On Neal H. Cruz and the Bible

It’s Holy Week in the Philippines, and you know what that means? That’s right, it’s time for Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Neal H. Cruz’s Annual Attack on The Bible! I’ve seen him re-issuing this same column with little variation, pretty much every single year, using the same tired old straw-man arguments. It annoys me to no end that each year, his editors let such blatant errors through their filters. (On the other hand, this is the same newspaper which let Leah Salterio republish the Art Bell email hoax without even a cursory web search, so I guess it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.) I guess it’s about time someone addressed the various fallacies Cruz trots out annually. (I hesitate to call this a “Fisking,” as some of the cool kids call it, so I will just say that this is a punctilious critique.)

[Continued after the jump, and wow, this is my first time actually using a jump because an entry is so long.]

So then, let us begin:

Holy Week is that time of the year when people find time not to whoop it up in resorts and vacation spots but also, sometimes, to pick up the Bible and thumb through it. Television and the movies show endless reruns of religious films, and people suddenly remember to go to church. Priests and preachers wax bombastic with their sermons. Always the subjects are the passion and death and teachings of Jesus Christ as told by the Bible.

Okay, a pretty basic cultural opener, though I wonder, why do they “suddenly remember to go to church?” Since when do Filipinos forget to go to church regularly, and since when do priests and preachers not wax bombastic? (Aside from when their homilies are just CBCP letter-readings, that is?)

This year, there are two new controversies involving the Bible: the best-selling novel “The Da Vinci Code” and the newly discovered “the Gospel of Judas” — two silly exercises, if I may add. “The Da Vinci Code” is a novel, a book of fiction, and does not pretend to be accurate history. The author merely wove an interesting story around some historical facts, the same way other authors weave make-believe stories around historical figures and facts during World War II.

Except that World War II was not fabricated by Pierre Plantard as a ploy to promote his family’s mythic descent from the Merovingian Dynasty. (By his own admission, under oath in the 1990s.) The so-called “historical facts” of the Da Vinci Code — the Priory of Sion, the Holy Grail as Magdalenic Sacred Feminine, the spurious claims about the formation of the biblical canon — are actually the tenets of an outdated conspiracy theory forwarded by fringe historical kooks — the same ones who sued Dan Brown for ripping them off. Though “The Da Vinci Code” is technically classified as fiction, Dan Brown starts off by erroneously claiming that his story is founded on “fact.” Please refer to the Da Vinci Code Roundup for further info on that.

The “Judas Gospel” tells a story different from that told in the other gospels in the Bible. From being a heel, Judas is now a hero in the new gospel, not a betrayer but a loyal follower of Jesus. No doubt, these two controversies will continue to hound the Bible for years.

For years? Really? Seems to me that the “Gospel of Judas” story is already dying, fading from the press after failing to shake the foundations of Christianity with its much-promoted hype. But this is all material I’ve covered in my Gospel of Judas Roundup.

The Bible, the most widely read book in the world, is the only — if very sketchy — official biography of Christ and, in the Old Testament, the history of the universe from the day of Creation to the times of Jesus. But the Bible is neither history nor biography. Many people consider the Bible holy, believing it came directly from God Himself and therefore taking its words as “the gospel truth.” Not true.

Now, there’s a shred of truth in this: the Bible is not meant to be taken entirely as literal history or biography; at least not in the sense we of post-Enlightenment modern ages understand those to mean. But to believe that the text is “directly from God itself” is a massive oversimplification of how the writing and assembly of Scripture was inspired by the Spirit and done through human agents. The Bible was not a case of linear psychic writing: God spoke through the lenses of human experience within the writers’ historical and cultural context.

Unfortunately, different preachers of different religious sects have differing interpretations of “the gospel truth” although they all read the same texts. That is why many preachers and modern-day evangelists have made flourishing careers and have become rich from perorating on passages in the Bible.

To accuse “many” preachers and evangelists of enriching themselves is to smear with a broad brush the many other missionaries, priests, pastors, and other servants who willingly leave behind riches and comfort and even family to follow the Bible’s call to minister to the poor and needy. It seems that in Neal H. Cruz’s world, followers of the Bible are only out to make money for themselves. I guess people like Mother Teresa and San Lorenzo Ruiz and Manoling Francisco were only doing it for a check, eh?

That is why followers of different religious sects, far from being united by the same God and His teachings, argue, bicker and criticize one another over their “wrong” interpretations of Bible passages, as though they were the only ones who could interpret them correctly. Preachers of two religious sects waste the air time of two competing religious TV channels, day in and day out, ridiculing and trying to prove each other wrong and therefore spreading hate, instead of love as Jesus teaches, to their listeners.

In the cases of the obliquely mentioned local spinoff sects Iglesia ni Cristo and Ang Dating Daan, you will find that their readings of the Bible are selectively filtered through their respective leaders’ interpretations. Are these two bickering local cults supposed to stand then for all of Christianity? Quite a straw man.

Why does this happen, when they are all reading from the same Bible? Where did the Bible come from anyway? There are many Bible study groups that have mushroomed everywhere. We long have many Catholic schools that teach catechism and religion to their students. But strangely, they never teach the origins of the Bible. Why?

Funny, has Neal Cruz been to any such bible studies, and does he have the experience with them necessary to say that they “never” teach the origins of the Bible? Because I clearly remember learning about the Council of Nicea and the formation of the New Testament Canon in Theology class and Bible study at church. Maybe Cruz went but just wasn’t paying attention. But he can go to just about any, say, Baptist church in his area and ask the pastor about the origins of the Bible. Those pastors have been to seminary, and they’ve taken their early church history courses. They’ll know.

Because when people learn the origins of the holy book, they will see that it did not come directly from God as widely believed, the way God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. More truthfully, the contents of the Bible were written by mortal men, with their biases and prejudices…

Please see earlier statement on inspiration and the writers’ historical context. Is a person’s cultural millieu supposed to be considered a prejudice? Next, Cruz will be accusing Shakespeare of hate crimes for calling Hermia an “Ethiope” and a “tawny tartar” in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

…and were written many decades after the death of Jesus. None of the people listed as the authors of the different books witnessed the events that they chronicled. The earliest of these was not written until after many decades after the Crucifixion. For many generations, the story of Jesus was told by word of mouth, from father to son, from mother to daughter, as the Christians waited for the Second Coming.

There’s that broad brush again; is Cruz now saying that even the Old Testament was written decades after the death of Jesus? Maybe he’s referring to the New Testament, but in his excitement to paste in last year’s “Stupid Christians” column he has forgotten that the Christian Bible includes the Jewish Bible as well, what we call the Old Testament, which Jesus himself read from, which was written and canonized by Israel’s scholars well before Christ was even born.

To his credit, Cruz has changed his older “centuries after the Crucifixion” claim to just “decades,” taking into account that archeologists have dated New Testament texts to a range of about 40-130 AD. Note that fragments of the Epistle of James have been dated to as early as 40 AD by some estimates, which could put its writing at just 7 years after the Crucifixion, give or take a few years for errors in the dating of the year of Christ’s birth. Where are those “decades” now?

And quite the contrary to Cruz’s assertions about secondhand information, we know that the writer of the Gospel of John, plus his first to third epistles, and possibly the Revelation of John, were all written by the Apostle John himself. His accounts are rife with signs of firsthand experience, and there is evidence to indicate he lived to be over ninety, which would place the writings of these texts within his lifetime. The Gospel of Mark — the earliest Gospel written — holds literary clues indicating a firsthand witness. Luke, a physician, and Matthew, a Jew contemporary to Christ’s time, wrote their Gospels with access to accounts from firsthand witnesses. Not to mention Paul and Peter and James’ epistles, both from firsthand witnesses as well, the latter even being a half-brother of Christ’s.

Many preachers and “prophets” embellished their own stories, not to mislead but to reinforce (in their opinion) the teachings and lessons of Christ. Something like “the end justifies the means.”

Again, Cruz shows his determined ignorance of pre-Enlightenment standards of literary context, along with the assumption that preachers and prophets of the Bible were all in the New Testament. It can be freely admitted, as John does in his Gospel, that the evangelists did not set out to provide a stringent historical timeline of Christ’s life, but rather a series of vignettes aimed at the declaration of the Good News.

So Christ’s cursing of the fig tree is “immediately” followed by its withering in one account, where another writer says the withering happened the next day, but the meaning of the motif of the fig tree has not changed. One Gospel writer says a cock crowed once, another says a cock would crow twice, but that doesn’t change the fact that Peter’s Denial of the Christ was accompanied by the ominous crowing of a cock. One writer sets the Resurrection “before dark,” another says “early at dawn,” but that doesn’t change the witness of the Resurrection.

To libel literary nuance as implicit falsehood for the sake of “ends justifying means” — ends and means which Cruz no doubt has concluded are insidious — is to miss the grander point of the biblical narrative as a didactic text.

When the many stories of Christ began to be written down centuries later, there was such a profusion of “gospels” that the Vatican saw a need to choose the most credible of these “gospels” and compile them.

Whoops, Cruz forgot to replace an occurrence of “centuries” with “decades” in his word processor. I’m sure he’ll try and catch that for next year’s Holy Week column. And what’s this about “The Vatican?” It would be historically inaccurate to refer to the early 1st to 4th Century Roman Church as “The Vatican,” considering that there was no Vatican City at the time. Vatican was the name of the hill upon which Constantine’s Basilica would later be built from 303 to 326 AD. If Cruz is referring to the Council of Nicea, well, that was in Turkey.

The “profusion of gospels” which would later come were written by the Gnostics, a loose group of mystic secret-knowledge sects who latched onto the Christian mythos and adapted it to their own theology of spirit-body-dualism. But for a few instances of texts of unclear authorship, (e.g. the Epistles of Clement, the Didache, the Thomas Gospels for some) these Apocryphal texts were rarely regarded as authoritative by Christians of the time.

It created study groups of experts who spent a very long time going over the stories.

“Study groups?” The Roman Emperor issues a call for all Christian bishops from all corners of the Roman Empire — and from outside the Empire as well — to gather for a grand council to discuss the growing Arian heresy, and Neal Cruz calls them “study groups?” What a quaint projection of modern culture onto early history! “Study groups!”

Many apocryphal gospels were discarded. They finally settled on the gospels of Luke, Matthew, Mark and John.

While the borders of the biblical canon were, till then, largely liberal and amorphous among local churches, this grossly oversimplified account of the early church Councils fails to mention that most of the canon was already largely agreed upon by the churches, even before Nicea and later Councils. (See above note on Gnostic apocrypha.) We have writings from Bishop Irenaeus in the AD 180s testifying to an established “Quadriform Gospel,” well before the time periods being discussed here.

Apocrypha which were already regarded as spurious for their contradictions with the evangelists had already been previously rejected, but it’s clear that a historical consensus on the Four Gospels had already existed. (With the possible exception of the heretic Marcion, who would only accept the Gospel of Luke as authoritative, but was later excommunicated by the majority.)

They are now the only official “biography” of Jesus Christ, very little of whom is written in the history of the Roman Empire or any other historical source. They now comprise a major portion of the New Testament in the Bible as we know it today.

Well, of course little was written of Christ in non-Christian histories! Judea was a Roman backwater, Jesus was a minor blip on the political screen, and Christianity would not be a major force among the Romans until later. And yet, we do have eyewitness accounts, as previously stated, and there is clear mention of Jesus in the historical accounts of Josephus, who is regarded as authoritative and credible, as well as Tacitus, Pliny, implicitly by Lucian, and other non-Christian sources of the day.

That explains the many contradictions in the Bible over which thousands of preachers have fulminated trying to explain. That’s not the only reason. The Bible has been translated into many languages, and translations necessarily include inaccuracies. Different words in different languages sometimes cannot convey the same shade of meaning in the original. Again, the result is contradiction and confusion. In short, the Bible is neither the “word of God” nor the “gospel truth.” It was not written by God. It is a compilation of stories told and retold for centuries and gathered together in one book.

Wait, wait, doesn’t Neal Cruz himself say earlier, “they are all reading from the same Bible?” And now, suddenly he’s saying it’s not the same Bible because there are “many different translations.”

Additionally, Cruz exercises a strange logic here in saying that the canonization of the authoritative gospels “explains their many contradictions.” Without even addressing the question of contradiction, one would hardly expect a council of bishops to canonize contradicting gospels. And we have previously established that literary nuance is not contradiction.

Neal Cruz has, like so many before him, once again trotted out what I call the “Retranslations Fallacy,” the idea that the bible has been recopied, retranslated, and reedited so often through the centuries that the original text is no longer preserved. This is a fallacy for two reasons, one factual and one logical:

(1) When bible printers produce their contemporary translations, they rely on copies of manuscripts which have been dated to the days of the early church, and which are corroborated by multiple early copies of the same manuscripts — many in the original Hebrew or Greek. There are literally thousands of manuscripts, fragments, codexes, and source quotes from early texts, from which scholars can draw a near-firsthand translation, with nothing like the gaps of centuries imagined by confused critics like Neal Cruz. Just to provide some perspective, we have more — and earlier — manuscript evidence for the existence of Jesus than we do for Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Socrates, Mang Pandoy, and many other historical figures whose stories contemporary society accepts as true without the plethora of evidence available for the authenticity of the Biblical account.

Additionally, multiple contemporary translations of Scripture, based on those same manuscripts, serve the purpose of handling the nuances of translation by offering options as to how literally we wish to interpret the text. Adaptations like the KJV, RSV, NIV, TLV, and ESV may differ in translation style, but in all cases they preserve the biblical narrative, and are based on the earliest possible authentic and corroborated texts from the early church, thus proving false the idea that the message has been corrupted with centuries of retranslation.

(2) The idea that the bible today is a corrupted version of the “original” implies that if we had the “original” texts, we would have the “true” beliefs of early Christians. It’s a fallacy often repeated by those who think the Gnostics were also “true” Christians, and one easily disproved by the large quantity of early manuscript evidence already mentioned. What we currently have is so close to the original as to be undisputably uncorrupted by time.

It can be compared to legends and folk tales of the Philippines, compiled in an anthology. The stories make interesting and valuable reading but they are neither history nor biography-nor accurate.

Which “legends and folk tales” does Cruz have in mind here? Is he seriously comparing the Bible to stories of Maria Makiling and the kapre and manananggal? I would think that the Bible, with its stories of Jacob and Joseph and Moses and the Exodus and the Passion and Resurrection of Christ and the Acts of the Apostles, which have instructed and inspired and directed lives and kingdoms for centuries, are more than just “interesting reading.”

Cruz’s repeated indictment against the accuracy of the Bible is unqualified. Contrary to his assertions, there has been no archaeological discovery in the regions of Biblical times that has disproven anything which is in the Bible. The Pool of Siloam, the Well of Jacob, the Wailing Wall, the Babylonian Obelisks, even the ancient Persian silver plate in the Smithsonian Freer Gallery with an inscription mentioning Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes, son of Darius the King — the same one as in the book of Daniel — all these and other discoveries, too numerous to list here in full, have attested that, to an extent, there is accurate historical value to the Biblical narrative.

It is not wise, therefore, to argue with others on the passages of the Bible. You can be as wrong about them as you think they are. Contradictions, ambiguity and inaccuracies are built into the Bible because of its origins and the inexact craft of translation. The best attitude is to live and let live. Let everyone be happy with his or her belief and interpretation of the Bible and not try to prove him or her wrong.

The phrase “built into the Bible” implies a design of some sort, that inaccuracies were placed into the text with the intent to mislead: a sure sign of the antireligious paranoia dwelling underneath Cruz’s own assertions. Yet, as mentioned above, Scripture has proven time and time again to be reliable, accurate, and self-affirming within the bounds of its literary context.

What if we were to apply Neal Cruz’s logic to the so-called ambiguities of other important texts, like, say, the Philippine Constitution? “If Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s interepretations of the Filipino’s freedoms of expression and assembly are different from your own, the best thing to do is to let her be happy with her way of seeing it, and just live and let live, because it’s all relative and your understanding of the Constitution might be just as wrong as someone else’s.” I doubt Mr. Cruz or any other member of the press would appreciate such a cavalier attitude towards such an interpretation.

Likewise, while there are gray areas in Scripture, there are many more things which are plainly stated, and Christians are encouraged to healthy interdenominational discussion, “proving all things and holding fast to that which is good,” and pointing out clear errors where a denominational leader’s own agenda has overwritten the inspiration of the Word.

We end with this nugget of yet more amazing logic from Neal H. Cruz:

After all, that is one of the principal teachings of Christ.

Yes, that’s right. After 954 words (count ’em) of trying (emphasis on “trying”) to disprove Jesus and the teachings of the Bible, Neal H. Cruz claims that we should be following Jesus anyway. Does he believe his own writing or not? Further proof that the real contradictions are not so much in the Bible as they are in Neal Cruz’s own head.

Not just that, but if the sentences connect the way I think they do, he’s saying that one of the principal teachings of Christ is that we should “live and let live and be happy with our interpretation of the Bible and not try to prove others wrong.” Well, I’m looking through the teachings of Christ now, and I see love for God and love for others, looking to the Son and resting on his sacrifice and resurrection for eternal life, something about those who mourn and make peace and are poor in spirit, houses being built on rock and sand, something about rejoicing in he who has overcome the world… nope, at no point does Christ say “live and let live and be happy with your interpretation of the Bible without trying to prove others wrong.”

(There’s some stuff about humility, though. I guess I just failed that.)

Further Reading: