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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle