If Onlyists

A special brand of Fundamentalism called King James Onlyism is a particularly odd variety of faith simply because of its required backing and filling.  In brief, this particular evangelical position claims that the only inspired translation of the Bible is the King James Version.  It’s best not to look too closely at the KJV, however, or the problems start.  Primary among them is that the version most Onlyists cite is not the original King James.  Published in 1611, this translation is immediately evident by its use of “I” for “J” and for the long s (the one that looks like an f).  Perhaps more troubling for Onlyists, it also includes the Apocrypha.  There was still some debate at the time concerning the status of these deuterocanonical books, and they were part of the actual KJV.

The typical King James used by Onlyists is a revised KJV.  In England, where the translation was done, revisions were made from time to time, leading to an Oxford version (Blayney text of 1769) and a Cambridge version (Scrivener text of 1873).  On these shores further adjustments were made leading to the rather strange situation where there is no single King James Version of the Bible.  There are many King James Versions.  Attempts to control Scripture often end up like that.  The underlying problem is the belief that there is a single version of Holy Writ.  Inerrantists are pledging their faith to something that doesn’t exist.  Defending this approach many would claim that the revisions are minor, but small changes can make huge differences.

The belief in one single version relies on the belief that God inspired not only the original writers, but the translators as well.  It denies that the better manuscripts that have come to light since the early seventeenth century (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) contain any authentic information of what the Good Book says.  Textual criticism, in the absence of any original manuscripts, is the best way we have of discovering what the original likely said.  Onlyists argue that the manuscripts from which King James’ translators worked were the divinely selected ones and their work was inspired—a position against which no empirical proof can be offered.  This faith trades in certainties that only bringing in direct heavenly control can achieve.  And it means that Catholics are wrong, despite King James’ inspired error to include the Apocrypha.  That’s the thing about a trump card like inspiration—once it’s played there’s no way to overcome it.

Trusting Truth

How do we know what’s true? For many the answer is what your experience reveals. If that experience involves being raised as a Bible-believer, that complicates things. A friend recently sent me a New York Times piece entitled “The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society,” by Molly Worthen. For those of us raised in Fundamentalist conditions, this isn’t news. Then again, those raised Fundamentalist assume that everyone knows the truth but others have blatantly decided to reject it. It’s a strange idea, inerrancy. It’s clearly a form of idolatry and its roots can be traced if anyone wishes to take the time to do it. Inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is correct, tout court. It’s right about everything. If it contains one error, so the thinking goes, it topples like a house of cards. (Cards are sinful by the way, so get your hands off that deck!) If that’s your starting point, then the rest of the facts have to fall into place.

As much as I wish I could say that this simplistic outlook may be corrected by education, that’s not always the case. Many children of inerrantists are raised to question what they learn in school. Worse, many are home schooled so that they never have to be exposed to the sinful machinations of others until they try to enter the job market and are utterly perplexed by the fact that they don’t even speak a common language with the rest of society. Key code words don’t mean the same things outside that safe, withdrawn community where everyone knows the Bible and understands that to know it is to love it. Science doesn’t love the Bible, they’re taught. So science is wrong. It’s quite simple really. You already have all the information you need in one book. If science disagrees, then, well, you already have all the information you need.

There’s an internal logic to all of this, and dismissing the heartfelt beliefs of Fundamentalists only gets their backs up. It’s not about logic, but the emotion of belief. Some neuroscientists have been suggesting that we reason not only by logic but also with emotion. That complicates things, for sure, but it also explains a lot. For example, in a world where religion drives nearly all the major issues facing society, logic would dictate that universities would build up religion departments to try to understand this very real danger. Instead we find the exact opposite. Withdrawing into your own little world occurs on both ends of the spectrum. Dr. Worthen is to be applauded for bringing this out into the light. If society wants to benefit from this knowledge, it will need to stop and think about what it really means to be human. Fundamentalists, for all their foibles, illustrate that nicely.


lossy-page1-428px-CLiff_being_undermined_by_the_Virgin_River._West_wall_of_Canyon_above_Temple_of_Sinawava._-_NARA_-_520458The idea is a simple one. When someone undermines, the very foundation of an idea is left with no foundation. We are taught not to undermine ourselves; for enemies it’s okay. Encouraged even. The Bible contains the seeds to its own undermining. The claim that it is a sacred book encourages—even demands—serious attention be paid to it. When it is examined closely, however, it becomes plain that the status accorded it as a book undermines its own claims. Believers can respond in several ways. One is to declare the Bible inerrant and to claim that contradictions are not contradictions and that what history has proven false is actually true. The keenest breed of such inerrantists hardly exists any more, since it does require a stable, geocentric view of the universe, if a universe there be at all. On the other extreme there are believers who make sacred writ so highly symbolic that we need not worry about the obvious factual errors—they were never meant literally anyway. And, of course, every position in between.

The Bible is not a unified composition. This was evident to the person, whoever it was, who first joined the Prophets to the Torah. Or even Genesis to Exodus. We have no way of knowing if s/he (mostly likely the latter) really believed that Moses wrote all the stories from the creation of the world through his own death, but the books of the Pentateuch roughly hang together in an extended narrative with plenty of instruction along the way. The “Bible” that Jesus knew had considerably fewer books than our “Old Testament.” And one gets the sense that Paul’s letters were tacked on in a catch-as-catch-can fashion, with everyone knowing (as the letters themselves say) that material is missing. And what Paul authoritatively wrote to the people of Galatia may not have been the same advice he sent to the Corinthians. Tides and times. Bibles and believers.

When scholars began, out of deep devotion, to look closely at the Bible the cracks in this historical facade began to fracture. Once the breach is in the dike, one dare ignore it only at great peril. The first shaft had been dug. By the time of Julius Wellhausen, the undermining was already engineered and well underway. And it couldn’t be stopped. Biblical scholars had choices to make: ignore the evidence and continue to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, or climb out of that tunnel before it caves in. And the church, unsuspecting of what it means, insisted on an educated clergy. Serious study of the Bible shows what many believers wish it didn’t. And yet we continue to make claims based on evidence that is faulty. Just as long as these supporting pillars hold up we have nothing to worry about. And the undermining continues daily, lest we all find ourselves in the breadline.

Inerrant, Indeed

The other day at work, I discovered a huge Bible. This one was truly massive, in three volumes, almost too heavy to lift. As I pulled down the last fascicle, which weighed more than a newborn, I noticed the sticker on the cover. “Author’s proof.” This gave me pause. Does God read his own material or does he hire out freelancers? Printed Bibles have a long and venerable history of typographical errors, especially in the early days. Speaking in the name of the Almighty does have its risks. After all, little is more persuasive in America than the words, “it’s in the Bible.” I remember kids saying that to me in high school, where I had the reputation of being a walking concordance. More often than not, I had to correct them, since, in fact, the Bible mentions nothing about Popes or guns.


Prior to the electronics revolution, printing a Bible was a complex process. Typesetting, or compositing, was not an undertaking for the foolhardy. Type has to be set, cast, and molded in order for offset printers to roll. And although page proofs aren’t set in stone, metal isn’t a forgiving medium to manipulate. And let’s face it—the Bible has a lot of words. Some of them very dry. The King James Version has over 780,000 words. Those with any experience in publishing know that’s one big book. Bible proofreaders command a hefty fee. I would be afraid to correct the word of the Lord myself. Reading through holy writ, word-by-word, takes a bit of time. The mind wanders to monks in their scriptoria.

Nevertheless, printer’s errors abound. Growing up as an evangelical, lighthearted entertainment was to be had as we read about the “Breeches Bible,” the Geneva Bible that had Adam and Eve fabricating britches for themselves from fig leaves. Coverdale’s Bible was known as the “Bug Bible” for its translation of Psalm 91.5, “Thou shall not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night.” Various versions of the King James have typos including Judas telling the disciples to watch in Gethsemane while he goes yonder to pray, and the somewhat self-serving “Printer’s Bible” that renders Psalm 119.161, “Printers have persecuted me without a cause” (which may be true, but the Hebrew would seem to indicate “princes” instead). The most notorious was the “Wicked Bible” wherein the seventh commandment in Exodus reads, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” All but eleven copies were destroyed and one of the remaining sold in recent years for $89,000. A Bible printed during the First World War, had “Thou shalt kill” as a commandment, Freud be praised. I slip the author’s proof back onto the shelf. I’ll let this be somebody else’s problem.

Utterly Ineffable

Sitting in an office full of Bibles, I feel well equipped for an apocalypse. At times, however, the irony of editing Bibles is almost overwhelming. Standard publishing contract boilerplate includes the assurance that the work of the author contains nothing “blasphemous.” I once had an author object to this language since just about anything said about religion or the Bible could be considered blasphemous in the right circumstances. In these days when Tea and other parties promote a literalistic reading of Scripture and some of its antiquated perceptions of humanity, I realize that the problem is the strange theological tenet known as “inerrancy.”


The idea of inerrancy is that the Bible is without error of any kind, itself an errant assumption. Those who hold it do not fully appreciate that we have no original biblical manuscripts at all. The Bibles we read and swear on today are translations of copies of copies of copies in a long regression back to missing originals. Those translated copies have to be typeset and printed, and errors creep in at every stage, as is clear from a glimpse of the manuscript trail as well as many famous misprinted Bibles. Even when the inerrantists are pushed back to the original languages, the problem of not having the autograph remains an unsurmountable barricade to the mind of God. Bibles, like any other books, are subject to human error at each step of the publishing process. On my desk sit contracts where the editor of a Bible swears nothing blasphemous exists in the words. Such contract signers are braver than this tremulous hand.

Once I sent a hastily drafted contributor agreement to a Jewish author with the divine name accidentally misspelled. Within literal minutes of hitting the send button, my phone rang. The contributor was civil but reproving. Did I expect a Jewish man to sign off on a document with the ineffable name misspelled? I apologized but otherwise held my tongue. I had inadvertently blasphemed, perhaps, in my need to get too much done in a day. Now I am editing Bibles. One contributor to a study Bible told me his student evaluations state, “he wrote the effing Bible!” Effing? Ineffable? Inerrant? I’m not sure I have the nerves to handle this kind of pressure. Then there is that box full of leather Bible-binding samples under my desk. Bible-binders sure know their leather. Don’t tell me my thoughts have gone astray yet again.


Assyrian Dreamers

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

These lines from Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” were recently quoted to me by one of my relatives who houses a tremendous store of memorized poetry. The poem is Byron’s vision of the siege of Jerusalem, a historical event that is now well understood because the actual annals of Sennacherib were discovered in 1830. The Akkadian version of Hezekiah’s revolt and the subsequent siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE match the statement in 2 Kings 18 that declares Hezekiah bought off Sennacherib, thus sparing his kingdom. The biblical version then goes on to add the event eulogized by Lord Byron that an angel was sent after a prophecy of Isaiah and the Assyrian army fell decimated outside Jerusalem. The latter event is not historically accurate, but it is much more poetic. Who would write a poem about a king paying off his enemies?

Annals of Sennacherib

The Bible is comfortable with conflicting accounts of events, sometimes laying them side-by-side without comment, supposing that the reader is bright enough to see the obvious contradictions and draw the relevant conclusions. With the birth of Christian Fundamentalism in the 1920s, however, the myth of biblical inerrancy was born. In a world rendered in shades of gray, a distinct comfort lies in having answers in black and white. The Bible, considered the exact (if sometimes dodgy) words of God himself, could not be other than one hundred percent historically accurate. This version of history distorts what actually happened to what must have happened.

Lord Byron, notorious sinner that he was, seems to have been closer to the biblical spirit when he penned his famous poem. Glorying in the bravado of a warrior God who lays waste an entire army without lifting a sword or spear is fanciful, if breath-taking, poetic license.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he pass’d,
And the eyes of the sleepers wax’d deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

bears a grandeur lacking in “Hezekiah gave him all the silver which was found in the house of the LORD, and in the treasuries of the king’s house. At that time Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of the LORD, and from the doorposts which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid, and gave it to the king of Assyria.”