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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Responding to Newsweek

If you've heard about Newsweek's piece, The Bible So Misunderstood It's a Sin, in which the author assures us there is very little reason to think we have a usable Bible, you will not likely find a more comprehensive response than this one as well as Daniel Wallace's excellent response. You know, just in case you were looking and wondering.

Newsweek has given space for a response from Dr. Michael Brown ... another right-on response. (Apparently they were concerned when they saw me posting something on it, right? Yeah, right.)


Naum said...

Another take:

Mohler complains that the Newsweek essay lacks balance, since none of the modern scholars it cites represents “traditional viewpoints.” But the “traditional viewpoints” pertinent to the essay’s focus are amply illustrated by descriptions of very public statements and acts by individuals who represent the kind of abuse of the Bible the essay targets (other “traditional viewpoints” are not under scrutiny, and so are not relevant). If this were a political exposé, such public statements would be accepted as the evidence on one side, fair game for counter-evidence gathered by the reporter from various experts on the subject. But Mohler does not like Eichenwald’s selection of experts, whom he collectively characterizes as “severe critics of evangelical Christianity,” and “from the far, far left of biblical studies.” As one of the scholars cited in the Newsweek article, I object to this characterization on both counts. I have never, in all of the thousands of pages I have published in my career, issued a single word of criticism against evangelical Christianity. If Mohler is complaining about Eichenwald’s over-generalizations, he needs to take greater care over his own. Furthermore, the academic field of biblical studies is not arrayed in a political left-right spectrum the way Mohler imagines – or wishes. If he means to suggest that the scholars Eichenwald cites are outside of the mainstream of biblical studies, he needs to catch up on the field’s last one hundred years (I could recommend a reading list). All three academics mentioned by name in the article are cited on solidly mainstream views in the field. Mohler has misidentified the common denominator among us: the main thing we have in common is that we all come from public state universities, where academic objectivity and freedom prevail. Mohler, on the other hand, as President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is in the business of enforcing doctrinal conformity among his faculty, who are simply not allowed to reach conclusions at odds with the “traditional viewpoint.”

When it comes to what the Newsweek essay says about the Bible, its origins, history, and issues of translation and interpretation, Eichenwald’s reporting is right on the mark with what the mainstream consensus in biblical studies considers fact. In fact, Mohler is quite correct when he says that, “Eichenwald’s essay is not ground-breaking in any sense.” That’s right: Eichenwald is reporting long-standing conclusions in biblical studies, not drawing new conclusions himself. I think that is what is considered good journalism, isn’t it? But what is new in Eichenwald’s reporting is getting the microphone over to the scholarly mainstream, over to what is taught in every public university in America, and away from those who seem to control the public discussion, who say they want the Bible taught in public schools – but only the way they imagine it. The strength of the Newsweek essay is that it shines a light on how partial and selective that fundamentalist representation of the Bible is, exaggerating tiny little corners of it while overlooking key ideas repeated at length throughout it.

Stan said...

Interesting. You offer a response to Mohler (who I didn't reference), not to Eichenwald. I would guess you have no problems with Eichenwald's essential position that the Bible is not a reliable source document for Christianity?

Stan said...

Just a couple of my own thoughts.

Eichenwald says the Bible is "loaded with contradictions and translation errors and wasn't written by witnesses and includes words added by unknown scribes to inject Church orthodoxy." His point is "Nowhere ... does the New Testament say it is the inerrant word of God." His position is "The Bible is a very human book ... That explains the flaws, the contradictions, and the theological disagreements in its pages." His solution is to know the Bible (with which I would agree), but by that he means, "Find out which parts of the Bible were not in the earliest Greek manuscripts, which are the bad translations, and what one book says in comparison to another, and then try to discern the message for yourself. And embrace what modern Bible experts know to be the true sections of the New Testament."

Eichenwald believes that the only way to arrive at historical orthodox Christianity is to disregard the Bible, to pick and choose to get what you want to call "orthodoxy". He wants to clear that up. So, here's what we "know".

We know that our Bible is not reliable. It is "a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times." It is what he calls "playing telephone with the Word of God". "So, trust me," he suggests, "modern scholars know you don't have anything like a reliable text." Add to that the problem of translation. We don't really know the original language, it's not really portable into English, and they're just guessing. Thus, "with a little translational trickery, a fundamental tenet of Christianity—that Jesus is God—was reinforced in the Bible." That's right. We know Jesus wasn't God and any attempt to claim He is is simply a bias apart from the Bible. There. You're free from that nonsense. Oh, and that whole "Trinity" lie? Yeah, you're free from that one, too. That was a product of Nicaea and Constantine, not anything biblical. Look, we know the "Word of God" is not a reliable book, his article assures us, because of the vast numbers of contradictions and errors. And, look, if you take the Bible as written, you have problems anyway. Don't even try to use it as a document of origins; there are too many contradictory Creation models in it. Sarah Palin is sinning because Paul says, "I do not allow a woman to teach." (Don't worry; as it turns out 1 Timothy is a forgery.) Any prayer given in public is clearly a sin since Jesus forebade public prayer. (Eichenwald recommends a private "Lord's Prayer" ... and then points out you don't have a reliable version since there are two accounts and they don't agree.)

It's interesting that Eichenwald seems to lean heavily for proof of his positions on the errors people hold. He's happy to point out that there was a time when people were killed for their disagreement with the doctrine of the Trinity (and, by the way, vice versa), and he seems to think that proves the doctrine is wrong. As another easy example, clearly the Bible isn't true because we have Nativity scenes with the Three Wisemen in them and that just didn't happen. He leans heavily on linking a belief that homosexual behavior is a violation of biblical morality with abuse or mistreatment of homosexuals, as if the two are necessarily connected.

In the end he thinks the Bible is a good thing. I just can't really tell why given his certainty that we have nothing reliable, nothing sure, certainly nothing "God-breathed". It is flawed, contradictory, untranslatable, pretty much useless. "Discern the message for yourself," he says. "How?" I ask.

Stan said...

And isn't it telling that Newsweek released this on December 23? No, there was no agenda here. They weren't out to cast aspersions on the Bible or on Christianity or anything. Well, maybe those stupid rightwingers.

Naum said...

My own thoughts on Eichenwald's article? He's sloppy and gets a number of details wrong. But his main thrust (and yes, it's a polemic, not directed at *Christians* per se, but fundamentalist Christians -- and even there, he lumps in a lot of Jesus followers in the same stereotypical mold, erroneously and blindly in the same way he criticizes conservative/fundamentalist Christians!) is on target.

But this Eichenwald blurb hits the mark:

The Bible is not the book many American fundamentalists and political opportunists think it is, or more precisely, what they want it to be. Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is well established. A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals ranked only a smidgen higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament and Jesus’s teachings. “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ wrote George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli, pollsters and researchers whose work focused on religion in the United States. The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found in 2012 that evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees—religious leaders depicted throughout the New Testament as opposing Christ and his message—more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus.

Naum said...

Some more comments/replies to your queries:

1. I do believe the Bible is a *reliable* source document for Christianity. And I think you're putting words into Eichenwald's article that aren't there: This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity. Instead, Christians seeking greater understanding of their religion should view it as an attempt to save the Bible from the ignorance, hatred and bias that has been heaped upon it. If Christians truly want to treat the New Testament as the foundation of the religion, they have to know it. Too many of them seem to read John Grisham novels with greater care than they apply to the book they consider to be the most important document in the world.

2. ALL pick and choose -- if you study church history, it is quite obvious that what was clear about "what the Bible says" is totally different from age to age. That is, if you're looking at the sacred text as a theological rule-by-rule manual vs. a grand narrative of our walk with God and the light of Jesus.

Stan said...

I guess I'll never understand people who say, "It's a reliable book" right alongside "It's full of flaws, contradictions, theological disagreements and bad translations." What's reliable? As long as we can get hold of a "modern scholar" who can fill us in on the three things we do know to be true? "Oh, wait, throw out that second one." Hyperbole? Sure. But not far off.

The claim (and I did read it) "This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity" doesn't make it any less just such an attack. The primary aim was to demonstrate precisely your position--we do not have a theological manual for Christianity. In the end, it will have to be, as Eichenwald suggests, "Discern the message for yourself." What is there but not being expressed is, "But don't discern a message we don't accept."

Danny Wright said...

Only the parts that the secular humanists don't like are flawed, I guess.