A New Testament scholar takes on “News Weak”

newsweekAs a follow-up to my earlier post on that terrible recent Newsweek cover story about the Bible, I invite you to read this post by Asbury New Testament professor and fellow United Methodist Ben Witherington III. As I pointed out earlier, the author, Kurt Eichenwald, argues that it’s impossible to recover what the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible—the “autographs”—actually say. Therefore, he says, no one today has actually read the real Bible. About this, Witherington writes:

This is not merely misleading, it’s historically incorrect! It is not true that the original manuscripts are hopelessly remote from us and cannot hope to be recovered. Nor is it the case that the vast majority of modern preachers are oblivious to the actual state of the Biblical text that stands behind various modern translations. This is not only a caricature of the majority of America’s clergy, it is an even worse caricature of the state of play in regard to the text criticism of the Bible. As Dan Wallace, one of the real experts in text criticism of the NT, says in his own critique of Eichenwald’s article, “we have Greek manuscripts—thousands of them, some reaching as far back as the second century. And we have very ancient translations directly from the Greek that give us a good sense of the Greek text that would have been available in those regions where that early version was used. These include Latin, Syriac, and Coptic especially. Altogether, we have at least 20,000 handwritten manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and other ancient languages that help us to determine the wording of the original. Almost 6000 of these manuscripts are in Greek alone. And we have more than one million quotations of the New Testament by church fathers. There is absolutely nothing in the Greco-Roman world that comes even remotely close to this wealth of data. The New Testament has more manuscripts that are within a century or two of the original than anything else from the Greco-Roman world too.”

Witherington finds that Eichenwald is hoisted by his own petard when he argues—alongside the wide consensus of New Testament scholars of all ideological stripes—that John 7.53-8.11 and Mark 16:9-20 were not a part of the original gospels in which they appear:

Eichenwald goes some lengths to point this out, and he is actually likely right about this, but sadly for him it simply refutes his own previous argument that ‘we can’t really know what was in the original text of the Bible’. If we can’t know that, then of course, we can’t know these two passages were not part of the original text of the Greek NT. So which is it Mr. Eichenwald, because you can’t have it both ways? Can we establish with a high degree of probability what the NT originally said, such that we could conclude that because these two passages are not part of our earliest and best Greek manuscripts, then they are likely later additions, or not? Or are we simply ‘lost in translation’ in regard to such matters? It is amazing to me that an article with so many self-contradictory statements and obvious errors of fact could even have been published in a major news periodical. This is not journalism, this is shoddy, yellow journalism, rightly so-called.

My work-a-day Bible is the ESV Study Bible (which I heartily recommend to any serious Bible reader). To my surprise (since the editorial slant of its commentary is conservative evangelical), because of the questionable provenance of the John passage, a margin note actually recommends that we preachers neither preach from nor formulate doctrine based on the story of the woman caught in adultery.

I’m not willing to go there—since I have preached the story, and will again. I assume the story is in our New Testament, first, because it’s historically true and, second, because the Holy Spirit saw fit to include it. I don’t, however, believe it belongs in John.

4 thoughts on “A New Testament scholar takes on “News Weak””

  1. Brent, I too have preferred the ESV since about 2005. I think it is the most faithful translation, and doesn’t sacrifice content for “readability”. Study notes from all Study Bible versions are helpful, but not authoritative.

    Those who argue over whether the Bible is faithful to it’s “original” wording are simply trying to blur the issue, which is whether the Bible is the inspired word of God. I don’t waste much time with them, because it’s just one of many distractions they try to offer. I would rather engage them on “Truth of the Bible”. At least there, we are arguing eternally important matters.

    Best regards,

    1. My concern is that the more our Enemy tries to convince people that the Bible can’t be trusted, the less receptive people will be to hear the truth. So I’m glad that scholars like Witherington and others are out there responding to this nonsense.

      The ESV Study Bible does a nice job offering and explaining different interpretations that fall within the realm of orthodox, evangelical thought.

      1. I was talking to coworker about the current rape reporting/handling in USA and how i have learned that most rapes are by someone the victims know and the same are serial rapists. they often use drugs to facilitate the crime. people have been doing this for years centuries millenia we concluded. i pointed out the story of Lot’s daughters. he started to say something about how the Bible is stupid for condoning such behavior and i said whoa! just because media report on shootings doesn’t mean they condone them. the context of the story also expresses the unfavorable view of the daughters’ actions so, far from condoning.
        we have much work to do don’t we? and it is not going to get easier.

      2. No grown-up reader would imagine that the Bible condones Lot’s daughters’ actions. The Bible often reports evil things without commentary that says, “This is really bad, you know?” It assumes its readers are mature enough to know that. One example is the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges.

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