Predictable Christmas fare: Newsweek’s Tirade against the Bible

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.

My PDF of this article runs 34 pages (!) before the hundreds of comments that are appended. Consequently, I don’t have space to critique everything that is wrong in this article. Just a few comments will have to suffice. But first, I wish to offer it some praise: It’s fair game to raise questions about the Bible’s accuracy concerning sin, salvation, miracles, Jesus, etc. It’s fair game precisely because the Bible makes audacious claims that, if true, change everything. And it’s fair game because the Bible places these claims in history. Indeed, the Bible is the only major sacred text that subjects itself to historical verification. It’s the only major sacred text that puts itself at risk. And Jesus is at the center of those claims and that risk. It’s not the questions that I’m concerned about in Eichenwald’s essay; rather, it’s the rather conservative and self-contradictory approach to the answers that are problematic. Conservative? Yes—methodologically so, although not materially so. That is, Eichenwald is not methodoligically a liberal because he only considers certain, worn-out conclusions without even giving a hint that many well-qualified biblical scholars disagree with those conclusions. Martin Hengel, that towering figure of German biblical scholarship, wrote about the parallel dangers from “an uncritical, sterile apologetic fundamentalism” and “from no less sterile ‘critical ignorance’” on the part of radical liberalism (Studies in Early Christology [1995] 57–58). At bottom, the approaches are the same; the only differences are the presuppositions. A true liberal is one who is open to all the evidence, including the possibility that God has invaded space-time history in the person of Jesus Christ. A true liberal is one who is willing to go where the evidence leads, even if it contradicts his or her cherished beliefs.

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 translations directly 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.

Error 2: Disingenuous Claims of Objectivity

At one point in Eichenwald’s diatribe, he makes the astounding claim that “None of this is meant to demean the Bible, but all of it is fact. Christians angered by these facts should be angry with the Bible, not the messenger.” One of the problems with modern theological liberalism is that so much of it assumes objectivity on the part of the advocates, while equally insisting that conservatives have untenable interpretations. What is so disingenuous about this is that such liberalism often creates straw-man arguments that conservatives allegedly hold, while refraining from serious interaction with the best of conservative thinkers. Further, the lack of nuance in dozens of Eichenwald’s statements unmasks his complete lack of objectivity.

Here are some of the “facts” that the author puts forth, with a correction that follows:

(1) “About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament.” —The oldest complete New Testament that exists today is Codex Sinaiticus, written about AD 350. The New Testament was composed between the 40s and 90s of the first century, according to many conservative scholars (much later according to most liberal scholars). Eichenwald’s “400 years” is thus an exaggeration; the reality is closer to 250–300 years (conservative), or 200–250 years (liberal). Yet even here the notion of “compilation into the New Testament” may be misleading: the original New Testament manuscripts were undoubtedly written on papyrus rolls, each of which could contain no more than one Gospel. It was not until the invention of the codex form of book, and its development into a large format, that the possibility of putting all the NT books between two covers could even exist.

(2) The author speaks of the spurious nature of “critical portions of the Bible” such as the KJV’s wording in 1 John 5.7 (which seems to affirm the Trinity) or Luke 24.51 (which speaks of the post-resurrection ascension of Christ into heaven). The implication seems to be that the Trinity is not to be found in the NT, nor is the ascension. But the ancient church was not aware of the wording of the later manuscripts in 1 John 5.7 (as Eichenwald admits), yet the Council of Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451) nevertheless strongly affirmed the Trinity. How could they do so without these “critical portions of the Bible”? And the ascension of Christ is found in several texts, even if Luke 24.51 might not be one of them (e.g., Acts 1.9, 10; and implied in many passages that speak of Christ as sitting at the right hand of God). None of this, of course, is mentioned by the author.

(3) Constantine “changed the course of Christian history, ultimately influencing which books made it into the New Testament.” This is an old canard that has no basis in reality. In fact, Eichenwald seems to know this because he does not bring it up again, but instead speaks about the Council of Nicea (initiated by Constantine) as dealing primarily with the deity of Christ. There is absolutely nothing to suggest in any of the historical literature that Constantine ever influenced what books belonged in the NT.

(4) “evangelicals insist the Old Testament is a valid means of debunking science.” I’m not sure what evangelicals he’s read that say this; I haven’t read any. Many evangelicals speak about the problems of scientism—the belief that only in science will we find the answers to mankind’s deepest problems. But scientism is not science. To speak so casually about viewpoints that the author seems to only have hearsay understanding about, as though he is speaking factually, is not worthy of a piece that claims any kind of objectivity.

Time and time again the author presents his arguments as though they were facts. Any serious disagreements with his reasoning are quietly ignored as though they did not exist. The most charitable thing I can say is that Eichenwald is in need of a healthy dose of epistemic humility as well as a good research assistant who can do some fact-checking before the author embarrasses himself further in print.

Error 3: Lumping Intellectually Robust Evangelical Scholarship with the Most Ignorant Kind of Fundamentalism

Repeatedly throughout this article the author succeeds in finding some of the most outlandish illustrations of fundamentalist Christianity as though this represents all fundamentalists and even evangelicals. In his third paragraph he says that “modern evangelical politicians and their brethren” claim that climate change is “impossible because of promises God made to Noah” and “helping Syrians resist chemical weapons attacks is a sign of the end times”—yet such views are hardly mainstream among conservative Christians. Neither is snake-handling a feature of normative conservatism, although it figures prominently in the author’s diatribe. This is the worst kind of cherry-picking, yet to the discerning reader it may appear to be the rantings of someone who has little real acquaintance with evangelical scholarship. And to informed conservative Christians, these oddball anecdotes will leave them scratching their heads.

The author also tends to place conservative Christians in the orbit of conservative politics. “They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats,” he opines in his opening paragraph. But it is hardly accurate to see synonymity between the GOP and conservative Christians. The evangelical church is much broader than Eichenwald knows or is willing to admit.

 

Error 4: Simplistic Biblical Interpretation When It Suits His Purpose

One of the most blatant inconsistencies in this essay is how the author treats biblical interpretation. On the one hand, he denies any validity to how some conservatives read the Bible on many fronts; on the other hand, he claims ridiculous interpretations as binding on them. I will mention just three illustrations.

First, Eichenwald notes that “evangelicals are always talking about family values. But to Jesus, family was an impediment to reaching God.” He then quotes Matthew 19.29 as though that was proof enough. Of course, he must ignore the many texts in which Jesus affirms marriage and family values (e.g., Matt 5.31–32; Matt 19.8–9; Mark 10.7–11). Mark 7.8–13 is instructive:

(8) ‘You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ (9) Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! (10) For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ (11) But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)—(12) then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, (13) thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this” (NRSV).

How does Eichenwald reconcile these kinds of sayings on the lips of Jesus? He doesn’t. He appears to throw staccato-like volleys at all that conservative Christians hold dear, by interpreting scripture in ways that are truly bastardizations of Jesus’ teachings.

Jesus uses the analogy of family to reinforce what the church should be about: one who forsakes his physical brothers and sisters for the sake of the Lord will find many more spiritual brothers and sisters. ‘Brother’ in fact is so frequently used of a person who has the same spiritual Father that it becomes one of the more common expressions for that in the rest of the NT. It is true that allegiance to one’s physical family must never interfere with one’s allegiance to Christ and the family of God, but this is a far cry from saying that Jesus was against family.

Second, Eichenwald employs other simplistic interpretations to deny the NT’s affirmation of Christ’s deity. His statement that ‘form of God’ in Philippians 2.6 “could simply mean Jesus was in the image of God” betrays his ignorance about biblical interpretation. The kenosis, the hymn about the self-emptying of Christ (Phil 2.6–11) has received more scholarly interaction than perhaps any other paragraph in Paul’s writings. To claim that Jesus’ being in the form of God may mean nothing more than that he was human is entirely against the context. The hymn begins (vv. 6–7) as follows:

“who [Christ], although he was in the form of God,

he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped,

but he emptied himself,

by taking on the form of a slave,

by looking like other men,

and by sharing in human nature.”

Christ’s humanity is mentioned only after he is said to have emptied himself. Thus, ‘form of God’ must mean something more than humanity. Further, the parallel lines—‘he was in the form of God’ and ‘taking on the form of a slave’—are mutually interpreting. Jesus was truly a slave of God; this is how he regarded himself (cf. Mark 10.45; Matt 20.27; 26.39). If ‘form of slave’ means ‘slave’ then ‘form of God’ may well mean ‘God.’ The rest of the hymn confirms this interpretation. Philippians 2.10–11 alludes to Isaiah 45.23, where God says, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (NRSV). Paul quotes this very text in Romans 14.11 in reference to YHWH—a book Paul wrote six or seven years prior to his letter to the Philippians. Yet in Phil 2.10–11 he says,

“at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father” (NRSV).

Now the confession is about Jesus and it is a confession that he is ‘Lord.’ Either Paul is coming perilously close to blasphemy, something that a well-trained rabbi could hardly do, or he is claiming that Jesus is indeed true deity. And to underscore the point, he notes that all those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will make this confession—language that is reminiscent of the second of the Ten Commandments, as found in Exodus 20.4: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (NRSV). The Decalogue—known as well as any Old Testament text to an orthodox Jew—is unmistakably echoed in the kenosis. To use this in reference to Jesus is only appropriate if Jesus is true deity, truly the Lord, YHWH himself.

Third, the author claims that 1 Timothy’s proscription against women teaching must be extended to the arena of politics, so that “according to the Bible, Bachmann should shut up and sit down. In fact, 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.” I am baffled as to how Eichenwald could take such a narrow view of 1 Timothy 2.12, and to do so dogmatically. Notice that he does not say, “conservative interpretations of the Bible,” or “liberal interpretations of the Bible,” nor even “the interpretation of one or two scholars”; no, he says baldly, “according to the Bible.” Apparently, there is no room for any other interpretation than his, even by scholars who would not consider the Pastoral Epistles to be by Paul. The last fifty or so years of biblical interpretation are swept under the rug, even though scholars of all theological stripes have wrestled with this text and come to a variety of viewpoints. The amount of literature on this one verse is staggering, yet Eichenwald seems to be completely unaware of it. Instead, he uses 1 Tim 2.12 as a blunt weapon on politically conservative women who are Christians to bludgeon them into submission. His comments tell us more about his view of outspoken women than Paul’s. Would he say “shut up and sit down” to a politically liberal woman who also happened to be an evangelical? The hypocrisy here is not at all what I would have expected in a magazine that used to have a decent journalistic reputation, nor for a journalist such as Eichenwald, who used to share that reputation.

These are just a handful of the bizarre and simplistic interpretations that the author promotes as gospel truth. Read the article for yourself; I have not even commented on some of the more unbelievable examples.

Conclusion

I applaud Kurt Eichenwald for stirring up Christians to think about what he has written and to reexamine their beliefs and attitudes. But his numerous factual errors and misleading statements, his lack of concern for any semblance of objectivity, his apparent disdain for and lack of interaction with genuine evangelical scholarship, and his über-confidence about more than a few suspect viewpoints, makes me wonder. I wonder why he really wrote this essay, and I wonder what he hoped to accomplish. The article reads like it was written by a political pundit who thought he might try something clever: If he could just link conservative Christianity with conservative politics, and show that Christians’ smugness about being Bible-based believers was both incorrect exegetically and had a poor, self-contradictory foundation (since the Bible is full of errors and contradictions), he could thereby deal a deathblow to both conservative Christianity and conservative politics. I do not wish to defend conservative politics, but simply point out that evangelicals do not fit lock, stock, and barrel under just one ideological tent. Eichenwald’s grasp of conservative Christianity in America as well as his grasp of genuine biblical scholarship are, at best, subpar. And this article is an embarrassment to Newsweek—or should be!

For Further Reading

Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels

Darrell Bock and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus

Rob Bowman and Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place

Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus

Ed Komoszewski, James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus

Martin Hengel, Issues in Early Christology

Daniel B. Wallace, editor, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament

Can We Still Believe the Bible?

Can-We-Still-Believe-the-Bible-200x300

Craig Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, has written another outstanding volume. Blomberg is a committed evangelical, but not one with a closed mind. As he says in his preface about the environment of Denver Seminary (quoting Vernon Grounds, former president of the school), “Here is no unanchored liberalism—freedom to think without commitment. Here is no encrusted dogmatism—commitment without freedom to think. Here is a vibrant evangelicalism—commitment with freedom to think within the limits laid down by Scripture.” Blomberg’s writings have always emulated this philosophy. His research in the secondary literature is consistently of superb quality, and his discussions of problem passages and issues, especially in the Gospels, is always well informed. Rather than clutter the narrative with documentation, Blomberg has wisely used endnotes instead of footnotes (though I personally prefer footnotes, I understand that most readers see them as a distraction). This book has nearly 50 pages of endnotes, almost one fifth of the whole book. Blomberg knows his stuff.

I received a prepublication draft of the book, Can We Still Believe the Bible?, and was asked to blog about it. More specifically, I was asked to blog about the first chapter, “Aren’t the Copies of the Bible Hopelessly Corrupt?”

This first chapter addresses the number one apologetic issue of our time—Did the scribes get it right when they copied the scriptures? No longer is the main attack on the Christian faith framed in the question, Is the Bible true? It is now the preliminary question, How do you even know that the Bible you have in your hands accurately represents the original documents? History, as many ancients conceived of it, is circular rather than linear. In this case, that’s true: “Hath God said?” is the original attack on God’s word, way back in the Garden. We’ve come full circle once again.

In this chapter, Blomberg rightfully shows the misrepresentations of the situation by Bart Ehrman, in his book, Misquoting Jesus. For example, of the approximately 400,000 textual variants among New Testament manuscripts, many who read Misquoting Jesus get the impression that this one datum is enough to destroy the Christian faith. But the reality is that less than one percent of all variants are both meaningful and viable. And even Ehrman himself has admitted that no cardinal doctrine is jeopardized by these variants.

Blomberg lays out a compelling argument, with much nuance, about the reliability of the NT and OT manuscripts. His chapter on the text of the Bible is organized as follows:

  • Misleading the Masses
  • The Truth about Variants (New Testament, Old Testament)
  • Did Originals Originally Exist?
  • Comparative Data
  • Avoiding the Opposite Extreme
  • Conclusion

In the opening section, the author takes on Bart Ehrman’s wildly popular book, Misquoting Jesus. In characteristic fashion, Blomberg critiques both what Ehrman does and doesn’t say, doing all with wisdom and wit. He points out, for example, that virtually nothing in Misquoting Jesus is new to biblical scholars—both liberal and evangelical, and all stripes in between. Non-scholars, especially atheists and Muslim apologists, latched onto the book and made preposterous claims that lay Christians were unprepared for. Ignorance, in this case, is not bliss. Earlier in the chapter when Blomberg mentioned that there are as many as 400,000 textual variants among the manuscripts, he bemoans: “It is depressing to see how many people, believers and unbelievers alike, discover a statistic like this number of variants and ask no further questions. The skeptics sit back with smug satisfaction, while believers are aghast and wonder if they should give up their faith. Is the level of education and analytic thinking in our world today genuinely this low?” (13).

He then discusses the two major textual problems that Ehrman zeroes in on: Mark 16.9–20 and John 7.53–8.11. He makes the insightful comment that the probable inauthenticity of these passages is news to laypeople because they tend not to read the marginal notes in their Bibles and because “more and more people are reading the Bible in electronic form, and many electronic versions of the Bible don’t even include such notes” (15).

In passing, I’d like to make three comments about the ending of Mark’s Gospel:

  1. Blomberg says that there is no passage elsewhere in Mark that has nearly as many variants as 16.9–20 (p. 19). This may be true, but he doesn’t document the point. It has often been said about the pericope adulterae, but I’m not sure about the ending of Mark.
  2. Blomberg cites Travis Williams, “Bringing Method to the Madness: Examining the Style of the Longer Ending of Mark,” Bulletin of Biblical Review 20 (2010), to the effect that “the style of writing in the Greek significantly differs from the rest of Mark’s Gospel” (19). This article was first read at the southwest regional Evangelical Theological Society meeting shortly after Travis was an intern of mine. He did an outstanding job on the paper; hence, its publication in BBR. Since this publication another student of mine, Greg Sapaugh, wrote his doctoral dissertation at Dallas Seminary on “An Appraisal of the Intrinsic Probability of the Longer Endings of the Gospel of Mark” (2012). Both scholars came to the same conclusion: the language of Mark 16.9–20 is anomalous and almost surely was not written by the person who wrote Mark 1.1–16.8.
  3. When discussing whether the real ending of Mark’s Gospel was lost, Blomberg says, “The open end of a scroll was the most vulnerable part of a manuscript for damage; perhaps Mark literally got ‘ripped off’!” (20). He goes on to argue against this, seeing that Mark’s intention was to conclude his Gospel at v. 8. Although Blomberg is right to note that Mark was almost certainly written on a roll instead of a codex, he doesn’t mention the great difficulty that this poses for those who think that the real ending was lost. Ancient rolls were almost always rolled up for the next reader. Assuming that to be the case for Mark, the ending of the Gospel would be the most protected part.

Blomberg also highlights many of other major passages that Ehrman wrestles with, such as Mark 1.41, Heb 2.9, and Luke 22.43–44. In the process, he notes that of the two standard Greek New Testaments in use today—the Nestle-Aland text and the United Bible Societies’ text—the latter includes only the most important textual problems (1438 of them) and a perusal of these textual problems reveals that “the only disputed passages involving more than two verses in length” are Mark 16.9–20 and John 7.53–8.11 (18).

The author takes pains to introduce the discipline of textual criticism to lay readers. He discusses some of the major textual problems (or, rather, those with much emotional baggage because of their long history in the printed Bible) in the NT (including Matt 5.22; 6.13; Acts 8.37; and 1 John 5.7–8), patiently going through the evidence, showing that the wording in the KJV is spurious because it is poorly attested in the manuscript evidence and/or has strong internal evidence against it.

The question is then raised, Why are these passages (including the two 12-verse texts mentioned earlier, along with Luke 22.43–44) sometimes printed in our modern translations? Blomberg gives a nuanced answer, but the bottom line (in my view) is this: Translations follow a tradition of timidity. My own examination of over 75 translations in a dozen different languages reveals the same monotonous story: Translators keep these passages in the text of their Bibles because to do otherwise might upset some uninformed Christians. But Ehrman has let the cat out of the bag. Just as Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire pointedly athetized the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5.7–8 over two centuries ago, so Ehrman has done the same for Mark 16 and John 8. When Gibbon wrote this note in his six-volume work, it scandalized the British public. A hundred years later, the Comma Johanneum did not even show up as a marginal note in the Revised Version of 1881. It is time for us to relegate these likely inauthentic texts to the footnotes. Otherwise, we will continue to placate uninformed believers, setting them up for a Chicken Little experience when they read books like Misquoting Jesus. Sadly, tens of thousands of college students, raised in a Christian home, have abandoned the faith because of fear of embarrassment over these issues, especially due to Misquoting Jesus. In recent years, it has been estimated that over 60% of kids coming from Christian homes abandon the faith by the time they get done with college. It is time for pastors and other Christian leaders to educate the masses about the reality of the transmission of the Bible. If we don’t, the fallout will only get worse.

Blomberg also discusses more routine textual variants (what he calls “ordinary and uninteresting,” the latter description of which I would disagree with :-)), giving a glimpse to the discipline of NT exegesis to outsiders. (At least he does correct this a bit later: “The vast majority of textual variants are wholly uninteresting except to specialists [italics mine].”) Almost anyone who has spent time with the textual apparatus is amazed at how little the vast majority of variants affect the meaning of the text.

In his treatment of the gap that exists between the originals and the early copies, he argues that “One may fantasize about all kinds of wild changes being introduced between the first, complete written form of a given book and the oldest copy we actually have, but it will be just that—fantasy…” (35). I’d like to offer some supplemental reasoning for why this is almost certainly true: Against the supposition that the older the manuscripts that are discovered, the more likely it is that we will find new, authentic readings, we can simply look at the last 130+ years. That’s when all but one of the NT papyri (our oldest manuscripts) have been discovered. How many earth-shaking, new readings have commended themselves to scholars as autographic among these 128 NT papyri? None, zero, zilch. Not a single new reading since the discovery of the NT papyri has been viewed by textual scholars as authentic. Does this mean that the papyri are worthless? Not at all. Rather, they usually confirm readings that scholars already thought were authentic. Now, with even earlier evidence found in the papyri, the arguments are stronger. This shows that the methods of textual scholars since the work of Westcott and Hort (1881–1882) are, in broad strokes and in many particulars, on target. But, with regard to Blomberg’s point, it also shows that if history is any indication, it would be foolish to think that any not-yet discovered readings will some day grace the text of our critical Greek New Testaments instead of finding a place in the apparatus of also-rans.

In comparing the copies of the NT with other ancient Greco-Roman literature, Blomberg argues well that Christians need not feel embarrassed about the relatively small gaps between the originals and the earliest copies (most NT books have copies within a century of the completion of the NT), since the gaps for other literature are far greater (hundreds of years). Further, the differences between the copies for, say, the apocryphal literature is remarkably greater than for the NT copies. He mentions as an illustration the Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas and the three Greek fragments (though he incorrectly dates them to the second century [36]), citing Tim Ricchuiti’s excellent study (in Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament).

In his last section before the conclusion, “Avoiding the Opposite Extreme” (37–40), Blomberg offers some excellent insights about the ludicrousness of a perpetual miracle of exact copying of the text (akin to the argument that Muslims use about the Qur’an and some KJV advocates come close to arguing about the TR): “But think of just what kind of miracle this would need to be for it really to have occurred. Not only would God have superintended the process of a select group of biblical authors penning their documents so that their words reflected precisely what God wanted to have written; God would also have needed to intervene in the lives of all the tens of thousands of copyists over the centuries to ensure that not one of them ever introduced a single change to the texts they were reproducing” (39). He goes on to expound on this topic, with remarkable clarity and logic. Definitely a good read.

Errata

There are a few errors of fact and misleading statements in Blomberg’s new release.

  1. Page 15: The author says that Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, on which Misquoting Jesus was based, was Ehrman’s doctoral dissertation. Actually, Ehrman wrote his dissertation on the text of Didymus the Blind. Orthodox Corruption is Ehrman’s most influential scholarly work, but it was not his dissertation.
  2. Page 16: It would be “extraordinarily unlikely that we shall ever again find variants that are not already known.” Actually, it is very likely that we will find variants in almost every new MS discovered. They are almost always so trivial that they would not warrant mention in an apparatus, however. What is unlikely in the extreme is that any of these MSS will have new readings that convince scholars of their authenticity.
  3. Page 24: The textual problem in Rom 5.1 is discussed; Blomberg notes that the difference between ‘we have faith’ and ‘let us have faith’ is one letter in Greek: it is either an omicron or an omega. He says that the forms would have been similar, but gives the capital letters (Ο, Ω) instead of the majuscule letters (ο, ω), which is what the oldest MSS are written in.
  4. Page 27: The author suggests that every single second- and third-century papyrus of the NT was “written with the very careful handwriting of an experienced scribe…” This, however, is not true. The penman of P75, for example, was probably not a professional scribe (according to E. C. Colwell), although he produced a very careful text, painstakingly writing out one to two letters at a time. Further, even later scribes were definitely not professional. For example, P10, P93, and P99 were either done for private use or were perhaps schoolboy exercises. I pointed out in one of my debates with Ehrman (SMU, 2011; DVD available here) that a comparison of P66 and P75 reveals that the more professional scribe (P66) produced the less careful text. Zachary Cole, who is currently working on his doctorate in NT textual criticism at Edinburgh University, wrote his master’s thesis at Dallas Seminary (2012) on “Scribal Hands of Early New Testament Manuscripts.” This thesis was in response to Ehrman’s claims that the earliest scribes were not professional and therefore their text was not carefully produced. Several of the second- and third-century papyri were judged to be less than professionally done, including especially P9, P18, P24, P78, and P98, but also including as many as 27 other papyri. And Cole concluded that all this is irrelevant, since the training of the scribe is no necessary indicator of the quality of his text.
  5. Page 27: “no orthodox doctrine or ethical practice of Christianity depends solely on any disputed wording.” I would word this a bit differently. We can definitely say that no cardinal doctrine depends on any disputed wording, but I think there are some places in which less central teachings—both in terms of orthodoxy and orthopraxy—are based on texts that are disputed. For example, whether exorcists casting out particularly pesky demons need to pray and fast depends on a variant in Mark 9.29, and the particulars of the role of women in the church may depend, in part, on 1 Cor 14.34–35 (a passage that, although found in all MSS, is disputed by some scholars).
  6. Page 34: “the original copy [sic] of a biblical book would most likely have been used to make countless new copies over a period of several centuries…” Blomberg cites the important study by George Houston on the longevity of papyrus documents, which Craig Evans exploits to the effect that the original documents would have perhaps lasted several centuries. I think that Evans may be arguing his case a bit too strongly, especially in light of patristic evidence to the contrary. We do have two or three ancient patristic statements to the effect that the autographs still existed into the second or third centuries, but they have generally been regarded as ahistorical comments without substance behind them. Nevertheless, an important point to consider is that these ancient writers demonstrate, from a very early period, a desire on the part of the ancient church to seek out the oldest MSS to establish the wording of the original. And Blomberg is quite right that the ancient scribes surely would have copied the autographs multiple times, thus disseminating direct copies spanning a period of more than one or two generations.
  7. Page 37: Gutenberg’s printing press is dated c. 1440; it should be dated c. 1454.
  8. Page 38: Fifteenth-century Catholic reformer, Erasmus: sixteenth century is meant.
  9. Pages 16–17 has what looks to be the most egregious error: “Although Ehrman doesn’t total all the numbers, Wallace does, and the result is that those 400,000 variants, if there are that many, are spread across more than 25,000 manuscripts in Greek or other ancient languages.” In the next paragraph he asserts: “This is an average of only 16 variants per manuscript… Nor are the variants spread evenly across a given text; instead, they tend to cluster in places where some kind of ambiguity has stimulated them. Paul Wegner estimates that only 6 percent of the New Testament and 10 percent of the Old Testament contain the vast majority of these clusters.”I think Blomberg means that there is an average of 16 unique variants per MS. That would be essentially true, though we really should restrict the count to Greek MSS since the translations have too many problems to be able to discern at this stage whether the wording is a true variant from the Greek or simply a looser translation. On his use of Wegner: I’m out of the country right now and can’t look at my copy of Wegner. But it is simply not true that only 6% of the NT contains “the vast majority of these clusters.” I’m not sure what Blomberg is trying to say here. Perhaps he meant that the major textual problems of the NT are found in only 6% of the text. That may well be the case, but in this case the number seems too high.

These are, for the most part, rather niggling criticisms. Overall, this chapter is an excellent corrective to the extreme skepticism of Bart Ehrman and those who have followed in his train. It is well researched, clearly written, and deserves to have a wide reception among believers today, as does the book of which it is a part. One can hope that pastors and church leaders will wake up to the fact that we are losing the intellectual battle for the millennials, and we have only ourselves to blame. Bringing spiritual grace and academic rigor to the table is needed, and Blomberg is one of the evangelical gatekeepers leading the way.

Jesus’ Wife fragment judged a fake

“News flash: Harvard Theological Review has decided not to publish Karen King¹s paper on the Coptic papyrus fragment on the grounds that the fragment is probably a fake.” This from an email Dr. Craig Evans, the Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia University and Divinity College, sent to me earlier today. He said that Helmut Koester (Harvard University), Bentley Layton (Yale University), Stephen Emmel (University of Münster), and Gesine Robinson (Claremont Graduate School)–all first-rate scholars in Coptic studies–have weighed in and have found the fragment wanting. No doubt Francis Watson’s comprehensive work showing the fragment’s dependence on the Gospel of Thomas was a contributing factor for this judgment, as well as the rather odd look of the Coptic that already raised several questions as to its authenticity.