12.30.2014

A Cherry-Picker Critiques Cherry-Pickers: The Newsweek Bible article

Newsweek magazine decided to close out the year with a gem of an article on the Bible that is sure to rankle uncritical Christian fundamentalists while injecting a great new sense of vindication into atheists and former Christians.

The problem is, that's exactly the kind of point-scoring the article was written to do as it masquerades as journalism.

You know it's bad when Al Mohler and I basically have the same opinion. Mohler is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he and I would butt heads on basically every theological topic. But his assessment of the article is right on:
It is an irresponsible screed of post-Christian invective leveled against the Bible and, even more to the point, against evangelical Christianity...[The author] really does not address the subject of the Bible like a reporter at all. His article is a hit-piece that lacks any journalistic balance or credibility.
Of course, Mohler, a Southern Baptist, would then go on to try to discredit everything Eichenwald says about the Bible, which is no more responsible. Eichenwald gets some things right, but he does so by way of a sloppy foray into biblical scholarship that is rife with the same level of cherry-picking and oversimplification for which he chides evangelical Christians. It purports to be an article about the Bible itself, but in reality it's an attack on a certain brand of Christianity, evidenced by its opening paragraphs which are full of unfair, broad-brush over-generalizations seeking to paint all evangelicals as extreme fundamentalists. To be sure, I am not any more endeared to Eichenwald's targeted brand of Christianity than he is, but that doesn't mean his article is fair or accurate.

Obviously, you should read the original article first. My response here will fall far from providing an in-depth response to every point raised by Eichenwald (one of the drawbacks of his article is that it fires off a barrage of unrelated debunker's talking points about the Bible, making a response very difficult). But this is my attempt to clarify and correct, as well as provide some general commentary on biblical interpretation and scholarship.

*****

Transmission and Translation
Eichenwald gets our attention by saying that "no one has read the Bible," making the point that all we're actually reading is a "translation of copies," so to speak. He is correct to remind us of this. Translating, of course, is always an imperfect process that requires a good bit of interpretation. But Eichenwald carelessly says, "At best, we've all read a bad translation..." Tell that to the scholars who've spent years using their linguistic and epigraphic expertise. He also erroneously says that scholars are translating it from a translation. That was true of the King James Version, but modern day scholars are in fact translating from the original languages (just not the original manuscripts, none of which we possess).

Eichenwald writes as if we should be shocked that some words in the Bible aren't always translated the same way. Although he's right that some ancient Hebrew and Greek words have no English equivalent, he uses the example of the Greek word proskuneo and the fact that it's not always translated "worship" to cast doubt on certain passages. Of course it's not always translated the same way. Very few words are. Any given word can change meaning depending on the context. Welcome to the phenomenon of human language. Eichenwald also mentions the fact that ancient writing used no capitalization, punctuation, or spacing. He is correct. But he says this as if it presented an impossible puzzle for those who read it then and translate it now, relegating scribes and scholars to guesswork. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Eichenwald is correct that the transmission of the Bible depended on many hand-copied manuscripts over many years, and he is correct that this process included both mistakes and intentional changes. But most of what he says is overstated or not accurate at all. He claims that "about 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament." Leaving aside the fact that he's off by about 100 years, what he's talking about is canonization (not "compilation"). The Third Council of Carthage in 397 C.E. was when the New Testament was officially canonized as the 27 books we have today, but what he leaves out is the fact that the books of the New Testament were widely read and considered authoritative long before they were canonized (canonization often affirmed, not imposed, the acceptance of a book).

Justin Martyr, who wrote between 130-170 C.E. mentions and quotes from some of the Gospels, suggesting that they were already in wide circulation by then. Several apostolic fathers—the designation for a person who knew someone who knew Jesus—mentioned and quoted other books in the New Testament (Polycarp, Clement I, Ignatius). A document known as the Muratorian Fragment that dates between 170-200 C.E. mentions New Testament works as authoritative. Origin, writing in the early 200s, compiled a list of books that were being used by Christians in various regions, and came up with something very close to today's New Testament. This is hardly the 400 year gap that Eichenwald wants us to think there was. On the contrary, this represents one of the fastest tracks to distribution and acceptance in antiquity. In terms of the large number of different manuscripts, New Testament scholar Michael J. Kruger put it well:
Eichenwald mentions the high number of manuscripts as if it were a negative! The truth is that the more manuscripts we possess, the more certain we can be about the integrity of the NT text....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 manuscripts of the NT is impressive indeed.
Text Variants
In talking about all these manuscripts, Eichenwald is quick to point out that this means that there are a lot of textual variations. This is true. For any given book of the Bible, there are many extant copies, none of them exactly the same (thus the need for scholars to first reconstruct the original before translating). But the vast majority of variations are minor and inconsequential: a word here, a phrase there. Even some of the malicious or agenda-laden changes made over the years are caught and rooted out by scholars in their reconstructions, thanks mostly to all those manuscripts we have. But Eichenwald, to make his point and shock the reader, picked the passages inserted later into Mark and John as his examples, the only two examples of significant text variation in the entire New Testament. He presents such passage insertions as commonplace: "Scribes added whole sections of the New Testament," he claims. This is patently false. The two he mentions are the only two, and his commentary on them is reckless.

Let's just look at one. Open your Bible to John 8, the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Either right there in line with the text or in a footnote, you'll read something to this effect: "The earliest manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:59-8:11." See it? It has always been there. This is not the great revelation that Eichenwald seems to think he's making. It means what it says: all of the earliest copies of John's gospel do not have this story, meaning it was inserted later.

That's about all Eichenwald gets right. He goes on to claim that "scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages." Not even close. The Didascalia Apostolorum, a 3rd century document, mentions the story, and it was included in the Vulgate, the 4th century Latin translation of the Bible. Eichenwald also boldly claims that "the story didn't happen." How does he know that? It is possible, even probable, the story simply circulated independently for a while, as many stories did, and was later included in John's gospel. Besides, the story paints a very characteristic portrait of Jesus. From everything else we know of him, his handling of the woman caught in adultery is quite true to character. It sounds like Jesus through and through.

Throughout Eichenwald's section on text variants, he makes other factual errors. He claims that some verses, like Luke 22:20 or 1 John 5:7, appear only in late Latin translations of the Bible but not in any Greek manuscripts. Wrong again. The verses he mentions appear in Greek documents like the Codex Sinaiticus, the Codex Vaticanus, and others.

Creeds and the Divinity of Christ
Being a Baptist, I don't have as much of a stake in defending the Nicene Creed or other creeds of the church, but in the interest of fairness, Eichenwald had some exaggerations and mistakes here as well. He rightly points out the influence of Constantine and his less-than-stellar human rights record (although who did have a good human rights record in those days?). But he gives Constantine way too much credit in determining what books made it into the New Testament. He also makes it sound like the Council of Nicea (325 C.E.) was more responsible for the doctrine of Christ's divinity than it was. I can't pin this totally on Eichenwald, though. I've read a number of scholars who insist on saying that Jesus was more or less thought of as a Jewish teacher early on, and that the idea of him being divine only developed centuries after his life. In fact, the divinity of Christ partially comes from the works of Paul, some of which were written while Jesus' contemporaries were still alive. This includes the book of 1 Thessalonians, widely thought to be the New Testament's earliest work written in the late 40s C.E. The book of Philippians contains the well-known Christological hymn that says Jesus was "in very nature God" and had "equality with God" (NIV). This hymn is thought to have been recited by Christian churches years before Paul included it in his letter.

AuthorshipDoublets and Contradictions
A substantial portion of Eichenwald's article is dedicated to pointing out realities of the Bible that are no surprise to anyone with a theological education. He deals with a lot of issues related to the Bible's authorship, its inclusion of more than one version of a story, etc. Clearly, he thinks such things are going to serve as a devastating blow to Christianity and its veneration of the Bible. But as far as I'm concerned, the problem with the realities he points out is not that they are true, but that the average Christian doesn't know them.

For exampe, Eichenwald mentions the fact that the first 5 books of the Bible (the "Torah" for Jews, the "Pentateuch" for Christians) were not written by Moses. Duh. I've never understood why people insist that they were. The text doesn't identify an author, Moses wouldn't have known the Hebrew language, and countless pieces of textual evidence point to a time period long after Moses.

He mentions that 6 of the 13 New Testament books attributed to Paul weren't actually written by him. Yes, that is the overwhelming scholarly consensus, one of many nuggets that are well-known and accepted in biblical studies circles but not known to many in the pews. It was called pseudonymity. It was a common (though not necessarily preferred) practice in ancient times, and would not have carried the connotation of forgery that it would today. In fact, some pseudonymous authors would have thought they were paying their named figure a compliment by writing in their name.

Eichenwald mentions that many Old Testament stories have doublets—two versions of the same story. Yes, this is correct. Examples like the Moses or Noah stories are tricky because they are interwoven with each other and thus make it hard to spot (unless you have a copy of the Torah that is color-coded by source). Others are pretty clear and it's hard to understand how we missed it; for example, the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. Later in the Bible, it's clear that the books of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings record one version of the early monarchies with 1-2 Chronicles, written later, having different versions of the same events (though what he mentions is the Goliath doublet, which is kind of a different animal and has a long explanation). That kind of thing has been present in the Bible for as long as it has been a unified book. The problem is that we hardly read these books, much less compare them. Of course, for the New Testament, Eichenwald also mentions the disparities between the details of certain stories that are recorded in more than one Gospel. Again, this is nothing new. Such differences have been in plain view for a long time.

This is only a problem for people who have been taught to think of the Bible in problematic ways...and unfortunately, that was the case for me years ago, and it's the case for many Christians. We impose our standards of history, science, record-keeping and everything else on this ancient text, and in doing so actually prevent it from revealing to us the heart of God. While people continue to debate or insist on the inerrancy of the Bible, there is no answer to such questions because the questions themselves are nonsensical given the reality of the Bible. It should be a clue to us that the later compilers and editors of the Bible saw fit to include all of these differing stories with no problem at all. Why would they include two different creation stories (poems, really) together that have so many differences? Maybe because they saw value in both and were unhindered by our modern narrow-mindedness. Unlike us, they were able to leave room for mystery and beauty from the pens of those who were inspired by God to write.

We need to continue to bridge the gap between scholar and average Christian. As a pastor, I stand in that gap and work that space all the time, and it's hard. Pastors often avoid mentioning certain aspects of biblical scholarship in our sermons because we only have 15-20 minutes, and the mere mention of some things would require an extra 40 minutes of explanation. Mental models are powerful things. I've had people during my Bible studies stand up, red in the face, and anxiously ask, "So we can't trust the Bible?!" The assumption is that I have compromised the authority of the Bible (with facts?), when it is our false assumptions about that Bible that are the problem. We trip over our own feet. When we demand historical accuracy from a poem, is the problem with the Bible, or with us? When we are thrown for a loop by two conflicting versions of a story that have both been in the Bible for centuries, is the problem with the Bible, or with us? As Peter Enns put it, "The problem isn't the Bible. The problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it's not set up to bear."

But...public figures pick and choose Bible verses!
Yawn. The parts of Eichenwald's article that most clearly reveal that he really wasn't writing about the Bible itself to begin with are his many examples of how public figures betray their hypocrisy by picking and choosing parts of the Bible to obey or using it for their own agenda. No disagreement from me there. He chooses very likely and easy targets. My question is, to what standard of interpretation is Eichenwald holding those he criticizes, and does he meet it himself?

Judging by this over-simplified hit-piece that plays fast and loose with the complexities of the Bible, he joins the rest of us who "fall short of the glory of God" and often leave something to be desired.

12.07.2014

Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and our inability to deal with complexity

The public is talking about police, race, the justice system, and all the other issues raised by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police. Such conversations are not really conversations, because we end up with two polarized sides of the debate. Also, like most things, we are guilty of "isolated clamor" over these incidents even though things happen every day. Sometimes it's police brutality, sometimes it's suspect assaults on police.

Are you still reading? Probably not. Statistically speaking, most of you want me to write for your side. You either want me to condemn police for their brutality or praise them for their heroism without doing the other. Your chosen websites and cable news networks have trained you to look at me with suspicion anytime I point to something that doesn't help the case you want to build.

Unfortunately, the actual truth doesn't fit nicely on a placard. Nothing is true 100% of the time, and every situation has many factors involved, most of them hidden. Truth is always nuanced, peace is always elusive, and neither cause shall be furthered as long as we assume that each new incident is a repeat of the last one.

I suppose it's human nature to want to simplify things. The problem is that life isn't simple. We try to fit each situation into our preconceived narrative of how the world works, and we reduce conflict down to an isolated situation without considering the plethora of personal and systemic factors that led to and influenced the situation.

So, here's my contribution to the conversation. I don't have a singular or cohesive statement to make, I just feel the need to lay out some of the many issues and considerations I see that people on any given side of these debates may not be considering.
  • Police deal with the worst of society every day, and face danger that the rest of us want nothing to do with. In the time that passed between the incidents themselves and the grand jury decisions, 48 U.S. police officers, including one I knew personally, were killed in the line of duty, and many more have sustained debilitating injuries. Cops chase dangerous people that none of us want to deal with, and they never know when someone will jump out of their car shooting. The kind of restraint and critical assessment that we expect them to use in split-second situations may not always be realistic. Police departments place priority on officer safety, and rightly so. Former police officer Terrell Carter referred to policing as "the most stressful and dangerous job I've ever had." It's also a thankless job. They are yelled at, spit it, and who knows what else for doing a job that we as a society pay and ask them to do. During the protests in recent days, all the officers that showed incredible professionalism and restraint did not make the evening news. Police brutality happens, but I don't hear enough acknowledgment from protesters of the danger police face. Police are the ones with the authority and rightly have higher expectations placed on them, but the last thing your community wants is a police force that thinks twice about using their weapon when it is actually needed. 
  • Despite that reality, I hear some officers speak with a disturbing level of disdain for the people they work with. P.O.S. (piece of shit) and dirt bag are just some of the terms I've heard from officers, terms that stem from an "us vs. them" mentality. Would I be the same way if I were an officer? I don't know. Are they sometimes talking about people who have done heinous, unspeakable things? Yes. And I'm willing to accept that, for some, it boils down to camaraderie or a coping mechanism. But part of what such language communicates is that some people don't deserve to live. I've known a few cops to say this outright and/or speak with the same disregard for a criminal's life as the criminal had for others. I cannot square that with a Christian view of humanity that we are all created in God's image, nor does it show any awareness or sensitivity to the factors that have made some people the way they are. In an interview with the director of a correctional facility (whose wife is a police officer), he shared his belief that "there are no bad people; there are people who make bad choices." I'd like to think it's not impossible for others to see that. In the Ferguson community, the stark difference in their interaction with the local police department vs. the highway patrol is instructive. I am very glad we have police officers, but my experience with some of them has not left me confident in their ability to deal prudently with the people they arrest.
  • We have no idea what happened with Michael Brown. Two guys know. One is dead, and the other is trying to stay out of prison. PBS NewsHour put together a chart that summarizes the testimony of 29 individuals concerning what happened, including Officer Wilson. It's a good visual to help us realize how divergent the witness testimonies are. We have to choose who to listen to and believe, because on every point, somebody else said something different. Officer Wilson couldn't even get his own story straight. That's why it was troubling (though not surprising) that police advocates like Chief David Oliver of the Brimfield (Ohio) Police Department posted conclusions based on "widely available facts" of the case. The problem is that none of his "facts" had been established with certainty. But it is just as troubling that we have an entire national movement with the chant, "Hands up, don't shoot," an image based solely on the disputed testimony of some of the witnesses. Protesters all over the country, convinced they know what happened, are solidifying a narrative based on shaky ground.
  • We have some idea what happened with Eric Garner, and there should have been an indictment. This incident was caught on tape. Of course, we don't know what happened before, but in this instance we're dealing with some fairly clear cut facts including that Garner was not acting in a violent way at the time, and that the choke hold used by the officer, a procedure police are banned from using in NY, was the cause of death according to the coroner.
  • Garner definitely, and Brown probably, were uncooperative with police (but that doesn't mean they should be dead). There's good reason to believe that Brown was not cooperative with police when they asked him (albeit possibly in a rude way) to move to the sidewalk. Brown may have shoplifted (though this was never established to my knowledge and the release of the video reeked of a distraction attempt). The Garner video clearly shows him not cooperating with police, telling them to leave him alone. In both cases, they were being stopped for very petty reasons (and witnesses say that Garner had just broken up a fight), but you should always cooperate with police, especially if you are large individual who could easily injure them. It is conceivable that they would both be alive had they been compliant.
  • But we also have to recognize that there's a reason some of our black citizens respond to police the way they do. Racial profiling is real, and their frustration levels have boiled over. I'm amazed at the way some white people simply refuse to believe what black people say about their experiences. The same Chief Oliver I mentioned earlier posted a rant on Facebook in which he makes the ridiculous claim that those who continue to say that race disparities exist are making money off of saying so. Maybe his black friends are making money, but none of mine are. Here's the trouble with racism: it's hidden. It's buried deep in one's subconscious, and racists don't think they're racists. But it's still real; big time. In the year 2000, a creative worship team with whom I traveled was not allowed to visit a church in Virginia once they discovered one of our members was black. Former St. Louis police officer Terrell Carter, who also happens to be black, had this to say on the topic:  
I have experienced scrutiny from police officers my entire life.  I am now 40 years old, and still experience it...I regularly saw racial profiling by white and black officers. It was just a given. If you were a black male, you did not have a valid reason for being out after a certain time, driving a certain type of vehicle, wearing certain types of clothes, or being with certain people because it meant that you were up to no good. Many good, godly people have had their lives ruined because someone did not like where they were at a certain time. It is hard for me to believe that there are officers who honestly say that there is not a racial divide.
ABC's "What Would You Do?" show once ran an episode in which several actors pretended to steal a bike. Even though the white actor and the black actor were dressed in the same way and were doing the same thing, passersby were exceedingly more suspicious of the black actor. 
  • Michael Brown and Eric Garner are not the only cases relevant to this conversation. Most don't make the news, so we don't know about them. But there are even others receiving attention right now, like the case of 12 year old Tamir Rice who was shot dead by police when he was alone in a park playing with a toy gun. He was dead within 2 seconds of the officers arriving, and it has been revealed that one of those officers had been deemed unfit for service at his previous job. There are bad cops, and I think there's more police misconduct than police like to admit.
  • Yes, "black on black" violence is a problem (but so is that designation). When a black person is the victim of a violent crime, the perpetrator is quite often black as well. So when people call us to remember that the greatest threat to a black person is not a white police officer, they are correct. But white people have bumbled this conversation badly (if it's even our conversation to have). First of all, the designation "black on black crime" implicitly attributes the reason behind the crime to be the race of the person (there are many other more relevant factors, such as socioeconomics). Secondly, we have quoted the statistics about higher crime rates among black people without recognizing where those statistics come from. Crime rates are largely measured by arrests, and what black people have been contesting all along is that they are targeted for arrest more often than white people. For example, white young people ages 18-25 report a higher rate of marijuana use than black people of the same age, but the black users are arrested far more often.
  • The grand jury process in both cases was suspect. There's a saying among lawyers: "You can indict a ham sandwich." In the Brown and Garner cases, the grand jury hearings went quite differently than they usually do. Our uninformed public is learning the difference between an indictment and a conviction. Indictments have a very low burden of proof. The prosecutor, who is normally in the role of aggressively seeking charges, gives the grand jury only the inculpatory evidence, not the exculpatory evidence, and all they're trying to decide is whether there is enough evidence to merit charges. An indictment says nothing about guilt. But many observers have pointed out that these grand jury hearings resembled criminal trials and were not carried out in the way that the courts have established they must be carried out. At certain points in the Darren Wilson hearing, it sounded like it was Michael Brown (the dead man who can't defend himself) who was on trial. The system broke down. Why? Prosecutors and police officers are buddies. They work together all the time on putting criminals away. It's not surprising that when it's a police officer on the ropes, the prosecutor has trouble flipping the switch to aggressively seek an indictment against someone who is really a colleague. That's why I agree with Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights (and others) who argue that special prosecutors need to be called in when it involves a police officer. 
  • Rioting and burning are stupid (but most aren't doing that). No, rioting and burning don't help Ferguson's cause. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, it's about the content of one's character, and there are some in Ferguson revealing that they don't have much character. But such acts are committed by a small minority. So stop calling the destructive people "protesters." Protesting is a lawful activity; looting and burning is not. In a press conference, Al Sharpton, who at other times has been an incendiary voice, clearly called out those who were being destructive and said they're on their own. 
  • All lives matter. I'm not sure what I think of the "Black Lives Matter" slogan. All lives matter. Black lives, gay lives, Muslim lives, police lives, white lives, soldier lives, civilian lives, poor lives, rich lives, citizen lives, immigrant lives. "God created humankind in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Gen 1:27). The sooner we start acting that way, the better. 

12.03.2014

Practicing Until We Need It [excerpt]

He Restores My Soul from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 David Masters, Flickr | CC-BY
When we are little children, we learn to walk long before we understand physics. We speak long before we can spell a word. We sing songs and dance to music long before we can read a note on a page.

Such is faith. We pray, recite, attend worship, and many other things long before we know what they mean. I’ve learned that one of the important parts is that we are practicing for when we need it.

In a recent article, Amy Butler, pastor of The Riverside Church in New York, wrote powerfully about the role of the church today: “We are islands in a world full of increasingly adrift people. We are places of solace and hope, community and hospitality for people who are too smart to believe in God and pretty convinced they don’t need the church — until they do.”

To add to Amy’s words: we all may be children who never grew up, constantly distracted and often guilty of mindless repetition…until the day comes that we need those words and songs that we can say without thinking.

[Read the full article at Practicing Familes]