The online community of activist atheists and gnu atheists like to speak of their rational superiority to religious people. But the fact is that rarely have I seen such egregious, unchecked bias as I have among this group. I believe the warm reception that Peter Boghossian’s terrible book has received is evidence of this. (See my discussion in “Why more atheists need to speak out against village atheism.”)
Today we come to an interesting example. It is a blurb for the “Skeptic’s Annotated Bible” (SAB). We’ll get to that below. But first a word on the SAB itself.
The SAB is a KJV version of the Bible (as you may know, the KJV is a very inaccurate, four hundred year old translation based on inferior manuscripts and wrought in high falutin’ Elizabethan English) which includes short commentary by a fellow named Steve Wells. You can visit the SAB online here.
So let’s take a quick look, beginning with the question of credentials. That is, what academic training does Wells have to undertake this project? In the section on “Frequently Asked Questions” he addresses the question of academic training directly. Here he admits that he has no formal training in any fields relating to biblical studies. However, he does have training in other fields:
“I have a B.S. in Botany and a more than 50 semester hours of graduate credit in Chemistry and Mathematics, with 20 years of experience as an industrial statistician. And although I am not a Bible scholar, I have spent many years studying the Bible, and I rely on and cite the work of scholars, updating the SAB with the most recent and best information available.” (source)
An obvious question: does he really think that equips him to provide a reliable set of readers notes for the Bible?
Let’s try another scenario. Imagine that you’re looking to hire an architect to build your dream home. Jones submits a proposal to become the architect and so you query Jones on his formal academic training in the field. He admits that he lacks any formal education in engineering or architecture. However, he has a B.A. in English literature and more than 50 semester hours in history and psychology. Moreover, he has 20 years experience as a high school teacher. And although he is not an architect, he has spent many years studying architecture on his own and relies on the work of “scholars”.
Would you trust this man to build your house?
Clearly Wells is not off to an auspicious beginning.
And that leads us straight into the question of why Wells chose on obsolete, unreliable Bible translation like the KJV as the basis for the SAB. His three replies to this question are not inspiring. He says:
“There are no copyright restrictions on the KJV.
“It is still the most familiar version and some Christians consider it to be the only “authentic” version.
“It has not been subjected to cosmetic editing, as have some of the more modern versions.” (Source)
Let’s take a look at these reasons, starting with the concern over copyright restrictions. Imagine a person writing a work of academic scholarship who cites in their bibliography Edward Pusey’s dated 19th century translation of Augustine’s Confessions. When asked why they chose the inferior Pusey translation over a contemporary translation they reply: “Because it’s available online for free.” Needless to say, that is not a response to inspire confidence in the scholarly seriousness of the author.
Second, Wells says the KJV is “most familiar” to Christians. But if you are concerned with understanding then the familiar cadence of the KJV is quite irrelevant. The KJV is full of archaic words and phrasings that people no longer understand. Here are a couple examples from 1 Samuel 30, the first of an obsolete word, the second an obsolete expression:
1 Samuel 30:13: “my master left me, because three days agone I fell sick.”
1 Samuel 30:31: “And to them which were in Hebron, and to all the places where David himself and his men were wont to haunt.”
Three days “agone”? As you might have surmised, that is an archaic way of saying “ago”. As for our obsolete phrase, I know that teenagers are “wont to haunt” outside the local 7-11, but I don’t ever use that phrase.
Consequently, while the KJV biblish sounds familiar to people — that’s the way the Bible sounds — people don’t really understand much of it. In that sense, it is bit like the Protestant version of the Latin mass for traditional Catholics: high familiarity but very low comprehension.
As for Wells’ second statement about the KJV being “the only ‘authentic’ version'” for some Christians, he refers here to a tiny, tiny minority of KJV only advocates. These are people who believe the KJV is itself a form of divine revelation. Their bizarre, conspiratorial views are in the same category as people who believe the 1969 moon landing was staged. And Wells chose the KJV in deference to them and their concerns??!!
Finally, Wells says the KJV “has not been subjected to cosmetic editing” like “some … modern translations”. What is he talking about here? This bizarre quip is a great example of why formal academic study is important.
I just want to highlight a few of these symbols. Let’s start with the laughing face intended to flag “Absurdity”. Does this inspire confidence that Wells has produced a work of sober, objective scholarship?
How about the sleeping emoticon intended to flag “Boring Stuff”? Does this suggest that Wells takes his subject matter seriously?
This is a particularly egregious example of selection bias. At the beginning Wells provides the categories through which he will read the Bible.
In short, Wells is an uncharitable non-academic with degree in botany who has produced a childish and silly set of readers notes for the obsolete KJV.
So of course the SAB gets glowing reviews from atheists. Consider now the blurb from Michael Shermer:
A stunning achievement … I have an entire bookshelf of bibles and biblical commentaries, concordances, appendices, and the like, but the SAB is by far the best tool for biblical research I have ever come across. (source)
Having looked at the SAB, it makes me very interested to see what kinds of Bibles and biblical commentaries and concordances and appendices and the like that Shermer has on his shelf.
But I don’t really need to see. Once again, the simple lesson is that for a gnu atheist anything which attacks Christianity or the Bible is good, no matter how shoddy it may be.