A Teaching Moment Courtesy of Newsweek

By Jason David BeDuhn
Professor, Comparative Study of Religions
Department of Comparative Cultural Studies
Northern Arizona University
January 2015

Kurt Eichenwald’s deliberately provocative journalistic essay in the January 2, 2015 issue of Newsweek has garnered the expected response. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has led the way, whose characterization of the article as “a hit piece that lacks any journalistic balance or credibility” has been echoed in various arch-conservative media outlets. But who, precisely, is the target of Eichenwald’s “hit”? His critics very much want you to think it is all Christians, or the Bible itself. But this false generalization merely reflects their attempt to claim ownership of the Bible and Christianity.

Eichenwald’s essay criticizes “cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed” and “fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations.” Such characterizations can be found throughout internal Christian debate and criticism, and the author’s more specific targets are clear enough in the particular examples he gives of religious zealotry, particularly those “political opportunists” who make religion a public rather than a private issue. At some points in the essay, he bandies around the term “evangelical” a bit too broadly, but he can hardly be blamed for the current widespread confusion about what makes someone an evangelical and what makes a fundamentalist, particularly since the broader evangelical movement has been largely co-opted by a doctrinaire, politicized fringe apparently ignorant of both the Bible and the Constitution that they make such a show of extolling. All of the specific groups and episodes from contemporary America mentioned in the essay are factual and fully documented, while Mohler’s charge that the essay “argues that historic Christianity has been based on nothing but a lie” is absolutely false, an egregious attempt to tar-and-feather the author and mislead readers by obscuring what is at issue in the Newsweek piece.

What gives Eichenwald the right to weigh in on such a delicate subject as how some Christians make use of their sacred scripture? He makes it clear that it is the public and political invocation of the Bible’s authority in current social debate that justifies raising questions about whether the Bible is being accurately represented or misused. “America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy,” he observes, manifested in certain “arguments from Scripture,” as the phrase goes. These social and political positions are “advanced by modern evangelical politicians and their brethren, yet none of them are supported in the Scriptures as they were originally written.” His essay, then, decries not the Bible but “the illiteracy of self-proclaimed Biblical literalists,” in defense of “a book that has been abused by people who claim to revere it but don’t read it.”

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.

Take, for example, the relative inattention self-proclaimed “Bible literalists” give to social justice, compared to homosexuality. No one who has ever actually read the Bible with more than two brain cells active could have missed its overwhelming emphasis on social justice: it is embedded throughout the Torah, is the main theme of the Prophets, and is central to the teachings of Jesus. So where are all the Bible-wavers swelling the ranks of the Occupy movement or minimum-wage protests or “Black Lives Matter” marches? (Actually, Christians of a variety of persuasions have taken a visible role particularly in the last named protests, reminding the public that there are other sides to Christianity than the one that usually dominates public attention.) Yet, as Eichenwald points out, the entire current political hostility to gay rights is rooted in just four terse verses of the Bible, none of which are as germane to issues of modern homosexuality as one might be led to think. Jesus, of course, never says a word on the subject, nor even talks much about sex in general, as you might expect from the prurient obsession with it among modern fundamentalists. As Eichenwald accurately reports, the condemnation of men “who lay with a man as with a woman” in one verse of the Torah is hypocritically cited by those who would not for one minute consider applying other parts of Torah law in their lives, nor should they as Christians, for whom, Paul tells us, Torah law is no longer applicable. (Mohler’s distinction between still valid moral laws and invalidated ceremonial and purity laws from the Torah is a second century idea introduced to deal with and rationalize inconsistencies on the status and use of the Torah among some of the same first century Christian writings later included in the New Testament, canonizing the ambiguity, but not the proposed solution.) In two of the several lists of sinful conduct attributed to Paul (each different from the other) appear terms for actions that may be male homosexual conduct, or may be male prostitution – and the context in 1 Corinthians 6, at least, suggests the latter. The point here is the problem with acting as if there is one and only one possible interpretation or – even more crucially – application of these words to either Christian living or public policy. Here again, Eichenwald correctly observes the hypocrisy of focusing on one or two items in Paul’s lists of sins, which are so comprehensive as to catch nearly everyone at one time or another. Look at the lists in 1 Corinthians 6 and Galatians 5 for yourself, according to which, as Eichenwald correctly notes, “most frat boys in America are committing sins on par with being gay. But you rarely hear about parents banishing their kids for getting trashed on Saturday night.” Then, of course, there is Paul’s reference to something approximating the modern definition of homosexuality (and for the only time in the Bible including women as well as men) in Romans 1, which he deliberately parades as an easy target – part of a classic Jewish criticism of licentious Greek culture – in order to catch his reader in hypocritical finger-pointing, springing his trap in Romans 2 and going on to argue that everyone is an equal sinner, exactly as Eichenwald represents it. Mohler’s problem with this aspect of the essay, therefore, appears to be a problem he has with Paul, not with Eichenwald.

Similarly, Mohler is simply wrong when he claims that the Newsweek essay “grossly exaggerates the time between the writing of the New Testament documents and the establishment of a functional canon.” Here it is Mohler who is relying on a “far, far left” – or, if you prefer, a far, far right – fringe of modern biblical scholarship which makes claims for an early canon process, evidence for which simply does not exist. The 400 years between composition and canonization Eichenwald reports is just about right (the regional Council of Carthage in AD 393 was the first official declaration by such a body on the Bible canon), and before that there were significant differences from one community to another, from one bishop to the next, about what counted as Bible. The time frame within which this gradual process of collecting individual compositions into the New Testament is only shorter if some of the books are the later forgeries many in biblical studies have argued they are (generally soft-pedaling the issue by referring to them as “pseudepigrapha” or “deutero-Pauline”), or if Constantine actually imposed a canon already at the Council of Nicea in 325 (he did not). I do not believe Mohler wishes to credit either of these positions.

Mohler goes on to dismiss the Newsweek essay’s discussion of the many problems with transmission of the biblical text by saying that textual criticism is old news. But it is not old news to the millions of American Christians who attend churches where the “King James Bible” is considered the only valid one – a version that predates modern textual criticism and contains a faulty text base in many passages. They have every right to use it if they want; but they have no right to be taken seriously by those who know more accurate Bibles are now available, thanks to the labors of scholars over the last couple hundred years. Their ignorance of their own scriptures in this regard is why the problematic history of the text is worth reporting. In fact, most Bibles printed and used in America today continue to include the story of the adultress in John and the longer ending of Mark without any notice that they are known to be later additions by someone other than the gospel authors – however much that might be old news to a learned man such as Mohler.

Given that learning, Mohler appears more misleading than naïve when he circularly defends translating a Greek word differently when it refers to Jesus than when it refers to anyone else, because of the “context.” The verb proskuneō refers to a physical act of prostration, and the only pertinent “context” is whether or not there is a person there to whom one might make this gesture of subservience widely used in social situations in the ancient world. The attempt to make this gesture into “worship” whenever Jesus is its object is – just as Eichenwald reports – a good example of reading beliefs into the Bible, rather than deriving one’s beliefs from the Bible, and is the kind of “sin” against the Bible that translators have committed knowingly or unknowingly throughout Christian history. So it is fair for Eichenwald to say that, “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.” Of course, there are better and worse translations, but not a single one that does not at some point fail to accurately communicate an underlying Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek expression – usually due to the quite natural tendency of modern Christians to read these texts from an ancient and alien context through the lens of their current beliefs, which are the product of two thousand years of developing “traditional viewpoints.” So the vast majority of those who read the Bible are at the mercy of the translators. Even though new Bible translations come out all the time, most of them amount to fresh renderings of traditional interpretations of the text, rather than careful, historically and culturally contextualized reconsiderations of the original phrases.

When it comes to differences between the individual books of the Bible, or even apparent contradictions within them, the Newsweek essay is also on very solid ground. The birth and resurrection stories of Jesus are logical examples to use, because they are so familiar to people in their folk versions, which, as Eichenwald points out, are synthetic combinations of bits and pieces from the different accounts. When those individual accounts are put side by side (as in a Synopsis), their differences are clear. This observation is a reminder that the individual books of the Bible are just that – individual, and do not all just say the same thing over and over again. Just think about how brave those Christian leaders were who chose to canonize not one, but four versions of the life of Jesus, full well knowing that the differences between them could cause problems. They seem to have understood what certain kinds of modern Christians have forgotten: that the different details are only a problem if you think of these texts as history books, which they were never intended to be. The authors of the four gospels consciously, deliberately, chose effective story over accurate history. They were interested in providing food for thought and spiritual reflection, not resources for multiple-choice history exams.

As Eichenwald notes, it is the way the Old Testament is used as history, or even as science, that raises the most issues. Here again, the author is not criticizing the Bible as a source of religious life; he is faulting it as a resource of public policy on things that have nothing to do with religion. In pointing out the inconsistencies in how the Bible describes such things as creation or the story of a global flood, Eichenwald states, “These conflicting accounts are only serious matters because evangelicals insist the Old Testament is a valid means of debunking science. But as these example show, the Bible can’t stop debunking itself.” In other words, as in the New Testament, the stories of the Old Testament do not put a premium on historical or scientific accuracy, or even consistency, and were written at a time when our modern conceptions of such things were neither valued nor known. “Evangelicals cite Genesis to challenge the science taught in classrooms, but don’t like to talk about those Old Testament books with monsters and magic.” There was a time, a hundred years ago, when stories from the Bible were read in public schools right alongside of fairy tales and myths, tales from history, and modern fiction. All of this material from our collective literary heritage offered examples of good narrative composition and effective story-telling, stimulation to the imagination and thinking outside of the contemporary box, even moral lessons. Sorting it into “fact” and “fiction” was beside the point, and no one ever thought of reading it in science class. Those who want to get the Bible back into public schools should take a lesson from this past when it was already there. But that is not the way they want the Bible used in school; they want to use public funding from taxes paid by citizens across the spectrum of different faiths, to promote their version of one of those faiths. They want you to believe that it would represent a “Christian” viewpoint (problematic in itself, since it involves reading Jewish scriptures – the Old Testament – in an anti-Jewish way). But their claim to speak for mainstream Christianity is itself a work of fiction, just as Mohler’s over-generalization about “traditional viewpoints” tries to falsely imply that all Christian believers would take views different from the conclusions of modern biblical studies. The majority of American Christians belong to denominations that affirm the compatibility between academic biblical research and Christian faith.

Of course, Eichenwald makes a few mistakes of fact in the essay, and Mohler is right to draw attention to them. The older, better manuscripts of the Bible that have been discovered in the last century number in the thousands, rather than the “tens of thousands” (unless one adds in every individual scrap of the Dead Sea Scrolls). The well-known story of Jesus and the adultress (“let he who is without sin cast the first stone”) that John did not write but was later added to his gospel appeared before “medieval” times (but still well after the gospel writer was dead). I’m certainly not going to disagree with Mohler that journalists such as Eichenwald should consult directly with experts in the subject (to the best of my knowledge, he got his information from publications rather than talking directly with the scholars he cites, or running his thoughts by them) – or, even better, they should minor in religious studies in college to be well-prepared for a subject that arises daily in journalism.

The largest inaccuracy is the essay’s description of large-scale “slaughter” going on between Christians in the early centuries of the religion. That came considerably later, on an upward trending scale of virulence leading right up to the eve of America’s founding. Eichenwald is more accurate when he speaks broadly of “first a battle of books and then a battle of blood.” The battle of books went on for the first three hundred years of Christian history, when adherents of the religion in its many varieties did not have access to state power to impose their views on others. Only when political leaders in the Roman Empire adopted a particular form of Christianity and took it upon themselves to establish it as the state religion did blood start to flow. Laws began to be issued depriving Jews, “pagans” and other Christians of basic civil rights. Encouraged by government favoritism, zealot mobs carried out atrocities against these groups. When the government itself began to arrest and execute “heretics,” many Christian leaders were appalled, and asked the political leaders to back off. But over a few generations the clergy grew comfortable with this sort of politicization of religion – at least when they belonged to the favored group. Even then, the occasional isolated execution was typically effective in terrorizing others into outward conformity. Eichenwald raises the specter of this history in an exaggerated manner as a cautionary tale for an America in which the grandstanding of a government figure such as Governor Perry in a Texas arena resembles a Nuremburg rally more than a traditional Christian gathering. It is the misappropriation of religion for political ends that is being decried here, and was part of the concern that led the Founding Fathers – Christians all – to see the wisdom of keeping religion and politics apart, for the benefit of both government and religion. That is why they included in the Constitution both the 1st Amendment and a prohibition of using religious belief as a qualification for public office. It is why many state constitutions prohibit using tax revenue to fund religious activities (including religiously-affiliated schools), and many prohibit clergy from serving in public office (almost never enforced today). But no legal barrier exists to prevent politicians from misusing religion in a hypocritical attempt to rally political forces, in the process trying to associate their political positions with the aura of scriptural authority.

So Eichenwald is once again simply reporting in an accurate way what the Bible has to say about such public “religious” grandstanding: Jesus clearly and repeatedly condemns (“using heated language”) as hypocritical any sort of prayer performance in front of others, whether that’s at a political rally, as an invocation at a town council meeting, sporting event, or graduation ceremony, or even at church. Christians of a certain type can try to make their case that they have a right to do these things, and force others to endure them; but they cannot make that claim as an “argument from Scripture,” because their own scripture is against them. If that surprising fact gets readers of the Newsweek article to pick up their Bibles and check, that is exactly the effect Eichenwald hoped to have.

The same goes with his informed criticism of those who pretend that their opposition to the current government and its policies is Bible-based. Paul expressly orders obedience to secular government in Romans 13, as does Peter in his first letter. Neither of them could even imagine such a thing as a “Christian” government before the Second Coming. Christians simply would have to put up with non-Christian governments and be good citizens to please God, who allowed the government to take power. And as good citizens they should have nothing to fear from their government. Call these teachings of Paul and Peter politically naïve if you will, but there they are right in the Bible, in the face of all those who think the Bible teaches them to either fight “the Feds” or take over the government. On this basis, Eichenwald is justified in saying that, “all fundamentalist Christians who decry Obama have sinned as much as they believe gay people have.”

Remember that Paul and Peter ordered obedience to secular government at a time when the Roman government was starting to actively persecute Christians, and would go on to martyr both of them as well as thousands of other Christians for the next 250 years. Nothing is more ludicrous to me as a historian than the tendency of those modern American Christians who position themselves on one side of the culture wars to speak of being personally persecuted. Clearly, they have no idea what the word means, and should consult with their brethren in those parts of the world where persecution is the real deal. Or perhaps they might consider asking closer to home among those Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists whose communities in the United States have had people murdered for their religion in my lifetime – not to mention less violent forms of prejudice that treats them as “un-American” in their own country. When individual Christians speak of feeling persecuted, do they mean they feel pressured to conform to un-Christian values of the larger society? That’s a fair complaint, and one the 1st Amendment is intended to address by keeping such pressure from being institutionalized in government policy. It is there to protect their right to be Christians in an un-Christian society, and to protect even the particular type of Christian they are against pressure to conform to another form of Christianity. And yet, the sort of hypocritical Christians the Newsweek article singles out are typically among the strongest opponents of the 1st Amendment, and seek any way they can to get government to impose their values on everyone – something the New Testament never authorizes them to do. In my experience, they also spend an inordinate amount of time attacking other Christians, and pressuring them to conform to their opinion of “orthodoxy.” If such social pressure to conform counts as persecution, then perspective on that experience might also be gained by those Christians who actually perpetrate this sort of pressure putting themselves in the shoes of those fellow Christians whom they hound and harass, especially the millions (yes, millions) of non-Trinitarian Christians in the United States. The Newsweek essay correctly points out that the Trinity concept appears nowhere in the New Testament, and Mohler’s rather silly attempt to read it in should be no more convincing to readers than a Catholic argument for the institution of the Papacy (on the basis of Peter’s association with the “rock” on which the church would be built and the “keys” of the kingdom) would be to a Baptist such as Mohler. The doctrine of the Trinity developed over several centuries as a post-biblical theological insight accepted by some Christians as a “traditional viewpoint” – a well-documented historical fact readily acknowledged by Catholics, but rather problematic for Baptists (and other Protestants) like Mohler, who are not supposed to accept any later “Catholic” tradition, but only what is explicitly taught in the Bible. Here again, the point is not who is right between Trinitarian and non-Trinitarian Christians, but the ignorance entailed in insisting that anyone who reads the Bible is bound to find the Trinity in it. Actually, it takes more than a little predisposition toward the idea to find it there.

Another common way fundamentalist Christianity (the kind that says there is only one way to be Christian) has recently worked its way into politics and public policy debates involves the rights of women. Eichenwald’s demonstration of hypocritical selective use of the Bible on this subject points out the irony of certain prominent women leaders among the politicized fringe of the Christian right, claiming biblical authority for positions that treat women unequally, while ignoring that the same Bible speaks against their right to be leaders or public figures at all (or even to dress the way they do for the cameras). Mohler finds himself in the odd position of espousing a liberal interpretive position on these verses of the Bible in order to avoid acknowledging any hypocrisy on the part of those within his own denomination who object to women in positions of leadership within the Southern Baptist Convention while gladly riding the coattails of women political leaders who espouse their views (of course, Catholics are caught in the same appearance of hypocrisy). Eichenwald is correct that the author of the Pastoral Letters (who claims to be Paul) forbids women to have authority over men, or to teach, plain and simple (1 Timothy 2:11-12), with no qualification of the sort that Mohler conveniently introduces in his interpretation. The authentic Paul, of course (in Romans, 1st Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians), simply assumes that women are participating in an equal position of church leadership with men, and freely praises their actions in this regard. So it is quite relevant for Eichenwald to report the scholarly consensus that the Pastoral Letters, as well as a suspicious single sentence that appears to be added to manuscripts of 1st Corinthians, were probably written well after Paul’s death as part of a growing socially conservative trend in an originally relatively progressive Christian movement.

Anyone tempted to take as gospel Mohler’s view of the Newsweek article as a “reckless rant against the Bible and Christians” needs to read carefully the closing section of Eichenwald’s piece, which contains an eloquent plea for biblical literacy, and for the great social value of the Bible’s most central moral teachings. Speaking as a university professor who teaches courses on the Bible as an essential document of religious heritage, I readily endorse this plea. It is a major part of my job each semester to cut through the pre-conditioning of students who all their lives have taken someone else’s word for what is in the Bible, what is important about the Bible, and whose side the Bible is on. My goal is not to have them substitute my word for that of others they have listened to previously, but to provide a credit-earning opportunity for them take the time and the trouble to read the text carefully for themselves, informed by the same insights of biblical scholarship the Newsweek article samples, and take ownership of the Bible as citizens of a society where it has such importance. Typically, the most eye-opening thing about the experience for my students is precisely that “context determines the meaning,” as Mohler insists, but that most uses of the words of the Bible in the public forum are made wildly out of context. For the larger public, the Eichenwald essay offers an attention-getting start that I hope will bring others to this opportunity to learn.

Jason BeDuhn is professor of the Comparative Study of Religions at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The views stated are his professional opinion and do not represent the position of Northern Arizona University or the Arizona Board of Regents.

Comments (3)

Fabulous piece!

#1 - Richard Nash - 01/10/2015 - 21:57

>So it is fair for Eichenwald to say that, “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.”

Is it really of Eichenwald to say that we are "at best" reading a "translation of translations of translations"? Aren't we "at best" just reading "a translation"? :S

#2 - Herro d'Angelo - 01/11/2015 - 22:01

Dr. you are not saying that he is right about his historical facts just that he is right about calling out evangelical hypocrisy. Am I right?

#3 - JNCU - 02/08/2015 - 19:00

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