Newsweek decided to begin the New Year by attacking people who hold a high view of Scripture. (“The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” by Kurt Eichenwald, January 2-9 issue.) Their lead article on the Bible contains so many untrue or partially true assertions that it seemed to me that some sort of concise and readable response needed to be offered. But it would, literally, require a book-length critique to adequately address all the mischaracterizations, factual mistakes, and suggestive statements propounded in this single article. So I have decided to simply read through the article, select an occasional assertion from the article that needs a response, and try to offer a straightforward and hopefully fair response. None of these responses should be taken by a reader as sarcastic; my goal has been to offer sober-minded responses to particular assertions in an article that is full of inaccuracies.
Assertion: Religious fanatics, fundamentalists, and evangelicals can be viewed and treated as a single category.
Response: The approach of this article demonstrates that the author has put little effort into trying to understand the differences between the cultural rejection of most fundamentalists and the attempt to carefully engage culture by many evangelicals. And lumping religious fanatics into this group as well, including violent types, is simply unfair.
Assertion: Biblical illiteracy is rampant, including among people who hold a high regard for the Bible.
Response: Correct. Nevertheless, it is not true, contra the author’s suggestion, that there are not many biblically-literate people—even experts—among those who hold the Bible in high regard.
Assertion: “If Christians truly want to treat the New Testament as the foundation of the religion, they have to know it. Too many of them seem to read John Grisham novels with greater care than they apply to the book they consider to be the most important document in the world.”
Assertion: “Newsweek’s exploration here of the Bible’s history and meaning is not intended to advance a particular theology ...”
Response: This statement appears incorrect. This article is ideologically driven. It is a shame that the author (so also the Newsweek editors) seems largely unaware of his own presuppositions and biases that enliven and motivate the various statements in this article.
Assertion: People who seek to interpret the Bible literally are likely to do ignorant and/or bad things. Example: “…leads parents to banish children from their homes, when it sets neighbor against neighbor, when it engenders hate and condemnation, when it impedes science and undermines intellectual advancement …”
Response: A belief that the Bible is actually the true Word of God is no more likely to lead to extreme actions than is, say, the belief that God does not exist. We don’t have to travel very far back in history (simply think of the 20th century) to remember how many atrocities have been committed in the name of atheism.
Assertion: “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.”
Response: Modern translations are not translations of translations; they are translations of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. As to manuscripts, if someone wants to question the integrity of the Greek New Testament based upon manuscript evidence, that person ought to be ready to throw out everything he thinks he knows about ancient history, since we have so many more—and better-quality manuscripts—than any other document from ancient history.
Assertion: “About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament. (That’s the same amount of time between the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and today.)”
Response: Christians “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching” (Acts 2:42) from day one of the start of the church, and this continued as the apostles' writings came into existence. (And there is good reason to believe that all of the writings of the New Testament were written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle.) Just because there wasn’t a single document that contained all the writings of the New Testament in one place until the fourth century (and this is, anyway, disputable) doesn’t mean that individual writings—and smaller groupings of writings—weren’t functioning together as an authoritative message from God from the earliest times.
Assertion: “1,500 years passed between the day the first biblical author put stick to clay and when the books that would become the New Testament were chosen.”
Response: “Stick to clay” makes the Old Testament authors sound like a cave men. Let’s keep our communication fair.
Assertion: “These manuscripts were originally written in Koiné, or “common” Greek, and not all of the amateur copyists spoke the language or were even fully literate.”
Response: The Bible was composed in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, not just Greek as this sentence implies. The article needs to clarify that there are three different languages lying behind our translations of the Bible. And even if not all later copyists spoke the language they were copying, many of them did—and all of the early ones did. We have such a wealth of copies of the New Testament that historians of other ancient documents find themselves wishing they had so many manuscripts to work with.
Assertion: “Koiné was written in what is known as scriptio continua—meaning no spaces between words and no punctuation. So, a sentence like weshouldgoeatmom could be interpreted as ‘We should go eat, Mom,’ or ‘We should go eat Mom.’ Sentences can have different meaning depending on where the spaces are placed. For example, godisnowhere could be ‘God is now here’ or ‘God is nowhere.’”
Response: This is a fun sentence that effectively clouds the issue. There are an infinitesimally small number of sentences in the Greek New Testament where scholars are unsure of where to divide the words. Very, very few …
Assertion: Quoting Bart Ehrman: “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”
Response: I will allow the article to respond to itself: “Most of those discrepancies are little more than the handwritten equivalent of a typo …”
Assertion: Concerning the pericope about the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11: “Unfortunately, John didn’t write it. Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages.”
Response: Correct for the first assertion, but not the second. John probably didn’t write it. But the statement that it was made up in the Middle Ages is an historical error, plain and simple. Bruce Metzger (Bart Ehrman’s doctoral professor at Princeton) writes in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: “The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming.” But adds: “At the same time the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity.” In the same section he affirms “the evident antiquity of the passage.”
Assertion: The King James Version is replete with translational mistakes which should cause us to doubt that we are reading what was intended by the original authors.
Response: The King James Version has been recognized by scholars of all stripes to have been an excellent translation when it was originally translated. This does not mean that individual improvements couldn’t have been made by the translators at the time, but that overall, the quality of the translation was high.
Assertion: The King James Bible’s translation of the word προσκυνέω as “worship” was a piece of “translational trickery” that snuck in the idea that Jesus was God “even in places where it directly contradicts the rest of the verse.”
Response: The way this is put makes it sound like the translators were intentionally forcing their high Christology upon a Bible that didn’t easily bear it. But the Bible’s high Christology, including the belief that Jesus is God, is not dependent upon how προσκυνέω is translated, and those who defend the proposition that Jesus is God rarely even refer to passages where the word appears.
Assertion: “Manipulation” is a word that is appropriate to use to describe the way Bible translators render many passages of Scripture.
Response: Translation by committee, that is, committees comprised of competent scholars, is a process that undermines anyone who might want to press a particular agenda into a translation. Most modern translations are interdenominational in nature and produced by such committees.
Assertion: The doctrine of the Trinity is not supported in Scripture itself. “So where does the clear declaration of God and Jesus as part of a triumvirate appear in the Greek manuscripts? Nowhere.”
Response: The doctrine of the Trinity is a summary of assertions that are clearly taught in Scripture, that is, that the Father is God, that Jesus is God, that the Holy Spirit is God, that there is only one God, and that God manifests himself in three persons. Just because neither the author of this article, nor I—nor anyone else for that matter—can completely understand it (fully comprehending God is, after all, above all of our pay-grades), doesn’t mean that the biblical assertions that led to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity aren’t clearly taught in the Bible.
Assertion: The doctrine of the Trinity is the basis for mass-murders. “And in that deception lies a story of mass killings.”
Response: This sentence implies that it was the doctrine of the Trinity that somehow was a cause of people centuries later killing others who disagreed on the doctrine. Such a suggestion cannot be demonstrated in any way.
Assertion: “In fact, Christians are believed to have massacred more followers of Jesus than any other group or nation.”
Response: Interestingly, it is lost on the author of this article that Christians with a high view of Scripture—almost to a person—deny that every individual who calls himself a Christian is in fact a true Christian. People who kill others in the name of Christ should not be viewed as Christians, at least in the biblical sense of the word.
Assertion: “Indeed, for hundreds of years after the death of Jesus, groups adopted radically conflicting writings about the details of his life and the meaning of his ministry, and murdered those who disagreed. For many centuries, Christianity was first a battle of books and then a battle of blood.”
Response: This implies that Christianity during the first few centuries was spread by the sword, and in particular, by fighting with other “Christians” who disagreed. But no credible historian would support such an assertion. The number of Christians who actually carried a sword during the first three centuries of Christianity’s existence was very, very small. Christians during the first three centuries were far more likely to be killed by the sword of an intolerant government than to wield one themselves.
Assertion: Constantine was responsible for replacing Sabbath worship with the Christian Sunday.
Response: Christians from the earliest years of the Christian movement started gathering on Sundays, probably because it was the day that their Lord rose from the dead (for example, 1 Corinthians 16:2).
Assertion: “Paul’s writings are consistent in his reference to God as one being and Jesus as his son. Same with the Gospel of Matthew …” (The author in this section seems to be suggesting that the New Testament authors did not themselves believe that Jesus was divine.)
Response: Paul’s Christology is extremely high—and ancient. Many scholars believe that Colossians 1:15-20 and Philippians 2:5-12 were both early Christian hymns, which would mean that they were circulating before the time Paul even wrote, which was quite early anyway. And the Christology in those two passages is extremely high, including the following ideas related to Jesus: 1) Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), 2) Jesus is the Creator (Col. 1:16), 3) Jesus holds creation together (Col. 1:17), 4) “All the fullness” dwells in him (Col. 1:19). Paul understands this to mean that all the fullness of deity dwells in him (see Col. 2:9), 5) Jesus was pre-existent before he was incarnated (Phil. 2:6), 6) Jesus existed in the form of God (Phil. 2:6), 7) Every knee will bow to Jesus and declare that he is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11).
Assertion: The Nicaean Creed did not represent the views of the framers of the creed; the doctrinal positions espoused at Nicaea were coerced by Constantine.
Response: The suggestion of coercion goes beyond the historical evidence.
Assertion: “Some modern Christians attempt to use the Gospel of John to justify the Trinity—even though it doesn’t explicitly mention it—but they are relying on bad translations of the Greek and sentences inserted by scribes.”
Response: I haven’t any idea which sections of John this author is thinking of when he writes about “bad translations of the Greek.” Nor have I any idea which sentences he may be imagining were inserted by scribes. The Christology in the Gospel of John is extremely high in numerous places. Challenges to particular translations of individual lines and/or imagined scribal emendations won’t change that.
Assertion: “By the fifth century, the political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels in circulation were to make up the New Testament.”
Response: No such council ever met to decide which books were to be included in the New Testament. Long before biblical books were even discussed in councils, all the books of the New Testament had been accepted as Scripture in the churches. And Christians didn’t decide it; they simply recognized it to be so.
Assertion: If one Gospel (such as Matthew’s infancy narrative) leaves out information found in another Gospel (such as Luke’s infancy narrative), then there is a contradiction between them.
Response: Leaving out information does not entail contradiction.
Assertion: The Gospel of John [no specific verse cited] “has been one of the key bases for centuries of anti-Semitism.”
Response: The author seems unable to distinguish between the cause of something and the misuse of a passage by people who read it at some later time in history.
Assertion: “None of this is meant to demean the Bible, but all of it is fact. Christians angered by these facts should be angry with the Bible, not the messenger.”
Response: The author’s use of the word “fact(s)” here indicates that he isn’t aware that he, like the fundamentalists he is critiquing, is himself an interpreter of the Bible (and of history, for that matter). May I suggest that the very fundamentalistic readings he so opposes (literastic … imposing agendas on a text) show up repeatedly in his own readings of the Bible, even though he seems largely unaware of it.
Assertion: The creation accounts of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 contain numerous contradictions. “Careful readers have long known that the two stories contradict each other.” For example: “Vegetation exists before the sun and the stars in Genesis 1; it’s the other way around in Genesis 2.”
Response: The creation of the sun and stars is not even mentioned in Genesis 2. Presumably the author means that the sun and stars are included in the creation of “the heavens and earth” mentioned in Gen 2:4. But Gen 1:1 uses the same expression, that God created “the heavens and the earth,” but still doesn’t record the creation of the sun and stars until 1:19. This indicates that the sun and stars are to be viewed as a separate creation moment from the general “the heavens and the earth.”
Assertion: Biblical scholarship has demonstrated that “doublets,” that is, repetitions of similar statements, are evidence of various sources that have been stitched together to make a single, albeit contradictory, whole.
Response: There is no agreement among Old Testament scholars that doublets must be interpreted as signposts to separate sources. Such a consensus—even among critical scholars—started breaking down a number of decades ago and continues to be challenged even in critical circles.
Assertion: “The declaration in 1 Timothy—as recounted in the Living Bible, the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version Bible and others—could not be more clear: Those who “practice homosexuality” will not inherit the Kingdom of God. But the translation there is odd, in part because the word homosexual didn’t even exist until more than 1,800 years after 1 Timothy was supposed to have been written. So how did it get into the New Testament? Simple: The editors of these modern Bibles just made it up. Like so many translators and scribes before them, they had a religious conviction, something they wanted to say that wasn’t stated clearly enough in the original for their tastes. And so they manipulated sentences to reinforce their convictions.”
Response: I have no idea what this author means when he says that the word “homosexual” didn’t exist until 1,800 years after 1 Timothy was written. Ancients clearly knew how to designate homosexual actions, and had various words to describe such activity. Translators are not trying to “make up” words when they translate, including conservative translators; they are trying to figure out what a word actually means in its context. And the Greek word ἀρσενοκοῖται seems in most contexts to be a reference to a male who has sexual relations with a male, whatever English word you want to use to designate such activity.
Assertion: 1 Timothy is a forgery.
Response: Why would someone writing as though he were Paul—presumably because he admired Paul and wanted to write in his name—refer to his hero as “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15)? (But there is no problem with this statement if Paul himself wrote it.) Why would a pseudonymous author add in personal comments like the encouragement for Timothy to “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim. 5:23)? (No problem if Paul actually wrote it to Timothy.) 1 Timothy is quoted twice by Polycarp of Smyrna in the early parts of the second century in a cluster of quotations that are clearly written by Paul, indicating that he considered 1 Timothy to be from the hand of Paul. And pseudonymous letters, anyway, were rejected in the early church. When they were exposed (like 3 Corinthians), they were rejected.
Assertion: Homosexuality is no worse of a sin than ongoing drunkenness and debauchery such as one might find in a university frat house. Also: “Adultery, being greedy, lying—all of these are declared as sins on par with homosexuality.”
Response: I largely agree. It’s nice to have the opportunity to say that I agree with something in this article.
Assertion: 1 Timothy is virulently anti-woman and teaches that women can’t be in any leadership position, including politics.
Response: 1 Timothy 2 is focused upon the church, not politics. And the limitation on women in the area of teaching (1 Tim 2:12) is a limitation related to the type of teaching that only overseers/elders are supposed to do (compare 1 Tim. 5:17).
Assertion: The early Christians struggled to work out how followers of Jesus were to relate to the Old Testament laws.
Response: Correct. There were tensions in the early church about how to relate to the laws detailed in the Old Testament, but this doesn’t mean that early Christians weren’t able to work out their disagreements, as this article insinuates.
Assertion: Public prayer meetings by Christians are hypocritical, since Jesus taught that prayer is to be done in private (Matt 6:5-6).
Response: Jesus’s warning was a warning against hypocrisy and the attempt to win people’s praise by praying in front of others. Christians need to take Jesus’ warning very seriously. But this doesn’t mean that all public praying and gatherings for prayer are a violation of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus himself publicly prayed sometimes (for example, Matthew 14:19; John 11:41-42), and early Christians regularly gathered together for prayer (for example, Acts 4:23-31).
Assertion: “Because God knows what someone needs without being asked … Jesus says in both Matthew and Luke, people who wish to pray should only say the Lord’s Prayer.”
Response: Most interpreters believe that the Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer, not a specific prayer that people must repeat over and over again … nor to the exclusion of all other prayers.
Assertion: “Nowhere in the Gospels or Acts or Epistles or Apocalypse does the New Testament say it is the inerrant word of God.” (Implication: It isn’t.)
Response: The doctrine of inerrancy is not based upon proof texts, but upon the repeated portrayal of God in the Bible as a truth-telling God. Therefore words given by inspiration are true. Furthermore, because Jesus Christ and the apostles who used Scripture in their own writings clearly view them as true and authoritative, we should as well.
Assertion: “Jesus said, Don’t judge.”
Response: The author has fallen into the common trap of applying the most quoted Bible verse in our generation as a simple prohibition against judging. Rather, as the context of Matthew 7:1-5 indicates, it is actually a warning about judging. If it were a straight prohibition, Jesus would have told us to never take a speck out of a brother’s eye. Instead, he instructs us first to take the log out of our own eye so that we can see clearly in order to take the speck out of a brother’s eye (v. 5).
Assertion: “This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity.”
Response: It does feel like an attack. It is hard to understand how this particular statement can be taken seriously.
I hope that this walk-through some of the questionable assertions made in this article has been helpful to you. I’ve tried to be both fair and concise. There is much more to be said, but this is, after all, a blog post.