The King James Version of the Bible, the most popular translation of the Bible in the world, turned 400 this year. But how was the Bible – the most widely read book in the world – compiled and is it the same book today as it was when it was first written?
The language of Jesus Christ was Aramaic, according to the consensus of Christian scholars, however, the earliest Biblical manuscripts are in Greek. It was written in Greek because this was the popular language at the time of the early Christians. Amongst these original Greek Bibles, there are believed to be 50,000 different copies – or according to Biblical Scholar Bart Ehram: “more manuscripts than words of the New Testament.” Bart Ehram in his book The Story behind who changed the Bible and why says: “Scholars typically differentiate today between changes that appear to have been made accidentally through scribal mistakes and those made intentionally.”
After Jesus died, there were different beliefs as to the nature of Jesus. The group that believed that Jesus was the son of God and was both human and divine, that salvation comes by believing in his death and resurrection, won the debate. This group then decided which books would be in the canon of scripture.
Upon re-writing the manuscripts of the New Testament, the scribers, according to Ehram, would sometimes make accidental mistakes, but would also change the texts in accordance with their theological beliefs. Changes were made such as: 1 Timothy 3:16. This verse in most manuscripts, is believed to be about Jesus: “God made manifest in the flesh, and justified in the spirit.”
However, Johann J. Wettstein, when analysing this verse in an ancient manuscript, noticed that there was a line over the top of one of the words (lines were used to say the word is an abbreviation) and had been drawn in a different ink from the surrounding words, so appeared to be from a later hand. Wettstein concluded that the word in the manuscript was changed from ‘who’ to ‘God’ so it originally read ‘who was made manifest in the flesh’ not ‘God made manifest in the flesh.’ This is just one example of the many changes that were made by the original scribers.
A group of theologians in America from Catholicism and Protestant sects formed the ‘Jesus seminar’ and, in the 1990s, wrote a text called the ‘5 Gospels’, the fifth being the Gospel of Thomas only recently discovered in Egypt. They colour coded the sayings of Jesus in the Bible, and each colour represented how likely it was that Jesus did actually say what is attributed to him in the Bible. They concluded after analysing the Lords prayer (found in Matthew & Luke) “Our father who art in heaven…” that the only word that Jesus definately said was the word ‘father’… out of the whole prayer. More interestingly, they said that out of all the sayings of Jesus in the Bible, there would only be enough to fill a “single column of a newspaper”. Therefore it seems, according to them, that most of sayings attributed to Jesus were not actually his own.
In Professor John Hick’s book The myth of God incarnate he says: “The Bible was written, by a variety of different people, in a variety of different circumstances in a variety of different places… and cannot be a divine source.” J.K Elliot the Head of Theology at Leeds University has also said about the ancient manuscripts “no two manuscripts agree in all particulars out of all 5000 manuscripts”.
In the introduction of the New Revised version of the Bible, scholars wrote regarding the King James version: “The discovery of manuscripts made it manifest that these defects are so many and so serious to call for a revision of the English translation.”
Scholars of the New Revised version have deleted texts and have added texts – for example, the word ‘begotten’ (referring to Jesus) found in the King James version in the Gospel of John was thrown out of the New Revised version, as it had not appeared in early manuscripts. In 1 John 5 v7 in the King James Version it says: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the father, the son, and the holy ghost, and these three are one.” This was used by Christians to support the doctrine of the Trinity but this verse cannot be found in any manuscript earlier than the 15th century, so appears to have been added later.
The King James Bible is nevertheless an important piece of literature, revered by even Richard Dawkins. In the God Delusion, Dawkins highlights 129 Biblical phrases which have been incorporated into everyday English language. The Bible is a great yet flawed book, with many lessons to be derived and many morals to be gleaned, but, nevertheless, has a long history of changes.