Bart Ehrman and King James Onlyism Share Two Important But Highly Contestable Presuppositions
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:
- The text of the New Testament has been purposefully altered.
- 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: