Friday, February 19, 2021

The message over the precise words 2

continuing my series on Unexamined Assumptions... 


2. The Spirit versus the Letter

1. I was raised on the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. This English translation was a tremendous work of the English language that first came out in the year 1611. For the longest time, when I would quote a verse from the Bible, the words would come out King James. To this day, this version of the Bible continues to have my great respect and delight.

However, like the overwhelming majority of experts, I do not think the KJV gives us the most original wording of the Bible. I do not know how much you know about the history here, so I want to take a moment to explain what I mean. I am not talking about the fact that the KJV uses archaic English that we do not use anymore. That is one thing. I am talking about something else.

When you pick up a Bible, chances are you are picking up one book that is all in English. This observation brings us to the very first "paradigm shift" I want to mention. A paradigm shift is when you change the way you look at something in a fundamental way. Your "paradigm" or framework for thinking about something changes. So you may look at the Bible as one book today. In a way it is, now.

But it was not one book when those books were written. The books of the New Testament were written over a fifty-year period at various times and places. The books of the Old Testament came together over around a thousand-year period. These books were written by different authors. They have different styles. They use words in different ways. They were write in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). 

English did not even exist as a language when this library of books was written. Unless you know the original languages of the Bible, you cannot read its actual words. All translation involves interpretations. Words do not go word for word from one language to another. Christians are not like Muslims who insist you must read scriptures in the original language, like Arabic. The very fact that we allow for translation implies that it is the message of Scripture that is important, not the precise wording.

2. So the King James Version (KJV) is a translation of a library of books now put together into one book. We do not have the original scrolls on which these books were first written. We have copies of copies of copies. None of these hand-written copies or "manuscripts" would seem to be perfect. They all have mistakes from copying, it would seem. Most of the time, it is not hard to figure out where the mistakes are. There is no need to be worried.

But it reiterates a point just made above. It seems like God is far more interested in the message of Scripture than the precise wording of the books of the Bible. 

When the KJV came out in 1611, the original documents were thousands of years in the past. In the 1600s, they had not yet rediscovered very old manuscripts. The copies of the Bible on which the KJV was based were all medieval, from the 900s and beyond. They did the best they could. 

However, since then, we have discovered manuscripts that are much older. They mostly read the same way as those medieval manuscripts. However, there are some interesting places where they differ. For example, the ending of Mark (16:9-20) is not present in the oldest manuscripts discovered of Mark.

Modern translations of the Bible almost all follow the wording that the majority of scholars thinks is most original. Only the KJV and the New King James Version have kept with the Greek and Hebrew wording used in the 1600s. The others go with the wording that seems more original based on the manuscripts that have since been discovered. 

3. I understand the alarm of many when the New International Version (NIV) came out in the 1970s. Having grown up on the KJV, people thought they were cutting things out of the Bible. They immediately thought of Revelation 22:19 and warnings about taking things out of the scroll of prophecy.

By the way, another paradigm shift is to realize that Revelation 22:19 originally referred to the scroll of Revelation by itself. No other book of the Bible was attached to Revelation when it was first written. It was a lone, self-standing scroll that was initially copied and sent to seven churches in what is now western Turkey. The "book of this prophecy" was the scroll of Revelation.

What most experts would say today is that the NIV did not take words out. Rather, the manuscripts on which the KJV was based added words in. It can be hard to get your head around what we are saying here. All English translations are based on Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Although in English, the KJV is older than the NIV, the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts behind modern translations are hundreds of years older than the manuscripts behind the KJV.

In terms of the wording of the underlying text, the King James is a baby, and the NIV is much older.

4. Take the Lord's Prayer in the King James of Luke 11:2-4:

     Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
     Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.
     Give us day by day our daily bread.
     And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.
     And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.

Now here is Luke 11:2-4 in the NIV:

     Father, hallowed be your name,
          your kingdom come.
     Give us each day our daily bread.
     Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
     And lead us not into temptation.

If you were raised on the KJV, the NIV's version will look very suspicious indeed. It looks like a mangled version of the Lord's prayer. Where is the commitment for God's will be to be done? Where is the prayer for God to deliver us from evil?

It is only natural that many would see a sinister conspiracy here. You look at Mark 16:8, and the NIV suggests that verses 9-20 do not belong there. You look for Acts 8:37 and cannot find it in the NIV. Someone appears to be chopping verses and words out of the Bible!

5. This reaction is perfectly natural. If you were raised reading and hearing sermons from the King James Version, you likely formulated your faith around those words. Those words are the Bible for you. For someone to change them or "take words out" naturally seems like someone desecrating the Bible.

And it is no surprise that there have been a small number of very smart people who have rejected modern versions of the Bible. In the 1800s, there was John Burgon (1813-88), who argued strongly against the developing science of textual study. In the 1900s, there was Edward Hills (1912-81). I know a very smart scholar today who knows the details of the ancient texts far better than I do who would argue that the text behind the King James Version is far more original than that used by modern translations.

Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of those who are experts on this subject disagree with them. I would go further and say that all scholars of the text with an open mind to the evidence disagree with them. Are those with the minority view intelligent? I would say they are sometimes extremely intelligent. They have to be ingenious in order to argue against what seems to be the most obvious read of the evidence.

6. Here we arrive at a point from the introduction to which we will return over and over again. The pursuit of truth requires that we are actually willing to change our minds given enough evidence or good enough reasoning. Truth is not about finding a way to fit the evidence into my preconceived notions. It is not about finding a way to support the beliefs of my tribe or denomination.

Truth is not about whether it is possible to argue for what I want to believe. The pursuit of truth is about what the most probable reading of the evidence is.

For some, these statements will seem obvious. For others, they are not obvious at all. In fact, to many Christians, these statements are just plain wrong. We need to take a moment to address this perspective. And, ironically, if I really believe in reason and evidence, then I will need to be willing to give them up if reason and evidence so require...


Bob MacDonald said...

Hi Ken - the glosses and phrasing used in a translation are also critical. The King James version had to support the king (i.e. James). So Psalm 20:10 in KJV is God save the King or equivalent as it is in NRSV, Give victory to the King, O Lord, but the accents in the text will not support such a reading. The verse is a typical parallel,
Yahweh save,
let the king answer us in the day of our call.

My more favorite example is the gloss punish. I am not the only person to have seen that there is no root in Hebrew that has the dominant gloss 'punish'. But the KJV among many assume that God/Yahweh must be the subject of the word punish. And they use the gloss for a half-dozen differing roots. Of course language is flexible, but when we give God the attribute of punisher-in-chief, we have a hard time adjusting our attitudes.

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you for the post.

Rob Henderson said...

I appreciate the refreshing reminders of where our Bible comes from and into our modern usage. Your articles over the years have helped me so much in developing the right kind of perspective of the Scriptures. Thanks so much. I thoroughly enjoy what you share. It all makes me think about what I believe and what I teach.

Ken Schenck said...

Good to hear from you Bob... we haven't conversed in a while! Thanks for the insights and, Dr. LaBar, I always am encouraged when you let me know you are reading.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Rob!

Jim Schenck said...

Great stuff, Ken!