How Newsweek Got the Bible Right — and Still Got it Wrong

We still need a grownup conversation about the Bible.

Where are all the moderate Christian voices?

That’s what a friend wanted to know in the wake of Newsweek’s recent, much-discussed look at the Bible and the way many Christians believe in it. Conservatives were quick to respond to what they saw as a hit piece, offering plenty of robust, detailed argument – and occasionally stooping to their own hit-piece level with titles like “Newsweek’s tirade against the Bible” and “News Weak.”

But what about moderate Christian voices? Or what about Christian “progressives” like me who still hold to a high view of Scripture and its authority?

Some of what Kurt Eichenwald wrote was greeted with a yawn. Yes, there are two creation stories in Genesis. Yes, the gospels offer different (and sometimes conflicting) accounts of Jesus’ story. Yes, scribes added things to the Bible. For many of us, this is old news.

However, in other cases, Newsweek got some things wrong — rather, it got some things right, but in a wrong way. Here is how:

1. Overreach

“No [one] has ever read the Bible.”

Reading the Bible is like “playing telephone with the Word of God,” Eichenwald says. None of us have read the original, he explains, because no such thing exists.

And he’s right. We don’t have one original copy of the Bible. Not one scroll or fragment. But Eichenwald overplays his hand.

For example, he notes that the oldest New Testament manuscripts were written without punctuation or spaces (something I learned at my conservative seminary). Scriptio continua presents an unusual challenge for translators: before they can decide what the words mean, they have to agree what the words are.

But anyone reading Eichenwald’s piece might get the idea that scriptio continua is a minefield of uncertainty. It’s not. As Bruce Metzger, one of the finest New Testament scholars of the last century (and no raving fundamentalist) noted, most Greek words end in one of only a few possible letters. Sometimes there’s uncertainty, but as he wrote, “It must not be thought that such ambiguities occur regularly.”

The same point can be made about the discrepancies in our New Testament manuscripts. Even Eichenwald concedes most of these variants are minor typos at worst. But he misses a larger point: the reason we have so many discrepancies is because we have so many manuscripts — thousands of them. Compare that to maybe a few dozen for some of writings of ancient Greek philosophers.

Would Eichenwald say none of us have read Aristotle?

The Bible we have today is not a perfect book — if by “perfect” you mean that its composition, preservation, and transmission have been free of complexity. But these challenges are not new to us. While some fundamentalists seem to think God dictated every word, most of us know the Bible didn’t fall from the sky. It is a vastly diverse collection of stories, poems, and prophecies compiled over centuries — in some cases, only after they were transmitted orally for generations.

Christians believe the Bible is divinely inspired, though we don’t always mean the same thing by that. We also recognize that it’s a thoroughly human composition — or as Alan Groves put it, “God lets his children tell the story.” Many of us do just fine living with the tension this creates, following a book we think is somehow both divine and human in its origin.

2. Double standard

“Christians . . . pick and choose which Bible verses they heed.”

According to Eichenwald, Christians have weaponized the Bible. We fashion verses into verbal IEDs, lobbing them at our enemies.

Once again, he’s right.

We’re good at reading the bits we like and ignoring the rest. Some evangelicals quote a handful of texts that they believe forbid same-sex relationships. Yet many of the same Christians (by no means all of them) overlook the much larger collection of passages that condemn greed, oppression, self-righteousness, etc. Eichenwald calls these believers “cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch.”

There’s just one problem. Anyone can cherry-pick the Bible, including progressives — and Newsweek journalists.

At one point, as he is arguing that the New Testament doesn’t present Jesus as divine, Eichenwald quotes from Philippians 2:6. He claims the phrase “in the form of God” doesn’t mean Jesus and God are equal, but merely that Jesus was made in God’s image. (Ben Witherington has already addressed Eichenwald’s questionable handling of the Greek text.) What’s noteworthy is that Eichenwald doesn’t even quote the whole verse. He omits the very next line where Paul asserts Jesus’ “equality with God” (Greek, isa theo).

Quoting one verse, even in its entirety, is not enough to settle debates over Jesus’ identity. (I happen to think there is further evidence that the New Testament writers, Paul included, believed Jesus was divine, but that’s for another day.) What I want you to see here is how Eichenwald calls out Christians for cherry-picking the Bible while doing the exact same thing.

When it comes to reading the Bible holistically — on its terms rather than ours — we all have work to do.

3. Selective storytelling

“Constantine was a brutal sociopath who . . . changed the course of Christian history.”

Eichenwald suggests the Roman emperor Constantine rewrote Christianity — and not for the better. He transformed it from a religion of ideas into a religion of blood. He radically reshaped Christian doctrine and employed violence to enforce the new orthodoxy.

Eichenwald is at least partly right.

The entanglement of church and state began with Constantine. A sometimes-persecuted religious sect got its first taste of power, and the results were disastrous, as they always are. Power corrupts.

However, Eichenwald is either exaggerating or flat-out making things up when he says Constantine helped decide “which books made it into the New Testament.” The canon was well on its way to being established by the early AD 200s, a century before Constantine’s reign. The Council of Nicea, which Eichenwald rightly notes was called by Constantine, had little to do with it.

But Eichenwald commits an even bigger mistake: he neglects to tell the whole story. In his version, orthodox Christians kill the Arians (who didn’t believe Jesus was divine). It happened, and it was shameful. But Eichenwald makes no mention of the violence perpetrated by Arians — or how Christians of all stripes were attacked during a brief pagan resurgence under Julian’s reign.

In Eichenwald’s story, Christians are the sole bad guys. The real story is a lot messier.

Another facet that Eichenwald neglects: those who killed in the name of orthodoxy had forsaken the near-unanimous witness of the pre-Constantinian church. Before its merger the with state, the church was almost wholly opposed to violence. As Preston Sprinkle observes:

Origen, for instance, said that Christ “nowhere teaches that it is right for his own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked . . . ” Tertullian agreed that God prohibits “every sort of man-killing . . . ” Athenagoras went even further by saying that “we cannot endure to see someone be put to death, even justly.”

Those Christians who later resorted to violence did so not because of anything in the Bible, but because they had embraced the idolatry of political power.

***

I wish Newsweek had published a better story about the Bible. I wish they hadn’t overreached, or perpetuated a double standard, or hadn’t told the story in such a selective manner. Otherwise, the article might have prompted a grownup conversation about the Bible. It’s a conversation we need. As Eichenwald writes,

When the illiteracy of self-proclaimed Bible 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 [us] to ignore.

Eichenwald wants to focus on the true heart of the New Testament: Jesus’ command to love God and others.

I couldn’t agree more. I just wish he hadn’t given evangelicals — many of whom might also be open to a lot of what he says — so many reasons to ignore him.

Eichenwald’s article is a humbling reminder of how easy it is to see overreach, double standards, and selective storytelling in the arguments made by others, particularly those we disagree with. What’s less easy is to see it in ourselves.

We’ve been in need of a grownup conversation about the Bible for some time — what the Bible really is, how we should read it, what it means for us today, etc. After Newsweek’s article, we still need that grownup conversation.

Ben Irwin
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  • Hope Ferguson

    The Newsweek article reminded me of articles we used to see in the secular press, that were patently uninformed, Biblically illiterate and unfair. Most outlets have come a long long way since then.

    • Tom from North Carolina

      Really? So what in particular is patently uninformed and biblically illiterate?

      Based on my interaction with fellow church members, I have concluded that they are generally not particularly cognizant of the circumstances surrounding the creation of the bible and how books were included / excluded.

      I side with Professor Bart Ehrman from the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill, who has concluded that we can’t be sure of anything Jesus says because there were so many possibilities of copying errors and interpretation (intentional and unintentional).

      Feel free to point out all of those Newsweek errors.

  • homasapiens

    I wish you had framed your article differently; You (generally) begin by saying “well, he’s right” and then you add; “But…” and list the ways in which he is wrong. Suppose instead, you had said; “He’s wrong about this, this, and this, but he’s right about this this and that other thing.” It’s interesting how much that changes, isn’t it?

    My personal observation is that evangelicals already have a reason to ignore him and others like him. Very few people are capable of letting fact stand in the way of belief, or reason diminish fervor.

    And I think you have hit on the reason for that, when you say”…they had embraced the idolatry of political power.” Our current crop of fundies and evangelicals are — generally– far more interested in promoting their own social clout then they are actually being Christian.
    I think, if you want evangelicals to listen to Eichenwald in any way, you will have to add your voice to his. Like Hope Ferguson below, who says that he is uninformed and biblically illiterate– remind her that her desire to brush off his criticism blinds her to the truths and magnified his mistakes.

  • Martin Hughes

    ‘NO ONE HAS READ IT’. Ancient and even early modern texts (Shakespeare, for instance) all require quite a lot of editing if they are to be presented to readers in a way that meets modern standards. Part of this is determining which of the ancient witnesses is to be followed at each point, which were copied correctly and which not. For instance, just opening at random, Mark 14:23 refers to Jesus’ ‘taking a cup’ or, according to a minority of ancient witnesses (manuscripts) ‘taking the cup’. An editor must make a decision, though in this case it matters not very much which way the editor goes.
    There are more serious decisions, such as whether to include the ‘Father forgive’ verse (Lk, 23:34), where the witnesses disagree. I wouldn’t say ‘no one has ever read Bible or Shakespeare’ but it is true that to read them we have to engage actively with them and appreciate that ancient witnesses were themselves making editorial decisions, perhaps in the light of their own theological views. Perhaps this is what Eichenwald’s rather oddly chosen words mean.
    CHERRY PICKING. Eichenwald, arguing against an early belief in Jesus’ divinity, is not exactly cherry-picking by citing the Philippians passage mentioned, since this is a passage that could easily be held to proclaim the belief that in his opinion did not exist. So he’s facing up to a difficulty rather than making it absurdly easy for himself.
    CONSTANTINE AND THE SELECTION THE CANON. Constantine certainly influenced the development of Christian doctrine: in particular, he threw his weight behind the word ‘homoousion’ – ‘of one substance’ which is central to the Creed and was doubted by many. Like ‘Catholic Church’ this phrase is not found in the Bible – neither of course is the idea of a defined sacred book for Christians. We certainly have to ask ourselves whether we should read the Bible on the understanding that the much later Creed interprets it correctly. I agree that there is no clear reason to think that he personally influenced the selection of canonical books, though quite possible to argue that the system he set up, calling for uniform church teaching, would call for that selection to be made. Without his personal influence we might still think that individual Christians had to decide for themselves what books were sacred to them. At this point Eichenwald is being a bit speculative but he does raise important questions. In particular, the question of why Christians took so long to define a Bible of their own is important and affects how we understand the Bible in itself: what kind of idea of authority in religious matters does it envisage?
    I do agree that we shouldn’t approach the Bible with the assumption that everything owed to the Constantinian Church is misleading or that we should mistrust it because Constantine’s supporters were at a lower moral level than others of their time.
    Constantine probably thought that he was saving the Western world by revitalising its ideology and that he was saving God’s Church from fragmentation. He may even have had a point.