Newsweek published an article, authored by columnist Kurt Eichenwald, that has attracted a lot of attention recently. With a title like The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin, of course you're going to have some fireworks.
But, man, those fireworks have been bright.
Admittedly, when I first read the article, I found it either intentionally misleading or hopelessly naive, reckless either way. So, you can imagine, there was much I wanted to say by way of commentary, most of it was not exactly kind. What I wanted to do was write a clever and snarky response to match the tone of Eichenwald’s essay.
Then, I remembered Proverb 26:4, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” #jesusjuked
Yet, I still felt like something must be written for friends and family and friends of friends who may happen to read Eichenwald’s article and find themselves lost in this labyrinth of half-truths and (hopefully) genuine ignorance. But so much has already been written on it, like this popular response from Albert Mohler. So, what to do?
"I know," I said to my self inaudibly (because I'm not crazy or anything), "let’s snope this article!" So, that's what I did. A lá the great snopes.com, I have included many of Eichenwald’s points by introducing a quote, summarizing the claim, and providing an answer in either Yes, No, or Yes and No.
Here it is – plain and simple fact-checking with light opinion peppered throughout. It’s not everything, but it’s a start.
AMERICANS LOVE BIBLE, DON’T READ IT
Quote: “‘Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’ wrote George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli, pollsters and researchers whose work focused on religion in the United States.”
Claim: Evangelicals love the Bible, but don’t actually know much about it.
Answer: Yes. This is by and large very true. In that same poll, researchers found that six out of ten adults could not name the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (Hint: He was a carpenter.) The problem of biblical illiteracy within in the church is alarming, due mainly to the idea that for centuries people have thought that it was a job for the "professionals" (clergy, priests, pastors, ministers, etc) to study the Bible. The problem persists in America, in my opinion, because we live in a consumer culture where people come to church to be served.
The quote above by Gallup and Castelli, however, was given in 1990. Eichenwald places it in between two polls occurring in 2010 and 2012, which (unintentional or not) makes it appear to be a relatively recent quote.
Sources: George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli, “Americans and the Bible.” Biblical Archaeological Society 6.3 (June 1990), 37.
NEWSWEEK WILL NOT PICK SIDES IN THIS ESSAY
Quote: “Newsweek’s exploration here of the Bible’s history and meaning is not intended to advance a particular theology or debate the existence of God.”
Claim: The article will not advance any specific theological position.
Answer: No, Eichenwald does in fact put forth many different theological positions in front of others, thus advancing them over others. For example, Eichenwald later writes, “The Trinity—the belief that Jesus and God are the same and, with the Holy Spirit, are a single entity—is a fundamental, yet deeply confusing, tenet. So where does the clear declaration of God and Jesus as part of a triumvirate appear in the Greek manuscripts? Nowhere.”
The view that Eichenwald has just put forth is called Unitarianism, which has been advanced over a different view called Trinitarianism.
TRANSLATIONS OF TRANSLATIONS, COPIES OF COPIES
Quote: “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.”
Claim: The Bible we have today has been tainted due to it being translated over and over again as well as copied over and over again.
Answer: No, the Bible has not been translated over and over again. A translation occurs when an individual, knowledgeable in two or more languages, takes a text written in one language and proceeds to copy it into another language. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Greek, and some Aramaic. When the books were copied and passed on to later generations, they were copied in Hebrew, Greek, and some Aramaic.
Thus, when a Bible translator sets out to translate the original biblical languages into English, she is not doing so from Greek to Latin to Old English to modern English as Eichenwald has suggested. Instead, she is doing so from Greek to English. So, we are not reading “a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations.”
Yes, the manuscripts we have for the Bible are copies of copies of copies, but so is every other ancient document we have in our possession. What is impressive about biblical manuscripts is the amount that we have and the relatively short amount of time between the events they record and the earliest copies we own. When compared to other ancient documents, the Bible’s reliability is unmatched.
Take the writings of Plato, for example. Plato wrote in the 5th-4th centuries BCE. The earliest copies of his famous Tetraologies come from 895CE, or 1,200 years after he originally wrote them. Currently, there are only seven extant copies of his works.
By contrast, the New Testament was written in the 1st century CE and shortly into the 2nd century by some estimates. The earliest copies of the New Testament date to the second century CE. Currently, there are over 5,600 copies.
So, we are reading “hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies.” But we are also doing so with every single document written prior to the invention of the printing press. If we cannot trust the copies of copies of the New Testament, then we cannot trust the copies of copies of any ancient manuscript.
For more info on textual transmission, check out this article.
Sources: Hunt, R.W., The Survival of Ancient Literature. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1975, No. 56.
IT TOOK 400 YEARS TO COLLECT THE NEW TESTAMENT
Quote: “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.)”
Claim: The New Testament didn’t exist in its current form for about 400 years after the events it records.
Answer: Yes and no. Yes, the 3rd Council of Carthage confirmed what each church across the Roman Empire had in their possession as the New Testament, but emphasis on confirmed. No, it was not as though the New Testament did not exist prior to the fifth century.
Shortly after the New Testament was written (around 110), Ignatius, a student of the Apostle John, considered Matthew, Luke, Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, and I Thessalonians as scripture.
By 136, just forty years after Revelation was written, all four of the Gospels were accepted as scripture by Valentinus, a gnostic. In 170 all of the New Testament books (with the exclusion of four) were listed in the Muratorian Fragment. Finally, by 367CE we have a letter given by Athanasius, a Christian theologian, listing the entire New Testament.
Thus, to say that the New Testament was not formed by the year 400 is historically inaccurate.
Note: Why the gradual development? Why couldn't everyone have a copy of the completely New Testament like we do today? Remember, this occurred 1,900 to 1,700 years ago. Communication was costly and travel was dangerous. One could not simply type and email and click send. A Gospel, for example, needed meticulous, time-consuming copying, then someone need to actually deliver the letter to another church hundreds of miles away by foot.
THERE IS NO WAY TO ENSURE ACCURACY OF THE BIBLE
Quote: “There were no printing presses beforehand or until 1,000 years later. There were no vacuum-sealed technologies to preserve paper for centuries. Dried clay broke, papyrus and parchment crumbled away, primitive inks faded.”
Claim: We cannot ensure the accuracy of the Bible because of primitive writing and transmission technology.
Answer: No, we have plenty of means to ensure accuracy of the Bible. Things like historical context, archeological evidence, and extra-biblical evidence all help paint an accurate picture of what the Bible meant to say.
If you agree with Eichwald’s assessment, then, to be fair to the Bible, we must also throw out every single fact we know from history that we have learned collected from texts prior to the invention of the printing press.
WE CAN’T KNOW FOR SURE WHAT THE AUTHORS MEANT DUE TO THE GREEK
Quote: “[Ancient Greek] 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.’”
Claim: Because ancient Greek lacked punctuation, we cannot know for sure what the authors meant to say.
Answer: No. Again, if this is true, to be fair to the Bible, then we must also throw out every single fact we know from history that we have learned from texts written in ancient Greek. Of course, this needn’t be done because we can know what an author meant in ancient Greek despite a lack of punctuation.
This is possible because of context. If a sentence seems strangely placed, as with weshouldgoeatmom, then our task is to look at its surrounding context for clarification. For example,
thedaughterbecamehungry. weshouldgoeatmom. themotheragreedandcookeddinner.
From context, we come to understand that the daughter was not interested in matricidal cannibalism. Instead, she was asking her mother for dinner.
The second example Eichenwald uses is godisnowhere being either “God is now here” or “God is no where.” Yet, if in the context a text is speaking about the presence of God in worship, for example, then the author most likely meant the former.
MORE ERRORS THAN WORDS IN NEW TESTAMENT
Quote: “‘There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,’ says Dr. Bart D. Ehrman.
Claim: The New Testament cannot be trusted because there are actually more errors in the surviving manuscripts than there are words.
Answer: Yes and no. Yes, there are more errors (or differences) than there are words. No, this does not mean what Eichenwald and Ehrman imply. Why? Because we have about as many copies of the New Testament manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament and those copies have discrepencies between them such as ink blots and misspellings. Thus, Bartman's quote is intentionally deceptive.
As Eichenwald quickly admits, “Most of those discrepancies are little more than the handwritten equivalent of a typo, but that error was then included by future scribes.” Most in this instance represents over 90% of the errors. In fact, only 1% of the differences are meaningful and are fully acknowledged in most English Bibles.
Also, the fact that these errors were included by future scribes demonstrates the faithfulness and integrity they employed when copying. Imagine being the first scribe to discover a well-known copying error from 1 Thessalonians 2:7 where Paul says “we were horses (hippoi) among you” instead of “we were gentle (epioi) among you,” yet you decide to copy the silly mistake anyway.
Again, for more info on this topic, check out this article.
Sources: Wayne Grudem, Understanding Scripture: An Overview of the Bible's Origin, Reliability, and Meaning (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
SCRIBES ADDED TALES IN THE MIDDLE AGES
Quote: “Scribes added whole sections of the New Testament, and removed words and sentences that contradicted emerging orthodox beliefs. Take one of the most famous tales from the New Testament, which starts in John 7:53 . . . Unfortunately, John didn’t write it. Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages.”
Claim: Parts of the New Testament cannot be trusted because they were fabricated at a later date.
Answer: Yes and no. Yes, we do not know for certain that John wrote this section. It was most likely passed through oral tradition, then included in John’s Gospel at a later date. Since it dovetails well with Jesus’ character, it is quite possible that this event actually occurred.
No, this doesn't mean we can't trust Bible translators as if they are trying to cover that fact up. It is important to note that such questionable passages are included in the Bible with caution, something Eichenwald does not mention. Most Bibles inform their readers that this story was not included in most manuscripts of the Gospel of John. For example, the English Standard Version places the following note prior to John 7:53 in all CAPS.
[THE EARLIEST MANUSCRIPTS DO NOT INCLUDE 7:53 – 8:11]
It is not some hidden secret that parts of the New Testament (less than 1%) are not present in earliest manuscripts. Neither does this 1% represent any change in Christian theology. If the story of Jesus telling the religious people to cast the first stone disappeared, what's changed?
THE TRINITY IS NOT FOUND IN THE BIBLE
Quote: “The Trinity—the belief that Jesus and God are the same and, with the Holy Spirit, are a single entity—is a fundamental, yet deeply confusing, tenet. So where does the clear declaration of God and Jesus as part of a triumvirate appear in the Greek manuscripts? Nowhere.”
Claim: Because a clear declaration of the trinity does not exist, the trinity does not exist.
Answer: No, we can see evidence of the trinity in the Bible. If that were not the case, many non-denominational Christians with no organization enforcing theology, such as evangelicals, would have abandoned the trinity centuries ago. Evangelicals are trinitarian because the Bible is trinitarian.
Simply because a term is absent does not mean the concept is absent. Ironically, the Bible also neglects to give a clear declaration of the Bible, but it exists. The term trinity was invented to succinctly identify how the Bible describes God. So, for example, when John clearly declares that the “Word was God” in John 1:1 and that the “word became flesh and dwelt among us” in John 1:14, we come to the recognition that Jesus is God.
Mysterious as it is, as “deeply confusing” as Eichenwald sees it, we are left with this bit of information nonetheless. Yet, should a God who created the deeply complex universe we live in be any less complex? Is it the Bible's fault that God's nature is mysterious, complex, or "deeply confusing" to Eichenwald?
POOR TRANSLATIONS OF THE BIBLE HAVE RESULTED IN MURDER
Quote: “In fact, Christians are believed to have massacred more followers of Jesus than any other group or nation. Those who believed in the Trinity butchered Christians who didn’t.”
Claim: Violence has resulted from Bible interpretation.
Answer: Yes. This fact demonstrates what the Bible is trying to tell humanity – we are fallen, sinful beings in the core of our nature who need a savior. Christians who kill other Christians over disagreement in theology are either in deep sin or not Christian at all.
Also, humans have butchered one another for stupid reasons throughout history. Most of those reasons surround a power struggle. In Christendom, unfortunately, the power laid within those who lorded spiritual authority over the people, something the Reformers worked to correct. So, people used ideas in the Bible to justify warfare, but that doesn't mean the Bible told them to do so. Today, people still use ideas found in other documents (Qur’an, constitutions, treaties) to justify warfare.
CHRISTIANS HYPOCRITICALLY WORSHIP ON SUNDAY, NOT THE SABBATH
Quote: “The Old Testament was clear in declaring that God rested on the seventh day, making it the Sabbath. The seventh day of the week is Saturday, the day of Jewish worship and rest. (Jesus himself invoked the holiness of the Jewish Sabbath.) The word Sunday does not appear in the Bible, either as the Sabbath or anything else. But four years before Nicaea, Constantine declared Sunday as a day of rest in honor of the sun god.”
Claim: Because Sunday does not appear in the Bible, Christians hypocritically disregard the Sabbath.
Answer: No. First, Christians worship on Sunday in recognition of the resurrection of Christ after the third day (starting Friday) in the tomb, not because of a Roman sun god.
Secondly, the Old Testament was written by a nation that followed a lunar calendar. Therefore, Saturday is not always the Sabbath. To set Saturday as the official Sabbath would require the placement of our solar calendar over their lunar calendar, thus the days would not match.
Essentially, no one can know for sure which Roman calendar day of the week the sabbath occurs.
DECEMBER 25TH IS NOT JESUS’ BIRTHDAY
Quote: “And while the Bible mentioned nothing about the day of Jesus’s birth, the birth of the sun god was celebrated on December 25 in Rome"
Claim: Christians unknowingly celebrate the wrong day of Jesus’ birth.
Answer: Yes, Jesus was probably born in summertime around 3BCE to 1CE. This fact does not affect the Bible nor Christian theology in anyway. I would venture to guess that the number of Christians who do not know this is probably on par with the number of Christians who believe in Santa Claus.
A COUNCIL DETERMINED WHETHER JESUS WAS GOD OR MAN
Quote: “The majority of the time at Nicaea was spent debating whether Jesus was a man who was the son of God, as Arius proclaimed, or God himself, as the church hierarchy maintained.”
Claim: A council voted on the divinity of Jesus.
Answer: No. The Council of Nicaea was called primarily to examine the teachings of Arius who believed that Jesus was a created being. However, because of biblical evidence like John 1:1,3,14, the council maintained the already widely-held view that Jesus was God.
John 1:3 says of Jesus that “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” If all things were made through him, and nothing was made without him, how was he made prior to his own existence?
Additionally, the Gospel of John states that the “Word was God” (1:1) and later says that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). The Council of Nicaea simply reaffirmed what the Bible had already taught centuries earlier.
As an aside, it is refreshing to see an author such a Eichenwald comment on what actually occurred at the Council of Nicaea. Many other writers, such as Dan Brown, have wrongly stated that he council was called to vote on which books belonged in the Bible.
THE GOSPELS ARE FILLED WITH CONTRADICTIONS
Quote: “Two Gospels—Matthew and Luke—tell the story of when Jesus was born, but in quite different ways. Contradictions abound.”
Claim: Because the Gospels do not tell the story exactly the same, we cannot trust it.
Answer: Yes and no. Yes, the Gospels were written by different authors from different perspectives. They write in their own voices and with their own personalities. Sometimes, there are differences in details, such as how many people were at a crowd to hear Jesus speak. These are differences, not so much contradictions. It's not like Matthew is saying Jesus was the Son of God and Luke was disagreeing.
No, this does not mean the the Gospels contradiction each other in a theologically significant way. It is actually quite striking to see how well the four Gospels actually do align. The best way to understand the differences between the Gospels is to think about different news outlets reporting on the same story. Details may vary, but the overall message is the same.
If the Gospels were exactly the same in every detail, then they would be suspected of copying from one another. Thus, the presence of differences does not speak poorly to the Gospels, but it provides evidence that they were actually written by four different authors.
GOD PLAYS WITH SEA MONSTERS
Quote: “God plays with a sea monster named Leviathan.”
Claim: The Bible is filled with oddities, like the Leviathan, that point to its mythological status.
Answer: No. Nowhere in the Bible does it state that God “plays” with a sea monster named Leviathan. The Leviathan is a name given to an animal with no clear translation from Hebrew. From descriptions of the creature, it may have been a large crocodile.
EVANGELICALS WANT GENESIS IN SCIENCE CLASSROOMS
Quote: “Evangelicals cite Genesis to challenge the science taught in classrooms, but don’t like to talk about those Old Testament books with monsters and magic.”
Claim: Evangelicals want the Genesis account of creation taught alongside evolution in classrooms as science, but ignore the mythological aspects of the Bible.
Answer: No, not all evangelicals want Genesis in a science classroom. Typically, only evangelicals who hold to Young Earth Creationism fit this category. Eichenwald unfairly broad strokes all evangelicals with the same color.
THE WORD HOMOSEXUAL DIDN’T EXIST WHEN THE BIBLE WAS WRITTEN
Quote: “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 when 1 Timothy was supposed to have been written.”
Claim: Because the word homosexual was not invented until the 19th century, it does not belong in the Bible.
Answer: Yes and no. Yes, the word homosexual didn’t exist until the 19th century. However, does that mean the concept of homosexuality didn’t exist until the 19th century either? Could it be possible that people have identified the same thing through different words throughout history? Like, say, jogging, a word that didn’t exist until the 1960s. Simply because the English word jogging didn’t exist until the 1960s, does that mean jogging itself did not exist prior to the 1960s?
Imagine that you found a document written in German from the 1700s that describes a man who wasn’t quite running, but he wasn’t quite walking either. How would you describe, in modern English, what that man was doing? You’d say he was jogging. Yet, according to Eichenwald, that translation is “odd” because the word jogging didn’t exist at the time the German man was jogging in the 1700s. The same could be said for the Bible.
CHRISTIAN FEMALE POLITICIANS ARE HYPOCRITES
Quote: “ In fact, every female politician who insists the New Testament is the inerrant word of God needs to resign immediately or admit that she is a hypocrite. That’s because 1 Timothy is one of the most virulently anti-woman books of the New Testament . . . Moreover, they can’t hold any position of authority over men and aren’t even allowed to be teachers.”
Claim: Because Paul says women cannot be in a position of authority over a man, all Christian women who are politicians are hypocrites.
Answer: No, according to 1 Timothy Christian women can become politicians or teachers or presidents or queens. Paul, the author of 1 Timothy, was writing about church leadership, not social or political leadership. That does open a debate within the church, Should women be pastors or ministers? However, it certainly does not preclude women from leadership roles outside of the church. In fact, there were women leaders in the New Testament, such as Prisca whom Paul addressed three times in three different letters as a “fellow worker in Christ.”
As an aside, if 1 Timothy is "one of the most virulently anti-woman books in the New Testament," what are the other "virulently anti-woman" books in the New Testament? Perhaps Galatians, which says there is now "no male nor female" during a time when women were viewed as property in Roman society? Or one of the Gospels where Jesus openly converses with and ministers to women, the lowest of ancient Palestinian society?
PAT ROBERTSON WAS WRONG FOR PRAYING AGAINST PRESIDENT OBAMA
Quote: “Robertson said. ‘We need to do something, to pray to be delivered from this president.’ And with that, Pat Robertson sinned.”
Claim: Pat Robertson disobeyed Paul’s command to pray for our leaders.
Answer: Yes, yes he did. Also, in case it wasn't obvious to Eichenwald, Pat Robertson is not the best representation of Christianity.
ALL SINS ARE EQUAL, EVERYONE IS CALLED TO SALVATION
Quote: “If [evangelicals] accept the writings of Paul and believe all people are sinners, then salvation is found in belief in Christ and the Resurrection. For everyone. There are no exceptions in the Bible for sins that evangelicals really don’t like.”
Claim: Simply because evangelicals view some sin as worse than others does not mean God does.
Answer: Yes, that's very true. Sin is sin. It is just as sinful to respond in anger to Eichenwald's article as a Christian as it was for Eichenwald to write in a way so as to poorly misrepresent the Bible.