09 October 2011

It's not always inerrant

The Folger Library is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.   In this video two scholars comment on some of the typographical errors that have crept in during four centuries of publishing.  I had heard of the "Wicked Bible," but hadn't heard this possible explanation:
Under dim lights in a grand hall of the great Folger Shakespeare Library lies the “Wicked Bible,” called so because it omits one distinctly important word from the Seventh Commandment. It is a word with the power to prevent sin.

“Thou shalt commit adultery,” the Wicked Bible commands.

For this unfortunate typo, the printer of this 1631 edition of the King James Bible met with retribution. By order of the king, copies of the “Wicked Bible” were quickly gathered and burned. Its printer, Robert Barker, was chastised for stupidity. Barker was summoned to the Star Chamber, an English court for the powerful, relieved of his printer’s license and fined 300 pounds. Barker pleaded his innocence. Legend says another printer with whom he was locked in a legal battle had bribed one of Barker’s workers to sabotage his printing, driving poor Barker into bankruptcy.
I suppose the story is apocryphal, but it would make sense.


  1. Heh. Yup. There is no supernatural force that prevents typos in the Bible. Accuracy is a matter of translating from the oldest text available (thereby avoiding typos or changes that crept in later), which is about 150 AD for the New Testament and various dates BC for the Old Testament.

    There's one spot in the Old Testament where there's a number missing. It reads something like "And he lived another _ and seven years". There's only one reliable manuscript of that passage of scripture, and it had either been burned or was illegible right where that number was supposed to be, so nobody can say with any certainty how old the dude in question actually was. Fortunately it's not something that is central to the Christian faith!

  2. This kind of thing was even more prevalent in the ancient world when Christianity was new, all copying was done by hand, scribes changed verses to support their own theological/political views, and there were no clear authoritative versions from which to make corrections.

    If you are interested in this kind of thing Misquoting Jesus is a book on textual criticism written for the layperson.

    Strangely enough I am currently reading Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Which describes the various major types of christians that were running around in the first few centuries AD, the non-canonical writings that they considered sacred, and how they came to be considered heretics.

  3. I quite agree. I also thought the Misquoting Jesus book was excellent; I posted a review of it here about two years ago -


    I'll see if our library has the Lost Christianities one. Tx.

  4. Thanks for the recommendations, I'll have to find those! How early (and some not so early) Christians ended up deciding that *this* particular set of letters and personal testimonies constitute holy scripture is pretty fascinating.


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