On Christmas Eve, I wrote part one of my review of Kurt Eichenwald’s piece (see here), and highlighted not only the substantive and inexcusable litany of historical mistakes, but also the overly pejorative and one-sided portrait of Bible-believing Christians. The review was shared by a number of other evangelical sites and thinkers—including the Gospel Coalition, Tim Challies, Denny Burk, Michael Brown, and others—and ever since I have been digging out from under the pile of comments. I appreciate that even Kurt Eichenwald joined the discussion in the comments section.
But the problems in the original Newsweek article were so extensive that I could not cover them in a single post. So, now I offer a second (and hopefully final) installment.
False Claims about Christians Killing Christians
In an effort to portray early Christianity as divided and chaotic (not to mention morally corrupt), Eichenwald repeatedly claims that Christians went around murdering each other in droves. He states:
Those who believed in the Trinity butchered Christians who didn’t. Groups who believed Jesus was two entities—God and man—killed those who thought Jesus was merely flesh and blood…Indeed, for hundreds of years after the death of Jesus, groups adopted radically conflicting writings about the details of his life and the meaning of his ministry, and murdered those who disagreed. For many centuries, Christianity was first a battle of books and then a battle of blood.
Notice that 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.
Sure, one can point to instances in the medieval period, such as the Inquisition, where Christians killed other Christians. But, Eichenwald claims that Christianity began this way: “for hundreds of years after the death of Jesus.” This is another serious historical mistake that needs correcting.
When it comes to who-killed-who in the earliest centuries of the faith, it wasn’t Christians killing Christians. It was the Roman government killing Christians.
Interestingly, the “heretical” groups like the Gnostics–whom Eichenwald presents as the victims–tended to avoid this government persecution. When the Roman officials looked to pour out their wrath on Christians, it was almost always those of the “orthodox” variety (although there were exceptions). Eichenwald either doesn’t know this, or just failed to mention it.
Portraying early Christians as mass murderers makes for great rhetoric. But it makes for lousy history.
Overstating the Popularity of “Other” Gospels
Continuing his portrayal of early Christianity as a movement in “chaos,” Eichenwald claims that other gospels were just as well-known as the canonical ones:
The reason, in large part, was that there were no universally accepted manuscripts that set out what it meant to be a Christian, so most sects had their own gospels. There was the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Simon Peter, the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Barnabas.
However, Eichenwald’s presentation here is enormously misleading. Apocryphal gospels were not nearly as popular, as wide-spread, or as well-established as the canonical ones. This can be demonstrated in a number of ways, but one simple way is just by observing how many manuscripts we possess of each gospel.
The physical remains of writings can give us an indication of their relative popularity. Such remains can tell us which books were used, read, and copied. When we examine the physical remains of the canonical gospels from the earliest centuries, we quickly discover that they were, far and away, the most popular.
For the gospel of John alone, we have approximately 18 Greek manuscripts from the second and third centuries. The most Greek manuscripts we have for any of the apocryphal gospels listed by Eichenwald is just two (Gospel of Mary). And the Gospel of Barnabas (a very late and notoriously unreliable “gospel”) has zero from this time period.
Blatant Exegetical Fallacies
Throughout the entire article, Eichenwald betrays his limited understanding of even the most basic interpretive and exegetical principles. He assumes that if the Bible really teaches a certain doctrine, then you will find chapter and verse stating that doctrine in a single passage. So, if the Bible really teaches the doctrine of the trinity, then we should find a verse using that word, or saying it succinctly.
So where does the clear declaration of God and Jesus as part of a triumvirate appear in the Greek manuscripts? Nowhere.
It is clear that Eichenwald wants a single passage that either says the word “trinity” or describes God directly in a tri-fold manner. But, Eichenwald is committing two fundamental exegetical fallacies. First, he is confusing word and concept—one of the most common exegetical mistakes. If a text does not contain certain wording, he assumes it means it doesn’t contain certain concepts. But, this is demonstrably false. A verse can refer to a concept without mentioning certain key words.
Second, Eichenwald assumes that doctrines have to be demonstrable all in a single passage. But, this is a profound misunderstanding of the way doctrines are derived from Scripture. Some of our most fundamental doctrines are pieced together from a variety of texts, in a cumulative fashion. The doctrine of the trinity is one of these.
Even more than this, Eichenwald seems completely unaware of the texts that do speak of the persons of the Godhead in a three-fold fashion. Take the words of Jesus in the great commission that baptism should be done “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). Scholars have noted that the Greek construction uses the singular “name” followed by the threefold Father-Son-Spirit. Sounds pretty close to Eichenwald’s demand for a “triumvirate.”
Peter does something very similar in his first letter when he describes the doctrine of election as coming from “the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for the obedience to Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:2). All of these activities and attributes (election, foreknowledge, sanctification, one to whom we owe obedience) do not belong to merely human figures, but necessitate a divine one. And Peter describes this divine figure in a threefold manner.
And more passages like this can be added.
Eichenwald neither acknowledges nor addresses any of these texts (maybe he doesn’t know about them), but instead glibly declares the trinity to be an unbiblical concept. The audacity of such a conclusion is stunning. It requires us to believe that Christians have just tricked themselves about the trinity for thousands of years until finally, in the modern day, a Newsweek journalist uncovers the truth.
Confused about Contradictions
No critique of the Bible would be complete without the standard appeal to a laundry list of supposed contradictions. Eichenwald’s article is no exception. Instead of picking one contradiction and really developing the exegetical and historical case for his interpretation, he chooses instead to overwhelm the reader with a catalog of complaints ranging from the creation account to differences in the birth accounts to differences in the resurrection accounts.
Such a strategy has a twofold benefit for Eichenwald. First, the long list allows him to rattle off a variety of claims without actually having to do the hard work of demonstrating those claims. Thus, his accusations require him to offer no supporting evidence. Second, he knows no single individual could possibly respond to each of these claims in any level of detail (allowing him to potentially claim that Christians are unable or unwilling to respond).
Even so, there are numerous problems with Eichenwald’s approach. For one, he demonstrates hardly any awareness of the numerous evangelical responses to these problems (nor does he cite a single one). The reader begins to wonder whether he has even tried to find solutions, or whether he is just content to repeat back the arguments of critical scholars because they fit better into the purpose of his article.
In addition, Eichenwald repeatedly employs the fallacious argument from silence. He assumes that if one of the gospel authors doesn’t mention something then he must disagree with it. For instance, he observes that in Mark’s gospel Pilate doesn’t declare Jesus to be innocent, but in Luke’s Pilate does. Thus, voilà! A contradiction! But, this assumes that Mark’s account is exhaustive. Just because he doesn’t mention this part of the story does not necessarily mean he rejects it.
This sort of tendentious historical analysis isn’t designed to solve difficulties but is designed to find contradictions—whether they are there or not. Eichenwald should know better.
To cap it all off, Eichenwald even trots out the tiresome and oft-repeated claim that Jesus taught he was coming back in the lifetime of his disciples. Referring to Mark 13:30, he states:
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says of the Apocalypse, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be done”—in other words, the people alive in his time would see the end of the world.
Eichenwald is happy to pluck this passage out of its context and interpret it for the reader: ”in other words, the people alive in his time would see the end of the world.” The problem is that his understanding of the text is directly in contradiction to the very passage he is citing from.
If Eichenwald had looked just one verse earlier, he would have realized that the “these things” the current generation would endure could not possibly refer to the second coming. Why? Because Jesus tells us the “these things” are what precedes the second coming! The prior verse states, “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Mark 13:29). This verse makes it plain that the “these things” is something distinguishable from the second coming–a likely reference to the trials of the church age.
Such surface-level exegesis gives the reader the impression that Eichenwald is more concerned to score points against the Bible than he is with really understanding the meaning of the passage.
For a more thorough treatment of supposed contradictions, see my blog series “Does the Bible Ever Get it Wrong” (first installment here).
Homosexuality and Obedience
Up to this point, Eichenwald’s article has been an epitomized by imbalanced and straw-man accusations against the Bible. Unfortunately, in the section on homosexuality Eichenwald reaches a new low. At no point is it more obvious that he is driven by his own entrenched ideological commitments and not by an honest attempt to understand what evangelicals believe.
Eichenwald begins with an analysis of 1 Tim 1:10 that is so blatantly fallacious and so critically flawed that it should be used as a textbook example of how exegesis is not to be done. He states:
But the translation there is odd, in part because the word homosexual didn’t even exist until more than 1,800 years after when 1 Timothy was supposed to have been written. So how did it get into the New Testament? Simple: The editors of these modern Bibles just made it up.
The reader is mystified by this statement. Of course, the word “homosexual” did not exist when Timothy wrote. It is an English word! But, that doesn’t mean there were not equivalent words and phrases in Greek that clearly referred to homosexuals. Indeed, we have extensive examples in ancient Greek works that refer to homosexuality and to homosexuals. Eichenwald’s point here is utter nonsense.
But suppose for a moment that 1 Timothy was written by Paul, and that “defile themselves” does refer to homosexuality. In that case, evangelical Christians and biblical literalists still have a lot of trouble on their hands. Contrary to what so many fundamentalists believe, outside of the emphasis on the Ten Commandments, sins aren’t ranked. The New Testament doesn’t proclaim homosexuality the most heinous of all sins. No, every sin is equal in its significance to God. In 1 Timothy, Paul, or whoever wrote it, condemns the disobedient, liars and drunks.
Eichenwald is correct that homosexuality is not ranked by the Bible as the most heinous of all sins. And he is correct that other sins are also serious problems. But it is unclear how this helps his case. Regardless of where one ranks homosexuality, the key point is that the Bible still clearly affirms it to be a sin. And just like other sins (whether greed, idolatry, or gossip), one needs to acknowledge it as a sin and repent of it.
And it is precisely here that the main debate over homosexuality lies. The homosexual community refuses to even admit it is a sin at all. On the contrary, they want Christians to embrace and affirm homosexuality as something good and right.
Thus, Eichenwald finds himself in a dilemma. He clearly wants to affirm the validity of many sins in the Bible (especially if he thinks they are committed by evangelicals). Is he willing to affirm that homosexuality is a sin? And if he is not, then he is the one who is “picking and choosing” what to follow in the Bible. Indeed, if he does not, then he is carving out a special exception for homosexuality. Isn’t that the same sort of thing that he condemned evangelicals for doing?
A Profound Misunderstanding of the Gospel
At the end of Eichenwald’s article, he deals what he believes is the fatal blow to evangelical Christianity:
Which raises one final problem for fundamentalists eager to condemn homosexuals or anyone else: If they accept the writings of Paul and believe all people are sinners, then salvation is found in belief in Christ and the Resurrection. For everyone. There are no exceptions in the Bible for sins that evangelicals really don’t like.
This is an outrageously misleading assessment of what Paul actually teaches. Indeed, after such a statement as this, one wonders whether Eichenwald has even read Paul (or Jesus).
Eichenwald makes it sound like evangelicals believe that homosexuals cannot be forgiven or that the gospel is not for them. That is simply not the case (and I notice that he cites no evangelicals that actually believe this). Evangelicals believe that even the most heinous sins can be forgiven.
But, here is the key. The gospel is for those who acknowledge their sins and turn away from them. Such an act is called “repentance.” And Jesus spoke of it often. Even in his very first sermon (Mark 1:15).
Of course, Eichenwald doesn’t mention this. It is much easier (and much more popular) to say that the gospel means you can live whatever lifestyle you want and still go to heaven. For Eichenwald, the main point of the gospel is that sins aren’t a big deal, no sin is worse than any other sin, and the main duty of a Christian is not to judge anyone else (which is why he ends his article with a monumental misunderstanding of Matt 7:1).
The truth is that Paul himself actually mentioned Eichenwald’s understanding of the gospel. And he condemned it. In Rom 6:1 he states, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
The gospel is not for perfect people. But, it is for repentant people—people who hate their sins and strive to stop committing them. Repentance doesn’t somehow merit salvation; but it is a requirement of salvation because it is the corollary of faith. A person cannot embrace Christ by faith if they are still holding tightly to their sin.
So, for homosexuals who repent of their homosexuality, and for any sinner who truly repents of their sins, then forgiveness in Christ can be theirs.
By way of conclusion, it is hard to know what to say about an article like Eichenwald’s. In many ways, it embodies all the misrepresentations, caricatures, and misunderstandings of the average non-Christian in the world today. It is short on the facts, it has little understanding of interpretive principles, it assumes that it knows more about theology than it really does, and it pours out scorn and contempt on the average believer.
Nevertheless, in a paradoxical fashion, I am thankful for it. I am thankful because articles like this provide evangelicals with an opportunity to explain what Christians really believe, and what historical credentials the Bible really has. Eichenwald’s article is evidence that most people in the world understand neither of these things. With all the evangelical responses to this article, hopefully that is changing.
In the end, there is a rich irony to the title of Eichenwald’s piece: “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” While he intended this to refer to evangelicals, I think it applies best to his own article.