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Darrell L. Bock's picture

Responding To Newsweek's Take on the Bible, Part 1 On the Base Biblical Text- Do We Really Know What We Have?

First of all, it has been a while. My travel and end of semester responsibilities kept me fairly busy the last few months, but I am back. Let me begin by wishing everyone a Happy New Year and Blessed 2015. 

I let a week pass before deciding to write about Newsweek's latest take on the Bible, an article called THE BIBLE SO MISUNDERSTOOD IT'S A SIN, by Kurt Eichenwald, a former investigative reporter for the New York Times. I have been asked about it by email. I have decided to go one section at a time through the article, so this will start a series of responses coming over the next several days or weeks.

Now one thing not to do is be angry about it, treat it as a screed (since it clearly has a bias as it makes it “case”), and miss the fact that what is written here is how many are told the Bible works and what many who engage with the Bible today think about it. Since this is a national news magazine, a calm response of substance is needed.

Having said this, I do have to note that of my many experiences with national media, it has been consistently the case that Newsweek has been among the least responsible in handling issues tied to the Christian faith. The one exception to this was Jon Meachum, the former editor, whose articles did seek to raise issues with some sense of balance and respect for the complexities of doing work in ancient sources. My own Breaking the DaVinci Code was written because of my frustration with a multiple hour interview with the magazine's reporters (two of them on separate occasions) where I pointed out well known flaws with the novel’s alleged historical background claims that never got even a sentence's mention. My story in this case was not isolated. They also interviewed my Catholic friend, Francis Moloney, Dean of the Catholic University at the time, who made the same points I did in interviews that ran an equal length. They did not print a word of what he said either. A series of witnesses to an opposite point of view apparently is not worth reporting.

Part of what we are seeing is not only the annual Christmas and Easter articles saying what Christianity has taught is not what “scholarly” history shows nor is it in the least bit credible, but it is done with a kind of tribalism in reporting that engages in complete silence about any counter perspective. In noting this, I am pointing to a trend that exists on all sides of these kinds of debates. The tribalism approach on all sides is part of what contributes to the historical and biblical illiteracy the article complains about at it opening. This problem runs across the idealogical spectrum of discussion on these issues. Unfortunately the article’s approach to this discussion is no antidote to that problem. In fact, it reinforces it.


ON MANUSCRIPTS: So let’s go through this piece one issue at a time. Let’s start with what is said about the actual text we have. For this I could just cite the response of my colleague, Dan Wallace, who has spent his life investigating and photographing the very manuscript evidence this article raises as so untrustworthy. You can see his take on all of this ( Dan correctly opens up saying the issue is not the fact that Eichenwald asks hard questions. The Bible makes such important claims, so such questions should be asked. It is the way he answers them that is the problem. Dan also shows how the nature of the issues Eichenwald makes about our manuscripts does not lead to Eichenwald's conclusions. I leave the Textual Criticism side of the argument to Dan's piece.

Eichenwald's way in is to cite Bart Ehrman, who he calls a ground breaking New Testament scholar. Now Bart himself has said that what he writes is a reflection of current discussion that has been around a long time. He and I have debated over the radio where he made this statement to me as something I was well aware of, something I also affirmed at the time. The views presented (including the appeal to the telephone game as Erhman’s illustration for how poorly copies were passed on) are but one take on these issues that are argued pro and con in the public scholarly square. This hardly makes him a groundbreaking source. Ehrman is a spokesperson, a very competent one, for one take on all of this. But the article even uses his material extremely selectively. Here is another quotation Ehrman makes on this topic: Ehrman says, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” What this means is that people on all sides recognize that what we have in the Bible in terms of the core things it teaches is a reflection of what made up these books originally. The caricature by Eichenwald that what we have in our hands has no resemblance to what was originally produced is misleading in the extreme, even considering the source the journalist uses to make his point.

ON SUPPOSED PROBLEMATIC TEXTS: LUKE 3:16-But there is more. This section of the article got my attention by an example it raised from Luke 3:16, a book in which I have spent my entire academic life. Eichenwald complains that the text has a literary problem in that John aswers a question that the text never raises. He argues that the effort by later copyists in the fifth century to fix this conceptual problem in that text led some to attribute to John the Baptist an ability to read his audience’s mind that was not in the original. This example betrays two problems.

          (1) If we cannot know what the original was, then how can we complain about the variant? How do we even know it is a variant? I say this somewhat facetiously, but it does raise an issue inherent in the discussion. Unless we have some sense of what the original is likely to have been (something ALL textual critics believe is something that can be pursued), we cannot even raise questions of assessment.


          (2) Even more problematic is the literary insensitivity the objection has. In Luke 3:15 the crowd is speculating as a group that John the Baptist might be the Christ. There is a public square question on the table. When the text says succinctly, John “answered” it is not a specific question he is responding to (which is what Eichenwald thinks is required) but to the general and expressed speculation- a publically raised question that opens the door for a reply. There is nothing problematic about the text as it stands at all.


ON THE ISSUES TIED TO ORALITY- IS IT THE TELEPHONE GAME? The area of discussion this section also raises has to do with how accounts were passed on in the ancient world when manuscript writing was rare and orality was the norm, in part because when it came to events the accounts rooted in those who were alive and could testify to what took place was valued in ancient culture, something Papias tells us in the second century.  

The telephone game analogy (where such reports can go anywhere) has been countered by two other models: one rabbinic and the other community based. The rabbinic model shows that when a community cares about the content it can pass it on and recall it with a high degree of accuracy. This passing on is overseen in a way that protects its core content from deviation. Although this is the main model put forward by some, it also has a problem in that the parallel accounts of what we have in Scripture when the same story is being told has enough variation in it that the exact standards this model implies are placed under some pressure. This leads us to the second approach: the community one. The argument here is that accounts people care about are passed on in such a way that the core or gist is passed on but allowance is given for some variation of detail. The most revealing illustration of this is how Luke retells Jesus’ appearing to Saul on the Damascus Road in Acts 9, 22 and 26. We KNOW this is the same author, yet retells the same story with a touch of variation that keeps the story somewhat fresh and not merely a repeated, boring, retell. This shows, culturally and at a literary level, how such passing on of accounts works. Now either of these other examples point to the fact that the telephone game example is flawed in terms of ancient culture when discussing accounts about which ancients have an interest in passing something on.

ON THE CLAIM OF A 400 YEAR GAP- Another problem is the claim that the gap we are discussing in terms of canonical recognition is a 400 year one. This is another, quite misleading, representation of what our ancient sources tells us. We know from Ireneaus in the late second century that the bulk of the New Testament was being used and recognized as central texts by the end of the second century. This is a full 250 years before the line Eichenwald draws. These central texts included the four gospels, Acts, the Pauline collection, as well as 1 Peter and 1 John. Even more important is that what Irenaeus was reporting on was something ALREADY in place when he was writing, so the actual gathering of these core texts is older than this. This emphasis is confirmed by Tatian’s DIATESSARON, which is a harmony of the gospels called “through the Four” (what Diatessaron means). This work from the 170-180’s tells us what Irenaeus is saying about the establishment of the gospels as the core sources for Jesus by that time.

ON LARGE DISPUTED TEXTS LIKE JOHN 7:53-8:12- Now some of the points Eichenwald makes are a reflection of current discussion, but there still are features that need attention. In the examples even where he is right to raise the points he does, Eichenwald is not able to sustain the point he tries to make from those facts. An example of this, in this first section of his article, is the treatment of John 7:53-8:12. This issue is not exactly a revelation. Any work on textual criticism will use this example as one of several such situations in our manuscript record (the other famous one is Mark 16:9-20 he also correctly notes). I have written on both of these examples in my JESUS ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURE. Interestingly, almost any good Bible translation today will note these texts with sigla in the main text and a note. It is hardly the case that the “bad” translations Eichenwald says we have in our hands today have led us astray on the issues tied to the texts he notes.

What about John 7:53-8:12? It does seem likely that wherever the account of the woman caught in adultery came from, it was not originally in this spot in John’s gospel. What is fascinating about this example is how it is assessed. Bruce Metzger, probably the best known American textual critic of the last century and Bart Ehrman’s mentor, says these two things about this text in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament (1971, pp. 219, 220). First he says, “The evidence of the non-Johannine origin of the periscope is overwhelming.” (p. 219). Two paragraphs later he goes on to say this, “At the same time the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity.” (p. 220). He points out that the fact that the account has shown up in various locations in our gospel manuscripts points to its wide and early circulation. None of this reflection appears in Eichenwald’s handling of this text. It severely undercuts the point he is trying to make from this material.

CONCLUSION: That brings us to the end of the first section of the Newsweek piece. It does not bode well for the study as a whole. The fact is the base text we have for our Bible, especially in the New Testament, is by far the best attested ancient text we possess anywhere in the study of ancient sources. There ARE debates in spots, even many locations. Most good translations that have marginal notes point these out to readers of the Bible, so even the student of Scripture is made aware of these spots. NONE of those differences impact the overall teaching of the major doctrines of Scripture as a whole. What is impacted is how many texts make a point in support of a teaching or discussion over certain kinds of details in less central areas of teaching. Careful Bible students, whether conservatives or liberals, are aware of this and discuss those texts.

Over the next several days and weeks, we will take a look at the article one section at a time. So next I will address his handling of translation issues. On that topic I will speak as one who has worked on several translations of the Bible.

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