Newsweek attacks belief in Scripture
A prestigious publication like Newsweek is read by millions every week, so one would think they would exercise due diligence in making sure that their articles were factually accurate, and at least retain some semblance of journalistic impartiality. All such standards were clearly not taken seriously in the recent front-page story by Kurt Eichenwald titled “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”.1 Eichenwald shows no integrity as a reporter, and if he had done research even on something as basic as Wikipedia, many of his errors would be corrected. But fault also lies with his editors and everyone who had a hand in publishing this embarrassingly bad screed.
Biblical Illiteracy: It goes both ways
Eichenwald laments biblical illiteracy, and criticizes those who use the Bible for their own political ends without really reading it (which is an odd charge, considering he says it is impossible to really read the Bible—but more on that later). We would agree, and we’ve condemned using the Bible for particular political ideologies. But Eichenwald is doing the same thing, only from an unbelieving standpoint. This article will go on to show that Eichenwald is ignorant about nearly every topic he chooses to address, and what he isn’t ignorant about, he willfully misrepresents.
From autographs to the Authorized Version
Eichenwald makes the strange claim:
“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 or hand-copied copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.”
So apparently we are talking about a text which none of us have access to, even if it exists! So how can Eichenwald claim we are misinterpreting it? We can’t know what the originals said (because they are copies of copies of copies), but we can be sure they weren’t translated accurately! And we certainly know that the Bible-thumpers are misinterpreting this mysterious text which no one has ever seen!
The process of Bible transmission and translation is not nearly as mysterious or uncertain as Eichenwald claims. In the case of the Old Testament, it was copied with care by professional scribes. There are some textual differences and difficulties, but we know that the text we have is substantially the same as what Jesus and His apostles had in the first century—and that was close enough to the originals for Jesus to quote it as authoritative.
Regarding the New Testament, it was copied with less accuracy, but we have many more copies, much closer to the originals. And even these copies are substantially the same. We’ll look at the most major differences, but most differences aren’t even translatable into English, because they involve minor things that don’t influence meaning. And in most cases, we know for sure which variant is original. This isn’t the case of “1,000 Delicious Locust Recipes” evolving into the Gospel of Mark. See the booklet How Did We Get Our Bible? for an easily-understandable explanation of how the Bible was copied and translated.
Eichenwald helpfully demonstrates his ignorance about Koine Greek. He says:
“Koine was written in what is known as scriptio continua—meaning no space between words and no punctuation. So a sentence like weshouldgoeatmom could be interpreted as “We should go eat, Mom,” or “We should go eat Mom.”
Sentences can have different meaning depending on where the spaces are placed. For example, godisnowhere could be “God is now here” or “God is nowhere.””
What Eichenwald fails to grasp is that Greek nouns have case, indicating what part of speech they should be. So if “word” is the subject of the sentence, as in “The Word was God” it is written logos, but if it were the object of a verb, for instance, “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man…” it is written logon. In Eichenwald’s first example, “Mother” would be written in the vocative or nominative case if Mom was intended to eat with them, and probably the accusative case if she were the meal.
Then, Eichenwald also demonstrates he knows nothing of the history of text criticism.
“None of this [differences in the text] mattered for centuries, because Christians were certain God had guided the hand not only of the original authors but also all the copyists.”
But many manuscripts have been edited (we can tell there are different sets of handwriting editing the first copyist), obviously reflecting the fact that people knew there were inevitable errors in the copying process. In the third century, Origen spoke of “the diversity of copies arising either from the negligence of scribes or the presumption of correctors”.2 Eichenwald expects us to believe that ancient people were too stupid and gullible to realize copying wasn’t inerrant, but that simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. He is criticizing a view that almost no one in Church history has ever held.
The major differences in the text
There are three major blocks of text that Eichenwald identifies as not being part of the original New Testament. These are the Periocopae Adulterae (John 7:53–8:11), the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9–20), and the Comma Iohannum (1 John 5:7–8). Very few textual critics believe there is even a chance of these being in the original text, and inerrantists have rightly pointed out that inerrancy applies only to the original text, which we have preserved in the Bible as we have it now. In addition, in some translations where these verses appear, they are usually accompanied with explanatory footnotes mentioning that these verses are not in the earliest manuscripts. Regardless of whether one agrees with Eichenwald or not regarding the authenticity of these passages, it is certainly an issue that evangelical scholars are aware of, so unfair to portray it as a devastating blow against Christianity.
But Eichenwald, without any explanation, claims that Luke 22:20 and 24:51 were not in the original text of Luke. This is odd, because the major manuscript that deletes both of these is Codex Bezae, a fifth century Western-type text that is highly divergent from other texts—meaning it has a lot of errors. P75, Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Alexandrinus, and Ephraemi Rescriptus are all superior manuscripts to Bezae, and all include these two verses.3 There is simply no textual reason to omit these two verses.
“These are not the only parts of the Bible that have been added much later. There are many, many more—in fact, far more than can be explored without filling up the next several issues of Newsweek”.
I’d like to see that, because Eichenwald covered every single significant variant in a couple paragraphs. Would he like to spend an entire article covering the likes of the variant in John 15:8, where some manuscripts have genesthe, some have ginesthe, and some have genesesthe? This is actually a case where we don’t really know which one is original, because strong manuscripts are divided between the first and the third option. As you might be able to tell, it’s also one of the untranslatable differences, because all of them are forms of the same word, ginomai.
Eichenwald either lies or is uninformed about the translation of the King James Version. It was not translated from Latin manuscripts, but from Erasmus’s critical text of the Greek New Testament. Erasmus did not have a Greek manuscript of the last bit of Revelation, so his New Testament had to ‘back translate’ the Latin into Greek, creating a Greek reading found in no Greek manuscript. However, that is the only part of his NT that is not based on a Greek manuscript.
Another claim is that many Greek words do not have precise English equivalents. In a sense, this is true. But this is also true when you’re translating between Chinese and English, for example. It may be necessary to use several words to get the meaning of a foreign language phrase in English, but this does not mean we cannot communicate the meaning accurately.
Vile slander against God and Christians
Eichenwald says that “Christians are believed to have massacred more followers of Jesus than any other group or nation.” Oh really, more than Communist China or Muslims terrorists? More than the Roman Empire, which made it a hobby to find and slaughter Christians for a couple hundred years? One would presume Eichenwald would cite a source if he had one.
There is absolutely nothing about Eichenwald’s account of Nicaea and Constantinople that should be given an ounce of credit. There is not space for a thorough refutation, but anyone who believes, as Eichenwald claims, that Constantinople declared Jesus “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is seriously confused.
Eichenwald attacks the virginal conception of Christ and makes reference to Leviathan/Rahab, the ‘Sons of God’ in Genesis 6, claims the Bible is anti-woman and that Paul didn’t write 1 Timothy.4 We’ve written on these things elsewhere. What Eichenwald is doing is taking the far left of Bible scholarship, and treating that as if it were the mainstream. At the same time, he is ignoring the growing number of scholars who believe the Bible and who find no contradiction between Bible scholarship and their faith.
Eichenwald ends by saying we should:
“embrace what modern Bible experts know to be the true sections of the New Testament. Jesus said, Don’t judge. And he condemned those who pointed out the faults of others while ignoring their own.”
Unsurprisingly, he ends up with a Jesus who looks a lot like him, and not at all like a first-century Jew. In John 7:24 Jesus says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” And there is no variation among manuscripts, so we know it’s part of the original New Testament! So according to Eichenwald’s criteria, we should follow that. And judging with right judgment will lead us to reject this entire article.
Our wording in this article is a bit stronger than we normally like to use, but in this case it’s appropriate. Eichenwald should be ashamed as a writer and a journalist to have published something so poorly researched. His editors should be ashamed they did not catch the gross errors in the article. Everyone who had the slightest involvement with this article is culpable. And we can only hope that Newsweek is flooded with subscriber feedback expressing their disappointment in the shockingly low standards that resulted in this piece. We would encourage readers to contact Newsweek and point out their lack of journalistic integrity.
References and notes
- Eichenwald, K., The Bible, So Misunderstood It’s a Sin, Newsweek, 23 Dec 2014; newsweek.com. Return to text.
- Vincent, M. R., A History of the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, Macmillan, New York, 1899, Chapter V, http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/vincent_textualcriticism.html. Return to text.
- The original hand of Sinaiticus omitted 24:51, but a corrector added it back in. Return to text.
- See Cosner, L., An unconvincing case for pseudepigraphy, J. Creation 28(2):42–44, 2014. Return to text.