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Texts and Lies

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Why are the "devout" so quick to believe accusations against people with whom they disagree?1 I read two posts recently that address this question in different ways.

First, Fred Clark discusses the recent Christianity Today article, An Embarrassing Week for Christians Sharing Fake News," by Ed Stetzer. Clark argues that "It’s not gullibility; it’s malice," and makes the point that Christians who spread "fake" news stories are actually "bearing false witness" against their neighbors. They are eager to believe the worst about those with whom they disagree.

Second, this morning I saw a helpful post from Mike Leake responding to a recent faith-based falsehood (faithhood?) about Bible versions from secular publishers who have "removed" words and verses from the Bible. Leake ("On those missing verses in your ESV and NIV Bible") does his best to reassure Christians that these "missing" verses were not actually in the "original" text.

Conservative objections to textual criticism have been a consistent refrain in the modern era of Bible translation (1880-present). Advocates of the King James Bible—even now—reject versions that depart from the Greek text used by the 1611 translators.2 Never mind that today's textual witness is superior in every way. Leake writes:

There is no plot to undermine the word of God. These are very conservative scholars that are doing the work of textual criticism to help us have the most accurate translation of the Bible as possible.

He concludes with this:

Rather than causing us to lose confidence in the reliability of Scripture the work of textual criticism helps us to be able to say with at least 95% accuracy that we know exactly what the original manuscripts stated. So don’t freak out and think that the NIV and ESV are being taken over by a group of people trying to hide God’s Word from you, in fact the opposite is true.

It's worth thinking about why Leake's piece might be persuasive to his audience, while they would reject or ignore an article from, say, Bart Ehrman. Notice what Leake doesn't say, that critical scholars are not trying to destroy the Bible or faith, but to do their scholarly work as best they can. Instead, he says that these particular scholars are nice conservatives who would never do such a thing. As opposed to those "liberals" who would delete a few verses or torpedo a cherished doctrine if they could only get away with it?

In my view, the basic problem is that Christians are too convinced by "appeals to authority," trusting the unsupported claims of individuals whom they consider to have "integrity," while rejecting actual evidence from experts whom they distrust as being "secular" or hostile to Christianity. Rather than evaluating a Bible translation on the basis of the evidence for particular translations, they want to be reassured by "faithful" scholars they trust, and stay away from "secular" or "liberal" scholars whom they don't.

It is very common in evangelical arguments to find appeals to authority (e.g., "How can you dismiss the idea that Moses existed when these 3 scholars I trust say that he did?"). It doesn't generally work the other way. In text criticism, for instance, you would never hear a critical scholar say, "well, B.F. Westcott supported this textual variant, and so I believe it." Rather, the argument is always about what evidence and argumentation lies underneath each of Westcott's decisions.

I am writing a book about controversies over modern biblical translation, and there is a definite trend in which conservative arguments have been conducted by means of Appeal to Authority and Ad Hominem attack, rather than on the basis of textual and linguistic evidence. Don't get me wrong. It is nice to see Leake reassure his audience that they can trust the ESV and NIV translators, but his post does little to address the underlying distrust of critical scholarship at the heart of the matter.

  1. "Devout" is a religious category, and I am thinking primarily about evangelical Christians in this post. But trust me, devotees of every ideology—Christian and Secular, Left and Right—have a tendency to believe the worst about their "opponents."

  2. The post image from a site called "Coercion Code" on The truth about modern Bible versions, filled with ad hominem against Westcott, Hort, and Eusebius, of all people.