Thursday, 25 December 2014

Fighting Ignorance With More Ignorance

It seems to be an established tradition. Every Christmas and Easter, certain new outlets compete to outdo one another in making uninformed attacks on Christian belief. This year's winner has to be an article entitled "The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin." The article appears in Newsweek Magazine and was written by one Kurt Eichenwald. Mr. Eichenwald sets out to explain how us Christian dummies don't know the real facts about the history and contents of the Bible. This is fair up to a point, there is a lot of ignorance, even among professing Christians about the book we hold sacred. If Mr. Eichenwald wants to correct this ignorance, however, it would be nice of him to get his own facts straight, something he clearly could not be bothered to do.

There are many gaping errors of fact in this article, more than I'm going to be able to cover in one blog post. The biggest errors, however, lie in the fact that Mr. Eichenwald is apparently unable to distinguish between three important but separate issues. These issues all need to be understood, so I'll spell them out separately:

1) The issue of the transmission of the text, that is to say, we don't have the original bits of paper that St. Matthew, St. Paul, etc. wrote. What we have is copies, of copies of copies, and so on. This creates a challenge for the science of textual criticism to work out exactly what the originals said.

2) The issue of translation, once we've worked out what the apostles wrote, it's another question to translate their writings from the Greek of the New Testament and the (mostly) Hebrew of the Old Testament into the various modern languages.

3) The issue of canonicity, the question of which of the various ancient documents actually make up the New Testament.

All three of these are important issues and all three have an interesting history which the average Christian ought to know more about. To understand them, however, we need to be aware that they are separate issues, Mr. Eichenwald seems determined to confuse them. Early on in the article, for example, he tells us that nobody alive has read the Bible, all anyone has read is translations of translations of translations. This is not true, plenty of scholars have read the Bible in its original languages and those of us who read it in English usually read it in direct translitions from the originals. Eventually, the light dawns, Mr. Eichenwald has confused translation, with transmission; when he says "translations of translations" he means "copies of copies". In the next paragraph, he talks about the fact that which books belong in the New Testament wasn't agreed until the fourth century (actually debate continued until the fifth) but somehow confuses this with the issue of transmission. To be clear, it is a fact that, for example, the position of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament was debated until the late fourth century however this has no impact on manuscripts of the book that predate that period and nothing much to do with the question of whether or not we can know what Revelations originally said.

Now, lest there be misunderstanding, let me be clear, it is a fact that we don't have the original manuscript of any New Testament book. It is also true that the copies of copies that we do have contain numerous errors. This is a real issue about which Christians should do more to educate ourselves. However this education won't be helped by repeating the sort of basic errors that Mr. Eichenwald makes.

Mr. Eichenwald tells us that "None of this mattered for centuries because Christians were certain God had guided that hand not only of the originals but of all the later copyists." This is rubbish, divine inspiration of the copyists has never been a Christian doctrine. It is also false to suggest that Christians have only recently become aware of these issues. Textual problems were, for example, discussed at length by the third century work, the Hexapola, by Origen of Alexandria.

For those wishing to get an idea of how, in spite of existing textual problems, we can still claim good confidence that our bibles say what the original authors wrote, I would recommend The King James Controversy, by James White (yes, the same James White I recently took aim at for his comments on Rick Warren). If you want to get both sides of the issue at once, the same James White has an excellent debate with agnostic critic Bart Erhman (whom Eichenwald references in his article) on the question "Does the Bible Misquote Jesus".

As I said, it would take far too long to mention all of Mr. Eichenwald's errors but let me list a few:
He claims that the famous incident of the woman taken in adultery from John Chapters 7&8 was added by scribes in the middles ages. While it is almost certainly true that this story was not part of the original Gospel, it is very early, dating back to at least the fourth century (and probably earlier).

He also claims that the King James Bible is considered the "gold standard" for translations into English (it isn't, at least not by any mainstream Christian scholar) he claims that the KJV translation was made not from the original Greek but from a Latin translation (indicating he knows nothing about the KJVs actual history) and he claims that, at the Council of Constantinople, Jesus was proclaimed to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit (no, that wasn't meant as a joke.)

In short, Mr. Eichenwald is correct; a lot of ignorance does exist about the Bible. Christians should make an effort to better educate ourselves about the history of the Bible, we should be better aware than we are about the many issues related to the transmission, translation and canon of our Sacred Scriptures. Mr. Eichenwald, however, is simply seeking to replace ignorance with more ignorance.