Kurt Eichenwald: wilful ignorance of New Testament scholarship so severe, it’s a sin

Dan Wallace is the best-known evangelical expert in New Testament manuscripts. He wrote a strong response to a non-scholarly article from a journalist, which appeared in the far-left Newsweek.


Every year, at Christmas and Easter, several major magazines, television programs, news agencies, and publishing houses love to rattle the faith of Christians by proclaiming loudly and obnoxiously that there are contradictions in the Bible, that Jesus was not conceived by a virgin, that he did not rise from the dead, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. The day before Christmas eve (23 December 2014), Newsweek published a lengthy article by Kurt Eichenwald entitled, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Although the author claims that he is not promoting any particular theology, this wears thin. Eichenwald makes so many outrageous claims, based on a rather slender list of named scholars (three, to be exact), that one has to wonder how this ever passed any editorial review.

Best snip:

Error 1: Gross Exaggerations that Misrepresent the Data

I will address just one issue here—the notion that the original Bible is unknowable. Eichenwald claims:

“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.”

So, none of us today has read anything except a bad translation that has been altered hundreds of times before it got to us? Although Eichenwald enlists Bart Ehrman as one of the three scholars he names in the essay, he has seriously overstated Ehrman’s argument. At one point, it is true, Ehrman says in Misquoting Jesus, “Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.” Here he is speaking of Greek copies of Greek manuscripts. Nothing is said about translations. At many points he admits that the vast majority of the changes to the text of the New Testament were rather minor over the many centuries of handwritten copying. And in the appendix to the paperback edition of his book Ehrman says, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” But Eichenwald makes it sound as though all translations current today are bad and that we can’t possibly recover the wording of the original text. The reality is that we are getting closer and closer to the text of the original New Testament as more and more manuscripts are being discovered and catalogued.

But let’s examine a bit more the actual statement that Eichenwald makes. We are all reading “at best,” he declares, 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.” This is rhetorical flair run amok so badly that it gives hyperbole a bad name. A “translation of translations of translations” would mean, at a minimum, that we are dealing with a translation that is at least three languages removed from the original. But the first translation is at best a translation of a fourth generation copy in the original language. Now, I’m ignoring completely his last line—“and on and on, hundreds of times”—a line that is completely devoid of any resemblance to reality. Is it really true that we only have access to third generation translations from fourth generation Greek manuscripts? Hardly.

Although we know of some translations, especially the later ones, that were based on translations in other languages of the Greek text (thus, a translation of a translation of the Greek), this is not at all what scholars utilize today to duplicate as faithfully as possible the original wording. No, we have Greek manuscripts—thousands of them, some reaching as far back as the second century. And we have very ancient translationsdirectly 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. If we have to be skeptical about what the original New Testament said, that skepticism, on average, should be multiplied one thousand times for other Greco-Roman literature.

What of the differences among these witnesses? To be sure, there are more variants for the New Testament than for any other piece of ancient literature, but that’s because there are more manuscripts for the New Testament than for any other piece of ancient literature. Consider the King James Version compared to virtually any modern New Testament translation: There are about 5000 differences in the underlying Greek text between these two. The vast majority of the differences cannot even be translated. The KJV is based on significantly later manuscripts, yet not a single cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith is affected by the different variants.

The title of Eichenwald’s section that deals with manuscript transmission is “Playing Telephone with the Word of God.” The implication is that the transmission of the Bible is very much like the telephone game—a parlor game every American knows. It involves a brief narrative that someone whispers to the next person in line who then whispers this to the next person, and so on for several people. Then, the last person recites out loud what he or she heard and everyone has a good laugh for how garbled the story got. But the transmission of scripture is not at all like the telephone game. First, the goal of the telephone game is to see how badly the story can get misrepresented, while the goal of New Testament copying was by and large to produce very careful, accurate copies of the original. Second, in the telephone game there is only one line of transmission, while with the New Testament there are multiple lines of transmission. Third, one is oral, recited once in another’s ear, while the other is written, copied by a faithful scribe who then would check his or her work or have someone else do it. Fourth, in the telephone game only the wording of the last person in the line can be checked, while for the New Testament textual critics have access to many of the earlier texts, some going back very close to the time of the autographs. Fifth, even the ancient scribes had access to earlier texts, and would often check their work against a manuscript that was many generations older than their immediate ancestor. The average papyrus manuscript would last for a century or more. Thus, even a late second-century scribe could have potentially examined the original document he or she was copying. If telephone were played the way New Testament transmission occurred, it would make for a ridiculously boring parlor game!

One of the most remarkable pieces of illogical reasoning in Eichenwald’s essay is his discussion of corruption in the manuscripts. Every single instance he raises presupposes that he knows what the original text said, for he speaks about what text had been corrupted in each instance! And more than once he contradicts his opening gambit by speaking authoritatively about what the original text actually said. In short, Eichenwald’s opening paragraph takes exaggeration to new heights. If his goal is to shame conservative Christians for holding views that have no basis in reality, perhaps he should take some time to look in the mirror.

If I were going to give people any advice about investigating religious truth claims, it would be this – for goodness’ sake, look to formal academic debates featuring scholars like Dan Wallace, Michael Licona, William Lane Craig, Stephen C. Meyer, Michael Behe, etc. and their opponents. You will get a lot more out of a formal academic debate with fixed-length speeches than you will get from any left-wing sermon written by a journalist in magazines like Time or Newsweek.

If you want to hear a good debate between Bart Ehrman and Peter Williams, then click here for my summary and a link to the audio from Apologetics 315.

UPDATE: Mathetes points me to another response from noted New Testament scholar Michael Krueger at the Canon Fodder blog.

4 thoughts on “Kurt Eichenwald: wilful ignorance of New Testament scholarship so severe, it’s a sin”

  1. Mike Kruger, at his blog Canon Fodder, has a great analysis too. It’s good, and he will be publishing a second part soon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s