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Whose Story is the KJV?

March 20, 2010

Courtesy of Bart Ehrman’s Whose StoryWord Is It? [correction, I confused a couple of book titles when I wrote this], I’ve been reading about the field of textual criticism and what it can tell us about who wrote the New Testament, why they wrote it and how it has changed since the first copies were made. It’s a good book, well worth a read, thought I’d share one small story that shows the sort of thing it’s about.

The early Christian church was very “bookish”. It placed a lot of importance on letters from church leaders (think Paul), on gospels, on apologetics and on acts (stories of the acts of the apostles). To begin with these were copied by members of the church, not professional scribes. These people copied poorly and were liable to change the text to support their specific beliefs about the religion. It was only after two or three centuries that professional copyists started being the predominant means of reproducing texts. This means that a lot of interpretation and scholarship is needed to find out what was in the oldest most reliable texts.

In the early 16th century Erasmus started work on a printed edition of the New Testament in greek. Previously this had only been available in latin, the version that was accepted as the bible. However, Erasmus was in a rush. To get a printed edition available quickly, he used the copies of the manuscripts that were immediately available to him. Alas, these were not accurate to the original greek versions of the story, and without spending the time comparing and analysing a variety of manuscripts Erasmus had no way of knowing that he was introducing elements into his version of the Bible that were later editions. These include the story in John of the woman caught in adultery being brought to Jesus for judgement, and the end of the Gospel of Mark where Jesus reappears to the disciples after his resurrection. Rather more comically, the last page of Revelation was missing from the only copy that Erasmus could lay his hands on in a hurry, so he translated the last page into greek from the latin version.

Now, as a demonstration of the dishonesty that can be seen in the history of the bible, when Erasmus had put together his text, it did not include the Johannine Comma. This is the two verses 1 John 5:7-8, which was the only passage in the latin version of the bible that made the doctrine of the trinity explicit. Why had Erasmus not included it? It wasn’t in the older greek manuscripts that he had used (and isn’t in the older more reliable texts either).

The western church at the time used this passage to justify it’s doctrine, and without it much more tenuous arguments had to be strung together. The church reacted to it’s absence by demanding that the passage be included. Erasmus said that he would include it, but only if they could produce a greek manuscript with it in. The church proceeded to do so by getting a copyist to make a new copy of a greek manuscript with the appropriate verses inserted as required. True to his word, Erasmus put the Johannine Comma into his greek edition.

The story of Erasmus’ greek edition doesn’t quite end there. When the King James version of the Bible was translated from the Greek, it was the edition due to Erasmus that was the basis for the translation. Mistakes, poor quality originals and additions included. The King James Bible, which many would hold to be the word of god. At it’s worst made up by the church itself, with some of it going from oral tradition to greek to latin to greek to english.

Now, for something that’s truly hilarious, find out why Irenaeus decided that there should be four Gospels in the New Testament.

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