Christian apologists have often pointed out that atheists have a lot in common with the wackiest of religious believers. For example, many atheists maintain that the Bible teaches a literal six-day creation, or that Revelation is to be taken as a literal text. Whether believers or skeptics, the people who hold such views often understand the Bible in an absolutist sense, rarely considering its historical context.
I just finished James White’s The King James Only Controversy and discovered another fundamentalist tendency of the skeptical crowd: like the King James defenders, skeptics often believe that the text of the Bible should have been perfectly preserved down through the centuries, and they often make the same arguments in support of this thesis. I supposed I’ve always been aware of this similarity but never connected the dots. So, let’s explore it a little bit.
If you’re unfamiliar with the King James only advocates, they believe, as their name suggests, that the only trustworthy English translation of the Bible is the King James version. Modern translations like the NIV or NASB are “corrupt” and were produced to distort God’s word. To support this thesis, the KJV Onlyists usually attack The Greek and Hebrew manuscripts the modern versions are translated from and the character of the translators. And, no, I’m not making that up.
Anybody with a cursory understanding of the textual history of the Bible and without an ax to grind knows that that’s not correct. But interestingly enough, atheist are liable to say the same thing. Richard Carrier, for example, argues in The Christian Delusion that many readings that made it into our Bibles “were ‘snuck in’ later by dishonest Christians.” Proponents of King James Onlyism (Peter Ruckman, Gail Riplinger) are fond of alleging that such dishonesty was rampant among the scribes who copied manuscripts that belong to the Alexandrian text-type, because they weren’t utilized by the King James Translators. Of course, the KJV onlyists aren’t intentionally attacking Christianity like skeptics, but both groups are happy to sport tinfoil hats and allege conspiracy to make their points.
To review briefly, the conspiracy theory is idiotic for several reasons. As even Bart Ehrman points out in Misquoting Jesus, most of the changes that were introduced into the text of the New Testament were unintentional–misspellings, slips of the pen etc. And when the scribes did make intentional changes to the texts they were copying, it was because they thought they were correcting the mistakes of previous scribes. There’s also the fact that the manuscripts were copied by different scribes in different places at different times. The Church simply could not have directed the process.
Anyway, in support of the idea that the Bible has been corrupted, both atheists and KJV Onlyists will note discrepancies between different manuscripts, often citing the exact same passages. The only difference is that the latter mindlessly defend the Textus Receptus. In both cases the response is the same: the original readings are preserved in the extant manuscripts, as New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace has noted. Furthermore, the textual variants both groups cite are usually insignificant, not affecting any serious Christian doctrine. There’s no reason to believe that no reliable translation of the Bible exists today, or that the KJV is the only reliable translation.
In a roundabout way, White highlights this similarity in his book, explaining that KJV Onlyism makes the practice of apologetics harder than it has to be by conceding several atheists attacks on the Bible. Like the skeptics, they claim there was some sort of centralized attempt to control the transmission of the text and attack some of our oldest and best witnesses. “In other words, King James Onlyism cripples its adherents apologetically in a day when such can have devastating results.” (p 88)
So, my skeptical friends, I want you to know that your understanding of textual criticism and biblical exegesis is identical to that of perhaps the crankiest, most irrational, tradition-driven Christians in modern times. Think about that before you next attack the textual reliability of the Bible.