Bart Ehrman and King James Onlyism Share Two Important But Highly Contestable Presuppositions

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In biblical scholar Peter Williams’ excellent review of atheist Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Williams writes,

Time and again Ehrman claims to be able to tell us…something of the theological convictions and motivation of those who introduced a variant in the text [of the Greek New Testament]. The text he prefers may sometimes be in the mass of Alexandrian witnesses and may at other times be only attested in late manuscripts. At times it will be a difficult reading while at others a difficult reading is rejected. The one thing, however, that does run through most of the discussions of variants is Ehrman’s historical reconstruction of what scribes thought, how they were motivated, and how they acted in an environment of theological debate.

As I read this I thought immediately of King James Onlyism. To be clear, Bart Ehrman is a foe to the Christian faith while every KJV-Only person I’ve ever met was clearly my brother or sister in Christ. The theological motivations Ehrman sees are efforts to buttress whatever version of “orthodoxy” that particular scribe favored; the theological motivations the KJVOs see are nothing short of satanic efforts to water down the truth of the Bible. But Ehrman and the KJVOs share two very key presuppositions:

  1. The text of the New Testament has been purposefully altered.
  2. We know why.

In other words, we know what the scribes were thinking when they (purposefully) made those changes to the Bible.

Here’s my question: how could they possibly know the motivations of completely anonymous scribes copying the Bible at hard-to-pin-down locales and hard-to-verify times? The manuscripts themselves are pretty much all the evidence we have.

This is also Williams’ question for Ehrman:

The historical reconstruction [Ehrman relies on] is not some datum [available to us from the external world], but something itself supposedly derived from the manuscripts. This derivative construction has been given decisive authority, just as another textual critic might give decisive authority to a manuscript. Clearly, however, the construction needs its own verification before it can be given such decisive weight.

I don’t buy Ehrman’s reconstruction of the historical circumstances surrounding textual differences in the New Testament. One of the most basic reasons I don’t buy it is cited by Williams: how could anyone at any point in the history of the church possibly get away with purposefully changing the Bible? They would have to wield nearly absolute power over a church spread out over a massive area of the world at a time before telecommunications and air travel. They’d have to be able not only to introduce these changes—at a time when relatively few codices put the whole New Testament together, let alone the entire Bible—but to suppress the original readings.

The same point is telling against the KJVO position. Yes, a massive conspiracy to alter God’s words over the course of many centuries and spanning huge geographic regions is possible… The same way it’s possible that President Obama and Vladimir Putin are just puppets of the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission. KJVOism is a conspiracy theory, as is Ehrman’s viewpoint (at least on this issue), the kind of thing that cannot be disproven because every evidence against it will be swallowed up into a tiny circle, spun around, and spat out again as evidence for it.

I have seen KJVOs half acknowledge that some of the differences between manuscripts are due to human finitude rather than human fallenness—a misspelling, a meaningless word-order change that doesn’t even show up in translation, an accidentally repeated or omitted line. But, they’ll say, those minor changes were just put there to fool us into swallowing the bigger ones.

I often find snarkiness creeping into my posts on the KJVO controversy (such as it is; the sides are almost completely polarized and stratified, I think). I do my best by God’s grace to remove that bitter taste, and please do try to read what I just wrote as straightforwardly as possible. I take this issue quite seriously because people I love are damaged by it. Those Christian brothers and sisters who insist on using the KJV are missing out on things God said because they don’t speak 400-year old English as well as they think they do. And non-Christian people who desperately need to hear the gospel in their own language are getting that gospel in an unnecessarily garbled way.

By the way, if you don’t know Peter Williams, you’ve just got to watch this fantastic video. The man is a stalwart defender of the Bible, not a critic of it:

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

3 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman and King James Onlyism Share Two Important But Highly Contestable Presuppositions”

  1. Hi, Mark – first off, I want to say how much I always enjoy and appreciate your posts, and your lovely balance of good humour.
    When I read this piece, I’m afraid I had a picture of myself standing up in a room and saying, rather like they do at Alcoholics Anonymous, ‘Hello, my name’s Barry. And I’ve been a KJV reader since 1976’.
    However, although this is my favoured translation, and because after all this time I’m so attuned to its language, I certainly feel there’s a very strong case to be made for not using it to the exclusion of all other translations. For people whose first language is not English, it’s the wrong one to use – and I’ve also found that with young people it’s often not appropriate because they’re no longer being educated in the way in which I was educated in the 1960s. After the KJV I turn to the ESV, then the RSV … when using Logos, I will keep clicking across all translations and versions of the Bible that I have, looking for the most accurate and careful rendering of a word or a verse, so I am, sort of, beginning to loosen my grip on the KJV!
    I know Ehrman’s writings, and nowadays I steer clear (rightly or wrongly) simply because I know what he stands for, but also because one’s own time is running out, and how one spends it becomes increasingly important. I’m all for hard, critical thinking, and co-operative, constructive dialogue about all things Scriptural, but I have to recognise when I’m banging my head against a brick wall.
    Once again – yours, appreciatively
    Barry

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Barry.

    It sounds like you are not at all the kind of person of whom this post is a critique. I’m not sure how much of this sort of thing exists in the UK (though I have reason to believe it does exist there), but in the US there are many Christians who believe that it is morally wrong to use a version other than the KJV—precisely because the Greek behind those other versions is supposed to have been purposefully corrupted.

    It is terribly sad to me that so many people who cannot read Greek or Hebrew are so utterly confident in their viewpoint on this matter. It seems to me that people in such a position must be absolutely clear on one thing: they don’t know “the facts,” they know an intermediary authority’s interpretation of the facts. I don’t have opinions on textual criticism of ancient Chinese texts, and if for some reason the issue became relevant I’d have to preface every comment I made on the topic with, “I don’t know this firsthand; I’m relying on the testimony of so-and-so.”

  3. Quite so. I do find that another factor in no longer seeing the KJV as the only translation to use is my slow learning of Greek and Hebrew, and making attempts at times at my own translations! I get the daily doses of Greek and Hebrew from Logos, and they’re really helpful. I can see the subtleties of meaning, which don’t exist in the English. One word, for example, is ‘remember’ which has a limited number of meanings in English, but which has a far wider range of meanings in the Hebrew. When one reads in English ‘God remembered Noah’ we tend to think that He must have forgotten him, but of course that is absolutely not the case – our concept of ‘remember’ is very limiting. Ditto with other English words.
    Best wishes
    Barry

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