“If the King James Bible was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me!”

Over the years, there have been many errors identified in the various printings of the so-called Authorized Version (it was never officially “authorized” by anyone) of the Bible, the most beloved translation of the Scriptures into English.  H.A. Scrivener put the number at 1,500.  Some of these errors produced humorous (and occasionally scandalous) results.  The very first edition of the King James Version became known as the “He Bible,” because, in the third chapter of Ruth, after she lies down at the feet of Boaz, the printers incorrectly set into type the phrase, “and he went into the city,” when, according to context, it was obviously Ruth.  The “Wicked Bible” of 1631 was a printing of the KJV that included the presciently modern commandment, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”  After this, a certain Mr. Barker no longer served as the king’s printer and was fined 300 pounds.

Considering such errata alone, it is easy to scoff at the reactionary subset of fundamentalists who hold, essentially, to the view that the great 1611 translation of the Bible is itself God-breathed.  This tiny group numbers itself among those who wear the label “King James Only,” though most “KJVO”-types do not subscribe to the theory that, by some miracle, the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob spoke in that tongue of angels known as Elizabethan English.

Most KJVO fundamentalists reject the modern English translations of the Bible because such translations are based on a different set or family of Greek manuscripts (what is loosely called the Alexandrian tradition); the King James Version comes from the vast Byzantine tradition, from which Erasmus compiled his Novum Testamentum, which later came to be known as the Textus Receptus.

Use of the King James Version (and the concomitant fierce rejection of the New International Version, NIV) serves as a litmus test for many fundamentalists, almost a sixth “fundamental.”  It is not uncommon to see the words “A King James Church” in small letters splashed next to the name of the church on the sign out front, though the appearance of the name of the Jacobite monarch on the side of a Baptist church seems strange when one considers the political machinations at the Hampton Court debates that led Old Six-and-One to consent to the Puritans’ demand for a new English translation; or if one considers Erasmus himself, who longed to publish a paraphrase version of the entire Bible.

Unlike the fundamentalists, most American and British biblical scholars, and the evangelicals and conservative Mainline Christians who rely on them, insist on using the more modern translations of the Bible, based on the Alexandrian tradition, which pays homage to the “two most reliable manuscripts,” as in the common footnote in Bible commentaries: “The two most reliable manuscripts omit . . . ”  The authorities of the Alexandrian family, which omit several key passages that are included in the Byzantine tradition (and, thus, the KJV) are Codex Vaticanus (belonging to the Vatican library, it dates to the fourth century and is believed to be the oldest complete copy of the Bible in Greek), and Codex Sinaiticus (discovered at a monastery on Mount Sinai in 1844 by Constantine Tischendorf, this mid-fourth-century codex contains a great portion of the Old Testament and the entire New Testament, plus the Epistle of Barnabas and part of the Shepherd of Hermas).

Each one of the flurry of English Bible translations that began in the 1940’s has been based on a critical edition of the Alexandrian tradition.  What this means, practically, is that a passage such as the ending of St. Mark’s Gospel is flanked by a footnote that indicates that (per the New International Version, for example) “the most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.”  In a way, this is handy, because it casts doubt on a couple of thorny verses, including “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (which implies baptismal regeneration) and “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them” (the proof-text beloved by the snake handlers of Appalachia).

On a deeper level, however, this scientific treatment of Holy Writ serves to cast doubt on the authority of the Bible.  After all, whose Bible is it?  Christians agree that the Bible is God’s Word, but who has the authority to say what is the Bible and what is not—the Church or the textual critic (liberal or conservative)?

The Church, East and West, Protestant and Catholic, read such passages as Mark 16:9-20 as the Gospel truth for at least 1,500 years.  The Fathers cite it (see, for example, Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:10:6).  Jerome has it in his Vulgate.  Luther renders it in his Deutsche Bibel; and, perhaps most significantly, it is contained in the living tradition of the Orthodox Church, the very source of the thousands of extant Greek manuscripts that form the Byzantine text, which date from the 6th to the 15th centuries.

The Church’s Bible (the Byzantine text is often called the “Ecclesiastical Text”) fell out of favor among scholars during the late-19th century, after the publication of B. Westcott and F. Hort’s critical edition of the Greek New Testament.  They relied heavily on the Alexandrian tradition, because of its antiquity, and specifically on Vaticanus and Sinaiticus.  Their method of omitting words, phrases, and some large swaths of the received text of the New Testament if they did not appear in the “two oldest manuscripts” placed the Scriptures on the same plane as any other ancient document.  On some level, this seems reasonable: The principle lectio difficilior potior (“The harder reading is stronger”), taken abstractly, makes sense.  Copyists might indeed be more inclined to smooth out the rough edges of a difficult phrase or sentence for the sake of readability; conversely, then, a more difficult reading could perhaps be closer to the original.  And, again in the abstract, one might therefore conclude that, for example, this explains why the “two oldest manuscripts” omit the so-called Johannine Comma (I John 5:7-8).  The King James Version translates that passage, from the Ecclesiastical Text, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.  And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”  By contrast, the New International Version, relying on the “oldest manuscripts,” has “For there are three that testify: [here, verse 8 begins abruptly] the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.”

The problem is, we cannot consider the Scriptures abstractly.  The words, the language, are holy, arising out of a living tradition.  Science has no place explaining that which is holy, be it the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed (the Creation) or the presumed foolishness of Church Fathers, bishops, and liturgists who sang the divine Word for centuries, blissfully unaware of the future discovery of Tischendorf or the scholarship of B. Westcott and F. Hort.

Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox might disagree on the exact locus of the preserved Word of God, but they used to agree that the Holy Ghost had, indeed, performed the act of preservation down through the centuries.  The Presbyterians’ Westminster Confession, for example, puts it this way:

The Old Testament in Hebrew, which was the native language of the people of God of old, and the New Testament in Greek, which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations, being immediately inspired by God and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.

Today, the notion that the Holy Ghost has “kept pure in all ages” the sacred Scriptures has yielded to the power of modern textual criticism, infusing each new generation with the hubristic notion that the Bible comes to the individual out of thin air, or at least out of two admittedly ancient manuscripts unknown to the worshiping, confessing Church for centuries.  How far would these critics be willing to go if additional, even older manuscripts were discovered, indicating that the third chapter of Saint John’s Gospel only contained three verses, or that Saint Luke’s Gospel did not include the Resurrection narrative?  Or would they then appeal to citations in the Church Fathers, whom they currently reject in favor of the “two oldest manuscripts”?

The notion that the Bible belongs not to the Church but to the “neutral” scholar is reflected in the plethora of modern English translations, which prefer awkward, unpoetic renderings of the Alexandrian text—often in the form of paraphrase or “dynamic equivalence”—to the memorable beauty of the King James Version.  The first English translation that gave preference to the Alexandrian tradition was the English Revised Version of the 1870’s, which attempted to stay as close to the KJV as possible.  This was in accordance with the work of the Authorized Version itself, which borrowed heavily from the beautiful and precise phrasing of Tyndale.  Others, such as the American Standard Version (1901) and the Revised Standard Version (1952) continued after this fashion.  But then the floodgates opened: Since 1945, over 1,200 English translations of parts or the whole of the Bible have flowed from publishing houses eager to put the sacred text in the language of Modern Man.  One particularly vivid example is Eugene Peterson’s The Message, published in 1993.  The language of Psalm 1 (“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly . . . ”) so familiar to churchgoing Christians in the English-speaking world, becomes:

How well God must like you

you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon

you don’t slink along Dead End Road

you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.

Instead you thrill to God’s Word,

you chew on Scripture day and night.

This is an extreme example of the decline of sacred language, but it represents the rank individualism that pervades the whole process of Bible translation in Today’s English, which rejects the traditional notion that the Scriptures belong to the Church, as do the individual Christians who read, sing, pray, and memorize them.  If the Scriptures are the treasure of the Church, then we must come to Her to nurse at Her breast, accepting what we are given, all the while striving to drink more deeply of the tradition handed down to us.  If they belong to Smart-Mouth College and her tenured professors, however, then we become mere consumers of an ever-changing Word.

For a time, it was difficult (especially for Protestants) to know which translation to expect on any given Sunday, though many, if not most, churches settled on the NIV.  Now that a good number of seminarians are being taught that the recently published ESV (English Standard Version) is superior to the NIV, a new wave of confusion is sure to come.

Children once memorized the 23rd Psalm, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, John 3:16, etc., in the same language that their parents and grandparents used.  Those generations stood together and confessed the same wording of the Nicene Creed (not “one in being”) and sang the same liturgies and hymns that their forebears had sung.  Today, invariably, a chorus of confusion is heard as “And with thy spirit” is said at the same time as “And also with you!” or “Forgive us our trespasses,” together with “sins.”  Many churches rely on brand-new “creative” liturgies each Sunday, leaving worshipers with their noses buried in bulletins or with their eyes fixed on a video-projection screen.

Fundamentalists claimed that the textual criticism of Tischendorf, Westcott, and Hort was part of a modernist conspiracy against the Church and the Scriptures, designed to divide the generations and undercut the authority of Scripture by producing myriad translations of the Bible.  What paranoia!