Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Eichenwald’

A New Testament scholar takes on “News Weak”

January 8, 2015

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.

It must be Christmas (or Easter): Newsweek trolls Christians again

December 27, 2014


Two Christmases ago, I wrote the following about Newsweek‘s semiannual Christian-baiting cover story. Their article that year was written by every atheist’s favorite New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, and his embrace of the “pious legend theory” regarding the virgin birth.

What bothers me is not that Ehrman’s point of view is represented, but that his is the only point of view represented, as if people who actually believe in the virgin birth are members of the Flat Earth Society. There are plenty of other seriously good New Testament scholars and theologians—including, for example, that German one who now heads the Roman Catholic Church—who could happily go toe-to-toe with Ehrman on the facts. Do they still employ reporters at Newsweek, or is every article now an op-ed piece? Under the rules of journalism, a reporter would have represented these other voices.

To their small credit, Newsweek at least employed a writer in Ehrman who has credentials—an actual Bible scholar at a university, however far outside of mainstream scholarship he may be.

This year’s cover story, written by an uncredentialed journalist named Kurt Eichenwald, never lets facts stand in the way of a good story. I’m not exaggerating: Nearly every paragraph is wrong—wrong on facts, wrong on history, wrong on Bible scholarship (obviously). The title of the story, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” couldn’t be more ironic.

Let’s start near the beginning, with one of his first supposedly factual assertions:

No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.

Oh, dear. If he means to say that no one today has read the original autographs of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that make up our Bibles, then that’s true, but only trivially so. By that standard no one has read any ancient writing. But even worse: when we read Homer or Sophocles or Plato, we’re not only not reading the originals, we’re reading a translation (assuming we don’t know Greek) of copies of copies of copies that are far less well-attested than anything in the New Testament.

But even worse: Assuming Smithsonian Magazine is telling us the truth, by that standard we also haven’t read Shakespeare. Only copies of copies of copies:

Even if you’re a regular visitor to London, it’s probably never occurred to you to stop in to see William Shakespeare’s original manuscripts at the British Museum or Library. That’s just as well. There are no original manuscripts. Not so much as a couplet written in Shakespeare’s own hand has been proven to exist.

When Eichenwald says that we’ve only read a “bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times,” he’s either, at best, stunningly ignorant or at least incredibly disingenuous. How else can we interpret his words?

Where does this “translations of translations of translations” nonsense come from? He’s wrong, for example, when he asserts that the King James Version was a translation of the Latin Vulgate. (Mr. Eichenwald: Wikipedia is your friend. Or I think I might lend you my parents’ old World Book Encyclopedia.) The Douay–Rheims is an old Catholic English translation of the Vulgate, but even modern Catholic translations—like the New American Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, and their descendants—translate the Hebrew and Greek.

The King James translated a collection of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts known as the Textus Receptus. Newer Bible translations are generally more faithful to the original Hebrew and Greek because they’re based on older manuscripts than the ones the Church had access to in the seventeenth-century. The fact that we have access to so many manuscripts means that we can be more confident that our Bible reflects what its writers originally wrote.

Regardless, the King James isn’t even a “translation of a translation”; it’s a translation of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, just like any similar ancient writing, except, as I’ve noted, we have access to far older and more reliable manuscripts of biblical books than we do of other ancient writing.

I could go on, but this is literally in Eichenwald’s first section. It doesn’t get better, I promise.

And then there’s the tone of the piece. Here are the first two paragraphs:

They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.

They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.

Who exactly are these Christians “waving their Bibles” and “screaming their condemnations of homosexuals”? Surely if there were enough of them to “gather in football stadiums by the thousands” I would have seen more than two of them on a city street corner in the past 20 years.

Or is he conflating evangelical Christians (not to mention faithful Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican Christians) with the late Fred Phelps, whose Westboro Baptist had about a dozen members, mostly from the same family.

Given his sweeping generalizations, it’s hard to disagree with Michael Kruger’s assessment that this hit piece “goes so far beyond the standard polemics, and is so egregiously mistaken about the Bible at so many places, that the magazine should seriously consider a public apology to Christians everywhere.”

I won’t hold my breath.

Regardless, scholars are responding to his piece. Dr. James White is one of them. You can watch or listen to his in-depth response here. On Twitter, Eichenwald accused Dr. White of “name-calling” when White said that he was ignorant. But when you don’t know Hebrew or Greek, when you haven’t formally studied church history or Christian theology, when all your research is, at best, second-hand, what other word should we use? Ill-informed? Is that better?

You’re either ignorant or you’re lying. At least being ignorant isn’t a knock against your character.