soldiers killing all the non-virgin women and raping the others.

But what on earth will today's schoolchildren make of the God of the Bible? Perhaps, like most believers, they won't look at these troublesome passages.

Either way, it's hardly sufficient that every copy of the Bible being sent to the classrooms will apparently come with a brief introduction penned by Michael Gove.

Rather it should come with a slap in the face to those who think that it could possibly be the inspired and accurately-recorded Word of a loving God.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for The Guardian, The Independent, Skeptic and The Humanist.

 

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear