Newsweek’s recent cover story on the Bible, as we expected, proved quite controversial, particularly among the evangelical community. Some agreed with our point, others expressed anger and still others came back with substantive replies. Our hope from the beginning was to inspire debate, and so we invited one our evangelical critics, Dr. Michael Brown, to continue the discussion. While we stand by our story and disagree with some of Dr. Brown’s points, we do not think it is appropriate to publish a reply here. However, Dr. Brown has generously invited the author of the piece to appear on his national radio show next week to resume this important dialogue.
Although Newsweek has previously published controversial articles on the Bible and Christianity to coincide with Easter and Christmas, Kurt Eichenwald’s 8,500 word, 16-page article posted on December 23rd, 2014, entitled, “The Bible – So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” has ignited a firestorm of controversy, in particular in the evangelical Christian world.
Is it true that prominent Christian leaders in America are misusing the Bible to suit their own purposes?
Have the sacred Scriptures become a political weapon in the hands of religious hypocrites?
Could it be that those who most loudly proclaim, “The Bible says!” are actually ignorant of the contents of that very book?
Has the text of the Bible undergone such dramatic changes over the centuries that it bears little resemblance to the original teachings of Moses, Jesus, and Paul?
There is certainly a tremendous amount of biblical illiteracy in evangelical Christian circles today, and some of it has trickled down from TV preachers and pastors whose sermons seem more like motivational pep talks than serious expositions of the Scriptures. And there is no shortage of hypocrisy in our midst – I speak as an evangelical leader – as we often major on a few specific sins of others while ignoring many sins of our own. As for using the Bible for political purposes, white evangelical Christians in particular can be guilty of associating true patriotism with allegiance to the Bible and the Republican Party, portraying their opponents as both anti-American and anti-God.
But does Newsweek paint an accurate picture of conservative evangelicals? Certainly not.
More importantly, does Newsweek paint an accurate picture of the reliability of the Scriptures? Emphatically not.
That is why the article has been so controversial. First, it is difficult to know who, exactly, is being targeted. Is it some evangelical politicians? A few street preachers? Evangelicals in general? Second, Newsweek appears to be attacking the Bible itself – although claiming not to – and it does so in a slipshod, methodologically flawed way at that.
Who Are These Religious Hypocrites?
The article begins with the word “They,” but we are not told who “they” are.
Is it those who “wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals”? If so, why even mention such people – especially in the opening line of the article – since they are absolutely miniscule in numbers (less than a fraction of a fraction of a percent of evangelicals) and they are universally condemned for their actions and attitudes by virtually all circles of evangelical Christendom.
Is it those who “fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school”? Aside from the unnecessary rhetorical flourish (no one is worshiping at the base of a monument), many Americans believe that our country was in better shape when we had more esteem for the Ten Commandments, which prohibit adultery and murder and theft and covetousness, while it can be argued that American families were healthier before prayer was taken out of public schools in 1962 than after.
Is Newsweek focusing on those who “gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation”? If so, what’s so bad about this? Public prayer gatherings have played a prominent role in American history since Colonial times, with many a president calling for national days of prayer.
We are not helped by the emotionally-charged, broad-brushed accusation that, “They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.”
Ironically, later in the article, Newsweek exhorts us to follow the teaching of Jesus, reminding us that he said, “Don’t judge. He condemned those who pointed out the faults of others while ignoring their own.” Yet here, Newsweek engages in the very kind of biased judgment that Jesus condemned.
As for many evangelicals being “cafeteria Christians” who, in a cavalier way, pick and choose what parts of the Bible they want to use, ignoring what they don’t like and modifying translations of the Bible to suit their purposes, while this may be true for some – there are shallow hypocrites in every religious group – it is hardly the norm. To the contrary, in the vast majority of our Bible colleges and seminaries we teach principles of biblical interpretation – called hermeneutics – studying what the biblical authors were saying to their original audiences and asking how those teachings apply to us today. Then we spend the rest of the time wrestling with how to live out those sacred teachings.
And because we believe the Bible is God’s Word, our scholars give special attention to mastering the original languages of the Bible, working to produce the very best possible translations. That is why evangelicals lead the entire scholarly world in producing new and improved translations of the Scriptures. Readers of the Newsweek article wouldn’t have the slightest idea that this is a major part of our faith.
There is no denying that “America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy,” yet that segment of the Church that seeks to put extra emphasis on the importance of the Scriptures is singled out by Newsweek for special criticism.
To be sure, by the end of the article, familiar names are mentioned, specifically, Pat Robertson, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Bachman, but it is clear that they are not the only ones targeted, and many evangelical leaders have felt that they too are being unfairly caricatured and attacked. Newsweek would have done better to state who, exactly, they felt was guilty of misrepresenting the Bible rather than causing so much unnecessary offense.
Do We Have a Reliable Bible or Are We Playing Telephone with God?
All this, however, is secondary to the real issue, which is, Can we trust the Bible? Is it really “loaded with contradictions and translation errors,” as Newsweek alleges? Is it true that it “wasn’t written by witnesses and includes words added by unknown scribes to inject Church orthodoxy . . . ?” Is it accurate to say that “the Bible can’t stop debunking itself”?
While Newsweek claims that the article “is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity,” even exhorting readers to study the Bible more seriously, it is difficult to see how people can be encouraged to read the Scriptures for themselves while undermining their confidence in those very Scriptures. After all, the Bible claims to have been inspired by God and written by eyewitnesses, and evangelical scholars (among others) believe that the biblical books have been carefully preserved and handed down through the centuries. Yet if Newsweek is correct, we can’t really be sure if we’re reading the real text of the Bible.
According to Newsweek, “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 statement is patently false, not to mention self-contradictory in the context of the article, since Newsweek had already referred to “the Bible” 8 times before this paragraph, and throughout the article, reference is made to alleged discrepancies in “the Bible” and of alleged evangelical misuse of “the Bible.” Yet here it is stated that none of us have actually read “the Bible.”
Let’s unpack this carefully, since a number of foundational propositions are laid out here. And it is this section of Newsweek’s examination, making up the major part of the article, which has drawn sharp criticism and strong correction from a number of top biblical scholars.
First, to speak of “the Bible” is to speak of a sacred book that is itself a collection of clearly defined sacred books, whether in the original languages or in translation, and the very term “the Bible,” derived from the Greek ta biblia, “the books,” wasn’t coined until approximately 223 A.D. And what we are reading today – in English translation or in the original languages – is extraordinarily close (and, for the most part) identical to what these early believers would have been reading when the term was coined.
Second, we are not reading “a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.” As Professor Daniel Wallace, one of the world’s foremost authorities on ancient New Testament manuscripts, rightly noted, “This is rhetorical flair run amok so badly that it gives hyperbole a bad name. A ‘translation of translations of translations’ would mean, at a minimum, that we are dealing with a translation that is at least three languages removed from the original. But the first translation is at best a translation of a fourth generation copy in the original language. Now, I’m ignoring completely his last line—‘and on and on, hundreds of times’—a line that is completely devoid of any resemblance to reality. Is it really true that we only have access to third generation translations from fourth generation Greek manuscripts? Hardly.”
To make this clearer, let’s say you are reading the book of Isaiah in a modern English translation like the English Standard Version. What you are reading is a translation made directly from the Hebrew text into English, not from a translation of the Hebrew into say, Aramaic, then from Aramaic into Latin, then from Latin into Chinese into Swedish into Finnish into Hungarian into English. A garbled chain like this would qualify as playing telephone; to translate straight from the Hebrew text into English clearly would not.
The real question is: How reliable are the Hebrew texts we have today, the ones used in the translation of the Old Testament? And how reliable are the Greek texts we have today, the ones used in the translation of the New Testament?
Actually, they are remarkably well-preserved, to the point that we can say that, with the exception of changes in spelling of words (like colour vs. color in English) and the adding of vowels (which are not part of the original Hebrew text), for the most part, when we read the Old Testament in Hebrew, we are reading the identical Hebrew texts that Jesus would have read in his hometown synagogue as a boy. (We’ll address the New Testament Greek manuscripts shortly.)
How can I make such a remarkable claim?
On my desk now is a copy of the Hebrew Bible based on a Hebrew codex from approximately 1,000 AD called the Leningrad B19a, and it is the oldest complete copy of the Hebrew Scriptures that we have, since copies of the Scriptures that became worn were buried or stored away and lost to history. That means, however, that this manuscript dates from almost 1,000 years after the time of Jesus, not to mention 1,700 years after the time of Isaiah and at least 2,200 years after the time of Moses. How reliable can it be?
Actually, it is amazingly reliable.
As I open this Bible to the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, I see the Hebrew annotation made by the scribe who copied it out. He lists first the total number of verses in the book, then cites the exact middle verse of the book, then lists the number of sections in the book. Next he lists the number of verses in the entire Pentateuch (also called the Torah or the Five Books of Moses; Deuteronomy is the last book of the Pentateuch) – there are 5,845 verses in the Torah, in case you were wondering – then the number of sections, the number of words (79,856!), and even the number of letters (400,945!). Can you imagine the diligence and skill and meticulous work needed to copy a text so precisely and then have it check out perfectly?
The problem, of course, is that this simply indicates how carefully later Jewish scribes copied out the sacred text – if there was one error found in the text, it could not be used – but it does not tell us if the text was passed on carefully from the time of Jesus until 1,000 AD. Thankfully, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran in the 1940s, scholars received exciting confirmation: Among a number of freehand copies (not translations) of some of the books of the Bible – in other words, copies of the Hebrew text that were not carried out with as much care and precision but that were still quite good – there were other copies that agreed with the 1,000 AD text virtually word for word. Yet these copies dated to roughly 100 BC, meaning that for more than a millennium, the biblical text had been copied with precision.
There’s much more confirmation as well, including quotations from the Hebrew text in commentaries found in Qumran, quotations from the Hebrew text found in rabbinic literature (some of which dates back to two centuries after the time of Jesus), and ancient Greek and Aramaic translations from the original Hebrew. It is by comparing all of these ancient sources that we can say with confidence that the Hebrew Bibles we have today – the basis of our English translations – is extremely close to, and for the most part the same as, the Hebrew Bible read by Jesus.
The situation is very different when it comes to the Greek New Testament, since we have thousands of manuscripts, some of them dating back to the first few centuries after the time of Jesus, but because they were copied by so many scribes, they have not been copied with as much precision, resulting in several hundred thousand textual discrepancies. But the vast majority of those discrepancies are inconsequential (akin to writing Doctor vs. Dr.), and as noted by Prof. Bart Ehrman, a foremost New Testament textual scholar and a well-known agnostic, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” (Note that Newsweek cited Ehrman as a “groundbreaking scholar.”)
The significance of this is explained by Darrell Bock, Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and a Humboldt scholar hosted at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Bock wrote, “What this means is that people on all sides recognize that what we have in the Bible in terms of the core things it teaches is a reflection of what made up these books originally. The caricature by Eichenwald that what we have in our hands has no resemblance to what was originally produced is misleading in the extreme, as even Ehrman’s own writing (the journalist’s source!) has argued, as the text noted above shows.”
And so, scholars translating the Greek New Testament into English are reading essentially the same Greek texts that were read by Greek speaking Church leaders in the second and third centuries of this era, beginning just a generation or two after Paul. This is highly significant.
The truth is that the evidence for the reliability of our New Testament manuscripts massively outweighs the evidence against it. To quote Wallace again, “. . . we have Greek manuscripts—thousands of them, some reaching as far back as the second century. And we have very ancient translations directly from the Greek that give us a good sense of the Greek text that would have been available in those regions where that early version was used. These include Latin, Syriac, and Coptic especially. Altogether, we have at least 20,000 handwritten manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and other ancient languages that help us to determine the wording of the original. Almost 6000 of these manuscripts are in Greek alone. And we have more than one million quotations of the New Testament by church fathers. There is absolutely nothing in the Greco-Roman world that comes even remotely close to this wealth of data. The New Testament has more manuscripts that are within a century or two of the original than anything else from the Greco-Roman world too. If we have to be skeptical about what the original New Testament said, that skepticism, on average, should be multiplied one thousand times for other Greco-Roman literature.”
To put this in perspective, F. F. Bruce, one of the most respected biblical scholars of the last generation, contrasted the evidence that exists for other ancient books when compared to the New Testament books, writing: “Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar's Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 BC) there are several extant
This is a lot of information to digest, but it’s worth sifting through carefully. In short, as Darrell Bock pointed out to me privately, if we doubt the Bible on the basis of manuscript evidence we’d better give up teaching classical literature as well. Classicists are jealous of the wealth of riches the manuscript tradition gives us about the wording of the New Testament.
Third, the translations of the Bible available to us today are anything but “bad” translations, and I say this as one who has studied and evaluated many of the best English translations for years. Even the King James Version, although outdated in much of its English expression and unable to take advantage of the many textual and linguistic discoveries of the last 400 years, is still a masterful translation. That’s why if you’ll compare 10 different English versions of the Bible, from the King James Version to the New English Translation, you’ll find essential harmony and agreement. And where there are differences, they are primarily due to difficulties in understanding the exact meaning of the original as opposed to lack of access to reliable texts.
As Prof. Bock also pointed out, “the reasons translations differ is not because Koine [the Greek in which the New Testament was written], as Eichenwald claims, can’t be expressed in English, but because (1) one has choices to make about some terms, (2) Greek order is more flexible than English (for NT), and (3) there are often a variety of ways to express the same idea (as translators often have good choices between synonyms). Beyond this sometimes there is a real question of (4) how to best translate a term to get the contextual meaning and (5) there can be differences in the manuscripts that make a difference. There are cases where theological choices are made that have an influence, but this is not as common as Newsweek suggests nor even the main reason for most differences we see.”
But What If Scribes Changed the Texts We Have?
There is no doubt that many scribal changes were made in the transmission of the New Testament Greek manuscripts that we have (to date, roughly 5,700 are catalogued, some dating back to within 100 years of Jesus), most of those changes occurring through unintentional human error, less of them occurring through intentional alteration. But because we have so many manuscripts that we can compare with one other, along with so many other early texts quoting these manuscripts, we can determine in most cases what the best, original reading was. Textual scholars have also learned how to recognize textual errors to the point that there is a careful science underlying the work that they do based on proven principles of scribal transmission.
Let’s look at some of the examples of alleged scribal changes cited in the article.
According to Newsweek, Luke 3:16, where John the Baptizer responds to a question from the crowds, makes no sense without later scribal changes which introduce a question from the crowds. (Otherwise, who or what is John “answering”?) But Bock, who has spent much of his academic career studying Luke, observes that, “In Luke 3:15 the crowd is speculating as a group that John the Baptist might be the Christ. There is a public square question on the table. When the text says succinctly, John ‘answered’ it is not a specific question he is responding to (which is what Newsweek thinks is required) but to the general and expressed speculation – a publically raised question that opens the door for a reply. There is nothing problematic about the text as it stands at all.”
Next, Newsweek points to John 7:53-8:11, the famous account of Jesus, the Pharisees, and a woman caught in adultery, which culminates with the accusers scattering and Jesus forgiving the woman and then bidding her to leave her life of sin. The problem, we are told is that “John didn’t write it. Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages. It does not appear in any of the three other Gospels or in any of the early Greek versions of John. Even if the Gospel of John is an infallible telling of the history of Jesus’s ministry, the event simply never happened.”
Of course, if you pick up any major English translation of the Bible of the last 50 years, you’ll see a footnote in the text here saying that John 7:53-8:11 is not found in the oldest manuscripts. But there’s more to the story. As Bock points out, “Bruce Metzger, probably the best known American textual critic of the last century and Bart Ehrman’s mentor, says these two things about this text in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament (1971, pp. 219, 220). First he says, ‘The evidence of the non-Johannine origin of the pericope is overwhelming.’ (p. 219).” That is to say, the mentor of Bart Ehrman confirms this as well: This account was not originally part of John’s Gospel.
Yet it was hardly the creation of medieval scribes. As Bock noted, “Two paragraphs later [Metzger] goes on to say this, ‘At the same time the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity.’ (p. 220).” In other words, the account rings absolutely true from a historical point of view. Metzer than “points out that the fact that the account has shown up in various locations in our gospel manuscripts [and] points to its wide and early circulation. None of this reflection appears in Newsweek’s handling of this text. It severely undercuts the point he is trying to make from this material.” So, this account appears to be an ancient gospel account; we just don’t know where it was originally placed.
Next is Mark 16:17-18, which Newsweek rightly says is “an important section of the Bible” for Pentecostal Christians, since it states “that those who believe in Jesus will speak in tongues and have extraordinary powers, such as the ability to cast out demons, heal the sick and handle snakes. Pentecostal ministers often babble incomprehensible sounds, proclaiming—based in part on these verses in Mark—that the noises they are making show that the Holy Spirit is in them. It’s also a primary justification for the emergence of the Pentecostal snake-handlers.
“But once again,” Newsweek observes, “the verses came from a creative scribe long after the Gospel of Mark was written. In fact, the earliest versions of Mark stop at 16:8. It’s an awkward ending, with three women who have gone to the tomb where Jesus was laid after the Crucifixion encountering a man who tells them to let the disciples know that the resurrected Jesus will see them in Galilee. The women flee the tomb, and ‘neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.’”
Here too there is truth mixed with error.
First, the fact that these verses are not found in the earliest manuscripts is also noted in our English translations. Again, with reasonable certainty, we are able to determine the original text of the New Testament.
Second, Pentecostal Christians point to many other texts in the New Testament that support the practice of speaking in tongues and praying for the sick; see the Book of Acts; 1 Corinthians 12-14; and James 5:13-16, among other texts. (Pentecostal snake handlers are a relatively modern phenomenon and, despite sensationalistic TV reporting, also an extremely rare phenomenon. To this day, I have never met one personally, despite decades of ministry in the midst of Pentecostals worldwide. The practice itself is based on a misinterpretation of Mark 16:17-18; what this originally meant is seen in Acts 28, where Paul is bitten by a poisonous snake and yet has no ill effects. He was not handling snakes as a test of his religious faith.)
Third, while scholars are quite confident that Mark 16:9-20 is not the original ending of that gospel, these verses were accepted by many of the early Church leaders, and while we cannot know if they represent the actual words of Jesus, they affirm the message of the Gospels and Acts.
Newsweek points to major differences between the accounts of the birth and infancy of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but there are no contradictions here of consequence at all. Instead, the same story is told from two different vantage points and highlighting different times and events. As noted again by Bock, “Matthew is told from Joseph’s angle, while Luke is told from Mary’s. If you ask almost any couple how they came together, each will have their own take on what took place and select their own details with some overlap and some difference in the selection. One can play the stories against each other (Newsweek’s take) or one can ask how they complement each other (our take).”
That’s why two accounts were written (actually four: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), just like it takes many biographies to tell the full story of a major leader’s life.
Newsweek claims that Jesus opposed family values. In truth, in keeping with the prophets who came before him, he called for our complete allegiance to God – putting him first, even before ourselves – stating that if we loved parents or children more than him we were not worthy of him. At the same time, he rebuked religious hypocrites for failing to honor their parents and using religion as an excuse, he taught and modeled unconditional love, and other writers in the New Testament penned wonderful teaching on the importance of marriage and family, supplement the rich teaching of the Old Testament. Surely Newsweek can’t be criticizing evangelical Christians for failing to take family values seriously.
What about the return of Jesus? Don’t the New Testament authors contradict each other here? Or, at the least, don’t they seem to be expecting his return in their own lifetimes? Both questions can be answered with yes and no, since the texts could be taken in these ways, or the texts could be interpreted as speaking of both imminence and distance: The coming of Jesus could be very near, so we should live with anticipation and discipline, but if his coming is delayed, we shouldn’t lose faith. This type of thinking can be found throughout the New Testament (for example, Luke 18:7-8), and there are various, solid interpretations that can be offered for all the verses in question.
What about the issue of the Torah (law) and the Christian? Did Jesus keep the Torah? Are his followers supposed to keep it? And do Paul and James contradict each other on this?
Although an endless stream of books and articles have been written on this, we can simplify matters greatly by remembering that: 1) Jesus lived and died as a Torah-obedient Jew. Otherwise, he could not have been the Messiah. 2) He opposed traditions that nullified the spirit and words of the Torah and so corrected them. 3) He brought to fulfillment the requirements of the Sinai covenant and inaugurated a new and better covenant, one that had been predicted by Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). 4) Jewish followers of Jesus, reflected in books like Acts, Hebrews and James, continued to live by the Torah since it was their national heritage. Many of them continued to live like this for centuries, and many do today as well, but for the purpose of covenantal solidarity with their people rather than for salvation. 5) Gentile followers of Jesus were never required to observe all the Torah’s commandments (such as dietary laws) but were called to live by the Torah’s moral requirements. 6) Paul objected strenuously when Gentile Christians were told that if they had to be circumcised and follow all Torah laws in order to be saved.
What about All Those Old Testament Contradictions?
Newsweek also focuses on a number of apparent contradictions in the Old Testament, all of which are well-known among students of the Bible. There are actually many more apparent contradictions that could have been cited, but all of them have been addressed over the years (often, over the centuries), so here too there is nothing new or troublesome. And while there are definitely some difficulties that are hard to resolve – and much discussed as a result –for those who will read the Bible on its own terms (that is, taking into account ancient literary conventions and the intent of the authors) the overwhelming harmony of the Scriptures far outweighs the apparent contradictions and difficulties.
With regard to the alleged contradictory accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, they are best scene as macro (Genesis 1) and micro (Genesis 2) accounts, the latter focusing in on one particular “day” of divine activity mentioned in the former, thereby bringing it into greater clarity. (You can be sure that the author or editor of Genesis did not find these chapters to be contradictory. Otherwise, we would have to assume that he had enough sense to compose or edit an extraordinarily rich and inspirational document but lacked the sense to realize he put together two contradictory accounts.)
The same can be said for alleged problems in the account of Noah and the flood. The text can be read as contradictory or, by understanding literary style and the wording of the author, the text can be read without difficulty. (A useful book for those wanting to look into these issues is Gleason J. Archer, Jr., New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties; another is the multi-authored Hard Sayings of the Bible.)
What about the Old Testament’s references to dragons and sea monsters and the like?
Some of the issues are simply matters of mistranslation in the King James Version (for example, the so-called unicorn, which is actually the wild ox). At other times, it is clear that the Old Testament writers are talking about unusual creatures. Why?
First, the people of the ancient Near Eastern world worshiped many different gods, including some that were depicted as dragons and chaos monsters. The Old Testament writers made clear that Yahweh – the God of Israel – was the only true God and that he had utterly vanquished all other competitors, including those put forward and revered by others.
Second, these false gods were often associated with the powers of nature. (For example, the Hebrew word yam, which means sea, was used as the name of a Canaanite deity, hence “Sea.”) Here too the Old Testament authors emphasized the Lord’s mastery over these hostile powers.
Third, in keeping with the New Testament (not to mention the beliefs of most Americans today), there is a spiritual realm as well as a natural realm, and just as the New Testament speaks of the devil and angels and demons, so the Old Testament depicted the denizens of the spiritual world in graphic terms.
We could go point out additional, related misstatements and errors, but enough has been said to underscore the point we are making: The Bible is a coherent book with a coherent message, and it has been passed on to us carefully. (For responses to Newsweek’s comments on 1 John 5:7; Luke 22:20; Luke 24:51; the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3; and the accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus, see here and here. My appreciation to Prof. Bock for making his materials available to me before they were all posted online.)
Are We Abusing the Bible or Rightly Using It?
It appears, though, that Newsweek is not only concerned with the reliability of the biblical text but with the abuse of the biblical text.
As stated “Newsweek’s exploration here of the Bible’s history and meaning is . . . designed to shine a light on a book that has been abused by people who claim to revere it but don’t read it, in the process creating misery for others. When the illiteracy of self-proclaimed Biblical literalists 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, the topic has become too important for Americans to ignore, whether they are deeply devout or tepidly faithful, believers or atheists.”
Many evangelical leaders would say “Amen” to these words, although to be sure, evangelical scholars and scientists and thinkers have no interest in impeding science or undermining intellectual advancement. Instead, scientific and intellectual arrogance that goes beyond facts to make dogmatic, often anti-faith pronouncements. The real problem is that the more we call people to live by the Bible the more we are called hateful and hypocritical.
Newsweek cannot have it both ways, condemning us for our biblical illiteracy, where it does exist, while at the same time condemning us for our biblical literacy, for studying the biblical text in the most minute detail and then for seeking to live by the teachings of the Scriptures. Having served in evangelical circles for the last 43 years, I can attest to how seriously most evangelical Christians take the Bible and how much they believe that they must order their lives according to the Scriptures.
What If Our English Translations Are the Problem?
To illustrate how English versions of the Bible allegedly mistranslate words to suit theological biases, Newsweek focuses on the Greek word proskuneo which is “used about 60 times in the New Testament” and “equates to something along the lines of ‘to prostrate oneself’ as well as ‘to praise God’” and in the King James Version is rendered “worship.” (Actually, the word never means “to praise God.”)
“As a result,” Newsweek continues, “throughout the King James Bible, people ‘worship’ many things. A slave worships his owner, the assembled of Satan worship an angel, and Roman soldiers mocking Jesus worship him. In each of these instances, the word does not mean ‘praise God’s glory’ or anything like that; instead, it means to bow or prostrate oneself. But English Bibles adopted later—the New International Bible, the New American Standard Bible, the Living Bible and so on—dropped the word worship when it referenced anyone other than God or Jesus. And so each time προσκυνέω appeared in the Greek manuscript regarding Jesus, in these newer Bibles he is worshipped, but when applied to someone else, the exact same word is translated as “bow” or something similar. By translating the same word different ways, these modern Bibles are adding a bit of linguistic support to the idea that the people who knew Jesus understood him to be God.”
And so, “with a little translational trickery, a fundamental tenet of Christianity—that Jesus is God—was reinforced in the Bible, even in places where it directly contradicts the rest of the verse.” Indeed, it is claimed, “That kind of manipulation occurs many times.”
First, this is highly inaccurate. There is only one instance in the New Testament where the King James translators rendered proskuneō with “worship” with reference to bowing down to other humans (namely, Revelation 3:9, which is corrected in almost all modern translations.) So, “throughout the King James Bible” people do not “‘worship’ many things,” and the author of Revelation is actually rebuked for “worshiping” at the feet of an angel (see Revelation 22:8-9).
Second, the meaning of all the relevant passages, where people “worship” Jesus (see, for example, Matthew 8:2; 9:18) is not affected at all if we translate with, “bowed reverently before him” or the like. While “worship” might be a stronger term, it is not substantially different from “bowing in reverence” before someone.
Third, this is not a matter of “translational trickery” or “manipulation.” Rather, this is simply the work of translation, since every word has one meaning in one confined context (although we recognize things like double entendre and poetic meanings in certain contexts) and translators must find the best word to use in each specific context. So, if I say in English, “The rock is hard,” I am using the word “hard” differently than when I say, “The test is hard.” The former means “solid”; the latter means “difficult.” A good translation of my words into another language will likely need to use two different words for hard (like “solid” and “difficult”) in the target language.
Fourth, for Christians, the belief that Jesus is the divine Son of God, worthy of worship and adoration, is found throughout the Bible and is hardly dependent on the precise translation of proskuneō. Yet there are, in fact, verses in the New Testament that speak of Jesus being worshiped and praised as divine, using that very verb. (See especially Revelation 5:11-14, all creatures in the universe worshiped God, sitting on the throne, and Jesus, depicted as a lamb, in the exact same way. This one text alone undercuts Newsweek’s entire argument.
Nonetheless, Newsweek makes the gratuitous claim that “the publishers of some Bibles decided to insert their beliefs into translations that had nothing to do with the Greek. The Living Bible, for example, says Jesus ‘was God’—even though modern translators pretty much just invented the words.”
The reference here is to Paul’s teaching in Philippians 2 that Jesus existed in the “form” of God, which the Living Bible then renders with “was God.” The problem is that the Living Bible is not a translation but rather a paraphrase, and so is a poor example to use (in that respect, the New Living Translation, which also translates with “was God,” is also a paraphrastic translation). The great majority of evangelical translations state that Jesus existed in “the form of God,” while the NIV, which renders with “in very likeness God,” is simply explaining what it understands the Greek words to mean. Since the larger context (see Philippians 2:6-11) points to the divine nature of Jesus, Bock is correct to point out that, “These contextual features are what a translator considers as he or she decides between possible rendering options, looking for the best specifically appropriate renderings for this context. This is not manipulation for doctrinal reasons. It is reading the text with literary sensitivity.”
Prof. Ben Witherington, longtime faculty member at Asbury Theological Seminary and the author of more than 40 books, explains further that what the Greek word “morphe [form] means is the outward manifestation of the actual nature of something. It doesn’t refer to the mere appearance of something. This is why diverse translations, not just conservative ones have rendered the verse in question ‘being in very nature God, he did not consider the having of equality with God something to be taken advantage of”. In other words, here as elsewhere Paul is perfectly happy to include Jesus within the definition of deity. Indeed this very passage refers to how he pre-existed and took on human form.”
At present, I am working on a commentary on the book of Job, rightly considered to be the most difficult book of the Bible to translate. Every day, as I dissect the text word by word, I examine how each verse has been translated into English, comparing a dozen or so modern versions, along with the ancient versions (including Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, and Latin). Translation is often a very difficult business, and sometimes I have mulled over a particular verse for months until arriving at what I believe is the best translation and interpretation.
But this is common for Bible translators and scholars, and the work we do is anything but cavalier. Simply a top evangelical commentary on a book of the Bible – a recent work on Acts runs to roughly 6,000 pages – and you’ll be stunned by the amount of time spent on determining how to translate one single word in context. Why? Because these words are sacred to us, and the last thing our serious teachers will do is play games with the text – to us, the Word of God – to suit our theological purposes. (There are certainly preachers who do play games with the text, but that was a problem Paul dealt with already in his day, and we continue with that struggle today.)
While no translation (evangelical Christian or otherwise) is perfect or without bias, that it not because of evil intent. It is because no human being is perfect or without bias, and that’s one of the reasons that the vast majority of translations are produced by teams of scholars who review and critique each other’s work.
Is the Trinity in the Bible?
There is yet a bigger problem for Newsweek, namely, the Trinity, which is branded “a fundamental, yet deeply confusing, tenet.” (To say that God is three in one certainly is confusing to many, but that doesn’t mean it is not true. I prefer to think of God’s complex unity as profoundly mysterious rather than confusing.)
Newsweek then asks: “So where does the clear declaration of God and Jesus as part of a triumvirate appear in the Greek manuscripts?”
The answer? “Nowhere. And in that deception lies a story of mass killings.”
Actually, the doctrine of the Trinity is deduced from the witness of the entire Bible, beginning in the Old Testament where: 1) God appears to individuals (or the nation of Israel) and yet elsewhere is said to be unseen (we believe that the Father is hidden and the Son is seen); 2) where prophecies indicate that the Messiah will be divine; and 3) where the Holy Spirit is spoken of in personal terms (he leads; he instructs; he can be grieved). The New Testament simply unfolds this in greater depth, based on which we believe in God’s tri-unity.
As for a specific statement in the Greek New Testament, Matthew 28:19 is sufficient. There, Jesus instructs his disciples to baptize new believers in “the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (Remember that Matthew was a Jewish monotheist, writing for fellow-Jewish monotheists, and so this formula is quite striking, speaking of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit on equal terms. Can you imagine immersing people into a new faith in “the name of God and of our denominational founder and of our favorite teacher”? That would be blasphemous.)
Oddly, Newsweek cites Paul, Mark, and Matthew as if they denied the deity of Jesus, whereas, to the contrary, they affirmed him as the Son of God – Paul in particular emphasized Jesus’ deity by referring to Jesus as Lord and, on occasion, referring to him as God (see Titus 2:13; many scholars also point to Romans 9:5). But, in harmony with the other New Testament authors, they emphasized the heavenly Father as God and Jesus as the Messiah and Lord, in keeping with standard Trinitarian theology.
Newsweek either misunderstands what Christians believe about the Trinity or else intentionally oversimplifies those beliefs so to create a conflict where it doesn’t exist.
What about the Mass Killings?
But weren’t there very real theological conflicts in the Church that led to many deaths?
Over the centuries, atrocities have certainly been committed by alleged followers of Jesus, against fellow-Christians, against Jews, and against others. Yet here too, Newsweek’s description is grossly exaggerated and inaccurate, as it claims that “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. The reason, in large part, was that there were no universally accepted manuscripts that set out what it meant to be a Christian, so most sects had their own gospels.”
This statement is wrong on numerous accounts.
First, there is no record of professing Christians killing other professing Christians over theological issues in the immediate centuries after Jesus. There were certainly schisms and sharp disagreements, but not murder. As Professor Michael Kruger, an expert in early Christianity, points out, “Eichenwald offers no historical evidence about the mass killing of Christians by Christians within the first few centuries (we are talking about the pre-Constantine time period). And there is a reason he doesn’t offer any. There is none.”
The primary time when blood was shed over some of these doctrinal issues was during the 5th-6th centuries AD (the Monophysite controversy). And, as inexcusable and abhorrent as these atrocities were, there were other factors fueling them. As explained by the prominent church historian John Phillip Jenkins in his book Jesus Wars, “What mattered were the interests and obsessions of rival emperors and queens, the role of competing ecclesiastical princes and their churches, and the empire’s military successes or failures against particular barbarian nations. To oversimplify, the fate of Christian doctrine was deeply influenced by just how well or badly the empire was doing fighting Attila the Hun.”
Followers of Jesus had been discussing these difficult theological issues long before these violent religious wars erupted, and they have been discussing them ever since as well, but without murdering those they differ with.
Second, the primary issue was not one of competing gospels and differing texts. To the contrary, by the 5th-6th centuries, those involved in these intense doctrinal controversies agreed fully on the text of the New Testament and completely rejected the so-called competing gospels. The dispute was over the meaning of those New Testament texts. As for the alleged pervasive influence of competing gospel texts, scholars have demonstrated that these texts were generally revered by fringe groups outside the mainstream – such as the Gnostics – just as cults and heretical groups today revere their own competing texts.
Why Doesn’t God Speak More Clearly?
But this leads us to a central question in Newsweek’s article: “Why would God, in conveying his message to the world, speak in whispers and riddles?”
The answer is that sometimes he does speak in whispers and riddles so that we will seek him more earnestly and study his Word more seriously rather than trying to relate to him as if he could be reduced to a simple mathematical formula. Is it surprising that there is a level of mystery and wonder in our relationship with God? Are we arrogant enough to think that, as human beings, we can fully comprehend the Lord? Can all divine revelation be packaged in a neat little box? And it isn’t it fitting that God reveals himself to those who humble themselves?
At the same time, over and again in the Scriptures, God does speak with absolute clarity, and that is where we often struggle the most. In the famous words of Mark Twain, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
Interestingly, Newsweek has no problem making categorical pronouncements based on the complete misinterpretation of biblical texts, such as condemning Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann for their political leadership, since “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.” This is based on a verse in 1 Timothy that is often understood to forbid female pastors.
But what does this have to do with women running for political office? Not a thing. Moreover, in the Old Testament, Deborah was a great national leader and the Book of Proverbs has a lengthy section speaking about strong, decision-making wives (see Proverbs 31:10-31), while Paul in the New Testament recognizes Christian women who played important roles in the church (see Romans 16).
The Question of Homosexuality
Newsweek also addresses the issue of homosexual practice and the Bible, arguing that: 1) the term “homosexual” didn’t exist before the 19th century, and so it is wrong to use it in modern English translations of the Bible; 2) 1 Timothy is an alleged forgery (which is deemed relevant, since 1 Timothy 1:10 is often cited as prohibiting homosexual practice); and 3) the Greek word translated “homosexual” in 1 Timothy 1 is not entirely clear.
Once again, Newsweek has skewed the facts.
First, it is true that the word “homosexual” was coined around 1870, but no one denies that homosexual practice existed in Paul’s day, and biblical translators today are simply expressing ancient concepts in contemporary terms, quite rightly so. It is therefore false and misleading to claim that the word “homosexual” came into our English Bibles because, “The editors of these modern Bibles just made it up.”
Second, there are top scholars who believe that Paul wrote 1 Timothy, but either way, Paul makes an even clearer statement about homosexual practice in 1 Corinthians 6:9 (using the same key word as is found in 1 Timothy 1:10, but with a second key word in 1 Corinthians), which means that dismissing 1 Timothy as a forgery is completely irrelevant to the point.
Third, all the major lexicons of the New Testament and ancient Greek, along with quite a few liberal and even gay scholars, recognize that Paul condemned homosexual practice (while also expressing the possibility of salvation for homosexual and heterosexual alike). For more on this, see Can You Be Gay and Christian? and note that the Bauer Arndt Gingrich Danker lexicon of the Greek New Testament, considered the most authoritative work of its kind, defines the Greek word in question, arsenokoitēs, as “a male who engages in sexual activity w. a pers. of his own sex, pederast 1 Cor 6:9,” going on to explain that “Paul’s strictures against same-sex activity cannot be satisfactorily explained on the basis of alleged temple prostitution . . . or limited to contact w. boys for homoerotic service . . .” (p. 135). So, Paul not only forbids homosexual pederasty but all homosexual acts as well.
Putting this discussion, though, in the larger context of biblical interpretation, Kruger rightly observes that, “Eichenwald finds himself in a dilemma. He clearly wants to affirm the validity of many sins in the Bible (especially if he thinks they are committed by evangelicals). Is he willing to affirm that homosexuality is a sin? And if he is not, then he is the one who is ‘picking and choosing’ what to follow in the Bible. Indeed, if he does not, then he is carving out a special exception for homosexuality. Isn’t that the same sort of thing that he condemned evangelicals for doing?”
Newsweek points to inconsistency among conservative Christians, noting that they often quote Leviticus 18:22, which states that it is an abomination for a man to lie with a man, while at the same time ignoring other parts of Leviticus, not to mention other parts of the Torah as a whole.
This criticism, too, is off base, and there is a simple reason why Christians can rightly point to Leviticus 18 when it condemns homosexual practice while ignoring the Levitical food laws: The prohibition of homosexual practice in Leviticus is part of a list of forbidden unions for all people (including idol-worshiping nations like Egypt and Canaan; see Leviticus 18:24-30). In contrast, the food laws were given specifically to Israel to keep them separate from the other nations (see Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy; note also the New Testament indicates that the food laws do not apply, in particular to Gentile believers). There is nothing hypocritical here.
Did Constantine Change Everything?
If Newsweek is correct, though, the real issue is not even what the biblical authors intended or even how accurately later scribes copied the text. Instead, the issue is how much the Roman Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity and then “converted” the Roman Empire into the faith, changed things in the early 4th century A.D.
According to Newsweek, not only was Constantine “a brutal sociopath” (after his conversion as well as before), but under his leadership at the Council of Nicea in 325, major decisions were made, including: what books belonged in the New Testament; the doctrine of the Trinity, which included the deity of Jesus; changing the Sabbath to Sunday; and establishing December 25th as the birth of Jesus.
In reality, while the Christianizing of Rome had both good and bad effects, and while some negative changes were definitely made by Constantine, once again, Newsweek has blended fact together with fiction to produce a dangerously misleading mix. (Some of Constantine’s decisions can only be called anti-Semitic, such as his reason for distancing the Church’s celebration of Easter from the Jewish celebration of Passover – originally, they took place at the same time – in what is called the Quartodeciman controversy),
First, Constantine has his literate defenders as well, and so serious readers might want to get another side to the story. Most recently, see Peter J. Leithart’s Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom.
Second, to cite Darrell Bock again, “Constantine had NOTHING to do with which books were accepted into the canon. The council of Nicea, the one Constantine called, did not even discuss the contents of the New Testament! This false presentation of history has continued to make the public rounds since The DaVinci Code. It is best dropped as a historical claim. All such claims about the canon of the Bible and Constantine also ignores the evidence from Irenaeus [died 202 AD] that shows most books in our New Testament were being used and recognized 125 years before Constantine. This list includes the four gospels, Acts. Paul’s letters, 1 Peter, and 1 John.” So, not only did Constantine not influence the canon of the New Testament, but even if Constantine played a major role in determining Church orthodoxy – again, a greatly exaggerated claim – the fact is that the makeup of the New Testament had largely been determined more than 100 years earlier.
Third, the belief in the deity of Jesus and God’s triune nature can be found in writings from Church leaders in the centuries before Nicea. The purpose of that Council was not to promulgate some new, fringe belief but rather to decide whether those denying the deity of Jesus, led by Arius, were correct. They rejected the Arian view and clarified the Trinitarian view, using technical Greek philosophical terms in which the debate had come to be conducted at that time.
Fourth, in the New Testament, Gentile Christians were never commanded to observe the seventh-day Sabbath, and there is evidence from the early 2nd century AD that believers would gather on Sunday mornings (before work) or evenings (after work) to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. See, for example, Donald Carson (ed.), From Sabbath to Lord's Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation.
Many biblical scholars and Church historians agree that the New Testament never taught that the Sabbath was changed to Sunday, and Constantine (or the early Church) clearly had no authority to make this proclamation. But again, the impression one gets from the Newsweek article is that Constantine created these things out of whole cloth. Rather, he (or other church leaders) simply codified them, at times quite wrongly so. Similarly, with regard to Christmas and December 25th, regardless of when Jesus was born – which we don’t know for sure – as more and more idol worshipers came to faith in Jesus, it seemed appropriate to many Christian leaders to replace a day of pagan celebration (December 25th) with the celebration of something much more important, namely the birth of the Savior.
Constantine was certainly far from a perfect Christian model, and under his influence, there were positive changes for the Roman Empire as well as negative changes for the Church. But he did not influence what books are found in our Bibles or determine what we believe about God and salvation. That is myth, not history.
What about Evangelical Hypocrisy?
Getting back to where we started, when Newsweek does name contemporary names, they are the familiar ones: Pat Robertson, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Bachmann, all of them evangelical Christians.
He takes Robertson to task for praying for deliverance from President Obama, claiming it violates Romans 13, which calls us to submit to governing authorities. But Robertson’s prayer, whether right or wrong, was not a call for the overthrow of the presidency or for disobedience to rightfully passed laws.
If Newsweek would have said that white evangelical Christians all too often equate the Republican Party with the Kingdom of God, that would have been a valid point. But the attack on Robertson is based on a misuse of Scripture.
As for Perry, Newsweek is mortified that he could hold a prayer rally in a football stadium with 30,000 fellow-Christians when Jesus explicitly told us in Matthew 6 not to pray in public but in private. (Jindal has apparently called for an even larger prayer gathering.) Yes, “Jesus would have been horrified. At least, that’s what the Bible says.”
Actually, what Jesus taught against in Matthew 6 was praying (or donating to charity or fasting) in order to be seen by others. As he stated, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). He was certainly not forbidding us from praying in public.
To the contrary, throughout the Old Testament the great leaders of Israel (including David and Solomon and Elijah) prayed in public, and Jesus himself went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, where he would have participated in public prayers. And on several notable occasions in the Gospels, he prayed in public (see, for example, John 11:41-43, where he prayed before raising Lazarus from the dead).
It’s also noteworthy that the apostles and the early followers of Jesus, who certainly knew what he taught, prayed in public, especially during times of crisis (see Acts 1:14; 4:24-31; 12:1-12). There are even exhortations and teachings in the New Testament regarding proper conduct in public prayer (see 1 Corinthians 11; 14; 1 Timothy 2:8). And let’s not forget that the Psalter (the Book of Psalms), which was widely used in worship by the early followers of Jesus, was a book of communal prayer.
So, when we gather together for public prayer events, we are doing what Jesus and the apostles did, and by doing so, we confess our need for God and for each other.
That being said, if we stand to pray in order to be seen by people – especially on giant jumbotrons – then we are being immature and carnal and would do better to shut the door and pray privately. And if we are praying long prayers thinking that the longer we pray, the more likely God is to hear us, we are not heeding Jesus’ words. But if the length of our prayers reflects the longing of our hearts, then here too we are in good company. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus often prayed for long periods of time, sometimes all night.
Getting Back to the Bottom Line
Many evangelical leaders have certainly taken strong exception to Newsweek’s article, but not because it challenges what we believe or because, as in the spirit of radical Islam, we believe all criticism of the Bible should be banned. That is both un-American and unchristian.
The problem is that Newsweek’s investigation brings more heat than light. It is more destructive than constructive, it is terribly one-sided, and it is so laced with errors as to render it unusable.
All that being said, I stand shoulder to shoulder with Newsweek in calling for deeper study of the Scriptures, in asking the serious and hard questions, in challenging us not to hide behind cheap answers, in exhorting us to renounce shallowness and hypocrisy, and in calling us to commit afresh to follow the words of Jesus. When asked by the religious leaders what the greatest commandment was, he responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
As Newsweek said at the close of the article, “That’s a good place to start.”
Michael Brown (Ph.D., New York University) hosts the nationally syndicated talk radio show The Line of Fire. He is the author of 25 books and a seminary professor. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @DrMichaelLBrown on Twitter.