Exposing the Ignorance of Skeptics

False rumors and urban legends are not new phenomena, but with the advent of the Internet, there is now no end to weird, strange, and often demonstrably false claims. Such is the case when a friend gave me a copy of a note provided by a skeptic. The note reads 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 translations [sic] 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.”

Yes, and George Washington had wooden teeth (He actually didn’t, but that rumor continues). In a cursory look at the skeptic’s note I counted 10 errors, including misleading statements that reveals an almost total ignorance of the facts. One wonders whether truth matters anymore. For some, once they’ve heard a narrative that is to their liking, they stick with it despite any absurdities. It reminds me of the old adage, “Don’t confuse me with facts—my mind is made up.”

Let’s take a look at the false and misleading claims put forth by the skeptic. This affords the opportunity to do some introductory teaching about the history of the Bible. The first time I taught a college-level course on the History of the Bible was nearly 40 years ago, so I am pleased to offer the following as an analysis of the skeptic’s claims based on five decades of study and teaching in the field.

False claim #1: “The King James Version of the New Testament was completed in 1611 by 8 members of the Church of England.”

I am surprised that this false claim got the year right. It was 1611 when the Authorized Version, or “King James Version” of the Bible was completed. It was not just the New Testament, but the entire Bible that was completed in 1611. However, the translation was not done by “8 members of the Church of England.” It was translated by 54 scholars, not all of them Anglicans.

By way of background, when Queen Elizabeth’s nearly 50-year reign over England ended in 1603, James VI of Scotland became James I of a united England and Scotland. He set up a conference in January 1604 at Hampton Court, and summoned his leading theologians and churchmen to discuss ways to improve the Church, which would, then, improve his United Kingdom. One suggestion was made by John Reynolds, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, a great scholar and a Puritan.1 He told King James that a fresh translation of the Scriptures was sorely needed, as Reynolds believed the common translation of the day, the Geneva Bible,2 was “corrupt.” James, himself a student of Scripture, referred to the Geneva Bible as “the worst” translation, but his concern was not the translation itself, but the notes, some of which James considered “very partial, untrue, seditious, and devouring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits.”3 James, thus, agreed that a new translation was in order, and several months later appointed 54 scholars (“learned men”) to translate the Bible. The preserved list of the scholars has only 47 names, owing to resignations and deaths between the time of the appointments and the time the work began.4 Working in six panels in three cities (Oxford, Cambridge, Westminster), the 47 scholars began in 1604 and completed the translation in 1611. Marginal notes were only used to explain Hebrew and Greek words or to draw attention to parallel passages.

Misleading statement #1: “There were (and still are) no original texts to translate.”

This statement is pregnant with the inference that somehow the Bible cannot be trusted because the original writings do not exist. In fact, if the original writings of the Bible did exist, this would be unique among all writings of antiquity. In fact, the original texts of Shakespeare do not exist, despite his works being written barely 400 years ago. The originals of Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Aristotle, Pliny and all the other classical Greco-Roman writings do not exist. This fact hardly keeps us from referencing their writings, which are known from copies (of copies of copies, etc.) of the original. The original New Testament was likely written on papyrus, a fragile form of paper made from reeds that grow in the Nile Delta. Handling a papyrus document or exposing it to the elements would hasten its disintegration. History tells us that until Christianity was made legal in A.D. 313,5] there were specific efforts to destroy copies of the New Testament.6

False claim #2: “The oldest manuscripts we have were written down hundreds of years after the last apostle died.”

A “manuscript” is a handwritten copy of a document compared to a printed copy. The oldest confirmed manuscript of the New Testament is catalogued as P52, a fragment of John’s Gospel that was copied around the year A.D. 125. This date, which has been confirmed by skeptical New Testament textual critic Bart Ehrman,7 is only 30 years after the Gospel of John was written (A.D. 95) according to the consensus of scholars. John the Apostle likely lived to the turn of the 2nd century.8 Thus, the truth is that the oldest confirmed manuscript of the New Testament was written about 25 years after the last apostle died. Further, textual critic Daniel B. Wallace, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, has reported the discovery of a fragment of Mark’s Gospel that appears to date to about the year A.D. 80. This manuscript is currently undergoing scrutiny and peer review to confirm its date before the results are made public.

False claim #3: “There are over 8,000 of these old manuscripts….”

There are currently about 25,000 New Testament manuscripts catalogued. Nearly 6,000 of these are Greek manuscripts,9 the language in which the New Testament was originally written. There are approximately 20,000 New Testament manuscripts that are translations from Greek into other languages, including well over 10,000 in Latin.10 To say “There are over 8,000 of these old manuscripts” is like saying “There are over 15 states in the United States.” While technically true, these statements are, at best, misleading because they woefully understate the actual number. At worst, they show an ignorance of the actual truth.

Misleading statement #2: (There are over 8,000 of these old manuscripts) “with no two alike.”

Prior to the invention of moveable type (“printing press”) by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, all documents were written and copied by hand. Mistakes in copying are the rule, not the exception, especially when copying a large document such as the New Testament, which contains approximately 138,000 words. A simple experiment will prove the point—you and a friend each try to copy 3 or 4 pages from a book without any mistakes. Chances are you can’t. But think about trying to copy 1,000 pages (the number of pages of text in my United Bible Society Greek New Testament) from someone else’s handwriting (not a printed copy) and see how many mistakes you make. If you and your friend each make even one mistake, then there are “no two alike.” Of course, this “no two alike” is true of all Greco-Roman classical literature. Copyists were not perfectly accurate. Changes, both unintentional (e.g., spelling, word order) and intentional (e.g., for stylistic or doctrinal reasons), were introduced into the text of New Testament manuscripts as with all ancient manuscripts. The art and science of textual criticism, which examines the textual transmission of a document by examining the existing copies, is the scholarly way of filtering out spelling and other changes to arrive at the original wording. New Testament textual criticism reveals that less than 1/10 of 1% of the entire text is in doubt (i.e., 1/1,000th of the whole).11

False claim #4: “The King James translations [sic] used none of these [8,000 manuscripts] anyway.”

This claim is that “no Greek manuscripts were consulted by the scholars that translated the King James Version.” One has only to look at the title page of the King James (“Authorized”) Version when first published to dispel the claim:

“The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament and the New: Newly Translated out of the Originall tongues, with the former Translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties speciall commandement.”

The New Testament had its own title page:

“The New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Newly translated out of the Originall Greeke….”

One of the 47 translators, Miles Smith, wrote of his colleagues: “If you ask what they had before them, truly it was the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the Greek of the New…..These tongues…we set before us to translate, being the tongues wherein God was pleased to speak to his Church by his Prophets and Apostles.”12

The King James translators made large use of two editions (1588-89 and 1598) of the Greek Testament of Theodore Beza, a classical and biblical scholar who succeeded John Calvin at Geneva.13 Beza examined (“collated”) several Greek manuscripts and used information from others who had collated additional manuscripts in compiling his Greek text. Most textual scholars today would say that Beza’s text was inferior because the old parchment manuscripts (“uncials” written on animal skins) and papyrus manuscripts that are available today had yet to be discovered. The copies Beza used were from the 12th-14th century, with the oldest being perhaps from the 10th century. Within 350 years from the time of Beza complete copies of the New Testament in Greek were discovered that date from around the year 325, and complete copies of individual New Testament books (or of several books) were discovered that date from around 180 (e.g., P46, the Chester Beatty Papyri containing many of Paul’s letters). Regardless of how one views the Greek text behind the King James (which eventually became known as the Textus Receptus, Latin for “Received Text”), it is clear that the translators used printed Greek Testaments that represented a compilation of available Greek manuscripts. Thus, to say the translators did not use any Greek manuscripts is patently false. The King James Version is much more than a revision of the English text of the Bishops’ Bible or any other existing translation.

False claim #5: “[The King James translators] edited previous translations to create a version their king and parliament would approve.”

The King James Bible translators were required to use the Bishop’s Bible (first produced in 1568, but the King James Translators used the 1602 edition), as their base text, modifying it as necessary when they could more accurately translate certain Hebrew and Greek phrases and words. The Bishops’ Bible was “to be followed, and as little altered as the original will permit” according to the fifteen requirements that the translators were to follow.

The longevity of the King James Version, the Bible used by most English speaking Protestants for 350 years, is attributable to skill of the translators, including their knowledge of the original languages and their use of “thundering diction” at a time considered to be the “high water mark” of the English language. The translation was not an “edition of previous translations” and was not done for the approval of King James or his Parliament. In fact, during James’ entire reign over England and Scotland he almost never got along with Parliament, disbanding them on numerous occasions. The King James Bible translators would hardly care about approval from Parliament. As for James himself, he was content knowing that the most skilled Greek and Hebrew scholars and linguists in his kingdom were involved in the translation, and that their translation would avoid the divisive “accompaniments” (notes, commentaries) contained in the Geneva Bible.

False claim #6: “21st century Christians believe the ‘Word of God’ is a book edited in the 17th century from 16th century translations….”

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”14 If I asked our skeptical friend about the origin of this famous line, the likely answer would be, “Those are the words of William Shakespeare.” Assuming that the skeptic considers the line to be from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, I would point out that we do not have the original of Hamlet, and the copies we do have contain gaps (unlike the New Testament, which has no gaps due to the embarrassing wealth of manuscript evidence). So, is the line really the “words of Shakespeare?” Even though all existing copies of Hamlet were written by someone else, it is common to say that “To be or not to be” are the words of Shakespeare. Since one cannot prove with absolute certainty that the Bard penned the words, it could be argued that accepting the words as coming from Shakespeare is a matter of faith.

Christians believe that the “Word of God” is what was originally written by the apostles and prophets as they were “borne along” (“inspired”) by the Holy Spirit. Jesus told his disciples the Holy Spirit would “guide” them “into all the truth” (John 16:13). Most Christian scholars would say the Spirit “superintended” human authors so that their writings communicate exactly what God intended, using their own writing styles and vocabularies in the process. Belief in the inerrancy of copies is not only unwarranted, it is demonstrably false. However, despite errors in our copies (most of which are insignificant, such as spelling errors), the practice of textual criticism assures us that we can reconstruct the original wording of the New Testament with a high degree of confidence. Thus, for Christians, the Bible we have in our own language is the “Word of God” in a way similar to how the phrase “To be or not to be?” is the word of Shakespeare.

Christian scholars today would say that the “Word of God” technically refers to what was originally revealed and written, and that what we call the “Word of God” today is an accurate reflection of the original words used by the apostles and prophets. Having taken four years of Greek courses, I can and do read the New Testament in Greek. Based on my analysis, I confirm that our English translations do an excellent job in conveying the words and meanings of what the Greek text says. Therefore, one does not need to know Greek or Hebrew to access the Word of God because its meaning is available in our own language. Thus, virtually any translation of the Bible can be described as the “Word of God,” with the understanding that translations are never perfect, but the meaning is still available by reading and studying. Rather than saying, like the skeptic, that the King James Version was “edited in the 17th century from 16th century translations,” it would be reasonable to say it is the Word of God translated into English.

False claim #7: “…8,000 contradictory copies of 4th century scrolls that claim to be copies of lost letters written in the 1st century.”

We’ve previously discussed the “8,000 contradictory copies” nonsense. What about “copies of 4th century scrolls?” First, I have no clear idea what the skeptic is referring to. It has probably escaped the attention of the skeptic that virtually no scrolls of the New Testament exist. Nearly all of the almost 6,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are in book form (bound on one edge, called a “codex,” plural “codices”), not scroll form. I am further puzzled by the reference to the “4th century.” There are dozens of New Testament manuscripts that pre-date the 4th century. Further puzzling is the reference that these scrolls [sic] “claim to be copies of lost letters written in the 1st century.” No biblical scholar to my knowledge claims that any New Testament “letters” (actually, “epistles,” a writing style essentially invented by the Apostle Paul) were lost. Paul makes reference to two letters to the Corinthians that are not in the New Testament, but those letters were never considered part of the Bible. The fact is that all 27 New Testament books (Matthew through Revelation) are supported by manuscripts that were copied earlier than the 4th century. In short, the skeptic’s assertion is blatantly false on several counts.

The oldest complete manuscripts of the New Testament, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, come from the early 4th century. The wording of Vaticanus (designated as manuscript “B”) in the Gospels of Luke and John agrees very closely (over 90%) with P75 (“Bodmer Papyrus”), a manuscript dating from around A.D. 200. The evidence from analyzing the transmission of the New Testament text shows that the Greek manuscripts from the 4th century and beyond are consistent with manuscripts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Any changes to the text made during or after the 4th century are fairly easy to identify by comparing the text to 2nd and 3rd century copies. There is no credible evidence that any of the original text of the New Testament has been “lost,” with the possible exception being the ending to Mark’s Gospel, but even that exception is far from certain. Clearly, there is no evidence that entire New Testament “letters” were lost.

False claim #8: That Christians believe “…8,000 contradictory copies of 4th century scrolls that claim to be copies of lost letters written in the 1st century,” and such a belief constitutes “insanity.”

The skeptic’s assertion sets up a classic “straw man” argument. The Straw Man fallacy is where someone’s actual position or belief is ignored and replaced with a distorted version of the actual position. Although a straw man argument gives the impression of refuting someone’s argument, it actually refutes an argument that was never made. Informed Christians do not believe there are “8,000 contradictory copies of 4th century scrolls.” Christians do not believe that the “…copies of 4th century scrolls…claim to be copies of lost letters written in the 1st century.” Informed Christians do not believe any New Testament epistles were “lost.” In short, the skeptic does a good job refuting positions that Christians do not hold.

Conclusion

The actual position of historical Christianity is that the New Testament writers were eyewitnesses of the events or had access to eyewitnesses, used their own style and vocabulary when they wrote about what they had seen and heard, and were influenced by the Holy Spirit who superintended their writings. Finally, these writings were copied and recopied, and though copying by hand changes were introduced into the text (intentionally or unintentionally), but these changes can be filtered out by comparing manuscripts and employing the acceptable canons (criteria) of textual criticism to determine the original wording. The result is that Christians can be confident that none of the Scripture as original given has been lost, and that our English Bibles are faithful translations of the original Word of God.

Notes

1. Puritans were Protestants that wanted to “purify” the Church of England from all Roman Catholic practices. They were still part of the Church of England, with the goal of reforming it from within.

2. The Geneva Bible, the Bible of Shakespeare, was completed in 1560 and was the first mass-produced Bible available to the general public. It contained “study guides,” cross-references and marginal notes.

3. James VI letter to Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London (soon thereafter Archbishop of Canterbury).

4. Ira Maurice Price, The Ancestry of Our English Bible (Philadelphia: The Sunday School Times Co, 1907), p. 275.

5. Edict of Milan, A.D. 313.

6. Roman Emperor Diocletian, in A.D. 303, sent out three edicts attacking Christianity, one of which was to destroy all Bibles. Within 10 years of his edict the new Roman Emperor, Constantine, issued his own “Edict of Milan” that allowed freedom of religion throughout the Empire.

7. Bart D. Ehrman, The Textual Reliability of the New Testament: Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue, Robert B. Stewart, ed., (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), p. 19.

8. Irenaeus (A.D. 150 ca), Adv. Haer (“Against Heresies”) II, 22, 59.

9. The Institute for New Testament Textual Research, https://www.uni-muenster.de/INTF/KgLSGII2010_02_04.pdf. Accessed September 15, 2015.

10. Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), p. 34.

11. Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek (Cambridge and London, 1881) p. 565.

12. Preface to the King James Version, titled “Translators to the Reader,” written by Miles Smith. See F.F. Bruce, The English Bible (New York: Oxford, 1970) p. 101-102.

13. Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford, 2nd ed., 1968), p. 105.

14. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, the beginning of Hamlet’s soliloquy in the Nunnery scene.