A blog by James Snapp, Jr. about New Testament textual criticism, especially involving variants in the Gospels.
Thursday, January 1, 2015
The Bible: So Mispresented, It's a Sin (26 Mistakes in Newsweek's Article About the Bible)
Recently (Dec. 23, 2014) Newsweek magazine published a cover-story, "The Bible: So Misinterpreted, It's a Sin," in which author Kurt Eichenwald made numerous misrepresentations of some text-critical subjects. This blog-entry and the next few entries will address some of the falsehoods in the Newsweek story, point by point.
(1) Kurt Eichenwald says nobody has read the Bible: "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."
Eh? Has he never set eyes on a Hebrew Bible, or on a Greek New Testament?? And can he be so isolated from the enterprise of Bible translation that he foolishly imagines that Bible translators only consult earlier translations -- as "translations of translations" -- and not the compilations of the Hebrew and Greek texts??? Absurd!
(2) Kurt Eichenwald says that in koine Greek, written in scriptio continua, "a sentence like weshouldgoeatmom could be interpreted as “We should go eat, Mom,” or “We should go eat Mom.”
Eh? That illustration is way out of focus, because it does not mention that in Greek, word-endings make a world of difference -- so much so that the illustration is misleading. It's much, much easier to tell where Greek words separate from each other, when written without spaces between the words, than it is when writing English without spaces between words. There are some passages where more than one word-division is sensible and feasible, but those are anomalies. Eichenwald's impression to the contrary is misleading.
(3) Eichenwald wrote: "In the past 100 years or so, tens of thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered, dating back centuries."
Eh? Was he referring to relatively unimportant medieval Vulgate copies and Armenian copies? We certainly don't have any such "tens of thousands" of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament books. Can anyone tell from the article what sort of manuscripts the writer is writing about, as in, what languages these "tens of thousands" of manuscripts are in???
(4) Eichenwald wrote, "An early version of Luke 3:16 in the New Testament said, “John answered, saying to all of them.…” The problem was that no one had asked John anything, so a fifth century scribe fixed that by changing the words to “John, knowing what they were thinking, said.…” Today, most modern English Bibles have returned to the correct, yet confusing, “John answered.” Others, such as the New Life Version Bible, use other words that paper over the inconsistency."
Kurt Eichenwald is one confused dude who has made multiple mistakes:
(A) The variant in Luke 3:16 that consists of the insertion "Knowing what they were thinking" is an anomaly. It's not in the Byzantine Text -- the text-type represented by over 85% of the manuscripts. Nor is it in the Alexandrian Text -- the text-type that forms the primary basis for most modern versions of the New Testament. It is a variant in Codex Bezae, a manuscript famous (or, rather, infamous) for its interpolations and quirks.
(B) Most likely it was not the fifth-century copyist of Codex Bezae, but a copyist of some ancestor-manuscript, who invented this reading.
(C) It is virtually libelous to say that "most modern English Bibles have returned to the correct" reading, because anyone can consult the English Bibles from the 1500s as well as the King James Bible and turn to Luke 3:16 and see that they never adopted Codex Bezae's variant in the first place. So when Eichenwald says that English Bibles "returned" to the correct reading, it's like saying that there was time when English Bibles' text of Luke 3:16 was based on Codex Bezae, which is simply false. A responsible publication would retract, and apologize for, this demonstrably untrue statement.
(D) I consulted the New Life Version online, and it accurately conveys the meaning of the Greek text of Luke 3:16. Nothing is "papered over." The gracious conclusion to draw is that Eichenwald simply does not know the Greek text well enough to make an informed judgment on this point. (NLV, Luke 3:16a: "But John said to all of them," -- Greek text: APEKRINATO LEGWN PASIN O IWANNHS. Likewise the KJV: "John answered, saying unto them all,".)
(5) Kurt Eichenwald's comments about John 7:53-8:11 look like they were extracted from a book by Bart Ehrman, and Eichenwald even repeats Ehrman's ridiculous statement that scribes in the Middle Ages made up this story. Ehrman told a radio-interviewer in 2006 that "in the Middle Ages," a scribe added the story to the Gospel of John, but Eichenwald stretches the lie even further in Newsweek, claiming, “Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages.”
Meanwhile, in a world apparently inaccessible to Ehrman and Eichenwald, Ambrose of Milan (c. 380) utilized the story of the adulteress repeatedly; Augustine (early 400s) discussed it at length, and Jerome (late 300s) stated that he had found the story of the adulteress in many manuscripts, both Greek and Latin. Newsweek's dissemination of such laughably out-of-focus descriptions of the evidence, as if John 7:53-8:11 did not come along until the Middle Ages, is deplorable and irresponsible. Granting that the passage is not in 267 Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of John, it is present in 1,476. The case is not nearly as one-sided as Eichenwald pretends.
Eichenwald claims that the passage "does not appear in any of the three other Gospels," but this is true of most of the events in the Gospel of John! Does he not know this? Or is he just grasping at anything that will give the appearance of supporting his claim?
Likewise he claimed that the passage is not "in any of the early Greek versions of John," but while this may be true of manuscripts from Egypt, it is certainly not true of manuscripts used by Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, Pacian, Augustine, and others. Plus, the passage about the adulterous woman is found in Codex Bezae, the quirky manuscript that Eichenward himself referred to as an "early version."
(6) Kurt Eichenwald's cherry-picking of evidence regarding Mark 16:9-20 is shamefully misleading. He stated, "The earliest versions of Mark stop at 16:8." That is partly true: the two earliest copies of Mark 16, both produced in the 300s, end Mark's text at the end of 16:8. But this is hardly the whole truth.
In one of those two copies - Codex Vaticanus - the copyist reserved blank space after verse 8, instead of beginning the Gospel of Luke in the following column. In the other copy - Sinaiticus - all of the text from Mark 14:54 to Luke 1:56 is on a cancel-sheet, that is, replacement-pages, and the copyist made extra effort to avoid leaving a blank column between Mark 16:8 and Luke 1:1, and drew a heavy decorative frame after 16:8. Both manuscripts, in different ways, indicate their copyists' awareness of material beyond verse 8.
Out of over 1,600 Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark, those two are the only Greek manuscripts of Mark in which the text clearly ends at verse 8, followed by the closing-title of the book. Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Washingtoniensis, Codex Bezae, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus -- the passage is in them all, representing different copying-centers in different locales. Kurt Eichenwald's statement that Mark 16:9-20 is not "in early copies of the original Greek writings," is only partly true: the text ends at 16:8 in two early Greek copies, echoing an early Alexandrian form of the text. But those two manuscripts are two among a bunch.
None of these manuscripts are the earliest evidence regarding Mark 16:19. It is for some reason a secret, from which Newsweek-readers must be kept, that Irenaeus of Lyons, writing around 180, specifically quoted Mark 16:19 from his copy of the Gospel of Mark -- a manuscript which must have been over a century older that the manuscripts produced in the 300s. (Irenaeus' quotation is in Against Heresies Book 3.) And around 170, a man named Tatian, in the course of composing the Diatessaron -- a blended account of all four Gospels into one narrative -- included Mark 16:9-20 in the account. And, around the year 160, Justin Martyr made a strong allusion to Mark 16:20, using its verbiage in his First Apology, chapter 45. Even the pagan author Hierocles, c. 305, probably recycling material written by his mentor Porphyry, used Mark 16:17-18 in an anti-Christian jibe.
Does Kurt Eichenwald think that the utilizations of Mark 16:9-20 by writers in the 100s-early 300s, earlier than the earliest manuscripts of Mark 16, are not worth mentioning? Or did he decide that Newsweek-readers should not be told about them because this might interfere with the thesis of his article? Or is he simply clueless when it comes to New Testament patristics?
(7) Kurt Eichenwald wrote that First John 5:7, Luke 22:20, and Luke 24:51 "first appeared in manuscripts used by the translators who created the King James Bible, but are not in copies from hundreds of years earlier."
As far as Greek manuscripts of First John 5:7 (the "Comma Johanneum") is concerned, that is true (although the verse in question was used in North Africa, in Latin, in the late 400s). Regarding Luke 22:20 and Luke 24:51, however, Kurt Eichenwald's statement in Newsweek is horsefeathers.
Luke 22:20 is attested by the early manuscripts Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, Washingtoniensis, and many more; the verse was included in the Vulgate by Jerome in 383 -- which is, I believe even Mr. Eichenwald will concede, hundreds of years before the King James Version was produced. Luke 22:20 is also included in Papyrus 75. Kurt Eichenwald apparently has stumbled upon and swallowed a pet theory of Ehrman, who favors Codex Bezae's quirky liturgical adjustment that resulted in the non-inclusion of this verse -- but that is no excuse for mangling the presentation of evidence. The only difference between Kurt Eichenwald and someone lying about the evidence pertaining to Luke 22:20 is that a liar knows what he's doing.
Luke 24:51, likewise, is included in Papyrus 75 and in Codex Vaticanus and a plethora of other manuscripts. Papyrus 75 is typically assigned a production-date by paleographers in the early 200s -- which is earlier than Codex Bezae (fifth or sixth century) and much earlier than the manuscripts used by the translators of the King James Bible. Newsweek is spreading distortions and nonsense by publishing claims that give an impression to the contrary.
(8) Eichenwald claimed that when the King James Version was made, “A Church of England committee relied primarily on Latin manuscripts translated from Greek.” Certainly the KJV’s translators consulted Latin, Syriac, French, Italian, and other translations. However, the KJV’s Preface (“The Translators to the Reader”) addressed this very question about the translators’ base-text: “If you aske what they had before them, truely it was the Hebrew text of the Olde Testament, the Greeke of the New.” The Greek New Testament had been in print since the early 1500s, and had been reprinted in numerous revisions by scholars such as Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza (the owner of Codex Bezae, which Eichenwald described as an “early version”). Eichenwald’s claim that the KJV’s translators “relied primarily” on Latin manuscripts is simply false.
(9) Eichenwald grossly oversimplified the reasons why English translations differ, claiming that this is due to “guesses of the modern translators” about the meaning of the Greek text, as if koine Greek is horribly obscure. I am willing to grant that on this particular point, Eichenwald is only mostly wrong. There are some obscure words in the New Testament regarding which the meaning is not entirely secure, such as the exact species of tree that Zaccheaus climbed. But this sort of thing is not nearly the perplexing linguistic puzzle that Eichenwald depicts it to be. The differences in translation-methods – whether the goal is a technical precision or contemporary clarity – have far more impact than opaque terms in the text.
(10) When Eichenwald attempted to illustrate his claim that “religious convictions determined translation choices” in modern translation, he blatantly misrepresented the New American Standard Bible. He stated that when the New American Standard Bible (and the NIV and the Living Bible) translated the word προσκυνέω – which is routinely translated as “worship” in the KJV – the translators of the New American Standard Bible “dropped the word worship when it referenced anyone other than God or Jesus.” Thus, Eichenwald contended, “Each time προσκυνέω appeared in the Greek manuscript regarding Jesus, in these newer Bibles he is worshipped, but when applied to someone else, the exact same word is translated as “bow” or something similar.”
More than a dozen examples that contradict Eichenwald’s claim could be presented; in the interest of brevity let’s just look at Acts 10:25 from the New American Standard Bible:
“When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him.” (NASB)
Voila. Newsweek's claim that the NASB “dropped the word worship when it referenced anyone other than God or Jesus” is false and should be retracted.
(11) In his discussion of church history, claimed that Constantine “changed the course of Christian history, ultimately influencing which books made it into the New Testament.” In real life, Constantine had practically no influence on the canon of the New Testament. Eichenwald brought up this point as if the New Testament canon was debated at the Council of Nicea, but that is not what happened at Nicea. The fourth-century historian/bishop Eusebius of Caesarea reported that on a separate occasion, Constantine instructed him to produce 50 Bibles for the churches in Constantinople, but there is no basis for any suggestion that Constantine was ever involved in any decisions about which books should be included.
(12) Eichenwald wrote that at the Council of Nicea, “The primary disputes centered on whether Jesus was God—the followers of a priest named Arius said no, that God created Jesus. But the Bishop of Alexander said yes, that Jesus had existed throughout all eternity.” This should not have made it past Newsweek’s editors. The vocal opponent of Arius was Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, not the “Bishop of Alexander.”
(13) Eichenwald gave his readers the impression that at the Council of Nicea in 325, Constantine arranged for the Sabbath-day to be shifted from Saturday to Sunday. This part of his article reads like something based on bad Seventh-Day Adventism propaganda. Justin Martyr, writing c. 160, stated forthrightly in his First Apology, chapter 67:
“On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read,” and, “Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.”
This is easily corroborated by quotations from other patristic writers who lived before Constantine, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. Eichenwald’s claim that “Many theologians and Christian historians” believe that the Sabbath-day was moved at the Council of Nicea might aptly describe theologians and historians who are as misinformed as Eichenwald is, but it does not reflect what actually happened; the decree was concerned with standardizing the liturgical calendar, not with introducing a new day of worship.
(14) Eichenwald gave readers the impression that December 25 was identified as Christmas-day at Nicea because this was when “the birth of the sun god was celebrated.” Two things should be noted in response. First, Romans had so many pagan holidays that you couldn’t throw a dart at a calendar without having a good chance of hitting some deity’s special celebratory day. Second, Christians in the western part of the Roman Empire had been observing December 25 as Jesus’ birthday since at least the time of Hippolytus of Rome, in the very early 200s. Hippolytus mentioned its observance in his commentary on Daniel. And Hippolytus, a rather strict and austere theologian, had no motive to associate Jesus’ birthday with celebrations held by his pagan persecutors.
(15) Eichenwald claimed that after the Council of Nicea had developed the Nicene Creed, “Those who refused to sign the statement were banished. Others were slaughtered.” Could he, perhaps, name a few of the bishops who attended the council who were afterwards slaughtered for refusing to adhere to the Nicene Creed? I don’t know of a single one.
(16) Eichenwald described the decrees of the First Council of Constantinople (in 381) by saying that the bishops there agreed that “Jesus wasn’t two, he was now three—Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” This is nonsense. The First Council of Constantinople expressed that the church believes in the Holy Spirit as “the holy, the lordly and life-giving one, proceeding forth from the Father, co-worshipped and co-glorified with Father and Son, the one who spoke through the prophets.” It did not decree that Jesus is the Holy Spirit or that Jesus is the Father; the idea was that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons sharing one divine and uncreated essence.
(17) Eichenwald continued to misrepresent church history when he claimed that “By the fifth century, the political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels in circulation were to make up the New Testament.” In real life, none of the church councils that had an impact on the New Testament canon were debating whether or not the Gnostic texts should be regarded as canonical. The four-Gospel canon was already established in the 100s, as shown in the writings of Irenaeus. In the early 300s, the Gnostic pseudo-gospels were not in the mix, and never had been, except to the Gnostics.
(18) Eichenwald bizarrely misinterpreted New Testament passages about the value of the family unit. He reads Matthew 19:29 and concludes that “To Jesus, family was an impediment to reaching God.” This is sad caricature-drawing. Jesus was not anti-family, as many other verses (Matthew 10:2-9, for example) prove. Matthew 19:29 is about priorities, particularly in times of persecution when Christians face choices between loyalty to Christ, or to non-Christian family members, or to wealth. Saying that this makes Jesus “anti-family” is just absurd.
(19) Eichenwald presented his interpretation of Mark 13:30 as if “all of it is fact” instead of being his own interpretation. Citing Jesus’ statement, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be done,” Eichenwald asserted that this meant that "the people alive in his [Jesus’] time would see the end of the world.” But this overlooks the nature of the questions that Jesus was answering in his apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13. Another interpretation is that Jesus’ remarks about the end of the world in Mark 24-27 are parenthetical, and that when he says that “this generation” will see the foretold events, He is referring to events described earlier in the chapter, and to the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in the First Revolt in the late 60’s – within a generation of the time of Jesus.
(20) Eichenwald misrepresented the Greek term ἀρσενοκοῖται as if its meaning is obscure, stating, “The King James Version translated that as “them that defile themselves with mankind.” Perhaps that means men who engage in sex with other men, perhaps not.” Granting that the KJV rendered the term euphemistically, it does not require a degree in philology to discern what ἀρσενοκοῖται means: those who participate in male-to-male coitus. Just reduce the word to its Greek roots and this is obvious. Eichenwald claimed that translators “manipulated sentences to reinforce their convictions,” but if anyone is manipulating words in an attempt to blur the meaning of the text in this case, it’s Kurt Eichenwald.
(21) Eichenwald asserted that “Every sin is equal in its significance to God.” Granting that all sin separates sinners from God, Eichenwald’s claim does not square up with statements in the New Testament such as John 19:11, where Jesus tells Pilate, “The one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin,” and First John 5:16-17, where a differentiation is made between sins that lead to death, and sins that do not. All sins should be avoided, but not all sins have equal consequences, and not all sinners have the same level of culpability.
(22) Eichenwald misrepresented the contents of First Timothy 2:9-10, stating, “It says women must dress modestly, can’t embroider their hair, can’t wear pearls or gold and have to stay silent.” Wrong. These verses are preceded by verse 8, where Paul specifically prefaces his statement by saying “I desire” that these things would be done. Paul’s expression of his own preferences are not the equivalent of a “Thus saith the Lord.” He similarly told the Corinthians (in First Corinthians 7:7) that he desired for everyone to be celibate, like him, but he did not make that a command. Paul’s statements about hair and pearls should be interpreted through the usual interpretive lens that takes first-century Roman culture into account. When Eichenwald ignores context in an attempt to score rhetorical points, he is guilty of the same sort of oversimplification that he accuses others of committing.
(23) Eichenwald’s attempted application of First Timothy 2:12, as if it means that “Every female politician who insists the New Testament is the inerrant word of God needs to resign immediately or admit that she is a hypocrite,” is ludicrous. In this passage, Paul is laying part of the groundwork for the list of qualifications for elders and deacons, which follow in chapter three. A modicum of consideration of the context shows that Paul is focused on goings-on in the churches, not in the political arena. If Eisenwald’s myopic misapplication is the best he is capable of, then it’s Eichenwald, not Michele Bachmann, who “should shut up and sit down.”
(24) Eichenwald’s misapplication of Romans 13:1-8 was erroneous to a humorous degree. In that passage, Paul calls on Christians to be law-abiding Roman citizens, to pay their taxes, and to be respectful toward those who hold government offices. From those instructions, Eichenwald drew the conclusion that Christians are forbidden from criticizing the government; “There are eight verses condemning those who criticize the government,” he wrote. But Paul was not writing about criticizing the government; he was writing about disobeying the government. He did not want church-members to give anyone a basis to brand the Christian churches as politically driven revolution-clubs.
That is a long way from saying that Christians should not criticize anything that is done by anyone holding a political office.” Does Eichenwald serious think that anyone trained in Judaism, as Paul was, and who was aware of how the Old Testament prophets criticized various kings and government officials, would say that it would be sinful to criticize the actions of a king? Acts 16:37 reports that Paul himself protested against the way government-officials treated him. Would Eichenwald conclude that Paul, by protesting unjust treatment from the government, was sinning? Surely not, I hope. Eichenwald’s abuse of Romans 13:1-8 is preposterous rhetoric which I hope he will someday recollect with a sense of shame.
(25) Although Eichenwald offered some valid criticisms of “prayer shows,” I noticed that he named Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal. (He did not mention Barack Obama – who proclaimed May 1, 2014 as a National Day of Prayer and stated, “I invite the citizens of our nation to give thanks, in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and I join all people of faith in asking for God’s continued guidance, mercy, and protection.”) But how can he express this criticism of the actions of government officer-holders after stating that Romans 13:1-8 condemns those who criticize government office-holders? Apparently even Eichenwald does not take Eichenwald’s interpretation of Romans 13:1-8 seriously, even within the same article.
(26) Eichenwald seemed to imagine that Jesus’ command in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” means that Christians should not warn and plead with people not to break God’s commandments. God alone can look into a person’s heart, and God is the one Lawgiver and Judge. That does not mean that Christians should keep quiet about what God has said that He wants people to do, and what God has said He wants people to avoid doing. It is not wrong for Christians to warn others who are stumbling, wandering, or lost. Just the opposite: in a free country, a church that is not calling people to repent and surrender to God is guilty of profound apathy and distraction, as if the church’s top priority ought to be keeping people well-fed on the outside while they are starving and eating dirt on the inside. Jesus said that the second-greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. When Christians warn adulterers, sodomites, liars, and sinners of every sort that they need to repent, and that they are lost, and that they need to receive a new spiritual nature from God, they are doing what they wish someone would lovingly do for them if they were lost in sin.
These were not the only problematic aspects of Eichenwald’s Newsweek article but they are sufficient, I believe, to warrant a request for retractions and apologies.
Posted by James Snapp Jr at 11:28 AM
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On point number 12, I saw the "Bishop of Alexander" error, too. But I think to Eichenwald's credit, what he meant to say is "Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria." Before Athanasius rose in prominence to challenge Arius, his predecessor, Alexander made the first move to deal with the Arian controversy. So perhaps Eichenwald just confused the name of the bishop with the name of the city.
But to your point, it nevertheless still is an error that Newsweek has still yet to retract.
Thank you for your detailed outline of these errors.
Yes; that could be what he was trying to say.
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