Newsweek’s Flawed Criticism of the Bible

It’s fairly common for a high profile media outlet to run a feature that discusses important aspects of the Christian faith. And when they do, I have to admit that my first reaction usually isn’t hopeful. Newsweek’s recent lengthy examination of the Bible, and how many Christians supposedly misuse it, is a prime example as to why.

Interacting with every questionable point in the article would take far more time and space than I can give it here. (Those interested can check out more extensive critiques from Darrel Bock, Daniel Wallace, and Michael Brown. To Newsweek’s credit, the latter is found on their own site.) Instead, I’ll point out a handful of major issues in the hope of illustrating the problematic nature of the piece:

1. The article misrepresents how we produce our modern Bible translations, as well as their accuracy.

This quote serves to give the flavor of the Newsweek perspective:

No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, 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.

In fact, our English versions are translated once, directly from the ancient languages in which the Bible was originally written. Moreover, we have far better manuscript evidence for the Bible than any other ancient work. And the discipline of textual criticism, which has long-established principles to judge differences between copies of the same text, helps to ensure that our reconstructions of the original manuscripts are extremely accurate. Further, even the Bible’s critics acknowledge that no essential Christian doctrine is threatened by variations in the ancient manuscripts—the huge majority of which result from inconsequential matters like alternative spellings and the like. Finally, the actual work of translation is usually the product of teams of highly trained scholars who—precisely because they value message of the text so much—carefully seek to convey the meaning of the original document into our contemporary language.

2. The article demonstrates a simplistic approach to biblical interpretation and theological reflection.

This approach is unfortunately found throughout the article. For example, Christian politicians and churches are criticized for praying publically on the basis of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

In it, Jesus is quoted as saying “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

But Jesus says much more, specifically cautioning against the kind of public performance prayer that has become all the rage among evangelicals of late. The verse in Matthew continues quoting Jesus, who says, “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

This appears to miss the fact that Jesus is specifically criticizing an incorrect motive (the desire “that they may be seen by others,” and so be admired) rather than public prayer in general. That this is true is underscored by Jesus himself praying in public, like he does before he raises Lazarus from the dead in John 11, a passage that the article fails to discuss. Whatever criticism politicians and churches might justly deserve for their prayers, we simply can’t say that the Jesus rules all public prayer out of bounds. (The article goes on to suggest that if we take the Bible’s teaching seriously, children should be taught to pray only the Lord’s Prayer alone in their rooms.)

Again this is but one example of many we could list here.  I’ll add only that I’m not aware of any alleged interpretive or theological problems presented in the article that have gone unanswered. (Check out the longer critiques for more examples.)

3. The article is historically inaccurate.

Again, I’ll note just one example as a window into a larger problem. The article mentions “mass killings” and “slaughter” of Christians by Christians resulting from the early controversy surrounding the deity of Jesus. Michael Brown responds:

There is no record of professing Christians killing other professing Christians over theological issues in the immediate centuries after Jesus. There were certainly schisms and sharp disagreements, but not murder. As Professor Michael Kruger, an expert in early Christianity, points out, “Eichenwald offers no historical evidence about the mass killing of Christians by Christians within the first few centuries (we are talking about the pre-Constantine time period). And there is a reason he doesn’t offer any. There is none.”

The primary time when blood was shed over some of these doctrinal issues was during the 5th-6th centuries AD (the Monophysite controversy). And, as inexcusable and abhorrent as these atrocities were, there were other factors fueling them.

4. The article fails to cite any scholars—evangelical or otherwise—who disagree with its premises and/or would contest its example.

This is frankly inexcusable, particularly when there’s no shortage either of space within the article (it runs over 8,500 words) or scholars who are well qualified for the task and regularly write and speak on all the relevant issues.

5. The article transparently does what it says it’s not intending to do.

“This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity.” So the article claims, despite repeatedly maintaining the Bible is contradictory, poorly preserved, and disingenuously translated, and that Christians repeatedly twist its contents for their own self-interested and destructive ends. It should be evident by now that I don’t think these assertions are correct. But if they were, it’s not at all clear to me what’s left to salvage of either the Bible or Christianity.

At the end of the day, it’s certainly within anyone’s rights in our country to criticize the Bible and the Christian faith. And that’s okay. For nearly 2000 years, Christianity has faced challenges like those posed by the Newsweek article. And by the grace of God, it will continue to do so.

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