John Paine and I have reported before on Newsweek‘s now infamous Christmas front page article written by journalist Kurt Eichenwald entitled, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.”As a way of following up on the continuing saga of the blunder made by such an influential mainstream publication, after Newsweek invited messianic Bible scholar Dr. Michael Brown to write a response essay in their magazine, Brown then invited the journalist, Kurt Eichenwald, to appear on Brown’s Line of Fire radio show recently. I listened to the program available online and simply felt compelled to make some commentary.
On the bright side, it is apparent that Eichenwald and Newsweek hope that evangelical Christians will engage in creative and respectful dialogue with others without resorting to vitriol and name calling. I could not agree more. Furthermore, Eichenwald believes that there are many Christians who say that they “believe the Bible” but they simply have not read and studied what the Bible really says. Again, Eichenwald is 100% correct about the problem of biblical illiteracy and lack of understanding concerning theological doctrine and church history within our churches today. The hypocrisy of those who say that they “know the Bible” yet who do not take the time or energy to dig into the study of God’s Word and its history is truly appalling. But is Eichenwald correct is his understanding of the Bible, and its history?
A Dialogue with Newsweek Journalist, Kurt Eichenwald
At the 43:26 to the 45:01 mark into the radio interview, Eichenwald made a statement that just about made me fall out of my chair as I was listening. I have attempted to transcribe the dialogue between an informed caller and Kurt Eichenwald, though some of exchanges were a bit muddled for me to transcribe correctly. The caller was observing that Eichenwald made several errors regarding historical facts and the understanding of textual criticism as a scientific discipline used by scholars to try to get back to the text as originally given to us:
Eichenwald: Do you know what the King James Version of the Bible was translated from? What language?
Caller: Yes, I do… From the Greek language.
Eichenwald: No, it was translated from Latin. And in fact…
Caller: Only a very small portion of it.. A very small portion of it.
Eichenwald: No. No. No…. The King James Version of the Bible was translated from Latin. And when they found portions of it that were in conflict with the original Greek… and again, they did not have the original Greek, they had copies of copies of copies… That is not a surprise they did not have methods of preserving paper for hundreds and hundreds of years, and so when they were working off that and they found conflict between the Latin and the Greek, they assumed that the Greek was incorrect, it was a copying error, so they went with the Latin. This is true. Now whether you want to believe that or not, that is a fact. (emphasis mine)
If you listen to the interview, Eichenwald is quite forceful in making his point. So, is Eichenwald correct in his claim that the King James Version translators in the early 17th century simply translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate, the dominant translation used by the Western church from the time of Jerome to the period of the Reformation, and then consciously chose the Latin translation whenever it conflicted with the Greek? Does Eichenwald have an adequate understanding of the history of the Bible and the scholarly discipline of textual criticism to make such statements?
Now, it should be noted the Eichenwald says that he is a baptized Episcopalian. He is neither an atheist nor an agnostic. But I would hope that the someone in his parish would gently inform him that such statements make a mockery of the contribution of William Tyndale who suffered martyrdom for the cause of translating the New Testament directly from the ancient Greek into English, instead of relying primarily on the Latin text. Tyndale’s rendering into English makes up the bulk of King James verbiage employed by the King James Version (KJV) translators.
The intellectual thrust of the Renaissance and the Reformation in the 16th and early 17th centuries was symbolized by the Latin motto, ad fontes, which means “back to the sources.” The Reformers, including the KJV translators, sought to go beyond medieval Latin to try to get back as best as possible to the original text, which for the New Testament meant the Greek… NOT the Latin. Sorry, Kurt.
However, it must be conceded that Eichenwald raises a very important issue. Was the New Testament Greek text available to the KJV translators the best and most original Greek text? Well, in the early 17th century in England, it was the best text that they could get their hands on to do their translation work.
However, it was not perfect. For example, when the Dutch scholar Erasmus produced his Greek New Testament that was subsequently used by Martin Luther and then English translators to produce Bible translations in the native German and English tongues, Erasmus was not able to obtain the last page of the Book of Revelation. Since the outermost pages of these old books are susceptible to damage, this was not unusual. To remedy the problem, Erasmus translated back from the Latin into the Greek to give us these last six verses of the Book of Revelation. Now, perhaps that is where Mr. Eichenwald got confused!
This is why there is a significant difference between modern translations that interpret part of one verse (Revelation 22:19) as referring to the “tree of life” as opposed to the KJV, based on Erasmus’ back-translation, that has “book of life.”
Today, through archaeological research and advanced critical studies, we have much better textual documents for the Greek New Testament that are far more accurate than what the KJV translators had available to them. This is mainly why modern translators sometimes express things differently than what you find in the classic KJV. For example, we actually have early Greek manuscripts for the last six verses of the Book of Revelation!
But to make such a bold statement as “fact” that the KJV preferred the Latin as opposed to the Greek only displays Kurt Eichenwald’s ignorance on this matter. If the author considers this type of critique “name calling,” then I really do not know what else can be said.
The rest of the dialogue between Eichenwald and Michael Brown was pretty much in the same vein, with Eichenwald making bold statements, that while possessing some truth to them and raising important issues, nevertheless were so riddled with factual errors that it really took away from the thrust of his arguments, which are indeed important and worthy of significant discussion.
For example, when challenged by the statement made in his Christmas article that after the Council of Nicea, “about 50 years later, in A.D. 381, the Romans held another meeting, this time in Constantinople. There, a new agreement was reached — Jesus wasn’t two, he was now three — Father, Son and Holy Ghost, ” Eichenwald had to back peddle somewhat. Now, surely it is God who was understood by the Nicene and Constantinople Creeds as a divine being having three persons, so it is difficult to know what to make of Eichenwald’s statement about Jesus being “three.” Huh? Yet when confronted with his error, the best Eichenwald could say was that it was an “awkward” sentence.
I could go on as to the dozens of gross factual errors and unwarranted statements in the Newsweek article. Thankfully, others have stepped in to offer additional responsible critique beyond what I mentioned in the last post on this topic:
- James E. Snapp Jr., who runs a blog dedicated to textual criticism of the Gospels.
- Albert Mcilhenny’s Labarum blog.
Newsweek, Constructive Dialogue and the Future of Journalism
To his credit, Eichenwald raises good questions as to how evangelical Christians demonstrate their faith in rather public ways, particularly with respect to political involvement and the extremely controversial cultural debate over gay marriage. But tragically, Eichenwald’s bold contention that there are certain Christians who simply misunderstand the Bible is severely undercut by Eichenwald’s own repeated and unrepentant misunderstandings of the Bible, its history, translation and interpretation. The fact the Eichenwald … and his responsible publisher, Newsweek magazine… have continually stood by the infamous “Christmas” article as it originally stands, without so much an indication of there being any factual errors in the piece at a minimum is troubling. Almost a month has past with no retraction of any of the content in the article as presented by editors of Newsweek.
This is a serious oversight by Newsweek, particularly in view of the events in January, 2015, when a radical Islamic group terrorized the offices of a French satire publication. Thankfully, no one is issuing those kind of threats to Newsweek. But why is Newsweek acting so aloof and cavalier when other journalists are getting killed because of perceived attacks on the religious beliefs of others? Nothing justifies terrorist attacks on organizations like Charlie Hebdo as in any way permissible. Let there be no misunderstanding here. However, incidents like these in France, should be encouraging journalistic organizations to have a greater degree of integrity, not less. Surely, journalists like Eichenwald are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. For the sake of constructive dialogue, folks, should we not be responsible and get these things right?
If the statement in Michael Brown’s rejoinder is to be believed, Newsweek really wants to engage in dialogue and encourage people to really read and study their Bibles. Kudos to Newsweek for that!! But when basic factual errors go uncorrected, it makes me really wonder if Newsweek really has any desire to hold to responsible journalistic standards. More and more, it appears that Newsweek has become just another yawning voice in the blogosphere, with rather inadequate accountability.