The Misunderstood Bible

Not News; Just Weak

By Jeff Laird

Misrepresentation of Christianity is rampant, especially in mass media. The claim "I am a Christian" isn't self-verifying, nor does it imply any actual knowledge about that faith. Those who don't actually read or study the Bible have little beyond rumor and pop culture to feed their perception of Biblical truth. As a result, it seems the most ignorant claims about the Bible are swallowed whole, by those who either don't know better, or who'll accept anything agreeing with their preconceived notions.

This past week, Newsweek's cover story was an article by Kurt Eichenwald, titled The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin. Despite the title, his article does nothing to dispel general ignorance about the Bible. On the contrary, it's chock full of ignorant, arrogant, uninformed and generally irrational nonsense. To the theist, atheist, journalist, or middle-school newsletter editor alike, this is an embarrassing publication.

A major part of my ministry work, and personal study, is taking in criticism of the Bible. Some attacks are legitimate, in that they're grounded in a certain level of careful thought, and/or evidence. Not that I agree with the conclusions, but there are criticisms of the Bible and of Christianity that are respectable, if nothing else. There's substance there, and intellectual and logical integrity. Those kinds of criticisms have taught me much, and refined my faith.

Eichenwald's article is nothing like that.

While scolding Christians for being wrong and uneducated about the Bible, Eichenwald pours out arguments that aren't merely misleading, or one-sided. They're factually, hilariously, obnoxiously wrong. It reads like a transcript from an atheist chat room discussing the latest Dan Brown novel. I rarely laugh out loud when reading, but I can honestly say this piece inspired me to LOL more than once, in no small part because it's passed off as high-level journalism.

In short, brutal honesty, Eichenwald's effort is so aggressively shallow, it raises questions about his intentions, and those of his editors. If this is really how he approaches any issue, let alone the Bible, his opinion isn't worth the pixels it's carried on. I half wondered, half hoped it was some kind of bizarre reverse-trolling experiment; sending up a balloon full of nonsense to see how many people noticed.

As always, length is an issue when responding. The article itself is nearly 9,000 words long. Few people are willing to read a 500-word answer to a 10-word question, let alone a few dozen times over. Answering every error in decent detail would literally run to the length of a short novel. So, rather than swat every mosquito in the swarm, consider the following brief, but representative examples. There's much more to be said for each issue, and the article itself, than I've taken time for here.


First off, one can readily agree — in theory — with Eichenwald's condemnation of those who don't know the Bible, don't read the Bible, don't follow the Bible, yet attempt to leverage it for political or personal purposes. Likewise for those who feel the need to treat homosexuality as somehow "worse" than other sexual sins. Those of us who contend for Biblical truth are frustrated, to put it mildly, at the number of people who claim the name of Christ, yet abuse His words. Those who arrogantly claim to speak for God, via the Bible, in ignorance and shallowness, are rightly the targets of scorn.

Unfortunately, Eichenwald projects his own flaws onto others when he condemns those who...
...pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch...invoking a book they seem to have never read and whose phrases they don't understand, America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.
...the history, complexities and actual words of the Bible can't be ignored just to line it up with what people want to believe, based simply on what friends and family and ministers tell them.
Jesus said, Don't [sic] judge. He condemned those who pointed out the faults of others while ignoring their own.
But wait, there's more:
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.
This, from a muckraker who contradicts his own arguments, ignores vast swaths of Biblical scholarship and theology, not to mention deeper examination of the texts, in favor of silly caricatures, seemingly based on non-existent research, who passes along blatant falsehoods, picks and chooses which verses to read, carelessly, then judgmentally wraps it all up in a smug, patronizing claim to the inside track on the real meaning of the Bible.


A major problem with Newsweek's piece is its reliance on the fringe of the fringe. Eichenwald's claims cruise so far over the left field fence that even his cited sources don't actually support him. Consensus scholarship, including non-Christian and skeptical sources, contradicts him as well. No matter what you want to hear, there's one PhD lurking somewhere willing to support it, but that's not exactly an honest approach to journalism.

To justify his condemnation, Eichenwald rolls out a personally-collected freak show version of Christianity: Christians who reject all climate change "because of promises God made to Noah," view Syrian resistance to attacks as a sign of the apocalypse, "banish" children from their homes, insist the Old Testament "debunks science," and so forth. I talk to Christians with some...unique...views of the Bible, and have yet to encounter one of these theological unicorns. The images attached to the article include snake handlers and, of course — of course! — the Westboro Baptist posse and their "God Hates F*gs" nonsense.

As a side note, I'm advocating a new informal logical fallacy: the argumentum ad Westborum. The "Westboro Blunder." Invoking Hitler for no good reason is semi-jokingly known as the argumentum ad Hitlerum, an irrelevant association trading on shock value. Westboro's been burnt to a crisp by virtually every mainstream church and sub-sect I can think of, yet they're dragged into everything by the anti-Biblical crowd. Newsweek's not the first to succumb to the argumentum ad Westborum, but it's still a vapid association. Grow up and get serious, already.

Comically, Eichenwald's preferred interpretations of the text are as obnoxiously shallow and self-serving as anything these groups supposedly stand for. We can take potshots at free-range kooks all day, but they aren't a fair representation of a belief system. Reasonable people don't pick the most irrational, extreme version of the opposition as their target — they approach the strongest, most common, most rigorous, or at least the more mainstream versions.


According to Eichenwald, nobody has ever actually read the Bible. In his case, that's obvious, but he claims that a long chain of translations has rendered everyone (but him?) incapable of knowing what the original said. This because...

"...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."

This subsection is even titled "Playing Telephone with the Word of God". I've already covered how silly the Telephone Game claim is, so forgive me for simply referring the reader there. It's an insipid attitude which proves nothing more than the claimant knows nothing about the history of Biblical manuscripts.

And how many translations were involved, again? By my math, Eichenwald claims at least three linear translations, making the English Bible the fourth language removed from the originals. The problem is, the manuscripts modern English Bibles are based on were written in Koine Greek, as were most of the original works — a point Eichenwald actually makes later on. That's one translation, not three. I'll be kind here, and assume his "hundreds of times" line referred to scribal copying, not translations. Even that's mathematically ridiculous, though. Some manuscripts used to create the historic King James Version are dated to the 4th century; those aren't the umpteen-hundredth copy of a copy. His assumptions about scribes and professionalism are likewise pulled seemingly out of thin air.

The article claims Constantine greatly influenced the canon of the New Testament, and gleefully recounts his depraved behaviors. But there's no evidence Constantine had any meaningful influence on Christian theology, or the NT canon, not the least because both were reasonably well established prior to his rule. And, historians have long noted that Constantine was most likely a fraudulent convert — one of the paper politicians Eichenwald rightfully lambastes — given that his conduct never changed after his convenient claim to conversion.

Incongruously, Eichenwald actually dings Constantine for his "shallow understanding of theology". True though that may be, coming in the context of this article it's about as meaningful a criticism as Jenny McCarthy sneering at Gwyneth Paltrow for holding unscientific views. I think I sprained an eyelid reading that line.

Eichenwald also claims the New Testament wasn't "compiled" until 400 years after being written, which is a flat-out factual flop. The Codex Sinaiticus, for example, contains the entire New Testament and is dated to the early-to-mid 300's. Keep that fact in mind, by the way, when Eichenwald tries to claim certain New Testament books were forgeries of late theologians. Beyond that, quotations from the earliest church fathers, reflecting their understanding of which books were Scripture, can be used to reconstruct almost the entire New Testament. The Four Gospels and the letters of Paul were being distributed in a group by the end of the 2nd century; as in the years 101-200. That's more than a century prior to Constantine.

Those aren't hard facts to find, nor difficult logic to grasp. It's a sad day if this is what passes for hard-hitting investigation, at Newsweek.

Eichenwald also trots out the Bart Ehrman sound bite that "there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament," which is about as misleading a claim as can be imagined. Stop and think about that for three seconds, and you can see more information has to be provided. More variations than words? What does that even mean? In brief, this claim is based on how one counts "variants", and it involves multiplying any minor discrepancy by the number of manuscripts. To put that in practical perspective, an early, 100,000-copy printing of Ehrman's own Misquoting Jesus was found to have 16 minor errors, meaning — by Ehrman's math — his book contained 1.6 million errors. That's math salad, not a meaningful criticism. Especially since the sheer volume of New Testament manuscripts inflates those numbers further, even though the text is more consistently preserved than other, similar works.

Eichenwald makes a passing mention that most of these supposed errors are inconsequential variations in word order and spelling. He fails to mention Ehrman's own conclusion that none of the variants, in any sense, affect Christian theology, probably because he didn't read that far. The New Testament is well-attested and well-preserved beyond any other work of antiquity, and you can't sneer at it without discarding much of what we know of history outright. We're more confident of what the original says than any other comparable work.

With similar prejudice, Eichenwald lists passages found in older translations of the Bible which today are considered non-original, such as the story of the adulterous woman. Boldly, the sage muckraker proclaims that...
Scribes made [the adulterous woman story] 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.
Every one of those claims is news to Bible scholars. I'm resisting using that three-letter "L" word, but in this case, it's awfully close. The claim that scribes "made it up in the Middle Ages" is complete, unadulterated, inexcusable fiction. I say that because Eichenwald fails to mention how this story is found as an extremely early addendum to other NT books, and was referenced as a variant by church fathers as early as the 300s. As a result, scholarly consensus views it as an early, accurate tradition, though not likely a part of John's original text. Claiming that "the event simply never happened" is unsupportable opinion.

In other words, these bracketed passages — which are many fewer in number than Eichenwald tries to imply — are not "news" to Christianity, but Eichenwald treats them like a ticking time bomb in the Evangelical closet.


Newsweek's cover story claims it's only due to bad translations — nay, deliberate mistranslations — that anyone thinks the Bible claims Jesus to be God. To support this, Eichenwald references a few passages which he says were improperly translated. Here, he again shows his profound ignorance of Christian theology. Belief in Jesus' divinity is not based on a few simple verses, but on multiple statements and events in the Bible. For instance, Jesus' repeated claims to the attributes of God, unity with the Father, the response of His enemies to His claims, the transfiguration, ascension, and so forth.

Similarly, Eichenwald levels accusations of hypocrisy at Christians over homosexuality, which seems to be the ultimate cause of his beef with an Evangelical approach to the Bible. He strangely claims the word "homosexual" didn't appear until later English versions, and that Leviticus ought not apply. Here, Eichenwald misses the fact that Paul's language in several verses is explicit — as in, graphic — and difficult to mistake. And, that the conservative Christian view of homosexual acts is based on far, far more than a verse in Leviticus. His stance also requires a person to believe that every Christian theologian for the last two millennia has been grossly blind to what the Bible actually says, or that nobody understood the behavior until that English word was coined.

The piece also claims that Jesus was anti-family, based on an out-of-context reference to Matthew 19:29. Context, however, shows what Jesus meant, and it's nothing like the silly nonsense Eichenwald suggests. Consider, for nstance, Mark 10 and Matthew 5.

Eichenwald claims Christians are hypocrites for praying in public, and in school, because of what Jesus said about practicing faith "in order to be seen", seemingly missing the point that it's the pride, not the publicity, which Jesus was targeting. Or, the fact that Jesus Himself often prayed in public. For what it's worth, I, and a great number of other Christians, are uncomfortable with celebrity politicians and pseudo-pastors turning prayer into a performance. On this, we agree, but Eichenwald's abuse of Scripture to make his point can't be excused.

According to Eichenwald, also, those who criticize homosexual behavior should also tell women to "shut up and sit down." This, because of what Paul says about the conduct of women in 1 Timothy. Once again, Eichenwald's approach is not only sophomoric, it's foreign to most of Christian theology. An unfair and inaccurate caricature, to say the least. The context of the passage is fairly clear that it refers to spiritual and intra-church issues, not the world in general, and it's been interpreted as such by the mainstream scholars Eichenwald deliberately chooses not to reference.

Perhaps most pathetically, Eichenwald tries to suggest that Christian attempts to change the minds of government leaders, or to oppose their policies, even in prayer, is a sin, based on Romans 13. Never mind that the same author, Paul, sticks up for his rights in Acts 16:37-38 and Acts 22:25. This same book, in Acts 5:29, recounts Peter and the apostles disobeying the authorities, in favor of obeying God. What Paul describes in Romans 13 is revolution and anarchy, not Christians who engage in civil disobedience and the punishment it entails.

Through all of this clumsy flailing, Eichenwald's point seems to be that Christians ought not take anything in the Bible seriously, since doing so would lead to all of these bad conclusions. And that we don't anyway, since we don't take his insipid approach to all of these issues. Taken as attempts to refute theology he doesn't like, through reductio ad absurdam, one could be tempted to brush these off as pointed caricatures, nothing more.

As shown, though, his counterpoint Biblical interpretation is so laughably juvenile it can't be taken seriously, and flies in the face of his admonition to respect the "history, complexities and actual words" involved. Actual Biblical scholars don't take that rice-paper approach, despite the fact they come to conclusions Eichenwald doesn't like.


These are dead-to-rights examples of what can only be called willful ignorance. It's not that hard to find a Christian theologian willing to explain the basis for Christian teachings on these passages. Or simple, common-knowledge facts to correct these silly claims. I work with a ministry giving scriptural answers to these kinds of questions literally millions of times a month! Even a mediocre effort could have given Eichenwald a better perspective, but he didn't seem to bother. Complexities? History? Objectivity? Please. Who has time for that, when you're skimming the Bible and quote-mining Bart Ehrman?

It's a sad commentary on modern journalism when something this childish is passed off as a cover story. Atheists, theists, theologians and skeptics ought to be insulted that Newsweek thinks so little of its readership. Though even sadder, perhaps, is how many of those readers will gleefully nod at every word, simply because it agrees with their general distaste for Christianity. And, how many self-styled Christians will gasp in frustration over what, truly, they ought to be rolling their eyes at.

In the end, Eichenwald and Newsweek have provided nothing other than a distilled version of ignorant, pop-culture, anti-Biblicism, something Newsweek ought to be embarrassed for having published. I can only say the mid-piece disclaimer is disingenuous, at best:
Newsweek's exploration here of the Bible's history and meaning is not intended to advance a particular theology or debate the existence of God. Rather, it is designed to shine a light on a book that has been abused by people who claim to revere it but don't read it, in the process creating misery for others...This examination—based in large part on the works of scores of theologians and scholars, some of which dates back centuries—is a review of the Bible's history and a recounting of its words.
Oh. Give. Me. A. Break.

That claim, in light of the piece itself, is insulting. What about the Bible being abused by those who revile it, but don't read it, and create misery of their own kind? At most, this is an "examination" of the author's own personal preferences, and a handful of biased sources, not the mainstream scholarship or theology involved. If "scores" of scholars back this up, what about the "thousands" who'd call it rank nonsense? It doesn't even pass the common-sense test.

Seeing Christianity misrepresented is nothing new, but a publication as high-profile as Newsweek wallowing in the dregs of ignorant arrogance feels like a new low. It seems Eichenwald's oh-so-deep-and-thorough reading of the Bible missed Romans 1:18, which talks about those who "suppress the truth." That is, those who know well enough to look in certain directions, but make a purposeful choice not to. Intellect and ability aren't his problem, nor his editors'. Willingness is the only legitimate explanation. This isn't merely poor journalism; it's condescension and prejudice writ large. Eichenwald, Newsweek, and everyone else deserve a more honest approach than that.

Consider the brain-melting arrogance Eichenwald levies at millennia of Christian thought, as he pontificates on his version of what the Bible really says:
There are also deep, logical flaws here that should be apparent to anyone giving the Bible a close read.
I guess the theologians of history, the scholars of renown, just never bothered to give the Bible a close read. Or, they were just too stupid. Dur-hurr, golly gee, thanks, Kurt, for shining the light of your edified brilliance on two thousand years of dullards and boobs. For reminding us just how far "journalism" has fallen, and how even the most prejudiced, obnoxious nonsense gets to print today, as long as it spits in the face of Biblical Christianity.

That's not news, but it's pretty weak.

Published 12-29-14