“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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14 Comments

  1. pete lange January 4, 2015
    Reply

    thanks – we will be discussing this at our circuit meeting on tuesday

  2. John Rasmussen January 5, 2015
    Reply

    I always hold my breath around Christmas or Easter… waiting to see what kind of fringe scholarship is going to make the front page of Time or Newsweek. The article talks about “power structures,” however, the cultural lens imposed on the Scriptures in these articles are power structure with their own interpretive agendas… Thanks for writing this up!

    • Jeff Kloha January 5, 2015

      That’s exactly right, John. The church doesn’t have the power (what counts as power in society) to get a message out the way that Newsweek or Time or National Geographic can. Kind of ironic, really. History is (re)written to negatively describe the church as pushing an agenda on unwilling people. And what are pieces like this?

  3. John Popovits January 5, 2015
    Reply

    Fantastic article Dr. Kloha. It pains me to see the scriptures attacked like this in the media. The church as a whole needs to stand against this type of ignorance.

  4. Robert January 6, 2015
    Reply

    I find it interesting how he speaks with authority about what was added to the text and deleted from text from a thousand years ago. Was he there?

  5. Peter Nafzger January 6, 2015
    Reply

    Thanks for this piece, Dr. Kloha.

    I don’t think any of us are surprised by articles like this. At least, we shouldn’t be. What bothers me is what we, as the church, have done to enable this kind of messaging.

    I don’t want to make any assumptions about the author’s faith, but the issues he addresses, and which you (Dr. Kloha) have worked very hard to help us understand and explain, belong in the church. The Scriptures were written BY the people of God, TO the people of God, FOR the people of God, understood properly AMONG the people of God (1 Corinthians 2:6-16).

    This doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t take our faith and the Gospel into the public. That’s our mission. Neither does it mean we should be unprepared to give reasons for our hope (1 Peter 3:15). And neither does it mean that the Scriptures are anything less than the written Word of God. But Jesus sent us to SPEAK the Gospel and PROCLAIM repentance and forgiveness of sins. When we present the Scriptures, as an assumed authority, to an increasingly unbelieving public, we invite this kind of critical (albeit unfair and academically sloppy) response.

    Instead of having to react to and correct every latest piece like this (which we must), I think we’d be served better by acknowledging that the Scriptures only function authoritatively (in the right way) among the baptized and believing. The Law and Gospel truths written in the Scriptures we proclaim everywhere. Absolutely. But the Scriptures themselves, and their admittedly complicated textual history, belong in-house.

    In the meantime, thanks for your (public) reaction and correction.

  6. James Snapp, Jr. January 7, 2015
    Reply

    Jeff K,

    A few text-critical clarifications —

    First John 5:7 was not a variant known to *early* scribes, at least not scribes of the Greek text of First John.

    It is not entirely true that “these three passages are the sum total of major additions to the text.” Several variants — whether omissions or interpolations — involve as many or more words as the Comma Johanneum.

    Also, you wrote that “No modern edition of the Greek New Testament, nor any translation, questions the authenticity of these passages,” i.e., Luke 22:20 and Luke 24:51.” However, the RSV, iirc, did not include the phrase “and was carried up into heaven” — this is what Eichenwald meant — in the text of Luke 24:51. And UBS-2 and several editions of NA double-bracketed Luke 22:20.

    In related news I posted about Eichenwald’s article too, at
    http://onyxkylix.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-bible-so-mispresented-its-sin-26.html .

    • Jeff Kloha January 7, 2015

      Thanks, James. There are always may more details that can be added, but to clarify:

      1) There are arguments that early Latin fathers knew of readings similar to the addition at 1 John 5:7; I don’t think it is correct, as some claim, to see Cyprian as citing this specific text, but there is late fourth century Latin evidence. And the Vetus Latina 64 manuscript (VI/VII cen), which carries a noteworthy text, has the reading.

      2) By “major” I meant not only in length but also “major impact on meaning and theology” Many additions of verse-length text are found in gospel manuscripts; these are typically simply adopted from the parallel in another canonical gospel. Acts 8:37 is another longer addition, though people don’t seem to talk about that one much. There certainly is nothing else in the manuscript evidence like John 7:53-8:11 or Mark 16:9-20, or of the theological significance of 1 John 5:7.

      3) The last Nestle edition to double-bracket “Western Non-Interpolations” was the 25th, from 1963. I did not realize that the RSV2 1971 (is that your reference to “iirc”?) omitted the phrase from Luke 24:51. Thanks for pointing that out. In my check of the 1971 RSV2 the text is there (but not some other “Western Non-Interpolations”) The NRSV (1989) also includes the text there. That translation does omit “and they worshipped him” from 24:52 (and a few other examples).

      And thanks also to the link to the longer, more extensive critique that you wrote.

  7. Glenn Fluegge January 7, 2015
    Reply

    Thanks, Jeff, for this insightful and helpful rebuttal. You commented: “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.” I’m finding increasingly in my university level theo classes that general opinions about religion (and, for that matter, almost all topics) are greatly (!), and at times solely, influenced by the internet (and what sells). How do we get more reasoned scholarship, like your blog, to have a wider readership (like that of Newsweek)? Not sure, but I hope to discuss this article, your response, and the problem of internet knowledge in my classes. Thanks again!

  8. Doug Ochner January 7, 2015
    Reply

    Thanks for a great critique of this vitriolic article. Fox news had a link to Alber Mohler’s response, but I think you highlighted significant flaws in the article rather than engage in character assassination. Eichenwald goes for the low-hanging fruit like snake-handlers and Westboro which most Christians and non-Christians alike would see as ridiculous and not representative of Christ’s teaching. The real issue is with the content of Scripture. The powers of this world seek to deflect examination of Christ by fostering the idea Scripture/Christ are absurd.

  9. Kirk Clayton January 7, 2015
    Reply

    Dr. Kloha,
    Thank you for a clear, careful answer to a scholarly mess of an article in “News”week. Very well done! Would that such thoughtful responses received the same coverage and attention as the academic schlock that precipitated them! And while it may not make headlines, I am very glad to see a voice of solid Scriptural scholarship from CSL enter the fray. Again, thank you for this helpful piece.

  10. Rev. Paul T. McCain January 8, 2015
    Reply

    There is no point of Christian doctrine that is cast into doubt because of textual variants. This is the point we must continue to make crystal clear to the laity who otherwise might be led into doubt or confusion when textual variants are discussed.

    • Rev. Jeffery Grams January 12, 2015

      Well said Paul. Indeed those who strive to magnify such variations often do so as a means of undermining the faith of the hearer. Knowing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, we trust His promise that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35 ESV)

  11. Maria E. Fiebelkorn January 9, 2015
    Reply

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge of scripture. As a survivor of the Holocaust and its aftermath, I am still waiting for that day when the “Sleeping Giant”, the Church, will arise in the Name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and LORD, and use the sword of His Spirit and His Authority to accomplish and finish the defeat of God’s enemies and enemies of His Children, His Church. JESUS CHRIST IS LORD let us declare it and quit reading condemnations upon His Church, His people.
    On the other hand, maybe this “trash” as printed in Newsweek will inspire some curiosity seeking soul to find the Way, the Truth, and the Life in the Holy Bible. Thanks for writing and listening and SPEAKING God’s Word into the worldly polluted atmosphere we live in. JESUS CHRIST THE MESSIAH IS LORD AND HE SHALL REIGN FOREVER AND EVER!
    Our Lord God is still in charge!
    Love and Prayers, Maria

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