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Iron sharpening iron: the MT-LXX debate as a case study of Christian disagreement


Recently, we have received some criticism regarding our interaction with Dr. Henry Smith’s research into the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Bible. The history of this back-and-forth is contained in our latest article on this topic, The Masoretic Text of Genesis 5 and 11 is still the most reliable. Daniel B. wrote a long letter taking exception to our interaction with Dr. Smith. Several others also wrote in to complain about the tone of our article, so we will take the time to give them, and the reader, a proper response. Some of his points included:

  • He felt that our work was both below par and unfairly treated Dr. Smith.
  • He felt that referring to the Ephraem the Syrian quote as ‘forged’ imparted a motive of dishonesty to Smith and we should have used different language.
  • He pointed out there were some points in Smith’s article that we didn’t respond to, and other arguments we dismissed.
  • He felt that we should have treated Dr. Smith differently as a brother in Christ.

Lita (Cosner) Sanders and Robert Carter respond:

Daniel, it seems like you’re engaging in a bit of a double standard. You feel free to “inflict some wounds of a friend” in the spirit of “iron sharpening iron,” and use those exact phrases in your letter to us. Yet you don’t interpret our critical remarks of Smith in the same vein. Rather you attribute negative motive to us.

You also use a lot of emotive language when talking about our work (e.g., “intentional deception”, “ascribing less-than-honorable motives”, and “troubling”), yet we tried to be dispassionate and scholarly. In fact, we were much more restrained in our comments on the errors in Smith’s work than the wider community would be. If he cares to test that himself by presenting his work in a mainstream scholarly forum, even one full of conservative Bible scholars, he will find that we were nothing short of charitable. The fact is that glaring errors in logic, historical analysis, and research were made. We agree with your statement that “we should studiously hold ourselves to a higher standard” in Christian scholarship. But we’ve demonstrated that Smith’s research does not meet that high standard. This would not normally be a big deal, except that the subject is a big deal and the faith of many people might be impacted if this is indeed an example of poor scholarship. All of us, you included, would do well to take heed of an important biblical admonition:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways…” (James 3:1–2a)

It might also be helpful for us to talk about our motivation in this work. We want to know what the Bible says. Period. And we are open to scholarly debates on important issues. As we have said multiple times, we are willing to be persuaded.

Yet, one of CMI’s central messages is that people can trust the Bible from the first verse. But when the average Christian hears that, they think of the leather-bound book they’ve been reading since they were young. Most people don’t have a solid concept of the ‘autographs’, as defined by the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. People struggle enough with different translations, let alone questions about the Johannine Comma and the long ending of Mark (the inevitable comments protesting this sentence will be proof of that!), and these are trivial matters compared to the LXX vs. MT debate. Thus, we don’t want to raise arguments that have the unintentional side effect of confirming what skeptics like Bart Ehrman say—that the leather-bound book they think is the Word of God really has been corrupted so much that we can’t be certain about what it says.

For that reason, even though we started out determined to be as unbiased as possible, we were very happy that our conclusions supported the Masoretic Text, as almost all scholars have also concluded for over 1,000 years. We aren’t the first Christians to ask these questions, after all.

Text criticism is a field of study in its own right, and it is very difficult for a layperson to get into it without training from experts. This is because it is a field that has developed over a long period of time, and it is hard for one person to replicate that on their own. There are many errors into which the untrained individual can easily fall but that are obvious to the person with the benefit of training. You can probably think of areas in your own specialization of astrophysics that would be nearly impossible for even a very intelligent layperson to unravel on their own. How easy would it be for the novice or incautious student to fall into the trap of geocentrism, for example? There are probably other and better examples that you can think of, because you are in the middle of the field and are being trained at a very high level.

You say, “I found that the matrix he [Smith] presented, when interpreted from the starting assumption of the LXX holding the correct dates, was more plausible than when interpreted from the starting position of the MT’s dates being correct.” Respectfully, the table of differences is just numbers and there are various ways to interpret those numbers. There is a way that text critics have developed to determine which is most likely original. Rather than relying on historical arguments as Smith does, we have to go back to the primary texts; the earliest copies of the extant forms of the text in question, and then seek to explain how we got from a single original text to the forms that exist today. We must also examine the people who quoted the text in question throughout history to estimate when that text form came into existence. We did this work in Textual Traditions and Biblical Chronology. And one of our conclusions is that it is much easier to explain the versions that now exist starting with an MT-like original. While it is possible that LXX scholarship might have an answer to the conclusions we present there, the LXX-supporting community has yet to meaningfully interact with this work.

Instead, Smith went straight to a tertiary historical argument. He argued that the Jews forged the text at the time of Rabbi Akiba and Bar Kochba because of the Christian use of the chronology. We showed that 1) the texts existed by the time of Christ, so the Masoretic could not have been forged at the time of bar Kochba, 2) Smith’s primary source for that allegation was forged, and 3) Rabbi Akiba’s response to the Christian use of the OT was to consolidate the Jewish traditions into a new layer over the OT. By the way, you say using the term “forged quote” means that we are implying a motive of intentional deception on Smith’s part, but this is not the case. The clear implication of our words was that Smith used a false quote that someone else had generated. We did not attribute the forgery to him, but to someone in the line of research he used. Even if two 19th Century scholars (e.g., Hales and Wacholder) used the disputed quote, this means nothing. They were wrong and good scholarship should have picked out the error. He admitted that his use of the quotation was a mistake, and we accept that. But his source committed the error either through forgery or ignorance. This is precisely why one of the basic practices of good research is to trace a quote back to its source.

Our book Evolutionists say the Oddest Things is a prime example of this. I (LC) spent an enormous amount of time collating and fact-checking hundreds of quotations from leading evolutionists. Nothing went into that book that was not rock-solid, but the amount of research required was huge. I literally spent months on it. By contrast, using basic research techniques that students are taught in the undergraduate level. Within a few hours of research, I found that the Ephraem quote was almost certainly forged. The fact that we had to do that work for them signifies a significant problem in their methods.

You also take exception to the description of his argumentation as ‘hand-waving’. First, we’ve responded to most of his claims before, and he has done nothing to respond to our more substantial criticisms that deal with the heart of the issue. You can’t major on the tertiary points when your primary arguments are left with gaping wounds. Talking about this or that other witness, out of context as often as not, does not fix the major problems: he is claiming that a historical figure created something a century after it already existed, in contradiction to what the source was known to have done, and despite the fact that his main documentation is at the very least incorrectly attributed.

You also say there are parts of Smith’s argument that we didn’t deal with. This is true. We didn’t bother with some of his arguments, because at some point it would be like beating a dead horse, and we did not want to write another long essay on the subject. This was not necessary as the argument was already settled.

You say lots of complimentary things about Smith’s Christian testimony and character—and on that we agree. But someone can be a good Christian and wrong about some things. And when someone is wrong about some things, the kind thing is to point it out. One might even call it “inflicting the wounds on a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). Yet, we had to do so publicly because his works were out in the public sphere and many of our supporters were asking us about it. We were careful not to call names or attribute motive, although some, like you, interpreted our words otherwise.

Our main point still stands—Smith’s argument is implausible (to put it as mildly and as kindly as possible) whether one looks at the textual or historical side of the argument. The genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 in the Masoretic text are still the best candidates for the original numbering system. We will hold this view until shown otherwise. In reply to your signing off with the Latin slogan of the Jesuit order, we will reply with the words Martin Luther is purported to have said while on trial for his faith in 1521, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Published: 3 August 2019

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