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.

 

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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