(Re) Considering Christianity: A Skeptic Looks at the Christian Religion – Introduction, part 9

To see more posts in this series, please go to the series’ page.

“Only ONE BOOK…is necessary to critique any translation from ANY set of manuscripts, or any scholar who criticizes the AV.”[1] These are the words of the late Peter Ruckman, a guru of the King James Only movement in the United States whose provocative and vitriolic style was the stuff of legends.[2] The “ONE BOOK” he is referring to is the “AV,” the “AV 1611” or, as it is better known, the King James Bible. For Ruckman and others of his ilk, the King James Bible represents the “infallible, true, living, and final word of the Infallible, True, and Eternal God.”[3] Other translations and even the Greek texts themselves are inferior to the KJV in every way.[4] This is the Christian subculture into which I was born and raised. It was the subculture I had every expectation of perpetuating in my own future ministry. But that didn’t happen. Why? 

One might argue that I’m not a KJV Onlyist because I am now an atheist, and that is partially true. Because I do not believe any god exists, I do not think there exists a “word of God” in any form, whether in a Greek codex from the fourth century or an English translation from the seventeenth. However, I abandoned KJV Onlyism before I became an atheist. That is, I was still a Christian when I left the movement. I still believed in God and I still believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead and I still believed the Bible was God’s word. So, what changed? 

Dr. Peter S. Ruckman during one of his chalk-talk sermons.

The Significance of the KJV

Before I get to that, and before anyone accuses me of disparaging the King James Bible generally, let me say that the KJV is an amazing work of literary art. As Alec Gilmore notes, “Its strength lay in the richness of the language and the vitality of English poetry, probably best appreciated when read aloud.”[5] One area in which this is most obvious is the way in which popular expressions and idioms either originated with the KJV or were made more popular by it. For example, in Job 19:28 we read, “But ye should say, Why persecute we him, seeing the root of the matter is found in me?” The expression “root of the matter” is used in the present when discussing the fundamental causes of an issue and it is a phrase rooted (pun intended) in the King James Bible.[6] Other expressions include “skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20), “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9), “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6), and so many more. 

A second area in which the KJV shines is what Robert Alter refers to as “its inspired literalism.”[7] By this he means the way in which the translators rendered the original language texts as formally equivalent as possible. For example, when they encountered the Hebrew conjunction vav/waw used in a paratactic manner they rendered it literally as “and.” Here is a comparison of Genesis 1:3-5 in the KJV and the NRSV.

4And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. 5And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. 6And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.4Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 5And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 6God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

While the NRSV retains some of the parataxis of the Hebrew original, it eliminates it at the beginning of v. 6 and softens it in v. 4 by rendering it as “then” instead of the more literal “and.” While strictly speaking, there is no difference in meaning between the KJV and NRSV, it does lose some of its stylistic force.[8]

Similarly, in the Gospel of Mark we find repeated use of the Greek conjunction kai by which Mark imitates the style of Hebrew narratives (albeit by utilizing the LXX). The KJV renders the Greek text of Mark in a way similar to its faithful rendering of the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1-4. Here is a comparison of Mark 1:9-11 in the KJV and the NRSV.

9And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. 10And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: 11And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

The KJV opens this pericope with the conjunction “and,” reflecting the underlying Greek text. The NRSV ignores Markan parataxis in this instance and begins with the prepositional phrase “in those days” (en ekeínais taîs hēmérais).[9] Again, though this doesn’t affect meaning, it does have ramifications for the stylistic force of the NRSV. For me, the KJV is a better read.

I could go on and on about the ways in which the KJV shines as a translation. Instead, I refer readers to Harold Bloom’s The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible[10] which goes book-by-book and highlights some of the grandeur of the KJV. The rest of this post will be devoted to briefly explaining why I left KJV-Onlyism for which there are three reasons. Note: I am neither writing exhaustively or comprehensively since that is not in my purview. Rather, I am merely summarizing the reasons for which I abandoned KJV-Onlyism. Undoubtedly, I could compose much longer posts on the three reasons listed below but I have no plans to do so at the present moment. 

An Inferior Textual Basis

First and foremost among the reasons I left KJV-Onlyism is that the textual basis upon which the KJV was formed is inferior to that of modern translations like the NRSV, NASB, NIV, etc. As R.T. France writes, 

The Hebrew and Greek texts available in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century were much inferior to what is available today, and at many points the words rendered by the King James’ translators are not what is now agreed to be the original text.[11]

This is seen most clearly in the New Testament where the Greek text used by the translators of the KJV has significant textual variation from the oldest Greek texts we know of currently. 

Textual critics have categorized Greek manuscripts of the NT into four basic text-types: Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, and Byzantine.[12] The textual basis for the KJV is the Textus Receptus, a Byzantine type text. The problem with this is that the Byzantine text-type is not the oldest type available to translators today,[13] though it seems that it was at the time the King James Bible was being translated. Not a few of the readings present in the KJV are the result of this utilization of a later set of manuscripts. For example, in the KJV we find these words: “And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, “And he was numbered with the transgressors” (Mark 15:28). The problem here is that there are no manuscripts from before the sixth century that contain this reading in the Gospel of Mark. Instead, it appears that a scribe, aware of Luke 22:37, inserted the reading into a later copy of the Gospel of Mark.[14] A number of other texts in the KJV have the same kinds of problems (e.g. Matthew 17:21, Luke 17:36, Romans 16:24, 1 John 5:7-8, etc.). 

Genesis 1 from the KJV (Wikimedia Commons)

Errors in Translation 

The second reason I left the KJV-Only movement is the presence of various translation errors in the KJV. The presence of these errors became more and more apparent as I continued my training in Hebrew and Greek. Let me offer just three examples here. 

Hebrews 10:23 

Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.

The key difference between these two translations is whether it is the “profession/confession of our faith” or of “our hope.” The Greek text is unambiguous: katechōmen tēn homologian tēs elpidos“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope.” Is it that the Greek text underlying the KJV is different here than that of the NRSV? Does the Textus Receptus read tēs pisteōs (“our faith”) instead of tēs elpidos (“our hope”)? As it turns out, it doesn’t. The TR reads tēs elpidos. Therefore, this is a translation error in the KJV. 

Acts 12:4 

And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover

In the KJV, Herod doesn’t intend to present Peter (v. 3) to the people until after “Easter.” The word underlying that translation is to pascha which is not only translated as “the Passover” in modern English translations like the NRSV, but it is so translated in every single place in which it appears in the KJV except Acts 12:4. Peter Ruckman tackled this passage and claimed that “Easter” is the correct translation because Herod would not have celebrated Passover and that Easter was “an established Spring festival before the time of David (Judg. 2:13; Jer. 44:17).”[15] His argument rests on the false etymology that “Easter” is derived from Ishtar. It isn’t.[16] This is just a mistranslation. 

Acts 19:37

For ye have brought hither these men, which are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess.You have brought these men here who are neither temple robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess.

The phrases “robbers of churches” and “temple robbers” translate the Greek term hierosylous. Students in their second year of Koine Greek should recognize the first part of the word: hieros, the Greek word for “sacred” and through metonymy “temple” (i.e. a sacred place). The translation found in the NRSV and other modern translation makes sense of the literary context as well as the historical context of the passage. For starters, the seizing of Paul’s companions (v. 29) is due to the concern from Ephesian artisans that Paul and his message are bad for business and for the religious cult exemplified by “the temple [hieron] of the great goddess Artemis” (v. 27). Alexander’s defense in vv. 35-40 depends upon this connection in so far as Paul’s companions were neither seeking to rob the temple or commit blasphemy against Artemis. Rendering hierosylous as “robbers of churches” misses the point of the passage. Second, the idea that one could rob a “church” is anachronistic since in the time period about which the Lukan author writes there were no church buildings to rob. The “church” was the gathering of believers, a spiritual edifice, not a physical edifice to enter and burglarize. 

Experientially Untenable

The final reason I left KJV-Onlyism is that it did not fit with my experience. From the pulpit of the KJV-Only church in which I grew up I would hear evangelists say things like, “You can get saved out of a new translation, but you can’t grow.” That is, while one can become a Christian through reading a translation like the NIV or NASB, one will remain spiritually stagnant. It is only the KJV that allowed for spiritual growth. Yet as I moved away from that church and started worshipping with other non-King James Only congregations, I found that this rhetoric was anything but accurate. 

I encountered people who would come to church on Sunday morning with a note-filled, tear-stained NIV. I would sing hymns next to men and women who loved Jesus as much as I did despite the fact that their translation of choice was the NASB. I attended Sunday school with seasoned saints whose knowledge of the Bible in the form of the ESV dwarfed my own. I was pastored by men who genuinely loved their fold, earnestly prayed for them daily, and preached from the pulpit using the RSV. Either these believers were secretly using the KJV when no one was looking or what I had been made to believe all my life was flat out wrong. Obviously, it was the latter. 

Not a Heretic

My move away from KJV-Onlyism into something more reasonable did not entail a denial of the deity of Christ or the necessity of Jesus’ death for salvation or the literal return of Jesus or a host of other beliefs characteristic of most Christians (including KJV-Onlyists). I had not become a heretic; I had grown up. I came to understand that Christianity was more complex than the us vs. them I was taught to believe. I came to recognize that the work of translation can be daunting and that a lot had happened in the four hundred years since the translators of the KJV did their work. It wasn’t a step on the path to atheism since there is nothing about leaving KJV-Onlyism that entails one reject the existence of God. What did happen is something that so often doesn’t happen for so many fundamentalists: I began to both see and appreciate nuance. 

[1] Peter S. Ruckman, King James Onlyism versus Scholarship Onlyism (Pensacola, FL: Bible Baptist Bookstore, 1992), 95.

[2] My father once went to a conference in Rochester, NY where Ruckman was teaching. A woman was so offended by what Ruckman was saying she got up and left. As she did, Ruckman noticed and pointed to her and said, “That woman doesn’t have the brains God gave a brass monkey!” 

[3] Peter S. Ruckman, Manuscript Evidence (Pensacola, FL: Bible Baptist Bookstore, 1970), 19.

[4] Ruckman contends that so-called mistakes in the KJV (i.e. its rendering of hierosylous in Acts 19:37 as “robbers of churches” rather than the correct “robbers of temples”) are actually examples of “advanced revelation.” See Manuscript Evidence, 138-139. 

[5] Alec Gilmore, A Dictionary of the English Bible and Its Origins (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, Ltd., 2000), 26.

[6] David Crystal, Begat: The King James Bible & the English Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 87. Crystal’s work is a brief and brilliant glimpse at the influence the KJV has had on colloquial English and its various idioms. 

[7] Robert Alter, The Art of Bible Translation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 3.

[8] Alter notes that the choice of the KJV’s translators to render these constructions literally was not on account of style but because of a theological commitment. 

[9] The NRSV also fails to render the verb egéneto (“it came to pass,” KJV) in any way whatsoever. This is unfortunate since its usage here is linked to its usage in v. 4 and, therefore, the sense of fulfillment of divine oracles. 

[10] Harold Bloom, The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, electronic edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).

[11] Dick France, “The Bible in English: An Overview,” in The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World – Essays in Honor of Ronald F. Youngblood, Glen G. Scorgie, Mark L. Strauss, and Steven M. Voth, editors (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 183.

[12] For an overview of these text-types, see Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts, Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015), 75-78.

[13] Porter and Pitts note that the Byzantine text is virtually unattested prior to the fourth century CE. Moreover, none of our earliest papyri feature “distinctively Byzantine readings.” See Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism, 78. 

[14] See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 99.

[15] Ruckman, King James Onlyism versus Scholarship Onlyism, 91. 

[16] See the excellent piece by Tim O’Neill entitled “Easter, Ishtar, Eostre and Eggs.”

4 thoughts on “(Re) Considering Christianity: A Skeptic Looks at the Christian Religion – Introduction, part 9

  1. Mark Angellotti 13 Apr 2020 — 2:40 pm

    Either you have left your readers on a cliffhanger, wondering what caused your faith crisis or I was unable to find part 10 of this series. Perhaps you are still working on this later installment. Thank you for telling your story. I’ve enjoyed reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t come out with the next post yet but I’ll try to do so soon!


      1. “Soon” – where have I read this before?

        Liked by 1 person

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