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Reading a study Bible for atheists

Reading a study Bible for atheists

Bible study. | (Photo: Pixabay)

The online community of activist atheists tends 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. And in this article, I would like to consider an interesting example. It is an endorsement for the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (SAB). We’ll get to that endorsement 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 four-hundred-year-old translation based on inferior manuscripts and wrought in high falutin’ Elizabethan English. While the King James was a very good translation for its day and it has retained its literary quality, for accuracy and ease of use, it has been surpassed by many contemporary translations. Nonetheless, that is the translation selected for the Skeptic's Study Bible and it also includes short commentary on the biblical text 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 and provide reliable analysis of the biblical text? In the section on “Frequently Asked Questions,” he addresses the matter of academic training directly. Here Wells admits that he has no formal training in any fields relating to biblical studies. Surely that is disqualifying, no? However, he then adds that 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 Wells really think that a degree in biology and some work in chemistry, math, and statistics, equips him to provide a reliable set of readers notes for the Bible?

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We can put the problem this way. 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 adds, he does have a B.A. in English literature and he has also taken some courses in history and psychology. Moreover, he also notes that he has 20 years of experience as a high school teacher. And although he is not an architect, he assures you that has spent many years studying architecture on his own and relies on the work of “scholars.”

Simple question: would you trust this man to build your house? Needless to say, the question answers itself: clearly, Wells is not off to an auspicious beginning.

And that leads us straight into the question of why Wells chose an extremely dated 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 Chadwick's vastly superior 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 the nuances of the text, 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 of 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 "thees" and "thous" of the KJV sound to many people like "the Bible," the fact remains that much of the KJV is hard for a contemporary reader to understand.

As for Wells’ second statement about the KJV being “the only ‘authentic’ version'” for some Christians, he refers here to a tiny minority of KJV only advocates. These are people who believe the KJV is itself a form of divine revelation.  To be blunt, these idiosyncratic and 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? What is his evidence? This bizarre quip is a great example of why formal academic study is important.

Next, take a look at the key that Wells provides to go along with his notes (I took a screenshot of the image from his SAB website.)

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 no degree in the relevant fields who has produced a childish and silly set of readers notes for the obsolete KJV.

This brings me, finally, to that endorsement that I mentioned above. Despite the fact that it is a bad joke, the SAB still receives glowing reviews from atheists. Consider this endorsement 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)

I can agree with Shermer on one point: the SAB is indeed stunning ...  stunningly bad. This kind of ridiculous endorsement doesn't actually tell us the SAB is good. Rather, it tells us that Shermer is wholly lacking in critical nuance, charity, and objectivity when it comes to engaging with the views of Christians. 

Sadly, when it comes to the way atheists read the Bible, Shermer's attitude seems to be more the rule than the exception. The Skeptic's Annotated Study Bible claims to offer a reasonable and skeptical analysis of the biblical text. But in fact, all it demonstrates is that we should be skeptical of the skeptics.

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