Every year, at Christmas and Easter, several major magazines, television programs, news agencies, and publishing houses love to rattle the faith of Christians by proclaiming loudly and obnoxiously that there are contradictions in the Bible, that Jesus was not conceived by a virgin, that he did not rise from the dead, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. The day before Christmas eve (23 December 2014), Newsweek published a lengthy article by Kurt Eichenwald entitled, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Although the author claims that he is not promoting any particular theology, this wears thin. Eichenwald makes so many outrageous claims, based on a rather slender list of named scholars (three, to be exact), that one has to wonder how this ever passed any editorial review.
My PDF of this article runs 34 pages (!) before the hundreds of comments that are appended. Consequently, I don’t have space to critique everything that is wrong in this article. Just a few comments will have to suffice. But first, I wish to offer it some praise: It’s fair game to raise questions about the Bible’s accuracy concerning sin, salvation, miracles, Jesus, etc. It’s fair game precisely because the Bible makes audacious claims that, if true, change everything. And it’s fair game because the Bible places these claims in history. Indeed, the Bible is the only major sacred text that subjects itself to historical verification. It’s the only major sacred text that puts itself at risk. And Jesus is at the center of those claims and that risk. It’s not the questions that I’m concerned about in Eichenwald’s essay; rather, it’s the rather conservative and self-contradictory approach to the answers that are problematic. Conservative? Yes—methodologically so, although not materially so. That is, Eichenwald is not methodoligically a liberal because he only considers certain, worn-out conclusions without even giving a hint that many well-qualified biblical scholars disagree with those conclusions. Martin Hengel, that towering figure of German biblical scholarship, wrote about the parallel dangers from “an uncritical, sterile apologetic fundamentalism” and “from no less sterile ‘critical ignorance’” on the part of radical liberalism (Studies in Early Christology  57–58). At bottom, the approaches are the same; the only differences are the presuppositions. A true liberal is one who is open to all the evidence, including the possibility that God has invaded space-time history in the person of Jesus Christ. A true liberal is one who is willing to go where the evidence leads, even if it contradicts his or her cherished beliefs.
Error 1: Gross Exaggerations that Misrepresent the Data
I will address just one issue here—the notion that the original Bible is unknowable. Eichenwald claims:
“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.”
So, none of us today has read anything except a bad translation that has been altered hundreds of times before it got to us? Although Eichenwald enlists Bart Ehrman as one of the three scholars he names in the essay, he has seriously overstated Ehrman’s argument. At one point, it is true, Ehrman says in Misquoting Jesus, “Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.” Here he is speaking of Greek copies of Greek manuscripts. Nothing is said about translations. At many points he admits that the vast majority of the changes to the text of the New Testament were rather minor over the many centuries of handwritten copying. And in the appendix to the paperback edition of his book Ehrman says, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” But Eichenwald makes it sound as though all translations current today are bad and that we can’t possibly recover the wording of the original text. The reality is that we are getting closer and closer to the text of the original New Testament as more and more manuscripts are being discovered and catalogued.
But let’s examine a bit more the actual statement that Eichenwald makes. We are all reading “at best,” he declares, 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 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.
Although we know of some translations, especially the later ones, that were based on translations in other languages of the Greek text (thus, a translation of a translation of the Greek), this is not at all what scholars utilize today to duplicate as faithfully as possible the original wording. No, 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.
What of the differences among these witnesses? To be sure, there are more variants for the New Testament than for any other piece of ancient literature, but that’s because there are more manuscripts for the New Testament than for any other piece of ancient literature. Consider the King James Version compared to virtually any modern New Testament translation: There are about 5000 differences in the underlying Greek text between these two. The vast majority of the differences cannot even be translated. The KJV is based on significantly later manuscripts, yet not a single cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith is affected by the different variants.
The title of Eichenwald’s section that deals with manuscript transmission is “Playing Telephone with the Word of God.” The implication is that the transmission of the Bible is very much like the telephone game—a parlor game every American knows. It involves a brief narrative that someone whispers to the next person in line who then whispers this to the next person, and so on for several people. Then, the last person recites out loud what he or she heard and everyone has a good laugh for how garbled the story got. But the transmission of scripture is not at all like the telephone game. First, the goal of the telephone game is to see how badly the story can get misrepresented, while the goal of New Testament copying was by and large to produce very careful, accurate copies of the original. Second, in the telephone game there is only one line of transmission, while with the New Testament there are multiple lines of transmission. Third, one is oral, recited once in another’s ear, while the other is written, copied by a faithful scribe who then would check his or her work or have someone else do it. Fourth, in the telephone game only the wording of the last person in the line can be checked, while for the New Testament textual critics have access to many of the earlier texts, some going back very close to the time of the autographs. Fifth, even the ancient scribes had access to earlier texts, and would often check their work against a manuscript that was many generations older than their immediate ancestor. The average papyrus manuscript would last for a century or more. Thus, even a late second-century scribe could have potentially examined the original document he or she was copying. If telephone were played the way New Testament transmission occurred, it would make for a ridiculously boring parlor game!
One of the most remarkable pieces of illogical reasoning in Eichenwald’s essay is his discussion of corruption in the manuscripts. Every single instance he raises presupposes that he knows what the original text said, for he speaks about what text had been corrupted in each instance! And more than once he contradicts his opening gambit by speaking authoritatively about what the original text actually said. In short, Eichenwald’s opening paragraph takes exaggeration to new heights. If his goal is to shame conservative Christians for holding views that have no basis in reality, perhaps he should take some time to look in the mirror.
Error 2: Disingenuous Claims of Objectivity
At one point in Eichenwald’s diatribe, he makes the astounding claim that “None of this is meant to demean the Bible, but all of it is fact. Christians angered by these facts should be angry with the Bible, not the messenger.” One of the problems with modern theological liberalism is that so much of it assumes objectivity on the part of the advocates, while equally insisting that conservatives have untenable interpretations. What is so disingenuous about this is that such liberalism often creates straw-man arguments that conservatives allegedly hold, while refraining from serious interaction with the best of conservative thinkers. Further, the lack of nuance in dozens of Eichenwald’s statements unmasks his complete lack of objectivity.
Here are some of the “facts” that the author puts forth, with a correction that follows:
(1) “About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament.” —The oldest complete New Testament that exists today is Codex Sinaiticus, written about AD 350. The New Testament was composed between the 40s and 90s of the first century, according to many conservative scholars (much later according to most liberal scholars). Eichenwald’s “400 years” is thus an exaggeration; the reality is closer to 250–300 years (conservative), or 200–250 years (liberal). Yet even here the notion of “compilation into the New Testament” may be misleading: the original New Testament manuscripts were undoubtedly written on papyrus rolls, each of which could contain no more than one Gospel. It was not until the invention of the codex form of book, and its development into a large format, that the possibility of putting all the NT books between two covers could even exist.
(2) The author speaks of the spurious nature of “critical portions of the Bible” such as the KJV’s wording in 1 John 5.7 (which seems to affirm the Trinity) or Luke 24.51 (which speaks of the post-resurrection ascension of Christ into heaven). The implication seems to be that the Trinity is not to be found in the NT, nor is the ascension. But the ancient church was not aware of the wording of the later manuscripts in 1 John 5.7 (as Eichenwald admits), yet the Council of Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451) nevertheless strongly affirmed the Trinity. How could they do so without these “critical portions of the Bible”? And the ascension of Christ is found in several texts, even if Luke 24.51 might not be one of them (e.g., Acts 1.9, 10; and implied in many passages that speak of Christ as sitting at the right hand of God). None of this, of course, is mentioned by the author.
(3) Constantine “changed the course of Christian history, ultimately influencing which books made it into the New Testament.” This is an old canard that has no basis in reality. In fact, Eichenwald seems to know this because he does not bring it up again, but instead speaks about the Council of Nicea (initiated by Constantine) as dealing primarily with the deity of Christ. There is absolutely nothing to suggest in any of the historical literature that Constantine ever influenced what books belonged in the NT.
(4) “evangelicals insist the Old Testament is a valid means of debunking science.” I’m not sure what evangelicals he’s read that say this; I haven’t read any. Many evangelicals speak about the problems of scientism—the belief that only in science will we find the answers to mankind’s deepest problems. But scientism is not science. To speak so casually about viewpoints that the author seems to only have hearsay understanding about, as though he is speaking factually, is not worthy of a piece that claims any kind of objectivity.
Time and time again the author presents his arguments as though they were facts. Any serious disagreements with his reasoning are quietly ignored as though they did not exist. The most charitable thing I can say is that Eichenwald is in need of a healthy dose of epistemic humility as well as a good research assistant who can do some fact-checking before the author embarrasses himself further in print.
Error 3: Lumping Intellectually Robust Evangelical Scholarship with the Most Ignorant Kind of Fundamentalism
Repeatedly throughout this article the author succeeds in finding some of the most outlandish illustrations of fundamentalist Christianity as though this represents all fundamentalists and even evangelicals. In his third paragraph he says that “modern evangelical politicians and their brethren” claim that climate change is “impossible because of promises God made to Noah” and “helping Syrians resist chemical weapons attacks is a sign of the end times”—yet such views are hardly mainstream among conservative Christians. Neither is snake-handling a feature of normative conservatism, although it figures prominently in the author’s diatribe. This is the worst kind of cherry-picking, yet to the discerning reader it may appear to be the rantings of someone who has little real acquaintance with evangelical scholarship. And to informed conservative Christians, these oddball anecdotes will leave them scratching their heads.
The author also tends to place conservative Christians in the orbit of conservative politics. “They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats,” he opines in his opening paragraph. But it is hardly accurate to see synonymity between the GOP and conservative Christians. The evangelical church is much broader than Eichenwald knows or is willing to admit.
Error 4: Simplistic Biblical Interpretation When It Suits His Purpose
One of the most blatant inconsistencies in this essay is how the author treats biblical interpretation. On the one hand, he denies any validity to how some conservatives read the Bible on many fronts; on the other hand, he claims ridiculous interpretations as binding on them. I will mention just three illustrations.
First, Eichenwald notes that “evangelicals are always talking about family values. But to Jesus, family was an impediment to reaching God.” He then quotes Matthew 19.29 as though that was proof enough. Of course, he must ignore the many texts in which Jesus affirms marriage and family values (e.g., Matt 5.31–32; Matt 19.8–9; Mark 10.7–11). Mark 7.8–13 is instructive:
“(8) ‘You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ (9) Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! (10) For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ (11) But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)—(12) then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, (13) thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this” (NRSV).
How does Eichenwald reconcile these kinds of sayings on the lips of Jesus? He doesn’t. He appears to throw staccato-like volleys at all that conservative Christians hold dear, by interpreting scripture in ways that are truly bastardizations of Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus uses the analogy of family to reinforce what the church should be about: one who forsakes his physical brothers and sisters for the sake of the Lord will find many more spiritual brothers and sisters. ‘Brother’ in fact is so frequently used of a person who has the same spiritual Father that it becomes one of the more common expressions for that in the rest of the NT. It is true that allegiance to one’s physical family must never interfere with one’s allegiance to Christ and the family of God, but this is a far cry from saying that Jesus was against family.
Second, Eichenwald employs other simplistic interpretations to deny the NT’s affirmation of Christ’s deity. His statement that ‘form of God’ in Philippians 2.6 “could simply mean Jesus was in the image of God” betrays his ignorance about biblical interpretation. The kenosis, the hymn about the self-emptying of Christ (Phil 2.6–11) has received more scholarly interaction than perhaps any other paragraph in Paul’s writings. To claim that Jesus’ being in the form of God may mean nothing more than that he was human is entirely against the context. The hymn begins (vv. 6–7) as follows:
“who [Christ], although he was in the form of God,
he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped,
but he emptied himself,
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.”
Christ’s humanity is mentioned only after he is said to have emptied himself. Thus, ‘form of God’ must mean something more than humanity. Further, the parallel lines—‘he was in the form of God’ and ‘taking on the form of a slave’—are mutually interpreting. Jesus was truly a slave of God; this is how he regarded himself (cf. Mark 10.45; Matt 20.27; 26.39). If ‘form of slave’ means ‘slave’ then ‘form of God’ may well mean ‘God.’ The rest of the hymn confirms this interpretation. Philippians 2.10–11 alludes to Isaiah 45.23, where God says, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (NRSV). Paul quotes this very text in Romans 14.11 in reference to YHWH—a book Paul wrote six or seven years prior to his letter to the Philippians. Yet in Phil 2.10–11 he says,
“at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (NRSV).
Now the confession is about Jesus and it is a confession that he is ‘Lord.’ Either Paul is coming perilously close to blasphemy, something that a well-trained rabbi could hardly do, or he is claiming that Jesus is indeed true deity. And to underscore the point, he notes that all those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will make this confession—language that is reminiscent of the second of the Ten Commandments, as found in Exodus 20.4: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (NRSV). The Decalogue—known as well as any Old Testament text to an orthodox Jew—is unmistakably echoed in the kenosis. To use this in reference to Jesus is only appropriate if Jesus is true deity, truly the Lord, YHWH himself.
Third, the author claims that 1 Timothy’s proscription against women teaching must be extended to the arena of politics, so that “according to the Bible, Bachmann should shut up and sit down. 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.” I am baffled as to how Eichenwald could take such a narrow view of 1 Timothy 2.12, and to do so dogmatically. Notice that he does not say, “conservative interpretations of the Bible,” or “liberal interpretations of the Bible,” nor even “the interpretation of one or two scholars”; no, he says baldly, “according to the Bible.” Apparently, there is no room for any other interpretation than his, even by scholars who would not consider the Pastoral Epistles to be by Paul. The last fifty or so years of biblical interpretation are swept under the rug, even though scholars of all theological stripes have wrestled with this text and come to a variety of viewpoints. The amount of literature on this one verse is staggering, yet Eichenwald seems to be completely unaware of it. Instead, he uses 1 Tim 2.12 as a blunt weapon on politically conservative women who are Christians to bludgeon them into submission. His comments tell us more about his view of outspoken women than Paul’s. Would he say “shut up and sit down” to a politically liberal woman who also happened to be an evangelical? The hypocrisy here is not at all what I would have expected in a magazine that used to have a decent journalistic reputation, nor for a journalist such as Eichenwald, who used to share that reputation.
These are just a handful of the bizarre and simplistic interpretations that the author promotes as gospel truth. Read the article for yourself; I have not even commented on some of the more unbelievable examples.
I applaud Kurt Eichenwald for stirring up Christians to think about what he has written and to reexamine their beliefs and attitudes. But his numerous factual errors and misleading statements, his lack of concern for any semblance of objectivity, his apparent disdain for and lack of interaction with genuine evangelical scholarship, and his über-confidence about more than a few suspect viewpoints, makes me wonder. I wonder why he really wrote this essay, and I wonder what he hoped to accomplish. The article reads like it was written by a political pundit who thought he might try something clever: If he could just link conservative Christianity with conservative politics, and show that Christians’ smugness about being Bible-based believers was both incorrect exegetically and had a poor, self-contradictory foundation (since the Bible is full of errors and contradictions), he could thereby deal a deathblow to both conservative Christianity and conservative politics. I do not wish to defend conservative politics, but simply point out that evangelicals do not fit lock, stock, and barrel under just one ideological tent. Eichenwald’s grasp of conservative Christianity in America as well as his grasp of genuine biblical scholarship are, at best, subpar. And this article is an embarrassment to Newsweek—or should be!
For Further Reading
Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Darrell Bock and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus
Rob Bowman and Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place
Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus
Ed Komoszewski, James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus
Martin Hengel, Issues in Early Christology
Daniel B. Wallace, editor, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament