Critical Thinking: So Often Ignored, It’s a Sin: A Few Thoughts on Kurt Eichenwald’s “The Bible-So Misunderstood, It’s a Sin.”

There are already a number of substantive refutations of the Newsweek article “The Bible-So Misunderstood, It’s a Sin” by Kurt Eichenwald (01.02.2015 – 01.09.2015), pp. 24-41. Indeed, Eichenwald’s points were already deftly refuted even before he put pen to paper. But if one’s sources are limited (either deliberately or through no fault of one’s own), then perhaps it is not surprising that Eichenwald would make some of the mistaken observations he made. However, I thought I would weigh in on just a few points I have yet to see in other analyses. I have my brother, Tom Howe, to thank for some of these insights.

First, Eichenwald uses the hackneyed example of how certain ambiguities arise in English if one ignores the spaces between words. While it makes for a good joke, it does nothing to contribute to any substantive point about the Bible. His version is the difference in meaning between “We should go eat, mom” and “We should go eat mom.” (Skeptics had already run the pseudo-point into the ground with their “God is now here” and “God is nowhere” quip which Eichenwald also mentions.) My favorite use of the ambiguity is the T-shirt that reads “Grammar saves lives” followed by “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and “Let’s eat Grandma!” Without a doubt, the T-shirt application to make the joke is all that this ambiguity is worth. It has nothing to do with any point about understanding the Bible. So, how does Eichenwald think that it does? He (rightly) points out that in certain biblical manuscripts the Koiné Greek lacks any spaces between the words. He then (wrongly) concludes that, just as the lack of spaces between words can create ambiguity in meaning in English, so, too, might it do in the Greek. Eichenwald’s point is a non-sequitur for several reasons. He illicitly mixes the protocols for English with those for Greek. To eliminate the spaces between words in English is to do violence to the rules and conventions of English grammar. It is no wonder that, when one discards the rules for a language, that language loses its ability to deliver meaning without ambiguity. In contrast, for there to be no spaces between words in Koiné Greek is not a violation of the Greek language. It creates no such ambiguity. The reason this is so is because, Greek being an inflected language, the part of speech a given word might play has mostly to do with how the word is spelled (inflected), not with where the word occurs in the order in the sentence or whether the word has spaces separating it from its adjacent words. Thus, while “The dog bit the boy” means something different in English than “The boy bit the dog” this is only due to the fact that the difference between which word is the subject of the verb and which word is the object of the verb is where the word occurs in the sentence. Not so with Greek. Thus, (to revisit Eichenwald’s example), the word ‘mom’ functions as a vocative precisely because it is set apart from the previous part of the sentence by a comma. Without the comma, ‘mom’ becomes the direct object of the verb ‘eat’. (Interestingly, Eichenwald’s example has less to do with whether or not there are spaces between the words and more to do with whether or not there is a particular punctuation. He might as well have tried to make his point by observing that Koiné Greek has no punctuation.) For an inflected language, a noun that functions as a vocative will be spelled (i.e. inflected) differently than the same noun functioning as the direct object of the verb. Because of this, it almost never matters (with some notable exceptions) where in the sentence the noun occurs.

Second, on pp. 27-28, Eichenwald quotes Bart Ehrman that “there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” Though Eichenwald admits that “most of the discrepancies are little more that the handwritten equivalent of a typo” it is clear that he intends to imply something that is not true, viz., that, because of these numerous variations, the meaning of the text is hopelessly lost or obscured. The overwhelming majority of these variations is comprised of spelling differences, and, further, most of these spelling differences are not even possible to translate. This is so because these spelling differences are most commonly the “movable nu” which is roughly equivalent to the English convention of putting an ‘n’ after the article ‘a’ before nouns that begin with a vowel. One can see that it has nothing to do with understanding the meaning whether one says “Bob ate an apple” or “Bob ate a apple.” But observing that there are more of these variations than words makes for good copy.

A third lapse in Eichenwald’s critical thinking has to do with the pericope of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. He makes the astonishing claim “Even if the Gospel of John is an infallible telling of the history of Jesus’s ministry, the event simply never happened.” (p. 28) Setting aside for the moment as to whether the pericope is original with John’s gospel, even if John did not write the story, it certainly does not follow that the event never occurred. Are we to conclude that John’s gospel recorded every event in Jesus’ life? Even John himself denied this. He tells us in his gospel, 20:30-31, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (NKJV) Such a lapse of logic on Eichenwald’s part is embarrassing. What is more, before one confidently concludes that the story is not original with John, one should consider the counter arguments. To be sure, the story does not appear in any NT manuscript before the 4th (or possibly 5th) century. Thus, anyone who thinks that it is original with John must advance an argument accounting for its absence. This is the demand one will hear quite often of those who believe that it is original with John. But it also follows that anyone who thinks that its absence from these earlier manuscripts is enough to prove that it was not original with John has a burden to show how and why the story does appear in the 900+ manuscripts where it is found. Some sort of textual history is called for. (To be fair to Ehrman (whom Eichenwald again cites), his argument against it being original with John does not rest solely on the manuscript evidence but also includes internal, textual, stylistic evidence.) I would commend to your reading the short treatments of the subject by Zane C. Hodges (with Arthur L. Farstad) in the introduction to their The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), xxiii-xxxii. They discuss both external (manuscript) evidence as well as internal (stylistic) evidence. One might also find interesting the discussion by Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont (together with their footnote to a further work on the subject) in their The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform 2005 (Southborough: Chilton Book Publishing, 2005), xi-xii.

Fourth, another one of the few scholars that Eichewald cites is Jason BeDuhn and his work Truth in Translation. All I can ask from my reader is that, before you make any decisions about how much you think BeDuhn has made his case, please read the (in my humble opinion) devastating critique of BeDuhn titled The Deity of Christ in Modern Translations: A Response to the Claims of Jason BeDuhn and a Defense of the Biblical Testimony that Jesus is God by my brother Dr. Tom Howe. The book is available here.

Fifth, to pile on the “problems” of the New Testament, Eichenwald raises the specter of translation. He seemingly thinks it is a problem that “many words in the New Testament Greek don’t have clear English equivalents.” But anyone familiar with working from one language to another knows that this is not necessarily the obstacle that Eichenwald would have us think. The reason is that, even in those instances where the meaning or nuance of a single Greek word cannot be captured by a single English word, the meaning of the Greek text can certainly be conveyed into English. If it takes more words than the translation can manage, this is where the Bible teacher comes into the picture. Eichenwald seems to think that, without a clear, word for word capturing of the Greek, one is at a loss to know what the Greek New Testament has to say if they only read the English. If this is not what he is implying, then why characterize the issue of translation as a “problem”? With the abundance of commentaries and study Bibles (together with English translations that come virtually as close to a word for word as one could want), understanding the Bible is not as out of reach as Eichenwald seems to imply, even if it is de facto missed by some of the examples of the misuse of the Bible that he cites.

Last, what is one to make overall of the article? It constitutes one giant fallacy of the false dilemma. No doubt one can find much to criticize about contemporary American Christianity and its use or misuse of the Bible. One would not have to look far to find examples of how the Bible is sometimes used for ridiculous purposes and nefarious agendas. Eichenwald’s examples could be added to. I do not necessarily disagree with his criticisms here. But the “solution” is not to abandon sound, critical thinking and opt for overlooking the “rest of the story.” To offer the abuse of the Bible on the one hand or another abuse of the Bible at the other end of the ideological spectrum is to offer a false dilemma. There are more voices to consider on the subject than Westboro Baptist Church on the one hand or Bart Ehrman and Jason BeDuhn on the other. In addition to the critique of BeDuhn I suggested above, I could suggest numerous, scholarly analyses of the Bible of which Eichenwald is seemingly quite ignorant (or, at least, chose to conveniently ignore for the purposes of his article). A name like Daniel Wallace (as a corrective to Ehrman) comes immediately to mind. I invite the reader to listen to the debates that Wallace had with Ehrman that are available on the internet.


2 comments on “Critical Thinking: So Often Ignored, It’s a Sin: A Few Thoughts on Kurt Eichenwald’s “The Bible-So Misunderstood, It’s a Sin.”

  1. As always, excellent rebuttal Dr. Howe. Your logic is impenetrable.

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