The Long-Lost Shopping List

A good friend of mine passed along the Facebook Meme below, asking me to respond. That's an excellent idea, me being a public theologian and all. Without further adieu...

King James translators.jpg

Let's start from the beginning. Why the emphasis on the King James Bible? There are hundreds of Bible translations available, and whoever wrote this seems to be under the impression (indeed, declares!) that "21st Century Christians" believe that the 17th Century King James is what Christians claim to believe is the "Word of God." Our author, in other words, doesn't know many Christians. Very few (and I mean, VERY FEW) 21st Century Christians are reading Bibles rendered in Elizabethan English.  We have a hard enough time understanding Shakespeare; we prefer our Bibles to be easier to understand than Hamlet. Very simply: 99.9% of Christians do not look to the King James as the "Word of God."

Next, why the emphasis on the "New Testament"? Surely the objections apply just as much to the KJV's rendering of the Old Testament, doesn't it? Perhaps the author simply associates Christianity with the New Testament instead of the Old Testament, which is, after all the Jewish Hebrew Bible. If this is the case, the author doesn't understand basic Christianity. The Christian Bible is the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament.

Next, the author asserts that "there were (and still are) no original texts to translate." This is sheer nonsense, and by that I mean a major whopper. What the author means is that there were (and are) no original manuscripts to translate. You might think I'm splitting hairs, but this distinction makes all the difference in the world. There is an original text and an original manuscript. A "text" is simply a given arrangement of words. A "manuscript" is a physical object words are written on. If my wife writes me a shopping list on a slip of paper, the shopping list is the "text," and the slip of paper is the "manuscript." Say she wrote it on the back of something bulky that I didn't want to take with me to the grocery store. So I quickly grab a sticky note and copy it down. While I'm gone, she gathers a bunch of papers and shreds them, original manuscript of the shopping list included.

It would be really, really stupid to say that there is no original text of the shopping list. I just came home from the store, and I've got the original text right here in my hand. It is written on a yellow sticky note. I may not have the original manuscript (in technical literature, called an "autograph"), but... so what? I've got the text, and it served precisely its purpose. I'm one of those unique husbands that actually buys everything on the list, no more and no less. The author is asserting that if my wife destroys the original, then I must've come home with all the wrong stuff from the store. How could I have done otherwise if I don't have the long-lost shopping list?

Let me just point something out. If the mere fact we are dealing with copies means we have no earthly idea what the original text is, then we haven't just lost the Bible. We've lost every single piece of ancient and premodern history along with it. You read that right. Do you know how many original manuscripts of Homer we have? Aristotle? Plato? Herodotus? Thucydides? 

Zero. Zip. Nada.

Nobody goes around saying we have no idea what Plato wrote because we don't have the physical piece of sheepskin he wrote it down on.

Our author goes on to share with us his (I'll just assume its a male, since in my experience men are often dumber than women) incredible learning and erudition by declaring that "the oldest manuscripts we have were written down hundreds of years after the last apostle died." Couple things. First, notice we're now using the word "manuscript" instead of "text." Even if the earliest manuscripts we have are as young as he says they are, that is irrelevant if what is written down on those pieces of animal skin are the oldest text. If my kids copy down my shopping list, and their kids do it, too, and four generations later some descendant of mine has my shopping list on some unimagined, newfangled kind of manuscript technology, it is still my shopping list. The original text. Got it?

Anyway, rest assured that the author doesn't know what he is talking about. The oldest manuscripts we have are Papyrii fragments as early as the 1st century (as in, contemporary with the apostles), and many from the early 2nd century. Now, as is naturally the case given the vicissitudes of time, we have lots more (and more complete) manuscripts from the 4th century.

We indeed have something like 8,000 ancient copies of the Bible, as the author says. You know how many ancient copies of Plato's Republic we have? 


What that means is quite simple: We are more certain of what the writers of the New Testament wrote than we are of what Plato wrote.

But the author goes on to say that "no two" of these copies is alike. He doesn't have a clue what he is talking about. First off, the text of the New Testament is something on the order of 97% certain. In other words, out of the 8,000 some odd manuscripts of the New Testament, these documents are basically identical to the tune of 97 percent. That doesn't exactly sound like "no two are alike," does it? It sounds more like, "they're all alike." With some obvious minor discrepancies. And we have ways of figuring out these minor discrepancies. It's a discipline called textual criticism, and it's really cool.

Let's say a teacher writes a paragraph on a piece of paper, and then asks her students to copy it down. She then destroys her original piece of paper. Now, with a bunch of 2nd graders copying it down, you'd expect there would be some differences. Some kids would make mistakes in certain places where others wouldn't. Some kids would spell words wrong while others wouldn't. Now imagine this: a different teacher (who never saw the original paragraph) comes into the classroom and gathers together the 30 copies written by the students. Do you think this teacher, by examining all these documents together, could tell you exactly what the original paragraph said? The answer, if you're sitting there hesitating, is yes. The teacher could do this. Having never seen an "original manuscript," and only having 30 documents in front of her, no two of them alike!

New Testament textual criticism is more complicated for a variety of obvious and non-obvious reasons. Suffice it to say, this "no two alike therefore we have no reliable idea" claim is absurd and deeply ignorant.

Our author now tells us that the forgoing is actually all irrelevant because the King James translators didn't use copies of the Greek text. Rather, they edited previous translations of the Greek to create their version.

The author is now officially an idiot. The translators of the King James version used the ancient Greek texts collated and edited by Erasmus of Rotterdam, an edition of the Greek text known as the "Textus Receptus." 

Finally, mainly because the author hasn't had a clue what he is talking about from the beginning, his entire closing paragraph bears no relation whatsoever to reality. There is a word we use for people who tenaciously and dogmatically hold to the truthfulness of a fantasy; about that the author is right. We say they are insane. Unfortunately for him, the term would apply to anyone who continued to believe his farcical closing paragraph after learning the real truth.

After all this, I don't really expect the author to get anything right, really. So I did note with amusement the final claim about "8,000 contradictory copies of 4th century scrolls." Manuscripts from the 4th century are called "books" or "codices," not "scrolls." But maybe I'm asking too much.

Brian Mattson