There has been a long-standing scholarly discussion about how far back we can trace the roots of the fourfold gospel. We certainly see it in Irenaeus, who is quite plain about his view, “It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer than the number they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live and four principle winds… [and] the cherubim, too, were four-faced” (Haer. 3.11.8).
But, can we trace the fourfold gospel back even further? Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist writing c.150-160, is a key player in this debate. He clearly knows the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But did he know John? Scholars disagree about this. But I think there are good reasons to think that he did. Here are a few:
1. We should remember that Justin was the teacher and mentor of Tatian who was famous for producing a harmony of all four gospels known as the Diatesseron. It is noteworthy not only that John was included in Tatian’s harmony, but that John provided the central chronological backbone for his work. If Tatian valued John so highly, then it is difficult to believe that his mentor, Justin, would have been unaware of this gospel.
2. At one point, Justin indicates how many gospels he knows when he describes these gospels as “drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them” (Dial 103). Since such language indicates (at least) two gospels written by apostles, and (at least) two written by apostolic companions. Thus, Justin appears to receive (at least) four core gospels. Given that we know three of these gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it seems only natural to think the last one would be John. And if it is not John, then which one is it?
3. Justin clearly knew other Johannine literature, such as the book of Revelation which he regarded as written by the apostle John (Dial 81.4). No doubt his familiarity with Johannine tradition is connected to the fact that he lived in John’s former residence of Ephesus during his dialogue with Trypho. His knowledge of other Johannine works is at least suggestive that he knew John’s gospel.
4. Justin is quite familiar with Johannine terminology like “logos,” as well as a number of themes distinctive to John’s gospel, and even seems to cite the gospel of John directly, “For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’” (cf. John 3:3;1 Apol. 61.4).
Of course, these considerations cannot prove that Justin knew John’s gospel (but historical studies rarely are able to prove such things). Regardless, they give us very good reasons to think it is historically likely that Justin knew John’s gospel.
If so, then Justin provides good evidence that (at least) by the middle of the second century the fourfold gospel was received as authoritative in some parts of the early Christian movement. Indeed, Justin tells us the way the gospels (“memoirs of the apostles”) were valued in his day:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things (1 Apol 67.3).
Such a worship practice was not invented by Justin, but seems to be a practice with a lengthy historical pedigree. Thus, there are good reasons to think that the origins of the fourfold gospel may go back even further.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
In a prior article (here), I explored how the second-century work the Epistle to Diognetus clearly affirmed the full divinity of Jesus—a doctrine that some say did not come around until the fourth century. I continue this theme by exploring yet another doctrine that some suggest is a late invention: substitutionary atonement.
The average internet-level narrative goes something like this: the earliest Christians had no clear understanding for why Jesus died on the cross and what it accomplished. The idea of a substitutionary atonement is a late invention designed to retroactively explain the (otherwise embarrassing) death of Jesus. In fact, it was not until Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man?) in the middle ages that someone came up with the idea that Jesus died in place of sinners.
Of course, such a narrative can be readily refuted just examining the writings of the New Testament itself—particular the letters of Paul. However, it is also worth noting that this view was held by some of the earliest Christian writers; in this case, by the author of the Epistle to Diognetus in the early second century. Here are some excerpts from the author that affirm key aspects of substitutionary atonement:
The Serious of Sin
The author writes:
And when we had demonstrated that we were powerless to enter the kingdom of God on our own, we were enabled by the power of God. For our unrighteous way of life came to fruition and it became perfectly clear that it could expect only punishment and death as its ultimate reward (9.1–2).
Here is a clear affirmation of human inability to save ourselves (akin to total depravity), and a full acknowledgement that sin deserves the ultimate penalty of death.
The Grace and Love of God toward Sinners
The author writes:
But then, when the time arrived that God planned to reveal at last his goodness and power (Oh the supreme beneficence and love of God!), he did not hate us, destroy us, or hold a grudge against us (9.2).
God’s response to our sin, though deserving of death, is not to bring judgment but to show mercy.
Christ Bore Our Sins on Himself
Here is where we get to the crux of substitutionary atonement:
But [God] was patient, he bore with us, and out of pity for us took our sins upon himself. He gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the innocent one for the wicked, the righteous one for the unrighteous, the imperishable one for the perishable, the immortal one for the mortal. (9.2).
Here is a remarkable passage. Undoubtedly, the author views the work of Christ on the cross as an exchange, a swapping, of the righteous for the unrighteous, that we might be saved. And he says plainly that Christ “took our sins upon himself.” He stood in our place and bore God’s wrath for us.
Christ’s Righteousness Covers Us
Incredibly, the author even seems to affirm what Reformed folks refer to as the doctrine of imputation. This doctrine says that our justification is not only about having our sins taken away, but having Christ’s positive righteousness cover us. The author of the Epistle to Diognetus states:
For what else could hide our sins but the righteousness of that one? How could we who were lawless and impious be made upright except by the son of God alone? Oh the sweet exchange!… That the lawless deeds of many should be hidden by the one who was upright, and the righteousness of one should make upright the many who were lawless!
This is a significant passage because it doesn’t dwell on just our sins being taken away, but dwells substantively and primarily on the righteousness of Christ. And what does that righteousness do? It hides our sins. And it “makes upright” the lawless. And this happens in a “sweet exchange.” If we are looking for an ancient writer who describes the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, this comes awfully close.
In sum, the Epistle to Diognetus shows that the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, and also the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, are not late inventions, but were present very early in the history of Christianity. Did some Christian groups hold other views of such matters? Sure. But the continuity between the teachings of this epistle and the writings of Paul himself (see especially Romans 5), make it evident that the substitutionary atonement/imputation view goes back very early indeed.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
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-whom 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.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
It is not unusual for Newsweek, and other major media magazines, to publish critical opinions of Christianity and the Bible during major Christian holidays. I have lost count of how many March/April issues of such magazines have cast doubt on the resurrection, just in time for Easter.
However, the recent Newsweek cover article by Kurt Eichenwald, entitled “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” published intentionally (no doubt) on December 23, goes so far beyond the standard polemics, and is so egregiously mistaken about the Bible at so many places that the magazine should seriously consider a public apology to Christians everywhere.
Of course, this is not the first media article critiquing the Bible that has been short on the facts. However, what is stunning about this particular article is that Kurt Eichenwald begins by scolding evangelical Christians for being unaware of the facts about the Bible, and the proceeds to demonstrate a jaw-dropping ignorance of the fact about the Bible.
Being ignorant of biblical facts is one thing. But being ignorant of biblical facts after chiding one’s opponent for that very thing is a serious breach of journalistic integrity. Saying Eichenwald’s article is an instance of “the pot calling the kettle black” just doesn’t seem to do it justice.
There are a variety of categories where Newsweek needs to give Eichenwald a serious slap on the journalistic wrist. Given the length of the article, I will have to deal with it in two parts. Here are some serious problems with part one:
Easy (and False) Caricatures
Eichenwald begins (not concludes, but begins!) his article by describing Christians:
They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.
So, Eichenwald’s well-balanced journalistic understanding of the Christian religion is limited to street preachers who scream at people, those who demand the 10 commandments be posted in schools, and the tiresome trope that all Christians are part of the Jerry Falwell moral majority?
Anyone who has studied evangelical Christianity for more than 10 minutes, using more than internet articles from the Huffington Post, would know that the average believer in America is none of these things.
Such stock accusations and caricatures are just low-hanging fruit that are unworthy of serious journalism. Eichenwald should know better.
But Eichenwald isn’t done. He is not nearly finished expressing his moral outrage against Christianity:
When the illiteracy of self-proclaimed Biblical literalists leads parents to banish children from their homes, when it sets neighbor against neighbor, when it engenders hate and condemnation, when it impedes science and undermines intellectual advancement, the topic has become too important for Americans to ignore, whether they are deeply devout or tepidly faithful, believers or atheists.
Notice that Eichenwald (still in his introduction) just tosses out these (very serious) accusations and generalizations with absolutely no evidence whatsoever. One wonders whether we are reading a news article or the editorial page. Could a journalist ever get away with such evidence-less accusations if it were made against Islam?
Take for instance the charge that Christians are all about “banishing children.” Seriously? If Eichenwald had actually investigated which part of the population is leading the way in adopting children without homes, the answer would have been readily available. Evangelicals. Not Muslims. And certainly not liberal media elites.
But, even more than just being factually wrong, Eichenwald seems completely unaware that he is engaging in his own moralistic diatribe—the very thing he accuses Christians of doing. Remember, he complains that Christians are like the “Pharisees” always going around telling people they are wrong. Yet now Eichenwald is doing exactly the same thing. Why, then, is he not guilty of the very charge he levelled against Christians, namely “hate and condemnation”?
Apparently only Christian moralizing is “hate,” whereas Eichenwald’s own moralizing is just fine.
Overplaying Transmission Problems
Eichenwald attempts to discredit the Bible by pointing out problems in its transmission. However, the real problem is not with the Bible but with Eichenwald’s misinformed accusations. For instance, he claims:
About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament.
This is patently false. Collections of New Testament writings were functioning as Scripture as early as the second century (and, to some extent, even in the first).
Eichenwald tries again:
While there were professional scribes whose lives were dedicated to this grueling work [of copying manuscripts], they did not start copying the letters and testaments about Jesus’s time until centuries after they were written. Prior to that, amateurs handled the job.
Again, this is false. There is no evidence that the earliest Christian scribes were amatuers (whatever that means). On the contrary, the earliest evidence suggest Christian scribes were multi-functional scribes who were used to copying all sorts of literature from letters to literary texts and beyond (see chapter 7 of my book The Heresy of Orthodoxy).
Eichenwald is misinformed another time:
Not all of the amateur copyists spoke the language or were even fully literate. Some copied the script without understanding the words.
This is an egregious claim about earliest Christian scribes. There is no evidence that the earliest Christian copyists could be, in any way, characterized as illiterate. Eichenwald may be referring to a reference in the Shepherd of Hermas, a popular second-century text, where an individual was asked to copy a book who could not read. However, there is no indication that this individual was a scribe, nor that this was typical for scribes!
Again, another mistake:
But in the past 100 years or so, tens of thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered, dating back centuries.
This is absolutely false. The number of NT manuscripts is a little more than 5,500 (and still growing), but not 10,000. In addition, Eichenwald mentions the high number of manuscripts as if it were a negative! Truth is that the more manuscripts we possess, the more certain we can be about the integrity of the NT text.
Moreover, Eichenwald never mentions (or perhaps doesn’t know) that the NT is in a class by itself when it comes to the number of manuscripts. Most other ancient texts from the first century (or thereabouts) are preserved in around 10–20 manuscripts (and some only in a single manuscript). Thus, the 5,500 NT manuscripts of the NT is impressive indeed.
Overplaying Textual Variations
In an effort to shock the reader, Eichenwald appeals to two significant textual variations in the NT, namely the long ending of Mark (16:9–20) and the pericope of the adulterous woman (John 7:53–8:11). These are the same ones that Ehrman highlights in his book Misquoting Jesus—which is evidently a big influence on Eichenwald.
But Eichenwald only tells part of the story. First, he doesn’t tell the reader that these are the only two significant variations in the entire New Testament. He presents them like they are typical when they are not. Second, he doesn’t explain how text-critical methodologies allow scholars to identify these changes as later additions. And if they can be identified as later additions, then they do not threaten our ability to know the original text.
Even more, Eichenwald continues to make factual errors about these changes. He states:
Unfortunately, John didn’t write it. Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages. It does not appear in any of the three other Gospels or in any of the early Greek versions of John. Even if the Gospel of John is an infallible telling of the history of Jesus’s ministry, the event simply never happened.
This statement is riddled with errors. For one, scribes probably didn’t make the story of the adulterous woman up—it probably circulated as oral tradition. Second, it was not added in the “Middle Ages” as he claims, but probably sometime between the second and fourth century. Third, we don’t know that “the event simply never happened.” On the contrary, scholars have argued it may be an authentic event that circulated in the early church for generations.
Overplaying Translational Issues
Eichenwald next hones in on the issue of translations, claiming that English translations are utterly unreliable and written simply to reinforce traditional Christian beliefs that, otherwise, have no support. He states:
And so each time προσκυνέω appeared in the Greek manuscript regarding Jesus, in these newer Bibles he is worshipped, but when applied to someone else, the exact same word is translated as “bow” or something similar. By translating the same word different ways, these modern Bibles are adding a bit of linguistic support to the idea that the people who knew Jesus understood him. In other words, with a little translational trickery, a fundamental tenet of Christianity—that Jesus is God—was reinforced in the Bible, even in places where it directly contradicts the rest of the verse.
This paragraph reveals a stunning misunderstanding of the way translations and texts really work. The fact that translators use different English words at different points is not due to some diabolical plot to trick people into believing in the divinity of Jesus, but is simply due to the fact that words mean different things in different contexts.
Moreover, Eichenwald is unaware that even the more progressive English translations do exactly the same thing! For instance, the NRSV of Matt 14:33 reads: “And those in the boat worshiped (προσκυνέω) him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”
Overplaying Diversity in the Early Church
No critique of early Christianity would be complete without trotting out the standard claims that early Christians couldn’t agree on much of anything and everyone was busy fighting over early Christian doctrines. At this point, apocryphal gospels (such as Thomas and Peter) are often highlighted as evidence that Christianity was confused about what it really believed.
Eichenwald executes this part of the refute-Christianity-playbook perfectly. After repeating the standard trope about how “Christianity was in chaos in its early days,” he even offers the claim that Constantine (diabolical fiend that he was) really created modern Christianity as we know it:
And then, in the early 300s, Emperor Constantine of Rome declared he had become follower of Jesus, ended his empire’s persecution of Christians and set out to reconcile the disputes among the sects. Constantine was a brutal sociopath who murdered his eldest son, decapitated his brother-in-law and killed his wife by boiling her alive, and that was after he proclaimed that he hadconverted from worshipping the sun god to being a Christian. Yet he also changed the course of Christian history, ultimately influencing which books made it into the New Testament.
Eichenwald seems utterly unaware that this whole course of argument is incorrect and drawn directly from internet chat rooms and books like the Da Vinci Code. The truth is that Constantine had nothing to do with which books were placed into the New Testament, nor did the council of Nicea for that matter.
But, undaunted, Eichenwald digs his hole even deeper:
To understand how what we call the Bible was made, you must see how the beliefs that became part of Christian orthodoxy were pushed into it by the Holy Roman Empire. By the fifth century, the political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels in circulation were to make up the New Testament. With the power of Rome behind them, the practitioners of this proclaimed orthodoxy wiped out other sects and tried to destroy every copy of their Gospels and other writings.
Yet again, Eichenwald is flat out wrong. There was no fifth century “vote” about which Gospels would make it into the NT. On the contrary, the four gospels had been well-established in the church since the second century.
In sum, the first part of Eichenwald’s article is an unmitigated disaster. Its factual errors are legion, its bias against Christianity is palpable, it makes serious and yet unsubstantiated moral accusations against followers of Jesus, and, all the while, offers zero historical evidence backing up its claims.
This is not journalism. This is Eichenwald’s personal diatribe. Newsweek should really offer a formal apology.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
Dr. Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC. In addition, he is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serve as an Associate Pastor (part-time, of course) at my home church, Uptown PCA.