“News”week on the Bible

The January 2, 2015 issue of Newsweek magazine ran as its cover story “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” by Kurt Eichenwald. Timed perfectly for Christmas (the Web version was posted Dec. 23), the piece claims to rescue the Bible—or at least some small bits and pieces of the Bible—from Christians. Eichenwald’s main point in the essay, and a common claim, is that the Scriptures (he uses the word “Bible” consistently) are a patchwork of ideas, developed over time to institutionalize certain power structures that diminished the role of many less powerful people, including women. He sees the same problems at work today. He claims that the church (or at least “evangelicals” or “fundamentalists”) is seeking to use the Bible in another power move: “fundamentalists [are] eager to condemn homosexuals.” If you have kept up with argumentation that the Scriptures do not condemn (along with many other sins) same-sex activity, then none of what is found in this essay will be a surprise. The unique contribution of this essay is its sarcastic tone. In this age of the Internet, only the loudest and most outlandish voice is the voice that is heard; one can no longer expect fair-minded argumentation. But this article fails to present, in any balanced manner, any point of view that would hold the Scriptures and their teaching authoritative. Sarcasm is not an argument.

The introduction to the piece ends with the thesis statement:

This examination—based in large part on the works of scores of theologians and scholars, some of which dates back centuries—is a review of the Bible’s history and a recounting of its words. It is only through accepting where the Bible comes from— and who put it together—that anyone can comprehend what history’s most important book says and, just as important, what it does not say.

This statement is true, in that it draws upon the study of the Bible since the Age of Enlightenment. A basic shift in thinking occurred beginning in the late 17th and 18th centuries: truth would be determined by what was observable and verifiable. Revelation, or the belief that a transcendent God acts in human history and reveals truth to people, was dismissed. Institutions and orthodoxies, especially the Church (with the intolerance it was perceived to promote) were dismissed. So Eichenwald is correct in that “centuries” of “theologians and scholars” have sought a basis of truth outside of the Scriptures. What is expressed in the article is simply the typical skepticism that has attacked the Scriptures and the church for generations.

There is much that could be responded to, in virtually every sentence of the essay. Here I will focus only on the section titled “Playing Telephone with the Word of God,” which deals with the transmission of the wording of the text in the manuscripts. He begins with an unfortunate overstatement:

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 lays out the basic line that is repeated over and over: That we no longer have access to the Bible because it has been worked over, countless times by countless people, with the result that it is no longer close to whatever the original wording was. Again, this is a common argument. But it is vast oversimplification and overstatement, for the differences among the manuscripts do not constitute major changes that affect meaning. As an example, here is a list of every known difference in all manuscripts of Romans 3:21-28, a section of the New Testament that is central to the Lutheran teaching of justification by faith. The actual evidence is far from the mess that Eichenwald claims:

 Romans 3:21-28 (Differences between manuscripts in italics)

“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been revealed, having been testified in the Law and the Prophets; 22 the righteousness of God is revealed through faith in Jesus Christ for all and upon all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and lack the glory of God, 24 having been justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, through this faith, as a demonstration of his righteousness, by, in the forbearance of God, passing over earlier sins as a demonstration of his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the one who justifies / by justifying the one who has faith in Jesus. 27  Where, then, is your boasting? It is excluded. By which law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we determine / let us determine that one is justified by / through faith apart from works of law.

3:22     through faith in Jesus Christ / through faith in Christ

3:22     for all who believe / for all and upon all who believe

3:25     through faith / through this faith (?) / omit (one manuscript)

3:26     the one who justified / by justifying (two mss,)

3:27     boasting /  your boasting (two mss, Latin)

3:28     for / [another word for “for”]

3:28     we determine / let us determine (late mss.)

3:28     by faith / through faith

This can hardly be called the results of something like “telephone game.” Overstatements and oversimplifications such as those expressed in the article do not contribute to constructive dialogue. Furthermore, for this section of Romans, there are manuscripts that date to the early third century, only 150 years after the letter was written. And there is solid evidence that Romans and the rest of Paul’s letters were widely considered authoritative already by the end of the first century, only a handful of decades after they were written. Eichenwald’s claim that “400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament” is an oversimplification at best, and deceptive at worst.

Another red herring is that the method of copying Greek text, without punctuation and spaces between words, makes it confusing to read:

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. Some copied the script without understanding the words. And 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.”

Virtually every item in this paragraph is absurd. Scribes were not “amateur” (a modern category), and they were not, by very definition, “illiterate”—as if the copyists were tracing letters with no idea what they were copying. Furthermore, the fact that the manuscripts are written in scriptio continua never contributed to potential misunderstanding. This was simply common practice in the Roman world. Look at any image of a Greek or Latin inscription or manuscript and you will see the text written this way. The fact that English speakers have difficulty making sense of text written in this way has nothing to say about ancient copyists or readers.

Another common argument that Eichenwald reproduces is this:

Scribes added whole sections of the New Testament, and removed words and sentences that contradicted emerging orthodox beliefs.

He cites five passages. The first three, John 7:53-8:11, Mark 16:9-20, and 1 John 5:7, were all known to early scribes. Ancient manuscripts sometimes noted the problematic text in these places, the way that modern translations note the problems. And—note this—these three passages are the sum total of major additions to the text. There are no other lengthy questionable passages, the birth accounts in Matthew and Luke, the crucifixion and resurrection accounts in the Gospels, none of those are textually uncertain. The three sections noted above are readily explained as additions. And even if these three passages were not considered part of the New Testament, it would not change, in the very least, the teachings of Christianity.

Surprisingly, Eichenwald also cites two other passages as examples of additions at “critical portions” of the New Testament: Luke 22:20 and Luke 24:51. However, no modern edition of the Greek New Testament, nor any translation, questions the authenticity of these passages. Furthermore, even if one were to strike these passages from their New Testament, the same wording and teaching is found elsewhere in the New Testament. Luke 22:20 has virtually the same words as 1 Corinthians 11:25, Matthew 26:28, and Mark 14:23-24. Even if those words were not in Luke’s Gospel—and that is a highly questionable “if”—it cannot be said that later scribes added the cup to the celebration of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. The same goes for Luke 24:51 (both passages, incidentally, are among those that scholars 130 years ago labeled “Western Non-Interpolations,” if someone wants to track down the history of argumentation). Acts 1:6-11 very clearly, and without variation, describes the bodily ascension of Jesus. Critics may choose to dismiss that teaching (given their presuppositions), but it cannot be said that the teaching is not found in the early manuscripts of the New Testament writings.

Unfair presentation of evidence, factually incorrect descriptions, and non-sequitur conclusions are, unfortunately, common in these kinds of skeptical dismissals of the Scriptures and their teachings. They do garner publicity, of course, and feed stereotypes. Eichenwald’s claim at the end of the piece that “This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity. Instead, Christians seeking greater understanding of their religion should view it as an attempt to save the Bible from the ignorance, hatred and bias that has been heaped upon it” is simply condescending. This is hardly the basis for discussion about how the Scriptures should shape and form the way the church—and society—deals with challenging issues over which there is disagreement.





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