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The Trinity in the King James Bible

I’ve mentioned several problems with the King James Version in previous posts.  Arguably the most significant set of problems has to do with the text that the translators were translating.   The brief reality is that in the early 17th century, Greek editions of the New Testament were based on very few and highly inferior manuscripts.   Only after the King James was translated did scholars begin to become aware of the existence of older, and far better, manuscripts.

As I have stressed on the blog before, prior to the invention of printing, the NT (and all other books) circulated in manuscript form (the word manu-script literally means “written by hand”), as scribes copied the text by hand, one page, one sentence, one word at a time.   All scribes copying long texts made mistakes; and anyone who copied a manuscript that had mistakes replicated the mistakes and made some of his own, and this process went on for centuries.   I should stress that most scribes did their best to make faithful reproductions of the copies they were copying, and many of them did a remarkably good job.  Others did a not-so-good job.   Since mistakes can get replicated over time, and introduced over time, in general it is a good idea to consult the *earliest* manuscripts for determining what an author of a book wrote.  The later manuscripts tend to be worse (that’s not an *absolute* rule, but a relatively good one).

As we have seen, the first edition of the Greek NT to be published after the invention of printing was by the Rotterdam humanist Erasmus, whose 1516 edition went through several revisions over the years.  Other publishers based their own editions on Erasmus, rather than doing a careful study of the surviving manuscripts themselves.   Eventually it became such a standard text that it came to be known as the Textus Receptus (the “received text” – that is, the text everyone used).  Erasmus’s edition was based just on the few Greek manuscripts at his disposal, which were late medieval and that had the typical kinds of mistakes that one can find in late medieval manuscripts.


As a result, translations into English of the Greek New Testament, based on Erasmus’s editions and those that replicated, more or less, his text, include translations of passages that were almost certainly not originally in the New Testament, but that had come to be added later by scribes.   The most famous of all is…

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  1. Avatar
    joks  January 31, 2017

    Dr Ehrman,

    Is there a consensus of opinion why the Johannine Comma is in the Vulgate?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 1, 2017

      Early on it made its way into Latin (pre-Vulgate) editions; probably copied from a Greek source and then into Latin.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  January 31, 2017

    Textus deceptus? 🙂

  3. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  January 31, 2017

    I understand why Jesus became identified with the creator better than I understand why the creator and the spirit of the creator (as though the creator itself is anything other than a spirit) were theologically partitioned. Why do we have a Trinity rather than a Divine Duo? Did some early Christians hold to the early Yahwist notion of a high God that takes evening walks and shuts people up in ships?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 1, 2017

      In part because the Spirit is clearly a different being from God the father and Jesus, yet is portrayed as comparable in power and function to Jesus in, e.g., John 14 and 16.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  February 1, 2017

        That leads to another question. Did Christians in some sense invent God the Father? God seems to be creator and ruler of the universe in the OT, but not so much a father to any but the kings of Israel and other divine beings, though it is inferred rather than stated. They are called sons of God, so he must be the father of his sons. He is the god, but not the father of Abraham etc. Not even the father of Adam, until Luke calls Adam the son of God.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 4, 2017

          Well, Jews called God “Father” sometimes, if that’s what you mean.

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  February 7, 2017

            Yes, that’s what I was getting at. When, approximately, did that notion (that God is the father of all humanity, not just the kings and other special chosen ones) become popular among Jewish thinkers?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 7, 2017

            Great question. I don’t know!

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  February 3, 2017

        It always seemed to me that the ‘spirit’ in the NT was just an updated version of angels in the OT (although clearly singular rather than multiple). In the OT, when God was portrayed/perceived as more like a man (walking in the cool of the evening, carrying on two-way conversations, etc.), he needed ‘help’ to get tasks done, to do the heavy-lifting, as-it-were.

        That function almost disappears in the NT, but a new ‘force’ takes it’s place and the ‘Spirit’ takes the role of acting directly in the physical world (as God is now distant and remote).

        I too have always wondered why they included it. It takes a problematic concept and makes it full-on non-sensical. I always wondered if it had something to do with their apparent fascination with the number 3.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  January 31, 2017

    As with most literature, it seems the best parts are the revisions, as over time, each revision gets honed and sculpted to create a more appealing version. The various later editions of the Gospels clearly demonstrate this. To John was added the Woman Taken in Adultary, which is probably one of the most popular stories in the NT. To Mark was added the whole post-resurrection apparitions, which filled an enormous hole in the Gospel narrative. At each step, the story was refined and improved, just as one would expect with each new edition of a piece of literature. Hence, that’s why I think the original versions of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are probably the result of revisions to previous documents. There was probably an Aramaic document that was a haphazard list of Jesus’ sayings with added commentary/exegesis and possibly a simple anecdotal narrative (i.e. Sitz im Leben) surrounding it. But taken up by the likes of the writers of Mark, Matthew and Luke, this document was put into a chronological order and fleshed out with more interesting bits, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Sermon on the Mount, and the Women at the Empty Tomb.

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 31, 2017

    Just wondering…did Protestants, like Catholics, call the third person of the Trinity the “Holy Ghost” until fairly recently? The second half of the 20th century?

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  January 31, 2017

    So do we know the provenance of 1 John 5:7-8? I presume it was after the development of the doctrine.


    • Bart
      Bart  February 1, 2017

      Yes, or perhaps while the doctrine was being debated. But we can’t pinpoint where or when the verses came into existence (other than that they were there before the earliest manuscripts that contained them)

  7. Avatar
    rivercrowman  January 31, 2017

    Fundamentalists value the “oldest” Bible version — which they often believe is the King James. … They should read this post.

  8. Avatar
    doug  January 31, 2017

    Have you heard any reasons from Christian leaders as to why they believe the King James Version is the most accurate version of the Bible. If so, what are their reasons?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 1, 2017

      They don’t think God would allow so many god-fearing English speaking people to have anything except his exact words.

      • Avatar
        jwesenbe  February 1, 2017

        and how do you argue with that!

      • Avatar
        Caiaphas  February 2, 2017

        Some reasons KJV-only types use are at the bottom of this:

        They pretty much turn textual criticism on its head:
        – Newer manuscripts are ‘better’ simply because they are newer
        – Manuscripts that are ‘missing’ familiar stories are to be discarded
        – Good manuscripts are those that agree with the largest number of other manuscripts

        Through the looking glass!

  9. Avatar
    XanderKastan  January 31, 2017

    Does that Greek manuscript that was allegedly produced in the sixteenth century (and translated from the Latin) still exist? If not, any idea of what happened to it? Or if that detail is apocryphal, any idea of why Erasmus gave in and added the verse to his Greek NT? i.e. pressure from church authorities?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 1, 2017

      Yup, it exists. And people love looking at it. It is manuscript 61 and is now located at Trinity College in Dublin Ireland.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  February 1, 2017

        Are there any likely suspects who may have been the forger of ms. 61?

  10. Avatar
    drussell60  January 31, 2017

    Once again we see that Christians out and out lied in many of these textual matters. This is another one of those credibility issues to which I referred in my last reply. This information was withheld from me during my undergrad years at a conservative evangelical college. Makes me sick to my stomach.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  February 2, 2017

      drussell, I suspect that those people weren’t consciously trying to deceive you, but were deceiving themselves instead.

      Bart, as I have understood him, has repeatedly made the point that many conservative scholars see the same evidence that critical scholars do, but yet reach different conclusions (they always reach precisely the conclusions they were expecting to reach).

      The end result may be the same, but the intent may have been less sinister.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 1, 2017

    Sounds like people not wanting “real news” but wanting “fake news.”

  12. talmoore
    talmoore  February 1, 2017

    On off-topic comment/question: Al Sharpton tweeted that Jesus was a refugee, and, of course, a flood of conservatives mocked him, saying that Jesus only traveled “to pay his taxes” (I must assume they’re confusing the journey from Galilee to Bethlehem in Luke with the escape to Egypt in Matthew). They even talked about it on Fox News, where Fox & Friends had a segment “correcting” Sharpton’s claim (video below). We need to remember that Fox “News” was the same channel that insisted that Jesus was “white” (presumably blond and blue-eyed as well). I guess my question is, how can conservatives and Republicans claim to be the party of God and the Bible when it’s manifestly clear that they don’t even know the Bible??

    • Bart
      Bart  February 1, 2017

      My sense is that Bible knowledge is not reserved for one political party or another. There is a lot of knowledge and unbelievable ignorance on all sides!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  February 1, 2017

        Fair enough, but Republicans especially have staked a claim for being the party of true Christians and Christian values. While both parties partake in mixing Church and State, more often than not, Democrats push for greater separation while the GOP is the only party that has come close to calling for a quasi-theocracy. Hence why Dominionists are overwhelmingly Republican.

  13. Rick
    Rick  February 1, 2017

    “Sometimes readers don’t want the Bible as it was originally written, but only the Bible as they are familiar with it….”
    This raises to me an important question in Theoretical Physics, perhaps important here….

    If all of the people that prefer their alternative facts to reality went to live in an alternate universe, when they blow up their alternate earth, will we still be safe here?

  14. Avatar
    JSTMaria  February 2, 2017

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    Random Trinity question here…when did “Father” become the term for God or for the highest God? Is that distinctively Christian?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      Jews used it sometimes; Christians picked it up from Jesus.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  February 6, 2017

        Jews did, but not very often; Lutz Doering counts only 7 examples in Scriptures. Referring to certain people, kings mainly, as the “son of God” seems to be more common. Jews pray to “avinu malchaynu” (our father, our king) during the High Holy Days, but that is a later addition.

        Speaking from a Jewish historical perspective, I do find it grating to hear Jesus speak of “My father” and “Our father” (the latter being an indication, of course, that he didn’t think God was literally his father), but since there appears to be no recorded objection, it’s possible it was coming into usage in first century Judaea, as a kind of reverse parental acknowledgment, since God in the DSS (and earlier) sometimes speaks of the people of Israel as his child. If so, I think it is possible that Jesus, by stressing this point, may have been making or picking up on a theological innovation.

  15. TWood
    TWood  February 10, 2017

    You said “In the Latin Vulgate – the Bible of Western Christendom for centuries.”

    The Vulgate goes back to Jerome (4th/5th century)… but the comma doesn’t show up until something like the 9th century (I thought)… I assume you mean the comma is in the later version of the Vulgate centuries after Jerome’s original version—is that right? or is the comma found that early?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2017

      We don’t have mss of the Vulgate that date back to the time of Jerome himself — like the NT in Greek, it has to be reconstructed. The passage does occur in a Latin church fatehr at the end of the fourth century.

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