This is a quick run-down of a rather long article published on NewsWeek. It’s mostly based on Bart Ehrman’s ideas of the messy Bible and how we can’t really know for sure what the real biblical texts actually say about anything. Based on this Ehrmanian confused view on the Bible, Newsweek published this text perhaps to spur Evangelicals (calling them cafeteria Christians) to more critical thinking. However, while asking for critical thinking, the author did just the opposite, and practiced cafeteria theology: he didn’t really think critically, he didn’t do his homework and stuck only with Ehrman to build his article. From a scholarly perspective, this article is a confused attempt to engage in matters the author obviously has little mastery over. The text below is my unedited comment-as-you-read reflections on the points the author raised in his text, so I’m not offering this as a solid response. It’s more a nonchalant conversationalist response to the ideas in this article. The link to the Newsweek article is here.
1. Nobody has read the Biblical texts as they were penned originally (400 years for NT and 1500 for OT manuscripts)
This is not true. There are tens of thousands of manuscripts from the OT and NT books of the bible. There’s been a rigorous review of the standard biblical material for as long as the Church exists. Biblical archeology is also rigorously searching for new manuscripts. The Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1947 that contain large portions of various OT books are almost to the letter identical to the previously oldest known manuscripts. With DSS, many of the OT “oldest” writings have been pushed back well into the first and even second century BC. So although nobody can claim that we have the absolute originals of any of the OT or NT books, we can say with strong certainty that the Church over the centuries did a very good job at preserving the textual reliability of the biblical material. In fact, none of the ancient books known to civilization has been so well preserved from a textual perspective as is the Bible. Moreover, the Bible as we know it today is in fact wrapped in its final form, and we now have a copy of the Bible as it was used sometime in the 4th century. The canonical and textual consistency is miraculous, to say the least. Yes, there are variations, but few of them have significant impact on the biblical and systematic theology we’ve built over the centuries. So there’s no room for throwing out numbers like 1000 or 1500 years. That’s simply not the case.
2. Koine Greek is a hit and miss translation job
This is also not true. NT scollars take into consideration extra-biblical literature in defining the words, moods, tenses and the structural significance of each word as it is placed in sentences. Translating Ancient Greek is no hit and miss deal. It’s a strict peer-reviewed activity based on manuscripts that are very well preserved. Also, we have tons of extra-biblical historical evidence of how the Early Church formed its beliefs based on biblical texts. These two sciences, Ancient Greek and Early Church History, form a technical, structural and dogmatic frame are needed to properly read and understand biblical texts. This is not a guessing game. This is serious science.
3. Bart Ehrman on the NT
Dr. Ehrman is a critical biblical scholar. Sometimes more a critical scholar than a biblical scholar because of his desire to pick on the NT. For all his scholarship, Dr. Ehrman is not really on the cutting edge of NT scholarship, and he doesn’t exist in a theological vacuum. Most of the NT scholars will quite loudly disagree with Ehrman. Taking his quotes and ignoring peer reviews is just for the sake of attacking the integrity of the NT instead of actually critically review the subject matter. Ehrman made a business out of this. The author of the commened article made a fool out of himself for choosing such a narrow view of NT theology.
4. Made-up stories injected in the Gospel of John
This again is according to Ehrman. Even an undergrad Theology student will tell you that John varries drastically in content and style than the other three gospels, who more or less talk about the same events. Therefore they’re called the three synoptic (syn-optic, i.e looking at similar things/events) gospels. Taking the synoptic gospels to evaluate the trustworthiness of the text of John is a logical inconsistency, just as it is to take a Biology book and evaluate its truthfulness by comparing it to a math textbook. The two have very different stories to tell, but difference doesn’t mean that either one of them is not true. Further, insertions of text by scribes in the Middle Ages cannot create consistency throughout Christendom in those days. Keep in mind that since the 4th century, Constantionpole was a counterweight to Rome. In 1045 the Church split to Catholic and Orthodox. Whatever Catholic scribes edited in the biblical materials would not be found in Orhtodox manuscripts. Yet fast forward to today and we all have more or less the same biblical material. Even though the Orthodox do have some extra OT books, but where the Eastern and Western Bible overlap, the similarity of wording is staggering.
5. KJV as the gold standard
I’m not sure where the author pulls such a statement, but nowadays, some 400 years after the fact, KJV is not even close to a reliable version. Understanding the original meaning of the Bible naturally would be best done in Ancient Greek. Many things do get lost in translation, but that’s why we have the NASB (some 95% word-for-word accuracy), and then we have the NIV that goes after the meaning of the text instead of word for word accuracy. Doing a bible study by combining NASB and NIV will get you much closer to the full(er) meaning of the text. Throw in NKJV, ESV etc can add extra layers of meaning of the original text. Throw in a solid biblical commentary (say Word Biblical Commentary) and you get a wealth of insight. Throw in a Bible Dictionary like Kittel and you’re really digging deep. This is what responsible pastors do when creating a sermon. It’s a lot of work so that we’d get closer to a solid comprehension of the Biblical texts. It’s actual, real work. Not just wishful thinking. Unfortunately, many don’t bother so much. But this is their personal/individual failure to responsibly do the ministry of a teacher. This doesn’t speak of Christianity in general, or the Bible in general. Hop over to up-state: Yale Divinity, Gordon-Conwell, move to Regent (Canada) or into UK in Aberdeen, Oxford, Cambridge, then Tubingen Germany… these places of concentrated and strong biblical critical education is where real theological work is being done. Not in Smallvile Bible Seminary (just made this up, don’t think such a school exists, but you get the picture).
6. Single words translated differently
The meaning of the word is linked to the context: the sentence, the chapter and the entire book. Different people will use the same word differently in different situations to denote various ideas. Language is a living matter. It’s not math where things are discrete, unequivocal, free of context and cultural settings. If Ancient Greek was such a cookie-cutter simple deal, we’d all be translators of the Bible. So what an uninitiated mind would interpret as translation trickery, is actually a masterpiece of translation. Keep in mind that translating the Bible is a linguistic exercise that is set in a historical theological context of the Early Church. Early Christians DID believe that Jesus is God. This is not something evil monks invented sometime later. Modern versions of the Bible follow editorial decisions about style. Some, like the NSAB, insist on word for word accuracy. But then the text becomes a bit more tricky to understand. So there are more dynamic translations that convey the meaning of the text. In many ways, the construct of a sentence in Ancient Greek will ascribe meaning to words, and sometimes there’d be a meaning just by construct, dynamics, tense etc without even a need of putting a word. These nuances are the reasons why scholars in Johanine writings are responsible for translating and commenting on the gospel of John, while Pauline scholars stick with Romans, and keep their paws off John.
7. Christians butchering Christians
Yes, there were persecutions. Yes this was bizare. But people took their faith seriously. From our perspective, even too seriously. But to say that Christians died mostly by the hands of other Christians is to completely ignore the Buzantine Empire and the Orhtodox Church. In the Ottoman invasion of Byzantium we’ve seen plenty of bloodshed, and this lsted for 5 centuries, up untill 1913. The West seems intentionally blind of the existence of a completely different world of Christianity, that of the Eastern Roman Empire, aka Byzantium. Dear West, please read past the dogmatic shortsited History textbooks. There’s an entire new world to see outside the little enclosed Western world, and once you see it you will restrain from making bizare statements like the ones our ignorant author made in his article on matters he barely understands.
8. Constantine was the one who ordered battling the Gnostic and other sects
The Church Fathers and the Early Church battled with various false teachings of Christ since the early beginning. Most of these false teachings were syncretisms of existing philosophical thoughts that wanted to create parallels between Christ and their ideas. Such are the neo-platonic ideas of duality of people (body-soul diadde, the body is an evil prison for the pure spirit that longs for deliverance…sounds familiar?). In reality these were never “Christian” ideas. The Epistles in the Bible are also covering these controversies, and these controversies plagued the Church since the beginning. Constantine didn’t decide single-handedly what the Church ought to believe. He summoned Councils of respected church leaders. The Church was the one that set the record straight of what is Christian and what is not Christian teaching. So these non-Bible (apocryphal) books weren’t recognized by Christians from the get-go. The Early Church wasn’t a small disorganized group of confused uneducated bunch of people. These people knew what they believe in, practiced it in deed and in prayer, and their communal effort to set the record straight is what we see in Councils past Constantine to defend true Christian teaching, not to vote what they like and what they don’t like. Even though the big shots back then were sometimes hotheads, don’t mistake their passion for theologia propria for corruption and scheming. They sometimes did adopt Machiavelism in order to push their understanding not because it was theirs to push, but because they were convinced to death that their theology is solid. So the question of Christ’s deity wasn’t really decided upon then, under Constantine’s guidance. Remember that it is because of this claim that the Jews gave Him up to Herod in the first place. The nuances of the Greek text help us see that Christ himself makes this claim, so anyone going against the idea that Christ is God, goes against Christ, who is God. So the people who claimed that Christ was a mere man were ultimately denying God of his deity. This was handed down to the Church. It isn’t a 4th century invention.
9. Sabbath. Sigh.
The Sabbath rest is a theological concept turned into a daily rite. For Christians to insist on the Sabbath and not stick to the other OT commandments is borderline hypocritical. The reason the Church shifts from Saturday to Sunday obviously isn’t an important thing to debate. The NT silence on this matter loudly speaks that Sabbath is a non-issue to the Early Church. The focus, regardless of the day, is worshiping Christ. So let’s just keep things into perspective please. With all the calender rumblings, who is to say that our “Saturday” is a real continuation of “the seventh day that God rested”? It’s a maddening agenda to push, so please, stop it. We call our days Monday mostly as a social agreement, not a scientifically proven date.
The doctrine of the triune nature of God is a hard nut to crack. The Eastern, Orthodox Church has a lot better grasp at this than the Western, Catholoc-Protestant world. The Trinity as a theological concept is more elegantly explained by looking at God as a being in motion rather than as a conglometate of components that are in complete isolation from one-another. I won’t even dare to go into the Trinity here. Im just stopping to comment on the idea that the Trinity was Constantine’s decision, and that today we can’t really find any evidence of this in the Biblical texts because they are corrupt. But text corruption goes both ways: we can’t rely on the various verses quoted to disprove the triune nature of God. So we’re left to debate about a Biblical idea without using the Bible (since it’s all just one big mess that nobody understands). Enter Philosophy of Religion, and we’re somewhat back to square one, with the well-developed Orthodox ideas of the dynamic triune nature of God, that we understand as far as it has been revealed for us to understand.
11. Contradictions in the Gospels
The Bible as a whole, and Gospels individually, are literary materials with a theological message. They weren’t written as historical texts (except maybe Luke). Looking for contradictions in the synoptic gospels and atrributing a theological dead-end is like going in a courtroom and expecting identical descriptions of a lifetime of events from 3 different people, reporting from different settings, some 30 years after the fact. Such expectation is a logical falacy. It is when all 3 witnesses agree on every single detail that we should doubt their statements. Different people see the same things and get different understandings of the event because they look at it from different perspectives. This difference of perspective is not to say that any one of the 3 are wrong. We’re getting 3 different stories for the same events, and that helps us put a more complete picture of the theological concepts behind those stories. Those alleged inconsistencies and controversies are there because the West insists on squeezing the Bible into a Natural Sciences methodology of thinking. Of course there will be problems. But the problem isn’t the Bible. It’s how the Western mind sees the Bible. Again, The Eastern Orthodox Church looks at this and is without words of just how illogical such behavior is. Why force the Bible to comply with our way of thinking. The Bible was never built to comply. It was written to convert.
In fact, Mary’s genealogy does go back to David. Check Luke 3. The reason why Matthew takes Joseph’s lineage is not a genetic but a theological point, suited to the intended readership.
13. The resurrected Christ
The differences in reports again point more to the ideas different authors want to convey on a theological basis. But focusing on who went to the grave instead of focusing that all 3 report an empty grave is… well, odd. The point of the text is that the grave guarded by roman soldiers was found empty! And Roman soldiers weren’t slackers. If they messed up, heads would roll.
14. The Rapture
Well of course it’s not a Biblical idea! In fact, few Christians bother with this 18th century American idea. Moreover, outside the Republican US mindset, many Christians debate whether the image of Heaven as we think of it (clouds, harps, people with wings etc) is anything more than a satirical idea. Remember that at the end of Revelation the text says that the heavenly Jerusalem will come down to Earth. Strange eh? But people prefer imported neo-platonic ideas over biblical truths. Go figure.
John Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and most of the serious theologians of our time don’t read Genesis as a historical book. Being from an Eastern Orthodox background, I am amazed and even confused by the Westerner’s insistence on reading a theological text historically. Genesis is a theological text, with a theological point: God is the author of life. The idea about a literal 6-day creation in Christianity is more an angry reaction to Darwinianism than it is a serious and well thought-through theological concept. Yeah it makes up for a good argument, but debating over what the Bible says about seven-day creation and ignoring the 99.999% of the story is… well… dumb. First and foremost the Bible is a revelation of how God’s plan of salvation is played out in human history. So let’s get the big issues settled, and we can then debate non-issues.
16. Different sources mashed together in Genesis
The idea of different, four sources (J, E, D, P), is part of the 19th century textual criticism movement, specifically the Documents hypothesis. It was a hypothesis, and remained so to this day. It is now a footnote in OT Exegesis. Nothing more. There are bigger fish to fry in Genesis than who wrote what and where it all fits in. The point is that Genesis, the way we have it, is a theological book with theological ideas. Let’s get to understand these ideas rather than deconstructing the text to its constituances. Biblical Theology is not a reductionist exercise. This is not a natural science where we get to understand a chemical by looking at its components.
Schleirmacher did say what he did, but that doesn’t really mean all he said is true. In his time theologians in the West started toying with other sciences and many times screwed up. Arguing that “most scholars” believe 1Tim isn’t by Paul is too vague. Who are these scholars? Where is the author drawing this conclusion? If they follow a Tillichian approach to dumping everything doubtful in the Bible only to be relevant, then yes, they probably will agree that 1Tim isn’t by Paul. But push them hard enough and you can get them to denounce just about anything related to Christianity.
But if you ask theologians like Barth, I doubt you’d get (m)any to agree. Bottom line is that Theology is not a thing of democracy. Doing theology is both an accademic and a spiritual practice played out on the Bible as foundation, and Christian beliefs as context. Equating the issue of homosexualizm to hairstyles and dress atire is like comparing apples and oranges. One is a moral/ethical question while the other is a church order issue. The first is a serious matter, the second is just a matter of politeness in church meetings… not in politics. So Sarah Palin can be a politician. But that doesn’t mean she should. The Bible, understandably, is quite silent about Palin, but not so silent about sexual perversions, whether they come in a form of homosexual or heterosexual activities. While heterosexual “sleaping around” is usual, it isn’t “normal” from a Biblical perspective. So yes, republican Christisns can bash all they want about homosexuality, but they should also address the underlining problem of sexual perversion in all forms in society. When sexual perversion is addressed as a root issue, many will find themselves lacking. That includes the man that spent most his adult life sleaping around and now has the audacity to be the authority on sexual purity issues. Dude, sit down and shut up!
18. Pat Robertson and social resistance
What Romans says is just one facet of how Christians should relate to Government. Serious theology is not built on a single verse. We do biblical theology on all the books of the Bible, derive theological concepts from that biblical theology, and we then integrate all these derived concepts and build a coherent theological stand on an issue. We then compile these coherent theological stands on issues, and that’s how we build Systematic Theology.
What Obama (or any other politician) does is open to debate, but to say that the Bible forbids opposing the government is ludicrous. Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, was involved in several assassination attempts on Hitler. When the government goes against God-given rights to people to live freely, it is the responsibility of the Church to intervene. So if Obama steps on some human rights, then yes, we do need to speak up. Thing is, Obama is just as good/bad as Bush was before him.
19. All sins are just as bad as homosexuality
Yeah, that is a bummer isn’t it? Eventually, once all people realize and agree on this, there’ll be a lot less throwing of stones on the other, and a lot more turning to Christ in repentance and desire to change. What a wonderful world that would be! But that’s what real theology is all about: preaching Christ as the perfect High Priest who understands the human condition and is ready to hear/heal/teach/guide. Question is, in all our bickering over differences, who will hear His voice and repent?
20. Salvation is found in the Resurrection of Christ
Spot on! Christ’s message is Repent and Follow. It’s not a call to moral perfection as prerequisite of salvation. As I’m preaching through Hebrews, I’m more and more convinced that in fact, we’ve all been led astray by pursuing moral excellence. What we’re called to do is to be followers of Christ and a salt and light in this world. As we follow Christ in being witnesses, moral flaws shave off. But the key focus is on being disciples, loving God and loving others, and through this loving of others and drawing closer to God, we get stripped off our imperfections. But we never get there, at least not on this side of death (although Orthodox theologians will disagree here as well). The Bible is all about Christ and salvation through relying on Christ’s faithfulness. It’s not primarily a moral/personal growth guide.
21. Public prayers
Yep, Evangelical republican candidates love to play the religion card. It obviously works. And in many ways, these gatherings do smell like Pharisee-stuff. America for some reason does see itself as very Christian. But for the rest of the world, no, that’s not really true. Out here in the world, the separation of Church and State actually works. And we’re not making a big deal out of it. So we don’t pray in schools. So what? Does that make us less of a “Christian state”…whatever that means?
22. The inerrant word of God statements
Actually, Peter in his epistles does mention Paul’s epistles as “God-inspired”, a term denoting that Peter saw Paul’s writings on-pair with the OT writings. So yes, there were early-on recognition of NT books as “Scripture”. And yeath, Ehrman won’t tell you this cause it’s not good for his business.
23. Instead of a Conclusion
Well, yes, cudos for the point that all Christians, regardless of their denomination, should know their Bible more. However, the way this large Ehraman-soaked article at the end ignores the very questions it raises is quite un-Ehrmanian.
You can’t really dispute the reliability of the Bible as a whole, and call people to discern for themselves what parts are true and what aren’t. Obviously you aren’t really versed in just how vast a topic Biblical Scholarship really is. How can an individual discern what is and what isnt Scripture? They’d need to be experts in Ancient Greek, experts in biblical interpretation, experts in systematic theology, experts in church history etc. That’d take a person about ten lifetimes to achieve only to be versed enough to embark on such a quest to clean up the Bible from its imperfections….which would last another 10 lifetimes and he’d end up with a reduced bible verses that mostly fit the person’s background and aspirations rather than being a result of peer-reviewed scolarly work. The Gospel of Thomas is one such work. So don’t bother.
I’m again amazed, amused and appalled by this approach that each man is his own ultimate authority. How did the West get to such a fallacy? Oh, wait, That’s in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve took matters in their own hands and screwed up drastically. Ever since, the entire human history, and all of the biblical materials deal with this selfishness, and it took a divine intervention of God-in-flesh to step in and rattle the cage on us.
The Gospel message covers these issues:
- No, you aren’t the ultimate authority.
- No, you can’t do everything on your own.
- No, you’re not the go-to authority on just about anything.
- No, you can’t even be faithful for a single hour without divine intervention.
- No, you’ll never be good enough to earn your own salvation.
What you need is to set your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith. It is His word that guarantees your “safe passage” and it’s not because you’re such a nice guy. In fact you suck. Everybody sucks big time! But Christ understands just how much you suck. You suck so much that you deserve a death so powerful that can put God himself to rest. And it is this sacrifice that Christ has done to enable your redemption. So now that redemption has been taken care of on the heavenly altar, it’s time to get up, dust off, and get on track with following Christ by being an agent of change wherever you’ve been placed to be, starting with loving the other, helping them, and showing Christ in you, so that they too may come to know this love of God that sets people on track to renewed life, but this time with Christ in the driver’s seat.