Posts tagged ‘Canon’

Newsweek Takes On the Bible

Newsweek on the BibleIt’s frustrating, but sadly predictable. Just in time for a new year, Newsweek trots out an article full of old attacks on the Bible. Kurt Eichenwald, who became nationally known for chronicling a massive financial scandal at Prudential in 1995, has gotten into the business of faith, critiquing the Bible and its believers in a lengthy screed titled, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.”[1]

The article has everything a pedantic diatribe against the Bible could ever hope to have, including a picture of picketers from Westboro “Baptist Church” (and yes, the quotation marks are intentional because they are neither Baptist nor are they a Church, at least in the theological sense of the terms) along with a cartoonish characterization of the average Christian in America:

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.

Granted, I am only speaking for myself, but I have never waved my Bible at anyone while screaming condemnations of gay people. I have never worshiped at the base of a granite monument to the Ten Commandments. I do have a congregation I love with whom I worship, however. I have never appealed to God to save America from my political opponents. Indeed, if you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know I can be somewhat skeptical of the political process in general, fearing that some expect out of politics what only Christ can give. I have also never gathered in a football stadium to pray for my country’s salvation, though I have cheered from my stadium seat as I watched my Texas Longhorns put a hurtin’ on some Aggies. Again, I know I am speaking only from my own experience, but I have a feeling I’m not alone. It’s easy to make Christians sound really bad when you misrepresent what the majority of Christians do and believe.

Such a gross mischaracterization of Christians aside, the preponderance of Eichenwald’s jeremiad is reserved for the Bible itself. Eichenwald opines:

No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation – a translation of translations of translations of hand – copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.

About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament. (That’s the same amount of time between the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and today.) The first books of the Old Testament were written 1,000 years before that. In other words, some 1,500 years passed between the day the first biblical author put stick to clay and when the books that would become the New Testament were chosen.

I honestly have no idea where Eichenwald is getting his history. Modern translations of the Bible are not based “a translation of translations of translations.” Rather, they are based on the best available hand-written copies of Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament initial biblical manuscripts. And Eichenwald’s 400 year time frame from the writing of the New Testament text to its compilation is laughable. The Codex Sinaiticus, for instance, is a copy of both the Old and New Testaments dating to around AD 340. Assuming the last New Testament book was written around AD 90, that gives us a 250 year – not a 400 year – period between writing and compilation. But the period is actually much shorter than this. The Muratorian Fragment is a list of New Testament books from around AD 170. So now the time period between writing and compilation is reduced to 80 years. But even this misrepresents the situation. Paul’s letters circulated as a collection among Christian churches from the second century onward and the church father Justin Martyr developed, also in the second century, an influential harmony of the four Gospels known as the Diatessaron, demonstrating that the early church read the Gospels and Paul’s letters as a collection from the very beginning. In other words, the Church has always held the books we have in the New Testament to be worthy of our consideration and study. It did not take 400 years to compile the Bible.

But Eichenwald isn’t done yet. He continues:

In the past 100 years or so, tens of thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered, dating back centuries. And what biblical scholars now know is that later versions of the books differ significantly from earlier ones.

So Eichenwald would have us believe that we have radically different variations of the books now in our Bible hidden somewhere in a colossal cache of ancient manuscripts. What do these radically different variations entail? “Most of those discrepancies are little more than the handwritten equivalent of a typo.” I’m confused. Which is it? Do we have significantly different versions of biblical books or minor discrepancies that amount to nothing more than handwritten “typos”? Not only is Eichenwald wrong on his historical facts, he isn’t even internally consistent.

Eichenwald also has fun with how scholars have translated the Bible. He cites Philippians 2:6, which says, in the King James Version, that Christ was “in the form of God,” and notes:

The Greek word for form could simply mean Jesus was in the image of God. But the publishers of some Bibles decided to insert their beliefs into translations that had nothing to do with the Greek. The Living Bible, for example, says Jesus “was God” – even though modern translators pretty much just invented the words.

I find it hard to believe that a journalist for Newsweek knows more about Greek and how words should be translated than degreed biblical scholars who actually study this stuff for a living. And just for the record, the Greek word for what Eichenwald says should be translated as “image” is morphe, which comes into Latin as forma and into English as, what do you know, “form.” Contrary to Eichenwald, reputable Bible translators generally do not just decide “to insert their beliefs into translations.”

There’s plenty more in Eichenwald’s article that could be critiqued. If you want to read some trenchant responses, you can find them herehere, and here. Honestly, I find it hard to believe that a major publication like Newsweek would publish something that looks more like a two-bit sensationalistic hit piece on the Bible than an honest piece of investigative journalism. This whole article seems to me to be little more than clickbait.

That being said, let me conclude with a passage from this article with which I actually agree. Granted, it’s not a long passage. There’s plenty around it that’s not true. In fact, I can’t even cite Eichenwald’s whole sentence. But this much is true: “If [Christians] … 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.” For all that is not true in this article, this much is: Christ came to save sinners – all sinners – through faith in Him. This means that no matter what your sin, Jesus came to save you.

And even in an article that’s really bad, that’s still good news.

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[1] Kurt Eichenwald, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” Newsweek (12.23.2014).

January 5, 2015 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Common Question: What’s the Deal with the Apocrypha?

Apocrypha 166 books. That’s how many books are in the Good Book.  At least, that’s what I had always been taught.  But then, a Roman Catholic friend of mine in high school claimed there was more to the Bible than the 66 books I had read since I was a little boy.  There were actually 73 books, he explained.  And these additional books had strange names like “Maccabees” and “Judith” and “Tobit” and even “Bel and the Dragon.” As he showed me these books, I was flummoxed.  “Why hadn’t I ever heard of these books?” I asked myself.

These mysterious books to which I was introduced in high school are widely known as the “Apocrypha,” a Greek adjective meaning “hidden.”  And though many Christians do not regularly read these books, they are indeed a part of the Roman Catholic canon of Scripture.  In fact, one of the questions I often receive as a pastor is, “Why do Roman Catholics have ‘extra’ books in their Bible?”

Because the Apocrypha is a source of a lot of confusion, I thought it would be worth it to offer a brief history of these books along with an analysis of them from a Lutheran Christian perspective.

The books of the Apocrypha were written between the close of the Old Testament in 430 BC and the beginning of the New Testament.  These books include historical accounts, supplements to famous Old Testament books such as Daniel and Esther, and wisdom books akin to the Proverbs.

From the beginning, these books were never fully embraced by the Church as inspired Scripture. Paul Maier, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, explains:

The Apocrypha … were not included in the final canon of the Hebrew Bible, which was debated by rabbis at Jamnia (near Jerusalem) in AD 93. Thus they were also not included among the very 39 books that comprise the Old Testament in Christian Bibles today …

Early on … churchmen such as Origen of Alexandria noted a difference between the Apocrypha and the Hebrew Scriptures.  Cyril of Jerusalem and Jerome also drew a line of separation between the two, using the term Apocrypha for the first time in reference to these writings.  To be sure, Jerome included them in his Latin translation if the Bible, the Vulgate, but advised that the Apocrypha should be read for edification, not for supporting church dogma.[1]

Jerome’s warning against using the Apocrypha as a basis for Christian doctrine is especially important. His doctrinal concern is perhaps best illustrated by 2 Maccabees 12:44-45 when the Jewish liberator Judas Maccabeus prays for some who have died, seeking to make atonement for the sins they committed while they were still alive.  From these verses, the Roman Catholic Church derives its doctrine of Purgatory, a place where deceased believers undergo a final purification from sin that readies them for the bliss of heaven.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the doctrine of Purgatory thusly:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death the undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect.[2]

This teaching runs contrary both to the broad teaching of canonical Scripture, which declares that a person enters either paradise or hell immediately upon death (e.g., Luke 16:19-31; 23:39-43), and to the gospel, because it adds to Christ’s perfectly purifying work on the cross our own work of purification in Purgatory by which we may “achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” By adding our achievements to Christ’s achievement, the doctrine of Purgatory belittles and undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice.  Thus, the universal Church does not treat the Apocrypha as divinely inspired.

Interestingly, the Apocrypha was not even fully embraced by the Roman Catholic Church until the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent in 1546.  In this session, it was declared:

But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.[3]

With this decree, the Roman Catholic Church effectively erased the distinction between ancient books that should be read for private edification and inspired books that should be appealed to for Christian doctrine – a distinction that Jerome, the very one who translated the Latin Vulgate, which Rome was here declaring to be its official translation, had made!  Thus, Rome took Jerome’s translation, but disregarded his distinction. And the Church has been the worse for it over the years.

All of this is not to say that the Apocrypha should be altogether disregarded. Maier notes that “Clement of Alexandria, Polycarp, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian, and Augustine” cited heartily from the Apocrypha.  These books give us much valuable historical insight into this time period and chronicle for us the origins of the religious parties we meet in the New Testament, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Thus, the Apocrypha is worth our time and study.  We need to know about these books.  Indeed, Martin Luther superscribed the books of the Apocrypha like this: “Books that are not be regarded as the equal of Holy Scripture but are nonetheless profitable and good to read.”[4]

If you’re looking for a good book, then, pick up the Apocrypha.  If you’re looking for a divinely inspired book, however – that book still has only 66 books.

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[1] Paul Maier, “Foreword,” The Apocrypha:  The Lutheran Edition with Notes (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 2012), xv-xvi.

[2] See Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1994), §1030-1031.

[3] The Fourth Session of the Council of Trent (April 1546).

[4] Martin Luther, What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 1512, n. 20.

April 7, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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