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.

Clerk and Dagger

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Recently I had the sad duty to list a contributor to a volume as deceased. The standard means of doing so in typography is with a symbol called a dagger (†). When I was young, I thought this was intended to be a cross, but it became clear, as I looked more closely, it wasn’t that at all. The origins of typographic marks go back to the classical Greeks. Used to mark dubious places in manuscripts, the asterisk was to show places where something had to be added to the text while the dagger was used to show deletion. Well, it wasn’t a dagger then. The earliest form was called an obelus and it could be a plain line, but was often shown with the symbol we now painfully associate with long division: ÷. This odd sign was said to represent a dart, a spit, or the sharp end of a javelin. Since things were to be cut out of the manuscript, a sharp instrument would be ideal. Early textual criticism, then, gave us symbols that have now been commandeered by math.

These signed evolved with time. By the Middle Ages the asterisk and the dagger could be used to indicate a pause when reciting Psalms. (Those of us at Nashotah House in the 1990s know all about pauses when reciting Psalms.) Medieval scribes marked up manuscripts religiously. Eventually the asterisk came to be associated with footnotes—a function that it still has, mostly in non-academic texts. The dagger was used for a footnote if an asterisk had already been used on that page. Beyond that, the double-dagger came into play. The function and the form of the obelus had now evolved solidly into the dagger form. The obelus continued on in math, at one time to mean subtraction, but finally settling down to represent division. Appropriate, given its graphic origins.

The dagger and asterisk were the earliest signs of textual criticism. Literalists today still don’t understand the concept, since all ancient documents of the Bible are copies of copies of copies. Nevertheless, how did a sign indicating a spit upon which an animal was roasted come to represent the dearly departed? Since asterisk and dagger often work as a pair, the most obvious way that this worked out was in representing the birth and death years of a person. An asterisk before the name meant “born in,” while a dagger in the same position meant “died in.” As a kind of typographical shorthand, then, a dagger after a name meant the person had died. Although it sounds dramatic and not a little violent, it is really only death by textual criticism. That, I suspect, is something most biblical scholars especially will be able to comprehend.

Beg Your Martyr

Despite the extreme antipathy shown toward religion by the educational establishment, the Chronicle of Higher Education doesn’t shy away from the topic. In the March 1 edition of The Chronicle Review, a piece by Candida Moss presents one of the uncomfortable facts of religious history to the academic world. Many of us who are “specialists” have known for quite some time that the record for mass persecution among early Christians is sketchy at best. In “The Myths Behind the Age of Martyrs,” Moss reveals that historical documents don’t present the first few centuries of Christendom as quite the blood-bath that early hagiographies do. It is true that perceptions vary depending on one’s point of view. If your auntie were thrown to the lions, it might look like everyone you knew was being persecuted. If you were a Roman historian, the numbers might seem small in comparison with, say, those pesky Carthaginians, heathens the lot of them. Still, it was this persecuted self-image that left a lasting imprint on Christianity. Until Constantine, anyway. When Christianity became imperial, it didn’t hesitate to get medieval on a few posteriors.

As Moss points out, early Christians (as well as Jews and those of other bookish traditions) rewrote their stories over time. Even altering the Bible—not yet the Holy Bible—was fair game. The whole discipline of textual criticism grew up to answer the question of what the original Bible likely said. As soon as believers take their writings as factual, however, the story will change. Were early Christians persecuted? Almost certainly. By the tens of thousands that tradition asserts? Less likely. The Romans were practical. Like most domineering classes, lording it over someone isn’t nearly as satisfying when your subjects are dead. You want that superior feeling? Keep the masses in servitude. But alive. That’s not to say that it didn’t feel like everyone you knew was being murdered for trying to do the right thing.

When I was little, I was taught that it is more important to put others’ needs and wants in front of your own. It is a basic Christian teaching. Somewhat naively, I approached the academic empire with that simple basis deeply embedded in my mind. I didn’t realize just how often others would use this trait to their own advantage. Other Christians as well as the non-religious are happy to take from the willing giver. This didn’t prepare me well for life in the business world where, I am learning, the delight in taking from the giver has only grown stronger over the centuries. So I end each day spent and weary and feeling like I’ve been thrown to the lions. Not literally. Still, I believe in the plain idea that if we all treated others’ needs before our own the world would be a much better place. I’ve never outgrown my idealism. Until others join in, however, I’m sitting in the stands trying hard not to watch what the lions are doing down below.


A Strange Confirmation

I’ve been tweeting the Bible. Many years ago I lost track of how many times I had read it, but tweeting seems to be a way to examine the text carefully, 140 characters at a time. As a college student who’d recently learned about textual criticism (many years ago), I approached my local pastor and asked him if we could try something at church. I had a big, old, black leather Bible set up in the vestibule and made announcements—and even had it printed in the bulletin—that we were going to copy the Bible. I placed a three-ring binder and a pen next to the Bible, and I asked the parishioners to write down a verse in the notebook on their way in or out of church. I wanted to see how long it would take, and to give the laity an idea of how difficult it was to copy accurately. (Hey, I was young and idealistic!) The Bible sat there many months, perhaps a couple of years. I would occasionally check on progress, and was surprised to see we were still in Genesis. We hadn’t even reached the flood yet. And mistakes? Ye gods! It was like the Bible had been written on another planet. I now see the many problems with the way the experiment was set up, but copying the Bible is a revealing exercise nonetheless.

My tweets are with the King James Version of the Bible, and over the weekend I discovered something. According to the KJV, seed-bearing plants are male. Note Genesis 1.11 “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself.” This corresponds to a post I wrote late last year about the notion of distorted masculinity in the biblical worldview. The operating assumption seems to be that male and seediness go together. Since the Bible is literally right, somebody better get out there and explain the facts of life to the female plants that constitute roughly half the flora on this planet. Herein lies the rub: ancient assumptions no longer hold sway. Trees are not all “hes,” and yet many treat the surrounding context of a literal seven days (only one day in Genesis 2) as worthy to take down science itself.

Once in a while I have my own gripe with science—or at least its cousin technology. I was looking forward, many years down the road, to putting all my Bible tweets together into a seamless whole. The tweet I twittered on Sunday, however, never appeared. I can’t go back and add the missing 140 characters now, because that would throw the order off. And those ancient scribes thought they had it hard! Maybe there is an object lesson at play here. Maybe the utter devotion to a text has the potential to lead the righteous astray. As a society we’ve built a tremendous world of luxury around ourselves (well, most of us), and isolated ourselves from the wild animals and masculine fruits of biblical times. And yet, when we look at the text up close, we often find things we might not expect. Or even support. I will dutifully carry on my Bible tweeting, but like any human venture, my Bible will never be perfect.