Sunday, January 4, 2015

Newsweek Nonsense: an Expanded Response

After seeing my response to Newsweek's cover story "The Bible:  So Misunderstood It's a Sin", my colleague Fr. Oliver Herbel asked me to expand my response to that story for his Red River Orthodox blog.  Appreciating Fr. Oliver as I do, I was happy to comply, with editorial assistance from Fr. Oliver.  The result was published in his own blog, and is also available here:

           Just in time for Christmas, Newsweek continued the media’s predictable and venerable tradition of trashing the Christian Faith.  (Expect the next instalment just around Easter time.)  To be precise, on December 23, it published a piece by Kurt Eichenwald entitled, “The Bible:  So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”.  The intended victims of the annual seasonal assault are listed in the opening paragraph as those who “waves their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnation of homosexuals…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”.  Mr. Eichenwald is on a roll, and seems to be clearly enjoying his righteous indignation at those doing the screaming.  His strategy throughout the article leans mostly to showing how unreliable the Bible text actually is, and you would never guess from his own vitriolic vituperation heaped on those “who appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats” that many thoughtful Protestant Christians retain their faith in the reliability of the Biblical texts and do not actually scream about homosexuals or Democrats.  Protestants like Bishop N.T. Wright (the Anglican Bishop of Durham) seem not to be on his radar.  I did not expect Mr. Eichenwald to know that thoughtful conservative Catholics exist, much less thoughtful conservative Orthodox.  But thoughtful conservative non-screaming Protestants are not that hard to find.  But it appears that screaming at the screamers is much easier, and makes for juicier print.
            Wearisome as it may be, let’s take Mr. Eichenwald’s arguments one at a time.
            First of all is his claim that no one has actually read the real Bible, but “at best we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times…About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament.”  To read this you would think that Mr. Eichenwald had never heard of textual criticism, or read anything about the creation of the New Testament canon.  So, leaving the over-heated rhetoric to Newsweek, let’s recall a few facts.
            Consider the manuscripts available from classical antiquity:  there are only 9 or 10 good manuscripts of Caesar’s Gallic War (written about 55 B.C.), and the oldest of these was written some 900 years after Caesar’s day.  The history of Thucydides (ca. 430 B.C.) survives in only 8 manuscripts, the earliest existing manuscript of which dates from about 900 A.D., leaving a gap of about 1300 years from time of writing to earliest manuscript.  Yet historians and classical scholars regard Thucydides as a first-rate historian, and no one impugns the reliability of the extant text or writes Newsweek articles about them.
Contrast this with the New Testament manuscripts:  by the middle of the last century, there were almost 4500 known Greek manuscripts.  Moreover, two of the most important and complete manuscripts (known to scholars as Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) date from the fourth century, and some of the Chester Beatty manuscripts date from around 225 A.D.   One of these latter Chester Beatty texts (now in Dublin) dates from the late third century.  One papyrus fragment (containing some verses of John’s Gospel) is now in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, and has been dated to about 125 A.D.—shortly after John’s Gospel was first written.  And it is important to remember that most of the variations pored over by scholars concern only fine details, and do not affect the sense of the text.  Some of the changes concern, for example, whether or not the text has omitted the word “the”, or changed a present tense to the imperfect tense.  Scholars care (after all, that is their job); most people wouldn’t.
            The New Testament text that one reads therefore is not like the result of a game of “Telephone” as our Newsweek’s writer suggests.  Rather each modern English translator now returns to what is substantially the original text of the Greek and works from there.  One may or may not believe what St. Luke wrote, but we have pretty much the text as Luke originally wrote it.  And it is true, of course, that “about 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament”.  It is also irrelevant.  The “compilation into the New Testament” (or the creation of the New Testament canon, the finalization of the list regarding which N.T. books made the canonical “cut” and which didn’t) had nothing to do with the actual date of the texts.  We had, for example, a good text of the Epistle to Hebrews by the third century.  The debate over whether or not to include it as part of the “New Testament compilation” was another question entirely, and did not concern the reliability of the Hebrews text in their possession.
            Also problematic is Eichenwald’s assertion that the scribes doing the work were “amateur copyists” (what? was there a professional college certifying who was amateur and who was professional in the ancient world?) and that “some copied the script without understanding the words”.  How does Eichenwald know this?  And how many illiterate scribes were there?  Even so, results of their work—namely that most of the manuscript copies reveal only minor differences one from another—show that literate or not, amateur or not, they did their job competently and well.  One would have thought them professional. 
            We also note that Eichenwald’s assertion that “Koine was written in what is known as scriptio continua—meaning no spaces between words and no punctuation” is true but irrelevant.  People somehow managed to read with understanding back then anyway.  Reading aloud no doubt helped, perhaps this is one reason why everyone back then read aloud.  Those who read silently (like St. Ambrose) were a rarity and cause for comment.  Suggesting that because manuscripts were written in scriptio continua its meaning could be misunderstood is historical nonsense and astonishingly anachronistic.
            Eichenwald also errs when he writes, “scribes added whole sections of the New Testament, and removed words and sentences that contradicted emerging orthodox beliefs”.  To read this one would imagine that the scribes working on the text had no respect whatever for the integrity of their work and simply added and omitted stuff at a whim.  “Whole sections”?  In fact there are in the entire New Testament corpus only two such major variants, both of them long known to scholars and included in the New Testament with notes to indicate possible inauthenticity.  But it should be noted that the addition (not removal) of these sections had nothing to do with “emerging orthodox beliefs”; they were added because the scribe regarded them as authentic.
            One example is that of the Woman Taken in Adultery in John’s Gospel in John 7.53-8:11, which probably represents an insertion into John’s original text.  Eichenwald phrases it like this: “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.”   
Well, sorry; actually it does, and shows how poor Eichenwald’s “scholarship” is.  Though the best manuscripts (Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) omit it, a Chester Beatty manuscript from the fifth-sixth century does include it as part of John’s Gospel.  Other manuscripts include it after John 7:52, but with asterisks, indicating that the scribe had doubts about it being a part of John’s Gospel.  One manuscript includes it in Luke’s Gospel, after Luke 21:38, and one manuscript includes it at the very end of Luke’s Gospel.  It seems to have been a genuine historical reminiscence of what happened, but floating free, as part of the early oral tradition (like the saying of Jesus not recorded in any Gospel, but still mentioned by Paul in Acts 20:35).  It was early and historically genuine, but not a part of the Gospel narrative texts, and so different scribes inserted it into different places of the Gospels.  But by anyone’s figuring it was made “made up” by scribes “sometime in the Middle Ages”, for the Chester Beatty manuscript containing it dates from the fifth-sixth centuries.
The other example is that of the last twelve verses of Mark’s Gospel, Mark 16:9-20.  Eichenwald points to the fact that “an important section of the Bible appears in the Gospel of Mark, 16:17-18”, a text dear to “Pentecostal Christians”, but which actually “came from a creative scribe long after the Gospel of Mark was written”.   I don’t know how “important” this “section of the Bible” is relative to other “sections”, but it is true that the verses are not found in the important Vaticanus and Sinaiticus texts.  But Eichenwald once again gives the impression that the verses were of medieval origin, possibly written by the same mischievous scribe who made up the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery “sometime in the Middle Ages”.  Not likely, since the last twelve verses of Mark are found in manuscripts dating from the fifth century, around a hundred years after the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus texts.  The longer reading (as scholars call it) is also found in some readings of the Diatessaron (an early Gospel harmony from the second century), and in the works of Irenaeus (who died 202 A.D), and Tertullian (who died about 225).  That means (do the math) that the longer reading must date from the second century.  Historically speaking, this is not “long after the Gospel of Mark was written”, but fairly soon after.
This Longer Ending was not alone.  There is yet another reading for the ending of Mark’s Gospel, the so-called “Shorter Ending” of Mark, which in some manuscripts is appended after the penultimate Mark 16:8 and which reads, “But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus Himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”  Sometimes the ending of the Gospel contained the so-called “Freer logion”, yet another historical reminiscence tacked on to Mark’s Gospel to round it off.
It is apparent from all this that the second century church, by then accustomed to reading what to them was the more satisfying endings of Matthew, Luke, and John’s gospels, added a bit to round out the Gospel of Mark.  The Gospels were of course oral documents, meant to be read aloud in public, and not privately by individuals at home.  These endings, both the Longer Ending of 16:9-20 and the so-called “Shorter Ending” were examples of editorial additions.  They were not evidence of scribal incompetence or caprice, but examples of the church’s editorial liturgical-pastoral care. 
The point is that Eichenwald gives the impression that confusion reigned in determining the text of the New Testament, but in fact these two examples are the only two examples where the text offers any real variations.  (The insertion of 1 John 5:7 into the authentic text of 1 John—the so-called “Johannine comma”—is agreed by all to be a late addition, and is now absent from most New Testaments.)  There is no real disagreement about the basic New Testament text among scholars, which has been quite well preserved.  Eichenwald magnifies tiny details to give the impression of confusion when none in fact exists.
Next on the hit list, according to Eichenwald, “comes the problem of accurate translation.  Many words in the New Testament Greek don’t have clear English equivalents”.  Here Eichenwald is really reaching for it.  In fact in no translation from one language to another are there clear equivalents.  Everything loses at least a little bit in translation; that is why scholars and clergy study the original New Testament Greek.  Here in Canada we know that no translation can provide the mathematical equivalent of another one, and yet we survive with two official languages anyway.  This is not a problem.  It is even less of a problem when so many translations of the New Testament are available for our perusal.  Any student of the Bible knows this, and often uses several translations as a result.  And no scholar, by the way, regards the King James Version as “the gold standard of English Bibles” as Eichenwald asserts.  Maybe some snake-handlers in Appalachia, but no one with any scholarly credentials.   Once again Eichenwald sets up a straw man.
Eventually Eichenwald leaves what for him are the swamps of Biblical criticism and enters the realm of the historians, and here is where his Newsweek piece really gets interesting.  The jump-off point comes with his attempt to understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and his confusion here should act as the tip-off that history is not his strong suit.  He defines the Trinity as “the belief that Jesus and God are the same and, with the Holy Spirit, are a single entity”.  This he describes as “a fundamental, yet deeply confusing tenet”, though this only shows that he is the one who is deeply confused.  The closest that any Christian writer got to proclaiming that “Jesus and God are the same” were the Sabellians, a third century heresy which had remarkably little shelf life.  It was condemned by pretty much everyone as soon as it appeared, and Christian Trinitarian theology (such as at Nicea) emphatically did not say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were “a single entity”.  That is, Christian writers of all stripes, both Nicene and Arian, had more nuance and sophistication than that.  If Eichenwald cannot keep up, he should not have joined in the discussion, which is clearly beyond him.
An indication of the confusion of thought and history culminates with Eichenwald’s impassioned denunciation of Constantine, with so much distortion that one checks to see if one isn’t after all reading Dan Brown.  There is of course the standard screaming about how violent the Christians were, such as Eichenwald’s extraordinary statement that “those who believed in the Trinity butchered Christians who didn’t”.   Now what?  There was violence aplenty in the ancient world, and it was not confined to “those who believed in the Trinity”.  But the main weapon against “Christians who didn’t” believe in the faith of Nicea (the Arians), wasn’t butchering; it was excommunication.  That is, a denial of access to Holy Communion, which is a good deal less violent than being butchered.  That is not to deny that both sides of dogmatic divide could fight nasty, and sometimes act violently.  But the nastiness wasn’t the main thing, nor was it confined to “those who believed in the Trinity”. 
The historical fantasy takes off from there.  Consider Eichenwald’s statement 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. 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.”  It is difficult to know where to begin to disentangle the nonsense.  First of all, Eichenwald greatly overstates the violence, implying that a Christian’s first impulse when faced with heresy was to reach for a gun.  Secondly, the groups that produced their own gospels did so not because there were no existing manuscripts which set out what it meant to be a Christian.  The four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were clear enough for most people.  Rather they wanted to produce a text which clearly set out their own rival version of the faith and vindicate their Gnostic claims.  Their faith and their books were pretty weird (if you doubt this, try actually reading the Gnostic gospels), but they had little impact on the average Christian in the mainline church of the time.
After the standard denunciation of Constantine (the Newsweek heading calls him “the Sociopath emperor”.  Nice.), we come to Eichenwald’s take on the Council of Nicea, which Constantine convoked and which was held in 325.  It was at the Council of Nicea, the article solemnly suggests, that “to satisfy Constantine and his commitment to his empire’s many sun worshippers, that the Holy Sabbath was moved by one day” (i.e. from Saturday to Sunday). 
Okay; time to close the magazine.  Never mind that the Fathers as early as Justin Martyr (d. 165 A.D.) write that Christians actually met to worship on Sunday, so that Christians had been worshipping on Sunday well before Nicea.  Apparently for Mr. Eichenwald any stick is good enough to beat the Christians with, regardless of whether or not it is historical nonsense.  We are now far from the world of historical scholarship, and deep in the fantasy world of The Da Vinci Code. 
Eichenwald does give it his best shot.  In his reading, “the majority of the time at Nicaea was spent debating whether Jesus was a man who was the son of God, as Arius proclaimed, or God himself, as the church hierarchy maintained.”  One could quibble about the word “hierarchy”, which gives the impression of poor noble Arius standing up to the proud and powerful hierarchy of his day, when in fact many bishops of that hierarchy throughout the world agreed with Arius.  After all, if Arius did not have wide-spread support from “the hierarchy”, the council at Nicea need not have been convoked in the first place.  But never mind.  Of greater import is Eichenwald’s failure to understand what the two parties actually held.  Both Arius and his opponents held that Jesus “was a man who was the son of God”.  Both, being able to read John’s Gospel, held that Jesus was also in some sense “God himself”.  The question separating Arius from his opponents was, “In what sense is Jesus God Himself?”  What is the nature of His deity?  The question was more complicated than Eichenwald supposes, and once again it seems he cannot keep up.  The point here is that Eichenwald’s inability to understand his history makes his critique based on it essentially worthless.
            We see this when Eichenwald actually attempts theology, saying “Paul’s writings are consistent in his reference to God as one being and Jesus as his son”—i.e. that the Fathers of Nicea were wrong in their assertions that Jesus was “God himself”.  A full-blown exegesis of the New Testament texts relating to the full deity of Christ are beyond the scope of this even now overlong essay.  Suffice to say that more sophistication is required than Eichenwald possesses.  Even Arius could handle the texts better than that.  We see this too when Eichenwald goes on to describe the Council of Constantinople of 381 with the words, “There a new agreement was reached—Jesus wasn’t two, he was now three—Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  The Nicene Creed was rewritten”.  It is hard to know where to begin; anyone with an ounce of historical education just breaks down and cries.  That Council did not deal with Christological questions about Jesus, but about the nature of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.  It did not rewrite the Nicene Creed, but simply added to it.
            Eichenwald though continues to plunge on and dig his hole 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.”
            So: a few things.  The Holy Roman Empire did not exist in the fifth century, but came into being around the ninth century when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne king on Christmas Day in 800.  Also, despite a western council that produced a canonical list, the extent of the New Testament canon (questions such as whether or not to include the Book of Revelation for example) was not usually decided by conciliar decree and vote, but over time by local example and custom.  Eichenwald’s distortion of history reveals his fundamental incompetence to deal with these issues.  It looks as if he had been reading Dan Brown as real history.
            No Christmas edition of Newsweek would be complete without an attempt to deconstruct and deny the historicity of the Christmas story, and Eichenwald gives it his best shot.  He does this by juxtaposing the account in Matthew with the account in Luke and magnifying differences into contradictions.  Even here however he shows his inability to read the text:  he prefers Matthew’s account to Luke and then says, “No wise men showed up for the birth, and no brilliant star shone overhead”, as if these are absent from Matthew.  In fact, they are part of Matthew’s Gospel in chapter 2.  It looks as if in his antipathy to Christians, Eichenwald simply stopped reading that Gospel after chapter 1.
            The Christmas story is the introduction to a long section on the contradictions in the Bible, a theme so long beloved by sceptics.  Eichenwald focuses on the two differing genealogies of Christ in Matthew and Luke, on the varying accounts of the Resurrection appearances, including the burning question “who went to anoint Jesus in his tomb?”  All one can say here in reply is that variations of detail do not by themselves constitute contradictions.  To resolve and harmonize them, one is here referred to any standard New Testament commentary (even mine).
            Then comes Eichenwald’s foray into the Old Testament, and begins by offering us the fact that there are two creation stories in Genesis 1-2 as if this were news and traumatizing news at that, given that these two stories contradict each other.  It should be safe to say that no one, either those regarding the creation stories as historical or those with other interpretations, regard the variations as contradictory, but rather as complementary.  Again, one is referred to the commentaries for the details, especially those of John H. Walton.  But of interest here is Eichenwald’s attempt to understand the process of the creation of the Old Testament.  He buys into the so-called “documentary hypothesis”, which posits at least four main literary sources, J (from the author’s habit of using Jahweh as God’s Name), E (for the author’s habit of using Elohim as His Name), P (for the Priestly source), and D (for the creators of the Deuteronomic tradition).  It is not the only hypothesis on the market, but nevermind.  The point is that even here Eichenwald can’t get his facts straight, and so two of the sources are identified as “two Jewish sects”.  This does not inspire confidence that Eichenwald knows what he is talking about.  It looks as if his research involved nothing more than skimming a book and using Google.  One might point out that scholars debate the significance of the “doublets” he mentions (i.e. the Biblical author’s telling and then retelling the Biblical story again).  Some suggest that the doubling of the stories comes from the oral nature of the text and the story-telling, and is not evidence for multiple sources.  However the doublets should be regarded, the debate about their significance should doubtless be carried on by those who can at least distinguish a Jewish source from a Jewish sect.
            The long work concludes with politics, and makes me wonder if his anger at the American political right wing is not really at the root of it all.  Eichenwald zeroes in on the cultural dust up about (what else?) homosexuality.   He begins by doing his best to discredit the teaching of the New Testament by saying that the Greek word arsenokoitai (usually translated “homosexuals”) “perhaps means men who engage in sex with other men, perhaps not”.  Given that the Greek word arsen means “male” (as in “the one who created them from the beginning made them arsen and female”; Matthew 19:4), and that the Greek word koite means “bed” (as in “let the (marriage) koite be undefiled; Hebrews 13:4), it is hard to see how the word can mean anything else that someone who goes to bed with males—i.e. homosexuals.  It is not surprising therefore that most scholars and lexicons translate “homosexual”.  Whether or not Paul’s denunciation of homosexuality should impact our modern understanding or not (I think it should) is another question.  But let’s at least get our Greek straight.  Eichenwald’s attempt to deny the obvious is evidence that he is not arguing in good faith, but simply as an angry partisan.  If Eichenwald knows of scholars who argue otherwise (and there are always scholars who argue anything otherwise), he should produce them so their linguistic arguments may be examined. 
            It gets more embarrassing as it progresses.  Having introduced the word arsenokoitai, Eichenwald imagines that the verse about homosexuals not inheriting the Kingdom of God is from 1 Timothy.  Accordingly he sets about to demolish it, suggesting that “1 Timothy was based on a forgery”—i.e. it was not Pauline.  First of all, even if 1 Timothy were not by Paul, that would not make it a forgery, but simply pseudepigraphal.  (“Pseudepigraphy” is the practice of writing under another’s name as part of a known and established literary convention.  “Forgery” is stealing another’s name for the purpose of putting it over on somebody.  Eichenwald’s failure to distinguish the two is part of his polemic.)
Secondly and more importantly, the verse about homosexuals not inheriting the Kingdom of God was not part of 1 Timothy, but 1 Corinthians, a text he will be happy to learn was never considered a Pauline forgery by anyone.  (The text is in 1 Cor. 6:9-10.)  He no doubt thought of 1 Timothy because that contains another bit he doesn’t like, namely 1 Tim. 2:11-12, which forbids women being clergy.  If Eichenwald is intent on expending so much energy denouncing Christians for not reading their Bibles properly, it would help his case if he could distinguish one New Testament book from another.
            His real problem, I suggest, is not with evangelicals misreading their Bibles, but with the evangelical right wing using it in their politics.  Thus he targets “U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican [who] slammed gay people as bullies last March…Well, according to the Bible, Bachmann should shut up and sit down.”  (Weirdly, the Newsweek editors summarize this section as “Sarah Palin Is Sinning Right Now”, leading one to conclude that the editors can no more distinguish Michele Bachmann from Sarah Palin than Eichenwald can distinguish 1 Corinthians from 1 Timothy.)  He goes on at some length about homosexuality, denouncing everyone from Pat Robertson to Rick Perry to Bobby Jindal.  He really doesn’t like them:  Rick Perry “babbles on”; Pat Robertson (if consistent) “should prepare himself for an eternity in hell”; Michele Bachmann and “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”.   The theme of homosexuality in interwoven through his closing broadsides, so that it bookends the entire piece.  Eichenwald opens with the theme of homosexuality and closes with it, so that it is hard not to think that his anger over this issue has provoked the whole thing.
            Ultimately, then, the Newsweek piece has little to do with the Bible, and everything to do with the American culture wars.  In this ongoing battle, Eichenwald’s long tirade represents nothing more than a volley of vituperation which one side has lobbed across no-man’s land at the other.  It is all the more ironic that Eichenwald chooses to end his piece with what he considers the Bible’s only real piece of wisdom:  Jesus’ call to “judge not”.  For a piece containing so much vitriol, anger, and judgment of others, we can only conclude that Eichenwald’s sense of irony is on par with that of his scholarship.


  1. Father, I didn't see you mention that Eichenwald's primary source appears to have been Bart Ehrman. Once I saw that, I closed the article and tried to avoid losing my lunch.

  2. I've chimed in about Eichenwald's article, too, at .

    Regarding Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11, I commend to you my Kindle ebooks on the subjects, which I have made as inexpensive as possible.