The following is a small excerpt quoted from Daniel B. Wallace’s article responding to Newsweek Magazine’s article which disputed the reliability of the Bible (https://danielbwallace.com/2014/12/28/predictable-christmas-fare-newsweeks-tirade-against-the-bible/). Dr Wallace is professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary.
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.