The Bible – Clearing Up Misunderstandings

For youth group a couple years ago we did a critique of Kurt Eichenwald’s stinging article, “The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a Sin.” As a response to this controversial work, I’ve divided the piece into four main claims and dealt with each one individually.

 

Claim #1: The Bible cannot be trusted because of translation and copying errors.

Eichenwald argues in “The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a Sin” that we don’t have anything from the original biblical text for a myriad of reasons, including that the time spaces between the originals and the compilations into the canon took too long, the language, and many discrepancies.

First of all, the reason we see a couple hundred year difference between original writing and compilation is that these books were sent all over the Roman Empire, so it took a while to even collect them all from everywhere. Secondly, since books or scrolls of large pieces of literature can be pretty bulky, they split up the NT into several scrolls. The first full volume wasn’t compiled until much later. “. . . we have as many as eighteen New Testament manuscripts from the second century and one from the first. Altogether, more than 43% of all New Testament verses are found in these manuscripts (Wallace).” What is the significance of this? Well, if we have manuscripts from the first or second centuries, that means someone had copied that book around that time. So, there were copies of the NT circulating by as early as the end of the first century, not much more than twenty-five or thirty years after they were written.

The language of the New Testament, Koiné Greek, is what we call scriptio continua, meaning no spaces and no punctuation. This can make it hard to understand the difference between “We should go eat, Mom,” or “We should go eat Mom,” since in Koiné they would both be weshouldgoeatmom. However, there’s this thing called context. In the context of talking about going to dinner, the former would make more sense. However, if these people were cannibals and Mom had ticked them off, the latter one would make more sense. This might not be applicable for every single New Testament verse, but we can understand a lot just by knowing the context.

Eichenwald quotes (quite unoriginally) from liberal scholar Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, who says that “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” This is a true statement. However, 99% of these “variations” are spelling errors, like your friend who spells “judging” like “judgeing.” They don’t change the meaning of the word or passage or the whole of Scripture at all.

To use a slightly humorous example, William Tyndale, one of the first men to attempt to translate the Scriptures from Hebrew into English, spelled “it” five different ways (Edwards 1). This by no means changes the meaning of the word “it” or anything else around “it.”

 

although there are about 300,000 individual variations of the text of the New Testament, this number is very misleading. Most of the differences are completely inconsequential–spelling errors, inverted phrases and the like. A side by side comparison between the two main text families (the Majority Text and the modern critical text) shows agreement a full 98% of the time. Of the remaining differences, virtually all yield to vigorous textual criticism. This means that our New Testament is 99.5% textually pure. In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words), and none affects any significant doctrine (Koukl).

 

As for the reliability of the manuscripts in general . . .

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(McDowell, 45)

 

Claim #2: The Bible cannot be trusted because it was compiled by fallible men.

This is a bit of a compound claim. Usually, Eichenwald argues from the viewpoint that the copying and translation of the Bible was much like the children’s game Telephone. As it got passed down the line, errors crept in and so the Bible that we have now is nothing like the original. Subsequently, he also claims that the Bible (in particular the New Testament) was not written by the men it claimed to be, but by monks in the 3rd or 4th Century who wanted to propagate their own propaganda.

Dealing with the Telephone objection, this is simply not true. Although not much is known about the copying of the Old Testament Scriptures (i.e., Dead Sea Scrolls from around 250 B.C.) other than that they were meticulously hand-copied letter-by-letter and word-by-word, they remain much the same today as they did over a millennium later (the Masoretic Text of 900 A.D.), the New Testament was transcribed much differently.

For example, the original letters of Paul originally went to Thessalonica, Rome, Ephesus, etc., but after the Thessalonians, Romans, and Ephesians received them, they made several copies and sent them throughout the Roman Empire to other churches for them to read. This is evident in Colossians 4:16, where Paul instructs the Colossians to trade letters with the epistle to the Laodiceans. No doubt, copying those words was involved. So, even if errors (mostly spelling) did creep in, they would have been countered by other strains copied by other churches, people, and so on.

Secondly, the claim that the Bible was written by monks much later than Jesus’ time is blatantly false. Theologian Brian Edwards states it this way, “If you were brought up on the diet of believing that the books of the New Testament and especially the gospels were not written until somewhere in the second or third century, then forget it (Edwards 2).” In his presentation, he goes on to say of John A. T. Robinson, author of Honest to God and Redating the New Testament was convinced that the entire New Testament was complete before A.D. 70. Now, generally, conservative scholars dated the NT to around A.D. 90 or thereabouts. But Robinson, a liberal scholar, insisted that it had to be A.D. 70. The reason for this was that the destruction of the Second Temple occurred in 70 A.D.; quite a significant event. In fact, Jesus even prophesied its destruction in Mark 13, so it is very likely that, had the New Testament been completed after this date, it would have been included. Not certain, but very highly likely. The fact that a liberal scholar can attest to this is reason enough, in my opinion.

 

Claim #3: The Bible cannot be trusted because it’s full of contradictions.

Eichenwald lists several major “contradictions” from the New Testament in his article regarding the birth of Jesus, the Second Coming of Christ, and the Creation account.

First of all, we need to understand that each of the writers of the four gospels portrayed Jesus in a different light. In Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as king. John’s gospel centers around Christ being God. Mark focuses on the servitude of Jesus, while Luke emphasizes the humanity of Christ.

If we think about the birth accounts of Jesus, this begins to make sense. Matthew never mentions anything about Jesus’ actual birth, but he makes a big deal of the wise men bringing Him expensive gifts (i.e., Jesus is king, so people brought Him expensive gifts). However, Luke is focusing on the humanity of Jesus. His account gives us the details of the stable birth and the shepherds. This is definitely not a royal portrayal of the Son of God, but this was not the point Luke was trying to make. He wanted his readers to see that Jesus was just like everyone else.

Now, most Bible critics hate this refutation, but nevertheless it is viable. Just because a passage doesn’t say a certain thing that another does, doesn’t mean they contradict. Think about it: I could tell you that Napoleon united France after the French Revolution and someone else could tell you that he was exiled on a French island until his death. Just because two different people told you this doesn’t mean they contradict. The same goes for the birth accounts of Jesus. The Matthew account may not mention an angel appearing to Mary, but Luke 1 does. Does this mean it didn’t happen? Certainly not.

This does not mean, however, that Christians do not have misconceptions about the birth of Jesus. Many believe that the wise men were at the birth, but in Matthew 2 we read that the wise men came to Egypt to see Jesus two years after Jesus’ birth. Really, Eichenwald’s version is the true version, besides leaving out the angel appearing to Mary (Luke 1:26-38), the manger and the inn (Luke 2:7), and the gifts from the wise men (Matthew 2:11).

Another alleged contradiction, says Eichenwald, has to do with Jesus’ words in Mark 13:30. “‘Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” The author suggests that this is ridiculous, since the apostles obviously did not live to see the apocalypse. However, “this generation” could also refer to the generation in which the apocalypse will happen. The fact that Paul and other epistle writers referred to the time as “being short,” simply means that these men thought that Jesus was returning very shortly. This is also why there were not any lists of the New Testament canon until at least a century after the writing of the New Testament.

Finally, the Creation “accounts” of Genesis 1 and 2 are not separate. Genesis 1 is a chronological overview of God’s plan for Creation, while Genesis 2 is a more in-depth (non-chronological) look at the different aspects of God’s creation. The reason for this distinction is that in Hebrew writings, the essence of something was more important than the physical appearance. In the 2nd chapter of Genesis, Moses had a different point to make than in Genesis 1; most likely, to highlight the interaction between God, man, and the rest of His creation. This is also where we find the basis for marriage and wearing clothes. It had a different purpose. And as we’ve seen from the gospels, this is a common theme throughout Scripture.

 

Claim #4: Christians are hypocrites.

Of all the claims made in the article, this one is credible and even true. However, the fact that those who claim to be followers of a certain doctrine don’t live it out doesn’t make it untrue.

For example, Eichenwald claims that because there is one verse condemning homosexuality in Romans 1 but 8 verses condemning those who do not submit to the governing authorities, that they essentially cancel out and we have no grounds to condemn homosexuals.

While many maintain that all sins are equal in God’s eyes, this is not entirely true. All sins separate us from God, but some sins have worse consequences than others. For example, homosexual behavior will generally have more serious ramifications than that of lying. This is true, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that both are still wrong and deserving of punishment.

 

So, as a challenge to any Christian readers, let’s make sure that we do understand the Bible, that we read it, and that we study it. Often, critics will use passages out of context to make the Scriptures look like they contradict. We need to be equipped to defend the document that our faith is based upon. And to do that, we must know what it says. Let’s fight biblical illiteracy so that we can more effectively represent our faith and be more confident in it.

 

 

Endnotes

 

Edwards, Brian. “The Life of William Tyndale.” How Do We Know the Bible is True? Creation Museum, Hebron. 2008. Lecture.

 

Edwards, Brian. “Why 66? The Canon of Scripture.” How Do We Know the Bible is True? Creation Museum, Hebron. 2008. Lecture.

 

Koukl, Greg. “Is the New Testament Text Reliable?” Stand to Reason. Stand to Reason. 4 February 2013. Web.

 

McDowell, Josh. The Best of Josh McDowell: A Ready Defense. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993. Print.

 

Wallace, Daniel. “Dr. Wallace: Earliest Manuscript of the New Testament Discovered?” DTS Magazine. DTS Magazine. 9 February 2012. Web.

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