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More adventurous than the average bear

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On my Dead Sea Scrolls Review

"Tertullian is credited with the motto 'Credo quia absurdum' -- 'I believe because it is impossible'. Needless to say, he began life as a lawyer." - H.L. Mencken


In March (this year) I got an email from David Byrd, who I had previously featured (peripherally) on this blog, as part of my review of the exhibition, "The Dead Sea Scroll and the Ancient World", in 2009 (Review Part 1, Review Part 2)

(Given that I'm still posting a travelogue from November 2010, the posting of this exchange is not quite as dated as it might seem)

Our exchange follows:

David Byrd: I hope today finds you well.

This is a long overdue follow-up to your blog post concerning the Dead Sea Scroll exhibition that took place in Singapore in the summer of 2009.

Two things:

The first talk was by a "Dr David Byrd". Casual digging did not let me uncover the source of his Ph.D, but the church he presumably belongs to (Folsom Point church of Christ) had an article called "Darwinists Squirm Under Spotlight" in one newsletter, so you know it's not in Biology (or maybe it's in "Christian Biology").

Whoever this person is, it's not me. My doctorate is from Emmanuel Theological Seminary, and it is an honorary doctorate of divinity that was bestowed upon me by the late Archbishop Dr. M.A. Thomas of India (recipient of the prestigious Padma Shree and Mahatma Gandhi awards), whom I believe to be one of the 5 greatest men to have ever walked the face of the earth. As you might imagine, it was quite an honor to receive that recognition from him, and my use of the title is a sign of love and respect for him and for his work. I spend four weeks a year teaching a range of subjects at ETS, which is the primary location of the seminary and Bible College network that he founded. If you want to get a sense of my work, you can access it at, as well as at Look for my name and TCT Academics.

Byrd also claimed that 4,000 translations of the King James Bible (KJV) exist, and 1,000 languages exist in written form only as KJV translations. Knowing the fetish that many fundamentalists have with the King James Bible, this was surprising only in scale. Given that the Bible exists in some form in only 2,479 languages (and in totality in only 451), even a charitable interpretation of his claim is untenable (more detailed but older statistics).

This is not quite what I said. What I did say, and what I'll stick to, is that the KJV has been highly influential. If you consider dialects, portions of the Bible have been translated into over 4000 languages. This is probably a low number. Due to the missionary efforts of the 17^th - 20^th centuries, half of those translations (largely informal) were originally done as translations from the KJV (roughly 2000). About half of those have never been translated from the original Hebrew or Greek, leaving about 1000 as translations (again, perhaps only portions) only from the KJV. This is not to exalt the KJV, but rather, to emphasize its impact in and on the Christian world. I am far from a fundamentalist, and I have no particular fondness for the KJV as a translation. I don't use it, as there are far better translations, using far better source material, available these days. In fact, I try to change translations every year (though I have been using the NET Bible for the last 14 months). I routinely attempt to disabuse "KJV only" types from their unwarranted position.

On another point that you made, I would respond that reasonable people can disagree on Tyndale's influence. I happen to believe it to be quite profound, and I am not alone in that assessment. What is indisputable is that, prior to his English translation of the New Testament in 1525 (importing much Hebrew and Greek thought and structure into the language), there are no examples of the English language as we now know it and use it. His influence on the English of the KJV is undeniable, as is the KJV's influence on the spread of the English language. He is often spoken of as one of the fathers of English prose.

You also mentioned that "the exhibition's agenda is to convince people that the Bible arrived by fax from Heaven." This is certainly not my position, in the least. In addition, the use of 2 Timothy 3:16 as a proof text for Biblical inerrancy (a position to which I do not subscribe), is indeed a logical fallacy. Along with that, select quotations from Luther are always dangerous and ripe for conflict, as are any quotations lifted out of their context (textual, historical, cultural, political, religious, etc.).

Apart from all that, I was disappointed in the title of the exhibition that was chosen by the event organizers. I felt it was misleading. At the same time, I will tell you that I was not paid to be there, and provided my services as a volunteer, so I had little input in any of the areas of the exhibition. Indeed, my lectures were all that I could control. I attempted to make them informative, engaging, and entertaining, with memorable highlights, without engaging in hyperbole. For the most part, I believe that I achieved that goal, as I find personal credibility to be very important. Others with whom I work do not feel the same way.

I enjoyed reading and re-reading your blog post. Overall, it was an excellent recapitulation of the exhibition and brought back some nice memories.

Me: It's always nice to get feedback on my blog, and thanks for the email.

Sorry for mixing you and the Folson Church guy. It's not always easy to ascertain if people you find online are the ones you are looking for.

It is good to know that you did not agree with all of the claims of the exhibition, as some of them seemed doubtful (at best). If I recall correctly, you were the curator who I disagreed the least with (though there was also one woman I didn't review for some reason - it's been about 1.5 years since the exhibition so I can't quite remember)

I will just comment that in reading and reading about Luther, I find that the quotes are not unfair to him. Of course this was a more brutal and less civilised time, but this doesn't change the fact that Luther was quite intolerant of reason in religious matters. I will also say that the corollary of negative quotes needing to be taken "in context" is that positive ones must be afforded the same charity - but that alas is almost never the case.

David Byrd: No problem on the mix-up...

When it comes to reason and Luther, it is just incredibly important to put his quotes about reason in their context. It takes very little searching via google to find a myriad of treatments of this topic that serve well to demonstrate what he means. With a voluminous amount of writing, the fact that he had a doctorate, was a profound philosopher and theologian, as well as being an educator, the idea that he disavowed the reasonable application of intelligence when it came to matters of religion, is simple untenable. I will add that, though I am a fan of Luther and have ready hundreds of his sermons (he serves as a bit of an inspiration, as the church, because it becomes too comfortable in its being situated alongside and in support of the world's power structures, is always in need of reforming), I do not march in lockstep with him, especially since we are now in a far better position to ascertain the first century world in which Jesus lived and Paul wrote. Luther's view of first-century Judaism was mediated through the prism of 16th century Catholicism, causing him, especially in his doctrine of justification by faith, to retroject ideas into and on to first century Judaism that were anachronistic to his own day, and which we have now discovered (utilizing the foundation that Luther served to provide) were not correct. I would venture to say that Luther, if alive today, would continue to update and modify his views, and that is the least credit we can give to a brilliant theologian and earnest seeker after truth.

Please feel free to post my email on your blog. Also, as I said, if you want to get a sense of the work that I am doing and the positions that I take in regards to Christianity and Scripture, please feel free to visit my blog ( There, I post daily commentaries on Scripture. In them, I do my absolute best to contextualize Scripture. Also, a visit to the website of the church of which I am a part (Academia Church,, might pique your interest a bit. We take scholarship very seriously, so I am sure you would appreciate some of what can be found there.
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