Bad Magic: Newsweek vs. the Bible

The first time I viewed the GEICO insurance ad on television, I chuckled. It flashes back to medieval times, where an elderly mentor peers into a big book of tricks then addresses his young student: “Trick number one—Lookest over there,” and he points. The student turns to look, thus falling for “the oldest trick in the book.”

When a national magazine like Newsweek hires Kurt Eichenwald to pen an article for publication on the day before Christmas Eve 2014 (“The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”) that viciously savages the entire Bible and conservative believers in particular, it forces one to look for the magic tricks. They are not hard to find.

The article focuses on misleading information, trying to make people mistrust the way evangelicals view the Bible. It is intellectually manipulative—a sad, frayed bag of magic tricks and long-discredited arguments by liberals who love to condemn conservative Christians and denounce any approach to biblical doctrine that takes Scripture seriously.

Evangelical seminary professor Dr. Michael Brown admirably refuted Eichenwald in a January 15 Newsweek opinion piece the magazine prefaced with, “We stand by our story.”1 So I won’t address all of Eichenwald’s arguments and tactics. Instead, I’d like to concentrate on two.

First, Mr. Eichenwald manifests an intense loathing of conservative evangelicals. His vitriol is stunning. In the second paragraph of his 14-page cover story, he describes conservative, Bible-believing Christians this way:

They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify [Bible] translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.2

Early on, Eichenwald discloses his real thesis: Any Bible that contradicts the left’s politically correct social mantra cannot possibly be worthy of belief. To prove his thesis, he works backward from his conclusion, cherry-picking liberal “scholarship” along the way for support. Eichenwald’s reasoning looks like this: Only those with a liberal social agenda can understand the New Testament. Conservative Christians do not have a liberal social agenda. Therefore, conservative Christians cannot understand the New Testament.

He rails against the supposed hypocrisy of believers who support conservative political candidates like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, claiming 1 Timothy requires “Bachman [and every other female politician] should shut up and sit down.” He sees the epistle as “virulently anti-woman,” teaching “the shortcomings of women” and forbidding them from ever occupying positions of authority over men.3

However, he hopelessly misses the context. First Timothy 2:9–12 concerns men and women in the church. Verse 8 begins with the duties of men in the church and then explains the spiritual duties of women. Nowhere does it tell Christian women never to enter politics.  

A dozen verses earlier, the apostle Paul explained the duty of believers toward government, instructing that prayer and thanksgiving be ”made for all men,” including “kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (vv. 1–2).

In fact, Christians are perfectly in tune with Scripture in praying for a government that refrains from unreasonable interference with their religious liberties, spiritual values, and home life—quite the opposite of the agenda empowering Mr. Eichenwald’s diatribe.

Eichenwald also attacks Pat Robertson. He says the Christian Broadcasting Network founder “should prepare himself for an eternity in hell” for telling his 700 Club audience, “We need to do something, to pray to be delivered from this president” (meaning Barack Obama).4

But asking believers to pray for a new president who would institute more biblical values does not violate Romans 13:1–3 and is not the same as advocating insurrection or civil disobedience.

Nor does Scripture say Christians should never oppose government, illegal though it may be. John the Baptist not only denounced Herod for breaking the Law by marrying his own brother’s wife, but also rebuked him “for all the evils which Herod had done” (Lk. 3:19).

Paul conducted the first-century equivalent of a sit-down strike to protest his illegal arrest as a Roman citizen in Philippi (Acts 16:35–40).

Eichenwald also goes after conservative, Christianity-professing, former Texas Governor Rick Perry; claims Christians worship “at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school”; and complains Christians oppose “mostly Democrats”—as if opposing a party that embraces abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, and a left-leaning view of the Constitution violates the Bible.

He ends by concluding the New Testament cannot be reconciled with “calls for impeaching judges,” another slam against conservatives. Like a bad magician, Eichenwald reveals the mechanism behind his tricks, yet still expects applause.

Second, Mr. Eichenwald attacks the credibility of the New Testament. Here is where he does the most damage.

Most people probably do not realize that a mass of responsible Bible scholarship, accumulated over centuries, makes the Bible the most trusted and verified of ancient books, giving us excellent cause to believe it.

Eichenwald implies today’s New Testament barely resembles what the original authors wrote and that Scripture is, in effect, a literary mirage.

His take on 1 John 5:7 is a study in obfuscation, if not outright trickery.

Implying Christians have been duped into believing in the Trinity, he points out verse 7 is absent from early Greek manuscripts. Verse 7 reads, “For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.”

Actually, most translations either omit the verse or include it with explanation. Some versions even give detailed explanations. The NET Bible® devotes an entire page to the history of this verse (known as the Comma Johanneum) and the reason for its omission in that translation.5

Such is the profound desire for accuracy and transparency in the Bible translation process.

Mr. Eichenwald would have you believe millions of Christians, like minions in a cult, have been shielded from the truth about this verse. However, I know of no conservative Bible scholars who rely on 1 John 5:7 as a linchpin for the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, some of the best conservative scholars do not cite that verse at all. First John 5:5–12 refers to “God,” the Holy “Spirit,” and to “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” as the “Son of God.” So all three persons of the Trinity are mentioned anyway.

Eichenwald tries to undermine the Trinity elsewhere as well. He asks, “So where does the clear declaration of God and Jesus as part of a triumvirate appear in the Greek manuscripts?” His answer: “Nowhere.”6 The doctrine, he concludes, is a “deception” of catastrophic importance.

However, the triunity of God runs throughout the New Testament (Matthew 28:19 is a good example) and even appears in the Old Testament, particularly in Isaiah 48:16. (See “Can Three Be One?” in the November/December 2014 issue of Israel My Glory.)

Eichenwald tries to conflate a 1,500-year-old debate about whether the early church considered Jesus part of the Godhead. Yet the New Testament clearly asserts Christ’s divinity:

  • John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
  • John 10:30 records that Jesus declared, “I and My Father are one.”
  • John 17:5 records Jesus saying, “And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.”
  • Philippians 2:6 says, “although He [Jesus] existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (NASB).
  • Colossians 1:15 calls Jesus “the image of the invisible God.”
  • Colossians 2:9 says, “For in Him [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.”

Though God, Jesus humbled Himself by appearing in the physical weakness of human flesh to provide a once-for-all sacrifice for sin.  

The tactic of plucking verses out of context to wage war against Christian orthodoxy is an old trick. Clement of Alexandria, a church father who defended the faith in the second century, knew it well:

Those who follow heresies…will not make use of all the Scriptures, and they will not quote from them entirely….Instead, selecting ambiguous expressions, they wrest them to their own opinions….They do not look to the sense of the words but simply make use of the words themselves….However, the truth is not found by changing the meanings—for so people subvert all true teaching. 7

None of us, claims Eichenwald, has “ever read the Bible.”8 Rather, we read bad translations based on botched copies of the originals. It is as if he thinks the first New Testament documents were written with invisible ink.

First he argues the copies are unreliable because “400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament.”9

Then he questions the accuracy of the copying techniques.

But what if the new testament originals were written close to the actual events of Christ’s life by reliable eyewitnesses or people who spoke to those eyewitnesses? And what if evidence shows that the technique for copying the original autographs was disciplined and reliable? Then Eichenwald’s thesis, not the Bible, evaporates—which is, in fact, the case.

The New Testament is a historical record of events based on eyewitness accounts. The Gospel of Luke explains, “Those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses…delivered them to us” (Lk. 1:2). The events were written down only after the author “investigated everything carefully from the beginning” (v. 3, NASB).

Matthew, Mark, and John (the other Gospel writers) were Jesus’ companions, as was Peter, who also emphasized the apostles “were eyewitnesses” (2 Pet. 1:16).

Peter also categorized Paul’s writings in his lifetime as “Scripture” (3:15–16).

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he recited the core of the Christian doctrine, which he said he “also received,” namely, “that Christ died for our sins . . . was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15: 3–4).

Then Paul said Christ appeared to Peter and other disciples and to more than 500 witnesses, “of whom the greater part remain to the present” (v. 6). Lastly, Christ appeared to Paul himself (v. 8).

Even radical religious scholars admit the authenticity of those verses. John Dominic Crossan, for example, a founder of the ultraliberal Jesus Seminar that questions the credibility of Jesus’ miracles, wrote, “The passion-resurrection account in 1 Corinthians 15 point[s], therefore, to the earliest Jerusalem community” of Jesus’ followers.10

How “early,” exactly, would that place the Christian narrative about Jesus’ sacrificial, redemptive death; His burial and miraculous resurrection; and His bodily appearance to hundreds of witnesses? Even Crossan said, “The apostle Paul wrote his letters twenty years after the death of Jesus.”11

That means no later than two decades, and possibly as early as immediately, after the resurrection, the “earliest” Christian church in Jerusalem was retelling the events of 1 Corinthians 15.

According to Crossan, the Gospels were written only 20 to 40 years later.12 They contain more detailed accounts and are in exact symmetry with Paul’s summary in 1 Corinthians 15.

So even to scholarly skeptics, the core of the Christian message contained in today’s New Testament is exactly what the “earliest” Christian community was communicating about Jesus Christ after His crucifixion and resurrection.

With such powerful evidence supporting the reliability of the New Testament’s message, the burden of proof to discredit it rests entirely on Mr. Eichenwald. So far he has failed miserably to make his case.

But what about the possibility of scribal errors? First, Crossan, the skeptical scholar, tells us the early church began using the “codex” version of the Gospels “almost instantly,” compared to other non-Christian literature of that age.13 A codex was much like a bound book of today, rather than a scroll. Crossan believes codices were used as “the handbooks, as it were, for the Christian community.”14

Today we have manuscript versions of these codices, said Crossan, dating back to the second century.15 That means two centuries earlier than when Mr. Eichenwald says the “professional” copyists starting working, Christians were already reading and passing around bound books containing the Gospels. The codex approach and its wide distribution would have made it easy to notice copyist errors and correct them.

Second, Eichenwald fails to understand the religious community’s dedication to accuracy. Christians literally risked death every day because of their faith in the words of the New Testament. We can hardly believe they would have been careless about copying the Scriptures they used to guide every aspect of their lives.

Third, we have evidence of the accuracy of religious copyists long before the fourth century. Hundreds of years before Christ’s birth, copies of the Old Testament, now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, were generated by a Jewish sect at Qumran. Some fragments date back to 250 BC and are the oldest versions of the Old Testament on record.

They illustrate the impeccable accuracy of the scribes and copyists who painstakingly duplicated the Scriptures for future generations. Our Old Testament today is virtually a replica of the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls.

Even the powerful, prophetic Messianic Scriptures of Isaiah 53:5–6 read like our Bibles today:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, and he was crushed for our iniquities, and the punishment that made us whole was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, each of us, to his own way; and the Lᴏʀᴅ has laid on him the iniquity of us all.16

Like a piercing voice ringing through the halls of history, writings that span millennia remind us the Bible we read today is a reliable record of God’s dealings with the human race as recorded by His inspired authors and preserved throughout the ages so that, if we are willing, we may come to know Him.

No magic trick, no skeptic’s ploy, can erase what God has caused to be written. The only question is whether we are willing to clear away the clutter of false arguments, ignore the din from the rabble-rousers, and give a clear head and an open heart to what the Scriptures say about Jesus Christ.

ENDNOTES
  1. Dr. Michael Brown, “A Response to Newsweek on the Bible,” Newsweek, January 15, 2015 <http://tinyurl.com/psopd9q>.
  2. Kurt Eichenwald, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin” Newsweek, January 2, 2015, 26.
  3. Ibid., 36.
  4. Ibid.
  5. The NET Bible® (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 1999), 759, n 1 John 5:7.
  6. Eichenwald, 30.
  7. Cited in Hebrews, vol. 10 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, ed. Erik M. Heen, Philip D. W. Krey, and Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 10:6.
  8. Eichenwald, 27.
  9. Ibid.
  10. John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1998), 546.
  11. John Dominic Crossan, A Long Way From Tipperary (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2000), 153.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, 127–128.
  14. Ibid, 130.
  15. Ibid, 127.
  16. Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, “Isaiah,” The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1999), 359.

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