I recently had a student in one of my online classes (I will call her by her first initial “D”) ask me this series of questions about how we got our current Bible (she was referring to the King James Version). Her questions are really good ones and many people wonder about them, so I will include the exchange here for any who might benefit:
D. Mr. Bogart: As I was studying for my quiz, I came across one thing in the book that stood out to me. It says, “one significant request was granted by King James– a standardized English translation of the Bible, known as the Authorized Version of 1611)”. What I want to know, is who authorized this version of the Bible? Was it the Catholic Church? I’m assuming the Catholics were the only religion to have had the original Bible….?? Thank you, D.
Me: Hi D. The Authorized Version (aka the King James Version) was authorized by King James I of Great Britain. It is a decidedly Protestant translation, not affiliated with Catholicism at all. Ancient manuscripts of the Old and New Testament were pretty widely available to both Catholics and Protestants during that time. The Catholics generally did not translate the Bible into common languages, but stuck with the ancient Latin translation (the Vulgate) of the original the Greek and Hebrew. Translation into common languages, like English, was a pretty radical idea in that time, championed by the Protestants. M. Bogart
D: But how does one know who actually wrote the Bible? I know that Mark, Luke and John, etc. had written those books. I guess what I’m asking is how do we know King James himself didn’t add his own points in there, or make changes? I find this all fascinating, so I must ask… Thank you again, D.
Me. Hi D. Remember that I am a Christian, so my reply will be from that perspective, though I will try to be as unbiased as possible. First, King James himself did not do any translation — he only authorized a committee of scholars to do so at the request of some protestant leaders. These scholars were from a variety of Protestant backgrounds and had what they considered to be a vested interest in “doing it right” without skewing the meaning or injecting any outside material. If they had tinkered with the text in any significant way, their critics (including religious skeptics and Roman Catholics) would have been on them immediately. The documents of the Bible had been around and available for scholars for centuries, so if you could read the original languages of the Old and New Testaments (Hebrew and Greek, respectively), you could double check. In other words, critics could and did check the committee for any funny business.
Your real question is how do we know that Matthew really wrote Matthew, Isaiah wrote Isaiah, Moses wrote Genesis or Paul wrote Romans (for instance)? The answer is that we cannot actually prove any of these authors beyond a shadow of a doubt. But then again, no body of ancient literature can be 100% proven. Even something much more recent like Shakespeare’s plays (written about the same time as the King James translation–early 1600s) cannot be proven to be 100% Shakespeare, and experts still argue about his authorship. Yet, the nearly universal tradition among ancient Jews is that the true authors of the books of the Old Testament were authored by the ones whose names appear on the books, or who have been understood to have authored a set of books (like Moses for Genesis-Deuteronomy). The same can be said for the early Christian traditions about the New Testament. There will always be theories that question this strong and ancient testimony, but then there are those that believe the US never landed on the moon or that the Holocaust never happened.
I happened to see a trailer for a history channel program coming out soon about how the New Testament is all distorted and factually inaccurate. I am sure many people will be interested in this program. However, the real issue is whether those who write scripts, interview people and produce programs have agendas. At the very least, most videos and programs have the agenda of attracting large audiences in order to pay for the show. This usually means designing the program to stir people up pro or con.
From my perspective, I would say this: the Bible is not without some issues and questions about its origins and content. Any body of literature that diverse and old will have those issues. However, it has certainly stood the test of time and the severest attacks and criticisms ever leveled against any book. Personally I trust that it is authentic in its origins and accurate for its purposes. If you want more detail, I have written several articles on my website that may be helpful. You can go to www.aspectministries.com and pull down the Articles Tab, then look under Bible. M. Bogart http://aspectministries.com/.
I hope this will be helpful to you as you encounter similar questions. Mike Bogart