A friend forwarded to me a short statement that had apparently been posted on the website of the Progressive Secular Humanist Examiner. I have been unable to find the original post, but the group’s Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/progressivesecularhumanist
The statement is as follows:
The King James version of the New Testament was completed in 1611 by 8 members of the Church of England.
There were (and still are) no original texts to translate. The oldest manuscripts we have were written down hundreds of years after the last apostle died. There are over 8,000 of these old manuscripts, with no two alike.
The King James translators used none of these, anyway. Instead, they edited previous translations to create a version their king and Parliament would approve.
So, 21st Century Christians believe the “Word of God” is a book edited in the 17th Century from 16th Century translations of 8,000 contradictory copies of 4th Century scrolls that claim to be copies of lost letters written in the 1st Century.
That’s not faith. That’s insanity.
The friend who forwarded the document to me asked me to comment, and so I will. My first observation that if you are going to oppose the “blind faith” of Christians with “facts,” then it is important to get your facts straight.
The King James Version of the Bible was actually translated by about 50 scholars (not eight), and they looked at the Greek text as well as previous English translations. There was a published standard Greek text, compiled from various old manuscripts, by this time, so there was no need to go back to individual manuscripts. The process has been described well in a recent book called God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson, a mainstream journalist and historian who does not attend a Christian church.
The question is somewhat irrelevant because most Christians no longer use the King James Version (because the English language has changed significantly in the last 400 years) and they attribute authority to the original Bible, not specifically to the King James translation.
The Secular Humanist author says that there are no “original texts.” This is true. Paper is fragile and doesn’t usually survive 2,000 years. But that is a problem with all paper and all books, not just the Bible. The truth is that the Bible has survived the centuries far better than almost any other book.
For example, for the Secular Humanist author to say that the copies of the Bible we have were written “hundreds of years” after Jesus is an exaggeration. Jesus died about 27 AD, and the New Testament was written within “living memory,” almost all of it before 70 AD. The oldest copies of New Testament writings we have were written down about 100 years (not hundreds of years) after Jesus, and the oldest full copies of the Bible about 350 AD. Moreover, as the Secular Humanist author says, we have thousands of copies—far more copies and far older copies than for any other ancient writings. For many Greek and Roman books, there are only a handful of copies, with the earliest sometimes being over 1,000 years after composition. If the Bible is unreliable, the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans would be much more unreliable.
The Secular Humanist author also asserts that of the 8,000 copies of the Bible, there are “no two alike.” Again, this is an exaggeration. There are undoubtedly copying errors, but the various copies agree on 99.9% of the content; many of the discrepancies are obvious copying errors, and none calls into question any significant teaching of the Bible. That hardly justifies calling them “contradictory.” Moreover, copying errors are a problem for all books, not just the Bible.
Further corroboration of this is that the more modern translations of the Bible, which are based on all the copies available, including the oldest, present essentially the same message as the King James Version, although in more modern English. The fact that the King James Version was not directly based on the oldest manuscripts didn’t make much difference at all.
The Greek text we have of the New Testament is very close to the original and is based on careful study and analysis of the various copies by generations of well-trained scholars. One of the best summaries of this work is F.F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents.
Note should also be taken of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient parchments mostly written in the first century BC and discovered only in the middle of the 20th century AD. They include most of the Old Testament. The “experts” expected that their discovery would show how much the Bible has been altered over the centuries. On the contrary, they showed that the Old Testament we have today, except for a few minor copying errors, is virtually identical to the Old Testament in use 2,000 years ago.
The lack of “original” copies is misleading. We don’t have “original copies” of other books either, including most modern books—in the sense of having the actual words of people such as Ernest Hemingway or John Grisham or Charles Darwin. What we have are published books which have been “altered” by editors, proofreaders, and designers—in most cases, altered far more than the copyists altered the Bible. After all, those who copied the Bible considered it the sacred Word of God and therefore were very careful not to make any changes—a far different attitude than that taken by the editors and publishers of modern books. And for a surprising number of “modern” books a hundred years old or more, we no longer have “first editions” but only “reprints” (copies just like those we have for the Bible). Further, as a professional proofreader and editor, I am aware that almost every modern published book has one or more typos and obvious errors. If we judge modern books by the standards the Secular Humanist author applied to the Bible, believing any of them would be insane.