The Misunderstood Bible

Not News; Just Weak

By Jeff Laird

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Continued from Page One


According to Eichenwald, nobody has ever actually read the Bible. In his case, that's obvious, but he claims that a long chain of translations has rendered everyone (but him?) incapable of knowing what the original said. This because...

"...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."

This subsection is even titled "Playing Telephone with the Word of God". I've already covered how silly the Telephone Game claim is, so forgive me for simply referring the reader there. It's an insipid attitude which proves nothing more than the claimant knows nothing about the history of Biblical manuscripts.

And how many translations were involved, again? By my math, Eichenwald claims at least three linear translations, making the English Bible the fourth language removed from the originals. The problem is, the manuscripts modern English Bibles are based on were written in Koine Greek, as were most of the original works — a point Eichenwald actually makes later on. That's one translation, not three. I'll be kind here, and assume his "hundreds of times" line referred to scribal copying, not translations. Even that's mathematically ridiculous, though. Some manuscripts used to create the historic King James Version are dated to the 4th century; those aren't the umpteen-hundredth copy of a copy. His assumptions about scribes and professionalism are likewise pulled seemingly out of thin air.

The article claims Constantine greatly influenced the canon of the New Testament, and gleefully recounts his depraved behaviors. But there's no evidence Constantine had any meaningful influence on Christian theology, or the NT canon, not the least because both were reasonably well established prior to his rule. And, historians have long noted that Constantine was most likely a fraudulent convert — one of the paper politicians Eichenwald rightfully lambastes — given that his conduct never changed after his convenient claim to conversion.

Incongruously, Eichenwald actually dings Constantine for his "shallow understanding of theology". True though that may be, coming in the context of this article it's about as meaningful a criticism as Jenny McCarthy sneering at Gwyneth Paltrow for holding unscientific views. I think I sprained an eyelid reading that line.

Eichenwald also claims the New Testament wasn't "compiled" until 400 years after being written, which is a flat-out factual flop. The Codex Sinaiticus, for example, contains the entire New Testament and is dated to the early-to-mid 300's. Keep that fact in mind, by the way, when Eichenwald tries to claim certain New Testament books were forgeries of late theologians. Beyond that, quotations from the earliest church fathers, reflecting their understanding of which books were Scripture, can be used to reconstruct almost the entire New Testament. The Four Gospels and the letters of Paul were being distributed in a group by the end of the 2nd century; as in the years 101-200. That's more than a century prior to Constantine.

Those aren't hard facts to find, nor difficult logic to grasp. It's a sad day if this is what passes for hard-hitting investigation, at Newsweek.

Eichenwald also trots out the Bart Ehrman sound bite that "there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament," which is about as misleading a claim as can be imagined. Stop and think about that for three seconds, and you can see more information has to be provided. More variations than words? What does that even mean? In brief, this claim is based on how one counts "variants", and it involves multiplying any minor discrepancy by the number of manuscripts. To put that in practical perspective, an early, 100,000-copy printing of Ehrman's own Misquoting Jesus was found to have 16 minor errors, meaning — by Ehrman's math — his book contained 1.6 million errors. That's math salad, not a meaningful criticism. Especially since the sheer volume of New Testament manuscripts inflates those numbers further, even though the text is more consistently preserved than other, similar works.

Eichenwald makes a passing mention that most of these supposed errors are inconsequential variations in word order and spelling. He fails to mention Ehrman's own conclusion that none of the variants, in any sense, affect Christian theology, probably because he didn't read that far. The New Testament is well-attested and well-preserved beyond any other work of antiquity, and you can't sneer at it without discarding much of what we know of history outright. We're more confident of what the original says than any other comparable work.

With similar prejudice, Eichenwald lists passages found in older translations of the Bible which today are considered non-original, such as the story of the adulterous woman. Boldly, the sage muckraker proclaims that...
Scribes made [the adulterous woman story] up sometime in the Middle Ages. It does not appear in any of the three other Gospels or in any of the early Greek versions of John. Even if the Gospel of John is an infallible telling of the history of Jesus's ministry, the event simply never happened.
Every one of those claims is news to Bible scholars. I'm resisting using that three-letter "L" word, but in this case, it's awfully close. The claim that scribes "made it up in the Middle Ages" is complete, unadulterated, inexcusable fiction. I say that because Eichenwald fails to mention how this story is found as an extremely early addendum to other NT books, and was referenced as a variant by church fathers as early as the 300s. As a result, scholarly consensus views it as an early, accurate tradition, though not likely a part of John's original text. Claiming that "the event simply never happened" is unsupportable opinion.

In other words, these bracketed passages — which are many fewer in number than Eichenwald tries to imply — are not "news" to Christianity, but Eichenwald treats them like a ticking time bomb in the Evangelical closet.


Newsweek's cover story claims it's only due to bad translations — nay, deliberate mistranslations — that anyone thinks the Bible claims Jesus to be God. To support this, Eichenwald references a few passages which he says were improperly translated. Here, he again shows his profound ignorance of Christian theology. Belief in Jesus' divinity is not based on a few simple verses, but on multiple statements and events in the Bible. For instance, Jesus' repeated claims to the attributes of God, unity with the Father, the response of His enemies to His claims, the transfiguration, ascension, and so forth.

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Published 12-29-14