Reformed Churchmen

We are Confessional Calvinists and a Prayer Book Church-people. In 2012, we remembered the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; also, we remembered the 450th anniversary of John Jewel's sober, scholarly, and Reformed "An Apology of the Church of England." In 2013, we remembered the publication of the "Heidelberg Catechism" and the influence of Reformed theologians in England, including Heinrich Bullinger's Decades. For 2014: Tyndale's NT translation. For 2015, John Roger, Rowland Taylor and Bishop John Hooper's martyrdom, burned at the stakes. Books of the month. December 2014: Alan Jacob's "Book of Common Prayer" at: January 2015: A.F. Pollard's "Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation: 1489-1556" at: February 2015: Jaspar Ridley's "Thomas Cranmer" at:

Friday, January 16, 2015

16 January 2015 A.D. (METAPHORICAL) Dr. Michael Brown: Homilist & Non-Eulogist for the “Order of the Burial of the Dead” (1662 BCP): Kurt Buchenwald & Newsweek’s Hit-Piece on Bible

16 January 2015 A.D. (METAPHORICAL) Dr. Michael Brown: Homilist & Non-Eulogist for the “Order of the Burial of the Dead” (1662 BCP): Kurt Eichenwald & Newsweek’s Hit-Piece on Bible; Interment to Follow at the “Non-Scholars' Scrap Heap”

Metaphorically of course, but an appropriate background as the pall-bearers escort Eichenwald's casket to the front of the parish. The service will be from the 1662 BCP, the "Order for the Burial of the Dead." "All hands, quietness in and about the parish as the Beethoven is played. The homilist will be the Dr. Michael Brown.

God willing, in years to come, we shall with His help visit the article, the homilist’s non-eulogy and the cemetery annually.

Brown, Michael. “A Response to Newsweek on the Bible.” Newsweek. 15 Jan 2015.  Accessed 16 Jan 2015.

A Response to Newsweek on the Bible

By Michael Brown 1/15/15 at 6:54 AM



Triumph of Faith, by Tiepolo Giambattista, 18th Century Photoservice Electa/Universal Images Group/Rex


Newsweek’s recent cover story on the Bible, as we expected, proved quite controversial, particularly among the evangelical community. Some agreed with our point, others expressed anger and still others came back with substantive replies. Our hope from the beginning was to inspire debate, and so we invited one our evangelical critics, Dr. Michael Brown, to continue the discussion. While we stand by our story and disagree with some of Dr. Brown’s points, we do not think it is appropriate to publish a reply here. However, Dr. Brown has generously invited the author of the piece to appear on his national radio show next week to resume this important dialogue.

Although Newsweek has previously published controversial articles on the Bible and Christianity to coincide with Easter and Christmas, Kurt Eichenwald’s 8,500 word, 16-page article posted on December 23rd, 2014, entitled, “The Bible – So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” has ignited a firestorm of controversy, in particular in the evangelical Christian world.

Is it true that prominent Christian leaders in America are misusing the Bible to suit their own purposes?

Have the sacred Scriptures become a political weapon in the hands of religious hypocrites?

Could it be that those who most loudly proclaim, “The Bible says!” are actually ignorant of the contents of that very book?

Has the text of the Bible undergone such dramatic changes over the centuries that it bears little resemblance to the original teachings of Moses, Jesus, and Paul?

There is certainly a tremendous amount of biblical illiteracy in evangelical Christian circles today, and some of it has trickled down from TV preachers and pastors whose sermons seem more like motivational pep talks than serious expositions of the Scriptures. And there is no shortage of hypocrisy in our midst – I speak as an evangelical leader – as we often major on a few specific sins of others while ignoring many sins of our own. As for using the Bible for political purposes, white evangelical Christians in particular can be guilty of associating true patriotism with allegiance to the Bible and the Republican Party, portraying their opponents as both anti-American and anti-God.

But does Newsweek paint an accurate picture of conservative evangelicals? Certainly not.

More importantly, does Newsweek paint an accurate picture of the reliability of the Scriptures? Emphatically not.

That is why the article has been so controversial. First, it is difficult to know who, exactly, is being targeted. Is it some evangelical politicians? A few street preachers? Evangelicals in general? Second, Newsweek appears to be attacking the Bible itself – although claiming not to – and it does so in a slipshod, methodologically flawed way at that.

Who Are These Religious Hypocrites?

The article begins with the word “They,” but we are not told who “they” are.

Is it those who “wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals”? If so, why even mention such people – especially in the opening line of the article – since they are absolutely miniscule in numbers (less than a fraction of a fraction of a percent of evangelicals) and they are universally condemned for their actions and attitudes by virtually all circles of evangelical Christendom.

Is it those who “fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school”? Aside from the unnecessary rhetorical flourish (no one is worshiping at the base of a monument), many Americans believe that our country was in better shape when we had more esteem for the Ten Commandments, which prohibit adultery and murder and theft and covetousness, while it can be argued that American families were healthier before prayer was taken out of public schools in 1962 than after.

Is Newsweek focusing on those who “gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation”? If so, what’s so bad about this? Public prayer gatherings have played a prominent role in American history since Colonial times, with many a president calling for national days of prayer.

We are not helped by the emotionally-charged, broad-brushed accusation that, “They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.”

Ironically, later in the article, Newsweek exhorts us to follow the teaching of Jesus, reminding us that he said, “Don’t judge. He condemned those who pointed out the faults of others while ignoring their own.” Yet here, Newsweek engages in the very kind of biased judgment that Jesus condemned.

As for many evangelicals being “cafeteria Christians” who, in a cavalier way, pick and choose what parts of the Bible they want to use, ignoring what they don’t like and modifying translations of the Bible to suit their purposes, while this may be true for some – there are shallow hypocrites in every religious group – it is hardly the norm. To the contrary, in the vast majority of our Bible colleges and seminaries we teach principles of biblical interpretation – called hermeneutics – studying what the biblical authors were saying to their original audiences and asking how those teachings apply to us today. Then we spend the rest of the time wrestling with how to live out those sacred teachings.

And because we believe the Bible is God’s Word, our scholars give special attention to mastering the original languages of the Bible, working to produce the very best possible translations. That is why evangelicals lead the entire scholarly world in producing new and improved translations of the Scriptures. Readers of the Newsweek article wouldn’t have the slightest idea that this is a major part of our faith.

There is no denying that “America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy,” yet that segment of the Church that seeks to put extra emphasis on the importance of the Scriptures is singled out by Newsweek for special criticism.

To be sure, by the end of the article, familiar names are mentioned, specifically, Pat Robertson, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Bachman, but it is clear that they are not the only ones targeted, and many evangelical leaders have felt that they too are being unfairly caricatured and attacked. Newsweek would have done better to state who, exactly, they felt was guilty of misrepresenting the Bible rather than causing so much unnecessary offense.

Do We Have a Reliable Bible or Are We Playing Telephone with God?

All this, however, is secondary to the real issue, which is, Can we trust the Bible? Is it really “loaded with contradictions and translation errors,” as Newsweek alleges? Is it true that it “wasn’t written by witnesses and includes words added by unknown scribes to inject Church orthodoxy . . . ?” Is it accurate to say that “the Bible can’t stop debunking itself”?

While Newsweek claims that the article “is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity,” even exhorting readers to study the Bible more seriously, it is difficult to see how people can be encouraged to read the Scriptures for themselves while undermining their confidence in those very Scriptures. After all, the Bible claims to have been inspired by God and written by eyewitnesses, and evangelical scholars (among others) believe that the biblical books have been carefully preserved and handed down through the centuries. Yet if Newsweek is correct, we can’t really be sure if we’re reading the real text of the Bible.

According to Newsweek, “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.”

This statement is patently false, not to mention self-contradictory in the context of the article, since Newsweek had already referred to “the Bible” 8 times before this paragraph, and throughout the article, reference is made to alleged discrepancies in “the Bible” and of alleged evangelical misuse of “the Bible.” Yet here it is stated that none of us have actually read “the Bible.”

Let’s unpack this carefully, since a number of foundational propositions are laid out here. And it is this section of Newsweek’s examination, making up the major part of the article, which has drawn sharp criticism and strong correction from a number of top biblical scholars.

First, to speak of “the Bible” is to speak of a sacred book that is itself a collection of clearly defined sacred books, whether in the original languages or in translation, and the very term “the Bible,” derived from the Greek ta biblia, “the books,” wasn’t coined until approximately 223 A.D. And what we are reading today – in English translation or in the original languages – is extraordinarily close (and, for the most part) identical to what these early believers would have been reading when the term was coined.

Second, we are not reading “a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.” As Professor Daniel Wallace, one of the world’s foremost authorities on ancient New Testament manuscripts, rightly noted, “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.”

To make this clearer, let’s say you are reading the book of Isaiah in a modern English translation like the English Standard Version. What you are reading is a translation made directly from the Hebrew text into English, not from a translation of the Hebrew into say, Aramaic, then from Aramaic into Latin, then from Latin into Chinese into Swedish into Finnish into Hungarian into English. A garbled chain like this would qualify as playing telephone; to translate straight from the Hebrew text into English clearly would not.

The real question is: How reliable are the Hebrew texts we have today, the ones used in the translation of the Old Testament? And how reliable are the Greek texts we have today, the ones used in the translation of the New Testament?

Actually, they are remarkably well-preserved, to the point that we can say that, with the exception of changes in spelling of words (like colour vs. color in English) and the adding of vowels (which are not part of the original Hebrew text), for the most part, when we read the Old Testament in Hebrew, we are reading the identical Hebrew texts that Jesus would have read in his hometown synagogue as a boy. (We’ll address the New Testament Greek manuscripts shortly.)

How can I make such a remarkable claim?

On my desk now is a copy of the Hebrew Bible based on a Hebrew codex from approximately 1,000 AD called the Leningrad B19a, and it is the oldest complete copy of the Hebrew Scriptures that we have, since copies of the Scriptures that became worn were buried or stored away and lost to history. That means, however, that this manuscript dates from almost 1,000 years after the time of Jesus, not to mention 1,700 years after the time of Isaiah and at least 2,200 years after the time of Moses. How reliable can it be?

Actually, it is amazingly reliable.

As I open this Bible to the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, I see the Hebrew annotation made by the scribe who copied it out. He lists first the total number of verses in the book, then cites the exact middle verse of the book, then lists the number of sections in the book. Next he lists the number of verses in the entire Pentateuch (also called the Torah or the Five Books of Moses; Deuteronomy is the last book of the Pentateuch) – there are 5,845 verses in the Torah, in case you were wondering – then the number of sections, the number of words (79,856!), and even the number of letters (400,945!). Can you imagine the diligence and skill and meticulous work needed to copy a text so precisely and then have it check out perfectly?

The problem, of course, is that this simply indicates how carefully later Jewish scribes copied out the sacred text – if there was one error found in the text, it could not be used – but it does not tell us if the text was passed on carefully from the time of Jesus until 1,000 AD. Thankfully, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran in the 1940s, scholars received exciting confirmation: Among a number of freehand copies (not translations) of some of the books of the Bible – in other words, copies of the Hebrew text that were not carried out with as much care and precision but that were still quite good – there were other copies that agreed with the 1,000 AD text virtually word for word. Yet these copies dated to roughly 100 BC, meaning that for more than a millennium, the biblical text had been copied with precision.

There’s much more confirmation as well, including quotations from the Hebrew text in commentaries found in Qumran, quotations from the Hebrew text found in rabbinic literature (some of which dates back to two centuries after the time of Jesus), and ancient Greek and Aramaic translations from the original Hebrew. It is by comparing all of these ancient sources that we can say with confidence that the Hebrew Bibles we have today – the basis of our English translations – is extremely close to, and for the most part the same as, the Hebrew Bible read by Jesus.

The situation is very different when it comes to the Greek New Testament, since we have thousands of manuscripts, some of them dating back to the first few centuries after the time of Jesus, but because they were copied by so many scribes, they have not been copied with as much precision, resulting in several hundred thousand textual discrepancies. But the vast majority of those discrepancies are inconsequential (akin to writing Doctor vs. Dr.), and as noted by Prof. Bart Ehrman, a foremost New Testament textual scholar and a well-known agnostic, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” (Note that Newsweek cited Ehrman as a “groundbreaking scholar.”)

The significance of this is explained by Darrell Bock, Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and a Humboldt scholar hosted at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Bock wrote, “What this means is that people on all sides recognize that what we have in the Bible in terms of the core things it teaches is a reflection of what made up these books originally. The caricature by Eichenwald that what we have in our hands has no resemblance to what was originally produced is misleading in the extreme, as even Ehrman’s own writing (the journalist’s source!) has argued, as the text noted above shows.”

And so, scholars translating the Greek New Testament into English are reading essentially the same Greek texts that were read by Greek speaking Church leaders in the second and third centuries of this era, beginning just a generation or two after Paul. This is highly significant.

The truth is that the evidence for the reliability of our New Testament manuscripts massively outweighs the evidence against it. To quote Wallace again, “. . . 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.”

To put this in perspective, F. F. Bruce, one of the most respected biblical scholars of the last generation, contrasted the evidence that exists for other ancient books when compared to the New Testament books, writing: “Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar's Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 BC) there are several extant MSS, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day. Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Livy (59 BC-AD 17) only thirty five survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books iii-vi, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. AD 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of has two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh. The extant MSS of his minor works (Dialogue dc Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to c. AD 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-428 BC). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals.”

This is a lot of information to digest, but it’s worth sifting through carefully. In short, as Darrell Bock pointed out to me privately, if we doubt the Bible on the basis of manuscript evidence we’d better give up teaching classical literature as well. Classicists are jealous of the wealth of riches the manuscript tradition gives us about the wording of the New Testament.

Third, the translations of the Bible available to us today are anything but “bad” translations, and I say this as one who has studied and evaluated many of the best English translations for years. Even the King James Version, although outdated in much of its English expression and unable to take advantage of the many textual and linguistic discoveries of the last 400 years, is still a masterful translation. That’s why if you’ll compare 10 different English versions of the Bible, from the King James Version to the New English Translation, you’ll find essential harmony and agreement. And where there are differences, they are primarily due to difficulties in understanding the exact meaning of the original as opposed to lack of access to reliable texts.

As Prof. Bock also pointed out, “the reasons translations differ is not because Koine [the Greek in which the New Testament was written], as Eichenwald claims, can’t be expressed in English, but because (1) one has choices to make about some terms, (2) Greek order is more flexible than English (for NT), and (3) there are often a variety of ways to express the same idea (as translators often have good choices between synonyms). Beyond this sometimes there is a real question of (4) how to best translate a term to get the contextual meaning and (5) there can be differences in the manuscripts that make a difference. There are cases where theological choices are made that have an influence, but this is not as common as Newsweek suggests nor even the main reason for most differences we see.”

But What If Scribes Changed the Texts We Have?

There is no doubt that many scribal changes were made in the transmission of the New Testament Greek manuscripts that we have (to date, roughly 5,700 are catalogued, some dating back to within 100 years of Jesus), most of those changes occurring through unintentional human error, less of them occurring through intentional alteration. But because we have so many manuscripts that we can compare with one other, along with so many other early texts quoting these manuscripts, we can determine in most cases what the best, original reading was. Textual scholars have also learned how to recognize textual errors to the point that there is a careful science underlying the work that they do based on proven principles of scribal transmission.

Let’s look at some of the examples of alleged scribal changes cited in the article.

According to Newsweek, Luke 3:16, where John the Baptizer responds to a question from the crowds, makes no sense without later scribal changes which introduce a question from the crowds. (Otherwise, who or what is John “answering”?) But Bock, who has spent much of his academic career studying Luke, observes that, “In Luke 3:15 the crowd is speculating as a group that John the Baptist might be the Christ. There is a public square question on the table. When the text says succinctly, John ‘answered’ it is not a specific question he is responding to (which is what Newsweek thinks is required) but to the general and expressed speculation – a publically raised question that opens the door for a reply. There is nothing problematic about the text as it stands at all.”

Next, Newsweek points to John 7:53-8:11, the famous account of Jesus, the Pharisees, and a woman caught in adultery, which culminates with the accusers scattering and Jesus forgiving the woman and then bidding her to leave her life of sin. The problem, we are told is that “John didn’t write it. Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages. It does not appear in any of the three other Gospels or in any of the early Greek versions of John. Even if the Gospel of John is an infallible telling of the history of Jesus’s ministry, the event simply never happened.”

Of course, if you pick up any major English translation of the Bible of the last 50 years, you’ll see a footnote in the text here saying that John 7:53-8:11 is not found in the oldest manuscripts. But there’s more to the story. As Bock points out, “Bruce Metzger, probably the best known American textual critic of the last century and Bart Ehrman’s mentor, says these two things about this text in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament (1971, pp. 219, 220). First he says, ‘The evidence of the non-Johannine origin of the pericope is overwhelming.’ (p. 219).” That is to say, the mentor of Bart Ehrman confirms this as well: This account was not originally part of John’s Gospel.

Yet it was hardly the creation of medieval scribes. As Bock noted, “Two paragraphs later [Metzger] goes on to say this, ‘At the same time the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity.’ (p. 220).” In other words, the account rings absolutely true from a historical point of view. Metzer than “points out that the fact that the account has shown up in various locations in our gospel manuscripts [and] points to its wide and early circulation. None of this reflection appears in Newsweek’s handling of this text. It severely undercuts the point he is trying to make from this material.” So, this account appears to be an ancient gospel account; we just don’t know where it was originally placed.

Next is Mark 16:17-18, which Newsweek rightly says is “an important section of the Bible” for Pentecostal Christians, since it states “that those who believe in Jesus will speak in tongues and have extraordinary powers, such as the ability to cast out demons, heal the sick and handle snakes. Pentecostal ministers often babble incomprehensible sounds, proclaiming—based in part on these verses in Mark—that the noises they are making show that the Holy Spirit is in them. It’s also a primary justification for the emergence of the Pentecostal snake-handlers.

“But once again,” Newsweek observes, “the verses came from a creative scribe long after the Gospel of Mark was written. In fact, the earliest versions of Mark stop at 16:8. It’s an awkward ending, with three women who have gone to the tomb where Jesus was laid after the Crucifixion encountering a man who tells them to let the disciples know that the resurrected Jesus will see them in Galilee. The women flee the tomb, and ‘neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.’”

Here too there is truth mixed with error.

First, the fact that these verses are not found in the earliest manuscripts is also noted in our English translations. Again, with reasonable certainty, we are able to determine the original text of the New Testament.

Second, Pentecostal Christians point to many other texts in the New Testament that support the practice of speaking in tongues and praying for the sick; see the Book of Acts; 1 Corinthians 12-14; and James 5:13-16, among other texts. (Pentecostal snake handlers are a relatively modern phenomenon and, despite sensationalistic TV reporting, also an extremely rare phenomenon. To this day, I have never met one personally, despite decades of ministry in the midst of Pentecostals worldwide. The practice itself is based on a misinterpretation of Mark 16:17-18; what this originally meant is seen in Acts 28, where Paul is bitten by a poisonous snake and yet has no ill effects. He was not handling snakes as a test of his religious faith.)

Third, while scholars are quite confident that Mark 16:9-20 is not the original ending of that gospel, these verses were accepted by many of the early Church leaders, and while we cannot know if they represent the actual words of Jesus, they affirm the message of the Gospels and Acts.

Newsweek points to major differences between the accounts of the birth and infancy of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but there are no contradictions here of consequence at all. Instead, the same story is told from two different vantage points and highlighting different times and events. As noted again by Bock, “Matthew is told from Joseph’s angle, while Luke is told from Mary’s. If you ask almost any couple how they came together, each will have their own take on what took place and select their own details with some overlap and some difference in the selection. One can play the stories against each other (Newsweek’s take) or one can ask how they complement each other (our take).”

That’s why two accounts were written (actually four: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), just like it takes many biographies to tell the full story of a major leader’s life.

Newsweek claims that Jesus opposed family values. In truth, in keeping with the prophets who came before him, he called for our complete allegiance to God – putting him first, even before ourselves – stating that if we loved parents or children more than him we were not worthy of him. At the same time, he rebuked religious hypocrites for failing to honor their parents and using religion as an excuse, he taught and modeled unconditional love, and other writers in the New Testament penned wonderful teaching on the importance of marriage and family, supplement the rich teaching of the Old Testament. Surely Newsweek can’t be criticizing evangelical Christians for failing to take family values seriously.

What about the return of Jesus? Don’t the New Testament authors contradict each other here? Or, at the least, don’t they seem to be expecting his return in their own lifetimes? Both questions can be answered with yes and no, since the texts could be taken in these ways, or the texts could be interpreted as speaking of both imminence and distance: The coming of Jesus could be very near, so we should live with anticipation and discipline, but if his coming is delayed, we shouldn’t lose faith. This type of thinking can be found throughout the New Testament (for example, Luke 18:7-8), and there are various, solid interpretations that can be offered for all the verses in question.

What about the issue of the Torah (law) and the Christian? Did Jesus keep the Torah? Are his followers supposed to keep it? And do Paul and James contradict each other on this?

For the rest of the non-eulogy, see: 

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