Newsweek: So Misinformed About the Bible they Should be Embarrassed

It is not unusual for Newsweek, and other major media magazines, to publish critical opinions of Christianity and the Bible during major Christian holidays. I have lost count of how many March/April issues of such magazines have cast doubt on the resurrection, just in time for Easter.

However, the recent Newsweek cover article by Kurt Eichenwald, entitled “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” published intentionally (no doubt) on December 23rd, goes so far beyond the standard polemics, and is so egregiously mistaken about the Bible at so many places, that the magazine should seriously consider a public apology to Christians everywhere.

Of course, this is not the first media article critiquing the Bible that has been short on the facts. However, what is stunning about this particular article is that Kurt Eichenwald begins by scolding evangelical Christians for being unaware of the facts about the Bible, and the proceeds to demonstrate a jaw-dropping ignorance of the facts about the Bible.

Being ignorant of biblical facts is one thing. But being ignorant of biblical facts after chiding one’s opponent for that very thing is a serious breach of journalistic integrity. Saying Eichenwald’s article is an instance of “the pot calling the kettle black” just doesn’t seem to do it justice.

There are a variety of categories where Newsweek needs to give Eichenwald a serious slap on the journalistic wrist. Given the length of the article, I will have to deal with it in two parts. Here are some serious problems with part one:

Easy (and False) Caricatures

Eichenwald begins (not concludes, but begins!) his article by describing Christians:

They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.

So, Eichenwald’s well-balanced journalistic understanding of the Christian religion is limited to street preachers who scream at people, those who demand the 10 commandments be posted in schools, and the tiresome trope that all Christians are part of the Jerry Falwell moral majority?

Anyone who has studied evangelical Christianity for more than 10 minutes, using more than internet articles from the Huffington Post, would know that the average believer in America is none of these things.

Such stock accusations and caricatures are just low-hanging fruit that are unworthy of serious journalism. Eichenwald should know better.

Irresponsible Accusations

But, Eichenwald isn’t done. He is not nearly finished expressing his moral outrage against Christianity:

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.

Notice that Eichenwald (still in his introduction) just tosses out these (very serious) accusations and generalizations with absolutely no evidence whatsoever. One wonders whether we are reading a news article or the editorial page. Could a journalist ever get away with such evidence-less accusations if it were made against Islam?

Take for instance the charge that Christians are all about “banishing children.” Seriously? If Eichenwald had actually investigated which part of the population is leading the way in adopting children without homes the answer would have been readily available. Evangelicals. Not Muslims. And certainly not liberal media elites.

But, even more than just being factually wrong, Eichenwald seems completely unaware that he is engaging in his own moralistic diatribe—the very thing he accuses Christians of doing. Remember, he complains that Christians are like the “Pharisees” always going around telling people they are wrong. Yet now Eichenwald is doing exactly the same thing. Why, then, is he not guilty of the very charge he levelled against Christians, namely “hate and condemnation”?

Apparently only Christian moralizing is “hate” whereas Eichenwald’s own moralizing is just fine.

Overplaying Transmission Problems

Eichenwald attempts to discredit the Bible by pointing out problems in its transmission. However, the real problem is not with the Bible but with Eichenwald’s misinformed accusations. For instance, he claims:

About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament.

This is patently false. Collections of New Testament writings were functioning as Scripture as early as the second century (and, to some extent, even in the first). For evidence of this, see my book, Canon Revisited.

Eichenwald tries again:

While there were professional scribes whose lives were dedicated to this grueling work [of copying manuscripts], they did not start copying the letters and testaments about Jesus’s time until centuries after they were written. Prior to that, amateurs handled the job.

Again, this is false. There is no evidence that the earliest Christian scribes were amatuers (whatever that means). On the contrary, the earliest evidence suggest Christian scribes were multi-functional scribes who were used to copying all sorts of literature from letters to literary texts and beyond (see chapter 7 of my book The Heresy of Orthodoxy).

Eichenwald is misinformed another time:

Not all of the amateur copyists spoke the language or were even fully literate. Some copied the script without understanding the words.

This is an egregious claim about earliest Christian scribes. There is no evidence that the earliest Christian copyists could be, in any way, characterized as illiterate. Eichenwald may be referring to a reference in the Shepherd of Hermas, a popular second-century text, where an individual was asked to copy a book who could not read. However, there is no indication that this individual was a scribe, nor that this was typical for scribes!

Again, another mistake:

But in the past 100 years or so, tens of thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered, dating back centuries.

This is absolutely false. The number of NT manuscripts is a little more than 5,500 (and still growing), but not 10,000. In addition, Eichenwald mentions the high number of manuscripts as if it were a negative! Truth is that the more manuscripts we possess, the more certain we can be about the integrity of the NT text.

Moreover, Eichenwald never mentions (or perhaps doesn’t know) that the NT is in a class by itself when it comes to the number of manuscripts. Most other ancient texts from the first century (or thereabouts) are preserved in around 10-20 manuscripts (and some only in a single manuscript). Thus, the 5,500 NT manuscripts of the NT is impressive indeed.

Overplaying Textual Variations

In an effort to shock the reader, Eichenwald appeals to two significant textual variations in the NT, namely the long ending of Mark (16:9-20) and the pericope of the adulterous woman (John 7:53-8:11). These are the same ones that Ehrman highlights in his book Misquoting Jesus—which is evidently a big influence on Eichenwald.

But, Eichenwald only tells part of the story. First, he doesn’t tell the reader that these are the only two significant variations in the entire New Testament. He presents them like they are typical when they are not. Second, he doesn’t explain how text-critical methodologies allow scholars to identify these changes as later additions. And if they can be identified as later additions, then they do not threaten our ability to know the original text.

Even more, Eichenwald continues to make factual errors about these changes. He states:

Unfortunately, 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.

This statement is riddled with errors. For one, scribes probably didn’t make the story of the adulterous woman up—it probably circulated as oral tradition. Second, it was not added in the “Middle Ages” as he claims, but probably sometime between the second and fourth century. Third, we don’t know that “the event simply never happened.” On the contrary, scholars have argued it may be an authentic event that circulated in the early church for generations.

Overplaying Translational Issues

Eichenwald next hones in on the issue of translations, claiming that English translations are utterly unreliable and written simply to reinforce traditional Christian beliefs that, otherwise, have no support. He states:

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. In other words, 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.

This paragraph reveals a stunning misunderstanding of the way translations and texts really work. The fact that translators use different English words at different points is not due to some diabolical plot to trick people into believing in the divinity of Jesus, but is simply due to the fact that words mean different things in different contexts.

Moreover, Eichenwald is unaware that even the more progressive English translations do exactly the same thing! For instance, the NRSV of Matt 14:33 reads: “And those in the boat worshiped (προσκυνέω) him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”

Overplaying Diversity in the Early Church

No critique of early Christianity would be complete without trotting out the standard claims that early Christians couldn’t agree on much of anything and everyone was busy fighting over early Christian doctrines. At this point, apocryphal gospels (such as Thomas and Peter) are often highlighted as evidence that Christianity was confused about what it really believed.

Eichenwald executes this part of the refute-Christianity-playbook perfectly. After repeating the standard trope about how “Christianity was in chaos in its early days,” he even offers the claim that Constantine (diabolical fiend that he was) really created modern Christianity as we know it:

And then, in the early 300s, Emperor Constantine of Rome declared he had become follower of Jesus, ended his empire’s persecution of Christians and set out to reconcile the disputes among the sects. Constantine was a brutal sociopath who murdered his eldest son, decapitated his brother-in-law and killed his wife by boiling her alive, and that was after he proclaimed that he hadconverted from worshipping the sun god to being a Christian. Yet he also changed the course of Christian history, ultimately influencing which books made it into the New Testament.

Eichenwald seems utterly unaware that this whole course of argument is incorrect and drawn directly from internet chat rooms and books like the Da Vinci Code. The truth is that Constantine had nothing to do with which books were placed into the New Testament, nor did the council of Nicea for that matter.

But, undaunted, Eichenwald digs his hole even deeper:

To understand how what we call the Bible was made, you must see how the beliefs that became part of Christian orthodoxy were pushed into it by the Holy Roman Empire. By the fifth century, the political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels in circulation were to make up the New Testament. With the power of Rome behind them, the practitioners of this proclaimed orthodoxy wiped out other sects and tried to destroy every copy of their Gospels and other writings.

Yet again, Eichenwald is flat out wrong. There was no fifth century “vote” about which Gospels would make it into the NT. On the contrary, the four gospels had been well-established in the church since the second century.

In sum, the first part of Eichenwald’s article is an unmitigated disaster. Its factual errors are legion, its bias against Christianity is palpable, it makes serious and yet unsubstantiated moral accusations against followers of Jesus, and, all the while, offers zero historical evidence backing up its claims.

This is not journalism. This is Eichenwald’s personal diatribe. Newsweek should really offer a formal apology.

This article originally appeared at Cannon Fodder and was written by Michael J. Kruger

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