Bible Lesson

I was recently reading the revised preface and “To the Reader” (in draft form) for the NRSVue.  In case alphabet soup’s not your thing, that’s the New Revised Standard Version updated edition.  Of the Bible.  As I read through these seldom referenced pages it occurred to me, not for the first time, the care and concern with which scholars approach the original text of the Bible.  No matter what Fundamentalists may say, we do not have the original text.  In some places the translations you read are the best guesses of those who’ve spent their lives trying to understand what an obviously corrupted copy was intended to reflect.  Such care reflects the widespread (but shrinking) sense that this text somehow magically informs daily lives and should lead to political action.  I’m sure Jesus would’ve arched an eyebrow over that.

Biblical scholarship is hampered by the fact that the manuscripts that have survived are copies of copies of copies (etc. etc.).  Translators—yes, including those of the King James Version and the New International Version—are making some informed guesses on an Urtext we simply don’t have.  Lives, however, are often sacrificed on the basis of the belief that we have here some object to be worshipped instead of read and understood.  I like to tell my skeptical friends that the Bible is actually full of really good things.  There’s some nasty stuff in there too, but we can learn from the parts that convey deep spiritual wisdom.  Listening to your elders is a good idea, but it’s not the same as worshipping them.

Humans have a deep desire to make things sacred.  Maybe it’s because after watching us muddle around down here we want to believe there’s something better out there.  It’s problematic, however, when we make an earthly object, put together by humans, into a deity.  There are those who get around this by claiming the Bible is from God in the original.  The point is we don’t have the original.  There are some words (especially in Hebrew) of which the connotation and denotation are unsure (for words have no inherent meaning).  Reading, we know, is a complex enterprise.  That’s why it takes years to master it and constant practice to maintain it.  Those who leave off reading after school may, I fear, fall back into literalism when they encounter a text.  Bible scholars take great care at trying to reconstruct the original, and all of that can be undone by a failure to just keep reading.

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.

Quoth Hardy

There are days when the quote from an author is the best thing to happen to me.  You probably know those kinds of days—days when there’s nothing really to stay up for so you go to bed early.  Lengthy days when your Muse wins easily any game of hide-and-seek.  You see, I save most of my fiction reading for bedtime.  If I turn in soon enough I can read quite a bit before falling asleep.  Not to sell you a false bill of goods, but that’s not the source of the quote.  It actually came to me from an unrelated email about the Bible.  The quote, while lengthy, comes from Thomas Hardy:

By the will of God some men are born poetical. Of these some make themselves practical poets, other are made poets by lapse of time who were hardly recognized as such. Particularly has this been the case with the translators of the Bible. They translated into the language of their age; then the years began to corrupt that language as spoken, and to add grey lichen to the translation; until the moderns who use the corrupted tongue marvel at the poetry of the old words. When new they were not more than half so poetical. So that Coverdale, Tyndale, and the rest of them are as ghosts what they never were in the flesh.

This comes from a letter to Professor D. A. Robertson of the University of Chicago, dated to February 1918.  Hardy was a known critic of religion, but like most writers of his day he knew the Bible.  Now, I’d never generally put myself on the same page with Hardy, but something similar to this thought had occurred to me long before I saw this quote.  We treasure ancient writing simply because it has survived.  This should be a sobering thought to any of us who try to forge our thoughts into words.  We have no way of knowing if, at the time, an author was considered great.  Merely the passage of time can make writing unfashionable in its age appear brilliant.  Like rocks tumbling over each other at the base of a cataract, they find polish over time.

My particular context for receiving this emailed quote was the King James Version of the Bible.  Often considered sacred in that translation, it was not uniformly well received when first published.  There had been English Bibles before, and since the Good Book is the foundation of western literature, a new translation commanded attention.  It had its critics, but over the centuries the translation itself became holy, whether it deserved it or not.  Similarly, Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible helped to codify the German language.  We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Scripture, not for its theology, but for its immense influence on western thought.  As Hardy noted, it may be the passage of time that makes writing great.  Even so we might be wise to pay attention.

Only Which King James?

Nothing is as simple as it seems. Not that the Bible ever claims simplicity for itself. Among those who make up their minds before seeing all the evidence, there’s a strong preference for the “King James Version” of the Bible. Many with that preference will claim that they don’t interpret the Good Book, they just read it. Reading itself is an act of interpretation and stakes tend to be pretty high when the claim for divine authorship is on the table. So I figured I’d better interpret something about the King James Bible myself. Gordon Campbell’s Bible: The Story of the King James Version is an informative, authoritative, and often witty treatment of the topic. One of the immediate takeaways is that there is no single KJV.

Beginning in the beginning, Gordon tells the story of the Bible in English. There were translations before the King James, and its translation companies used these previous efforts and sometimes borrowed extensively from them. In other words, there’s nothing new under the sun. Once the King James was done in 1611 it had to be printed, and printing, being what it is, led to errors. Although these were of the secular, human kind, they nevertheless appear from the beginning and new typesettings led to corrections and other errors, some perhaps intentional. Then came the revisions. What readers buy—and some claim is an inspired translation—as the KJV is a revision of a revision. Of a revision. In other words, the inspiration seems to lie with the redactors rather than the translators themselves. There are many different “official” King James versions. Translations are never static.

King James Onlyists (a modern movement) may not realize that the New Revised Standard Version is the modern descendant of the King James. The Revised Version (RV), followed by the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and its more recent, feared progeny (the NRSV) are all based on the King James translation. That is the version “Revised” in each of these efforts. They consult improved versions of ancient texts that have been discovered since the Jacobean era, but where they earn the ire of conservatives is in the updating of the modern language. A Bible with no thees or thous hardly seems sacred at all. The line of continuity is there, however. Other Bible translations “start over” but still consult the KJV, such is its stature. The real problem comes in supposing that any one translation is the original. No original Hebrew or Greek biblical manuscripts survive, and no original King James Version exists. How uncomfortable these facts are, everyone will have to interpret for her or himself.

Which Bible Again?

Which Bible? That’s a fair enough question. No matter how much you want to deny it, western culture always has been and always will have been biblically based. That being the case, it’s best to know which Bible we’re talking about. The Protestant Bible is America’s Good Book. Although there were Catholics before Protestants were a gleam in Luther’s eye, the latter laid early claim to the Bible. When a Bible appears in a social or civil religion context, it’s most likely Protestant. The Catholic Bible contains extra material—that which Protestants call The Apocrypha. Satisfied that Luther was right to leave the Deuterocanonical books out, their role as fake good news has never been questioned. If the King James was good enough for Jesus and Paul, they say, only half in jest.

Some Evangelicals belong to the King James only movement. They come up with alternative facts when faced with the reality that the King James translation includes the Apocrypha. Yes, it’s right there in black and white. The Authorized Version of the Bible included the “Catholic books.” I was reminded of this the other day when I was searching for a simple factoid—how many words are in the King James Bible? The vast majority of websites give the unquestioning answer of 783,137. They may then break it down into “Old Testament” and New. Almost always they leave out the Apocrypha. The word count there is 152,185, and if my math serves, that brings the total to 935,322—not quite a million words. The Good Book is a big book.

The King James Onlyists (yes, that’s a thing) have bigger problems than the Apocrypha. What King James is the onlyist? The KJV you buy in your Christian bookstore is one of the many 18th century revisions of the 1611 King James. You see, translations are hardly stable. They change over time. Even the Revised Standard Version isn’t completely standard. I noticed while reading it as a kid that words had been changed over time. If our beloved Onlyist friends want to be purists and go back to the 1611 then they’ll have the problem of the Apocrypha to deal with. So which Bible? It’s a fair question. Catholic Bibles are bigger. Some Orthodox traditions also include such exotic books as Jubilees and 1 Enoch. And, from this we should take a lesson. Where there’s 1 Enoch, there’s always another not far away.

The Scofield Connection

While reading about Cyrus Scofield recently—and that book has stayed on and played with my mind for some reason—I ran across the conferences that he held in preparing his famous reference Bible. Although he claimed the sobriquet “Doctor,” placing D.D. after his name, like many a self-puffer Scofield has no university that will support the claim. (It’s amazing how many high-level CEOs and “important” businessmen pad their résumés with false degrees. Even some government wannabes do it, and then they want to defund education after they get into office.) Perhaps because he had no seminary training, and likely didn’t even graduate from college, Scofield might’ve felt a sense of insecurity when it came to a very large book originally written in languages he couldn’t read. There’s a reason “King James Only” Christians exist. In any case, he set up meetings in a couple of conspicuous places to go over his work. One of those places was Grove City College.

Now, like many small, Christian colleges, Grove City isn’t widely known. Most of the student population—at least when I was there—was fairly local. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, for the most part. Still on the (admittedly rare) occasion when someone asks me where I went for my undergraduate work, they generally haven’t heard of Grove City at all. Even though I spent four years of my life there, I had no idea about the Scofield connection until I read Joseph Canfield’s book. That’s because not all Fundamentalists grow up with Scofield. I’m sure I heard about the Scofield Reference Bible but I didn’t own one and I wondered what the big fuss was all about. After all, the annotations were the work of a man, and I was interested in the words of God. Far more popular was the revision of Scofield known as the Ryrie Study Bible, but I never read that either.

The end result is that many people think that Scofield’s words are “the Bible.” As I used to tell my students, binding pages together within a book makes a statement. If you’re saying “this is the word of God” and part of “this” is Scofield’s annotations, most people can’t distinguish between text and commentary. I eventually acquired a Scofield Bible, not for valid information, but simply for information. I was amazed at how poorly executed it was. Nevertheless, a true believer reading through the first chapters of 1 Chronicles is ready to accept even minimal narrative as divine. So it is that many Americans have come to believe in a Bible that’s not biblical. Religion is full of paradoxes and in this case I’d shared sleeping quarters with one in my more formative years although the connection was unknown at the time.

Alt Bible

A friend recently sent me a story from Anonymous titled “Why Did The Vatican Remove 14 Books From The Bible in 1684?” This piece reminded me of just how rampant biblical illiteracy is in this Bible-worshiping culture. To begin with the obvious, Roman Catholics are the ones who kept the Apocrypha in their Bibles—it was Protestants who removed the books. No doubt, retaining the Deuterocanonicals was a rear-guard action of the Counter-Reformation, but still, if you’re going to complain about the Papists it’s best to get your biblical facts straight. The story is headed with a picture of The Key to Solomon’s Key. Ironically, Solomon’s Key is actually an early modern grimoire that the author seems to think is the same as the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the books of the Apocrypha. Reading through the post it was clear that we have an Alt Bible on our hands.

(For those of you who are interested in the Key of Solomon, my recent article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on Sleepy Hollow discusses the Lesser Key of Solomon, a famous magic book. It features in one of the episodes of the first season of the Fox series and, I argue, acts as a stand-in for the iconic Bible. One of my main theses (don’t worry, there aren’t 95 of them) is that most people have a hard time discerning what’s in the Bible and what’s not. But I obviously digress.)

The post on Anonymous states that the Bible was translated from Latin to English in 1611. The year is partially right, but the facts are wrong. The translators of the King James Bible worked from some Greek and Hebrew sources, but their base translation was the Coverdale Bible which had been translated into English and published some eight decades before the King James. Myles Coverdale relied quite a bit on German translations, but the King James crowd went back to the original languages where they could. The KJV was published in 1611, but the translation from Latin was actually something the Catholics preferred, not Protestants. The Vulgate, attributed to and partially translated by Jerome, has always been the favored Roman base text. Ironically, and unbeknownst to most Protestants, the King James translation did include the Apocrypha. I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but they certainly make a lot more sense when the known facts align without the Alt Bible unduly influencing the discussion.

Cryptology 46

From Wikimedia Commons

From Wikimedia Commons

Four centuries ago this year William Shakespeare died. In the literary world there have been lots of commemorations going on, and all the fuss reminded me of a post I’d written some years back concerning Psalm 46. While teaching at Nashotah House, one of my students told me that William Shakespeare had covertly been involved in the translation of the King James Bible. The King James Version appeared in 1611, and Shakespeare was the prominent writer of England in that era. If you look at Psalm 46 in that version and count the 46th word from the beginning, you find “shake,” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.” I mentioned in my post that I’d not found any academic treatment of the issue and I’m happy to announce that I finally have. Of course it would be in an Oxford University Press book.

I’ve not read Hannibal Hamlin’s The Bible in Shakespeare, but I am able to glance through it at work. It turns out that I didn’t have the full details of this biblical urban legend. Apparently if you find the sixth and seventh words of verse 10 of that Psalm you find “I am.” The sixth and seventh words from the end are “will I.” Will.i.am would be proud (pardon the capital W). As much fun as all this evangelical exegesis might be, Hamlin calls shenanigans on it all. He demonstrates the literary history of the tale, pointing out that—not to spoil our fun—the cryptographic mentions of the Bard in the Bible are creative efforts of those of later generations. The interesting thing is, however, that the Bible is so closely scrutinized for codes that all kinds of hidden messages may be found. Look, for example, at what I discovered:

“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.” I don’t know about you, but to me this is clearly Paul warning the first Thessalonians of the present day’s troubles. When Trump is elected the dead will walk. Could anything be more prophetic than that? I haven’t done the math yet, but I’m just sure if you count the millions of letters in the Bible, you’ll find the name “Donald” spelled out somewhere. Scripture, after all, is the repository of all truth. One thing you won’t find, however, no matter how deeply you look. The billionaire’s tax returns are something God himself will never be able to see.

Creating English

From Wikimedia Commons

From Wikimedia Commons

The seventeenth century was a portentous time for the English language. Well, I suppose every day is portentous in some way, but in the year 1611 the King James translation of the Bible was published, and it still has considerable staying power in the English-speaking world. Quotes from it show up regularly among the modern media with many readers (and likely a few writers) having no idea of the origins of the phrases they use. Just five years after the King James Version made its debut, William Shakespeare died. Many languages can point to formative individuals or literatures that codified their forms of expression. In English the honor is shared by the forty-seven translators of the KJV and William Shakespeare. This four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is set to be a year of celebration among Anglophiles worldwide. We will gladly acknowledge that the words we write and speak owe much to the Bard and his lasting influence that still has high school students griping all the way through English class their senior year. I have read a Shakespeare play or two that I was never assigned in school, as many come to do. This year, among my reading goals, is at least one more of the works I’ve never read.

As with the text of the Bible, there is doubt about some of Shakespeare’s plays. Scholars scrutinize. (That’s what we’re supposed to do.) And scrutiny raises doubts. The seventeenth century was a time of generally acknowledged authorship. Some great English epics, such as Beowulf, have no author we can cite by name. Over time, however, quality came to be associated with the person who produced the literature. Even today a name often sells a book far more readily than the contents do. Some of Shakespeare’s plays may not go back to William himself, but the English language wouldn’t be the same without them, in any case. We are heirs to this legacy. Spelling began to be standardized. Grammatical expressions were codified. Classic stories predating Shakespeare became endlessly replicated and copied by those who know there’s no replacing an original.

A story on NPR notes that the First Folio—the first bound copy of all of Shakespeare’s plays—is being sent around the country this year by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Each state will host the first edition during the course of the year. The article by Susan Stamberg notes that this folio is the literary equivalent of the Holy Grail. Shakespeare is nearly as canonical as the biblical canon itself. Even if the Bard’s authorship is in doubt, it is still holy writ. Those of us who’ve spent considerable time with religious texts recognize the hagiography readily. No, these aren’t signed editions. Some of the work may have been done by someone else. Nevertheless, four centuries ago, through a combination of Bible and what we would today call “fiction,” the English language as we know it, was itself becoming canonical.

School Bible

BibleSchoolConstittnAs a very young scholarlet, I recall the horror expressed when some form of prayer was expelled from public schools. It had to have been in the late ’60’s. Maybe early ’70’s. The nation, it seemed, was headed for Hades in a hurry. Little did I know that this was part of a long, drawn-out—tired, even—battle. Steven K. Green’s The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine gives pretty close to the full story. Bible reading in public schools was foundational, in the beginning. In the early days of public education, the Bible was ubiquitous. It was considered non-sectarian since practically everyone was a Protestant. When the religious mix of the country began to diversify in the mid-1800’s, a new dynamic emerged. People got upset. There were riots. People were killed. Legislation was proposed that would explicitly add God—Jesus even—to the Constitution. Who knew?

Green’s study takes a close look at the various cases that arose around the time of the Civil War regarding the Bible in school. Protestants, it seems, didn’t appreciate that Bible reading, in the King James Version, without comment, violated Roman Catholic policy. The first to challenge Bible reading in public schools were Christians. Secularists only joined the fray later. I’m oversimplifying, of course. Some Catholics wanted equal time, the reading of the Douay Bible instead of King James. Others wanted Catholic schools to receive state funding. Nobody was really aware of other religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism. It was a country of limited religious imagination. Various groups tried in various ways to get God—their God only—into schools as the default deity. And so the fun continued.

For me, it was eye-opening to realize that all of this isn’t new. The legislation, since long before my grandparents were born, has been heading in the direction that led to the aggrieved tears in my youth. Green points out, however, that the conflict has never been completely resolved. School vouchers and a long spate of evangelical presidents have had their impact on our children. The Hades that we feared has only come with the weaponizing of our culture, largely by those who want Bible reading back in the schools. The thing we fear finds us through the thing we love. Ironically the issue never seems to be education. God or guns—it’s the power that we want. The early debates revolved around morality. How could kids be moral without Bible reading? How the definition of morality has changed. We, as a nation, still can’t figure out religious freedom or how to let kids be kids.

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.

IMG_1389

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.

Royal Reading

Post-Christian America still reads its Bible. One of the perks, such as it is, of working with Bibles is getting such vital news early. The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) has just released a study that was underway when I visited the school a couple years back. “The Bible in American Life,” available online, presents the results of a scientific survey of Bible reading in the US. Suffice it to say, we’re not done with Holy Writ just yet. In our world of high tech gadgets where the waves and particles that make the internet possible penetrate our bodies constantly, it is sometimes easy to forget that the Bible in many ways made this all possible. Both the good and the evil that drove western civilization to colonize its world had at least some dusty memory of “manifest destiny” embedded in sacred writ about it. And those who take the Bible seriously have continued to read, mark, and inwardly digest it.

The Bible in American Life, already picked up on by major media, indicates that about half of the population of the United States reads the Bible outside of worship. Perhaps not surprising given the still faltering civil rights dream, African-Americans are the biggest Bible reading demographic in the country. In fact, the study states, race is the single largest indicator of probable Bible reading. Those who are low on the economic scale also tend to read Scripture more. Those for whom “success” isn’t what it seems to be at first. Those whom “success” has passed by. Even Hispanic readers outnumber the white majority. People who have been distracted by material success, predictably, have little time for ancient wisdom. Still, half the country does turn to the Bible on occasion. Among the more interesting demographics is the fact that nones—those who are unaffiliated with any religion—also turn to the Bible for learning about life.

434px-King_James_I_of_England_and_VI_of_Scotland_by_John_De_Critz_the_ElderThe media seems to have picked up one of the major points as well—few Bible readers turn to Holy Writ for political advice. To hear the news weavers tell it, politicians and rabble-rousers trawl the Bible for its scant words about homosexuality and abortion—issues ignored by Moses and his ilk, for the most part. In fact, most people rate such issues very low on their scale of why they turn to the Bible. It is read more for consolation than for political intrigue. Having just about finished my formatting of my book on the Psalms, it warms my heart to read that the Psalter tops the list of favorite books of the Bible, narrowly inching out the Gospel of John. The study doesn’t, and can’t, come right out and say it, but the Bible is read by people to help them feel better. They still prefer the King James by a considerable margin. And in this world of self first, they can still read, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Even though Bible readers are, in the majority, women. Good old King James still shows the way, as the ruling white man always has.

God and King

Bible01

The King James Version of the Bible is in the public domain. (Except in Britain, where it is still royal prerogative to print the King James, and it has be licensed to Oxford and Cambridge University Presses.) In any case, that means that just about anywhere in the world, anyone can take the text of the King James, reproduce it, and sell it. In this day of electronic books, that means many King James Bibles are available online, as well as in print. Just look on Amazon. The other day, I was looking for King James editions when I noted a dilemma. When you’re listing your Bible on Amazon, who do you cite as the author? Seems pretty bold to list yourself as the either author or editor of the KJV, so there have appeared a number of improbable authors of late. The first one I noticed listed the author as El Shaddai. Either an Amy Grant fan or an educated reader, this editor chose the phrase generally translated as “God Almighty” as the author. A good, strong name. It may derive from the phrase “god of the mountains,” or a bit more racily, “god of the breasts.” El Shaddai was likely a pre-biblical god that eventually got merged with Yahweh.

Bible02

The second version (which looks the same to my untrained eye) lists a trinity of authors: Holy God, King James, and Joy Mayers. What a triumvirate! I’m not sure who Joy Mayers is, but I would certainly blush in the presence of gods and kings. Particularly Holy God. Interestingly, this is not exactly a biblical title for the deity. We do get the encomium “holy” applied to God, but I’m not sure that it ever appears as a name. Well, at least we can look up King James and Joy Mayers. The next edition I found listed the author as the safely hedged “God-inspired” (hyphen and all). The problem is that God-inspired might be taken a couple of ways. One, and likely the intended way, is to see the author, whomever it may have been, as divinely inspired. Another option, and one which sounds more exciting to me, is to think of a coffee-fueled deity scribbling away under the heat of inspiration. The inspired god, writing under a nom de plume, gave us the King James (if that was his real name).

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The last one I found was the most parsimonious. The author was listed as Anonymous. This comes the closest to the historical truth of the matter. We know very little about the writers of the Bible. Probably the best attested is Paul, along with his companion Pseudo-Paul. We know this historical person wrote a number of letters. There’s little reason to doubt that people named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote some gospels. Who these people are, we don’t rightly know. Once we get back to the Hebrew Bible we find authors writing about their own deaths, and events that take place thereafter with embarrassing frequency. It could be that people saw further back then, not having to strain their eyes at a computer daily. Of course, if it weren’t for computers, we couldn’t sell our own Bibles on Amazon. I’m just waiting until I learn the actual author’s name before I post mine for sale.

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Stealing God Blind

Photo credit: Raul 654, Wiki Commons

Photo credit: Raul 654, Wiki Commons

A friend who also works in the book trade recently revealed that the section in one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar book stores most liable to theft is Bibles. I’m not really surprised, I guess. Faith can do strange things to people, giving them justifications for thievery in the name of a higher authority. What it really doesn’t reflect, however, is just what a financial liability a Bible can be. My friend speculated that people believe that the Bible should be free, and, in a sense they have a point. If it is the word of God, as they likely believe, then it should be in the public domain. The problem is, the Bible’s not as simple as all that. The problem begins with the fact that “the Bible” does not exist in any definitive form. Every single one of the original manuscripts has long been lost and we have copies of copies of copies, etc., of those putative manuscripts. And they are in foreign languages—technically dead languages, at that. (Although Greek and Hebrew are still spoken, the biblical forms of those languages died out long ago.) So, are the Hebrew and Greek texts in the public domain?

Maybe, but. The texts from which translators make English (or other modern language) Bibles are based on compilations of various documents that have come to represent the accepted, textually correct ancient language versions of the Bible. These are protected by copyright since they are relatively modern editions. Some of the older ones are available in the public domain, but they are outdated. Even skipping all that, when we get to English Bibles, such as the King James Version (but not the New King James Version, where the “new” modifies “version,” presumably, and not “King James”), the text is in the public domain but the printed book still costs money to manufacture. One of the problems with Bible mythology is that some think this implies that Bibles just drop down from God. In actuality, they have to be edited, typeset, printed, shipped, and stocked, and the people who do this work have to be paid. In short, free text is not free.

I work for a major (but by no means the biggest) producer of Bibles. Even in my short time at the press, I have come to realize that Bible publishing is complex and expensive. Sure, you can print cheap editions and give them away like the Gideons do, but they have financial backing to buy and distribute cheap words of the Lord. There’s a sense of entitlement here: if God spoke, wasn’t it to all people? What about the Quran? The Book of Mormon? Science and Health? Some may castigate the Bible, but it is a genre-defining true original. And although one of the ten commandments declares stealing is wrong, some wonder how this can possibly apply to Bibles. It’s the middle-men and women. Stealing a Bible is cheating someone from a bit of their livelihood. Even if the Almighty turns a blind eye.

Isaiah Thwarted

Back in January, out of a sense of curiosity on a number of points, I began tweeting the Bible. I wondered how long it would take, at 140 characters a day, to type the King James Bible into Twitter. Since that time, I have not missed a day. Until this week. International travel and business travel with uncertain Internet access have been overcome as I flew with Bible in hand to keep it going. On Monday I was just wrapping up the flood story. Clearly this was going to take a long-term commitment. Then early this week a message popped up on my Twitter account stating, “You cannot send messages to users who are not following you. Learn more,” so naturally, I learned more. Unfortunately I am not now, nor have I ever been, a techie. Just a sentence in and words I don’t understand begin to flummox me, building confusion on confusion. What it appears to be telling me, in layman’s language, is that I can no longer post to Twitter.

Apart from the personal rejection such impersonal messages inevitably engender, this development brought to mind the famous verse from Isaiah 40.8, “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Hath the Lord been stopped by Twitter? Technology changes rapidly, and those of us who’ve never had any formal training in it sometimes feel like we’re driving a car on a dark country road at night with no headlights. I’m not really sure how this all works, but I try to send daily thoughts out into cyberspace and, yes, what you say can and will be used against you. And I wonder about old Deutero-Isaiah sitting there in Babylon peering into an indefinite future.

Our abject dependence on the Internet has changed us as a species. I’ve recently read about how technological innovations have become the evolution of the human species. This collective brain we refer to as the Internet has revolutionized the way we do business, but it has also introduced a component of fragility into the equation. Electronic information is untested in the long term. Some of my earliest writing projects now exist only on three-and-a-half inch floppies, most of which are tucked away in some musty corner of the attic. And what if the earth passes through a comet’s tail or a nasty solar flare jets out our way? Doomsday scenarios have been based on such things (just remember Y2K and smile). So maybe Second Isaiah was onto something after all. Printed books have been known to survive for at least half a millennium, and in rare instances, a couple thousand years. And the pagan sources on which parts of the Bible are based, written in clay, last even longer. And one of the earliest stories recorded was that of a worldwide flood.