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.