Last week, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell unleashed upon the Christian Bible, making bold proclamations against its contents and dismissing it as a book that is outdated and inhumane. As you may recall, the fiery host claimed that nobody today literally follows the Bible in its entirety. He said, “there are no literal followers of the word of God as presented in the Bible left on earth.” Following his diatribe, TheBlaze reached out to Biblical experts and faith leaders to ask for their opinions about his controversial commentary.
As TheBlaze previously reported, O’Donnell also noted his belief that the Bible mandates that prostitutes be burned at the stake and that those who commit adultery and fail to keep the Sabbath also deserve death. Additionally, he argued that the holy book condones slavery.
“The Bible has more death penalties in it than Texas law,” he added, urging President Barack Obama to simply put his hand on one of his daughter’s shoulders, rather than on a Bible, when he takes the oath of office in the coming days (Obama is actually planning to place his hand on two Bibles — one that was owned by Martin Luther King Jr. and another by Lincoln).
Many of the experts TheBlaze spoke with were surprised by O’Donnell’s words. Regardless of Biblical content, the claim that nobody takes the Bible at face-value would certainly be dismissed by many people of faith who take a more literal approach to the book. Of course, O’Donnell’s point was that religious people, based on his view of the scriptures, would be committing horrible offenses if they book the Bible literally. But is his stance on the text correct? The religious experts we consulted disagreed.
“Mr. O’Donnell’s claim that no one observes the bible in its entirety today will no doubt come as a surprise to all of the people [who] observe the bible in its entirety today,” journalist Menachem Wecker wrote in an e-mail to TheBlaze, going on to provide an extended commentary about how ongoing cultural changes render some of the commandments extinct:
To say that Orthodox Jews today don’t observe the biblical commandments that involve applying the death penalty to a wide range of sins is like saying that a Bostonian today isn’t law abiding because she or he neglects to pay His Majesty’s tea tax. Boston is no longer subject to English rule, and in the absence of a Jewish court that has authority to enforce a death penalty (not to mention a Temple, and variety of other factors), the death penalty simply doesn’t apply today.
Many Orthodox Jews believe that they can “fulfill” commandments through study. So when Deuteronomy 17:18 commands kings to write their own Torah scrolls, Orthodox Jews who aren’t and will never be kings may feel that they have fulfilled the obligation by studying the nuance of the laws even if they haven’t actually been able to apply the law.
Of course the question how applicable a lot of the bible is today is beside the point. Even if some of the cultural references in the bible may be dated at this point, the text undoubtedly has been a cornerstone of Western intellectual and cultural history, and it’s hard to imagine many other books that would be more suitable for an occasion such as this.
Author R.P. Nettelhorst took a similar approach to O’Donnell’s criticisms, wondering if the MSNBC host would be better served to educate himself properly about the Bible before speaking about it in such fervent terms.
“I think if he actually read the Bible and understood it (a few classes in linguistics, textual criticism, history, theology and some basic courses such as Bible Survey could help), he might not be quite so libelous in his charges against it,” Nettelhorst wrote. “But when one ignores the context and point of a text, it is easy to set up straw men and then trash them.”
The author claims that O’Donnell engaged in cherry-picking and that he lacks the proper context (or is simply ignoring it) and the adequate historic and linguistic background. Nettelhorst called O’Donnell’s reading of the Bible “incredibly naive and simple-minded.”
“He seems unwilling to consider the stories and poems of the Bible are designed to mostly tell us something about God and how to relate to our neighbors — and that it’s not supposed to be read like a legal deposition being interpreted by lawyers,” he continued.
Nettelhorst also spent some time delving into criticisms surrounding homosexuality, slavery and other related issues, providing his take and attempting to debunk O’Donnell’s proclamations:
As to a couple of specific charges that O’Donnell makes. What the fundamentalists believe is condemnation of normal gay relationships is not quite the sort of thing that either Paul or the Old Testament texts were actually condemning. And as to slavery, though there were those Bible readers who used it to justify slavery (just as bad people can twist anything to their ends), it needs to be noticed that slavery largely disappeared from the Roman Empire after Christianity became the dominant religion. And the abolitionist movement was largely driven by Christians, at least in the northern U.S. and in England. Perhaps there was actually something in the biblical texts that led them to conclude that slavery was an abomination? Among other texts, O’Donnell might want to read Paul’s letter to Philemon or consider the implications these words of Paul might have had—and continue to have:
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)
When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment in the Bible might be, his response was that it was to love God and to love people—and that it was on those two commandments that all of scripture hung (Matthew 22:34-40). When an adulterous woman was dragged before him, he did not condemn her and shamed her accusers—and she went free. O’Donnell says that the Bible is filled with the death penalty. Oddly, the death penalty seems rather inconsistently applied in the actual stories. Moses was a murderer and ended up leading the people of Israel out of slavery (hmm—rescued from slavery; might the story of the Exodus have influenced anti-slavery sentiments?) David committed adultery and then murdered the cuckolded husband—and yet he continued as king. His son murdered his half-brother, and he wasn’t executed either. Even after the murderous son fomented rebellion and caused a civil war, his father David wanted to forgive him.
On the slavery front, Dr. Stephen J. Bennett, professor of Old Testament studies at Nyack College in Nyack, N.Y., added even more context to Nettelhorst’s assessment. Fact-checking O’Donnell’s claims that the Bible purportedly stood in defense for slavery, Bennett explained that “the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek each have one word that shares the range of meaning from servant to slave.” This fact adds some problematic elements when it comes to translating the Bible’s original meaning into English. Regardless, the professor argues that culture, as it is continuously evolving, was clearly different in Biblical times.
“The kind of harsh and racial slavery that Africans experienced in America is condemned in the most central narrative of salvation in the Old Testament,” Bennett noted. “African slaves resonated with this narrative and their identification with Israelite slavery in Egypt is reflected in their musical heritage. The exodus is also central for Liberation Theology.”
It was God’s identification with the Israelites, who were enslaved, that the educator argues proves that slavery was condemned by both God and the Bible. In fact, Bennett argues that the holy book actually contains a central narrative that is very much opposed to the institution of enslavement.
“Racial slavery was also condemned by the prophet Amos who targeted the Philistines and Tyre for enslaving whole communities (Amos 1:6, 9),” he added.
And these experts weren’t the only ones who claimed that O’Donnell wrongfully condemned the book. Dr. Darrell L. Bock also weighed in. The professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary found serious errors in O’Donnell’s commentary. Bock argues that the MSNBC host lacks the proper skills in biblical hermeneutics and that “his claims about literalism and the Bible” reflect “an amateur reading” of the book. On the slavery front, he agreed with the other individuals who were consulted for this article.
“A text without a context is a pretext. That is what O’Donnell’s presentation shows,” Bock explains. “Not only does he ignore the history of the separation of church and state, by selectively presenting it, but he also distorts a text by failing to read it in context.”
Rabbi Aryeh Spero, a faith leader who frequently lends his voice to faith discussions on TheBlaze, was equally perplexed by O’Donnell’s assessment of the scriptures. Spero’s assessment is more political in nature, as he believes that many on the left simply avoid faith when it does not meet their ideological worldview:
Liberals, like O’Donnell, are proposing we cast out those documents no longer completely in sync with their views — be it the Bible and even the Constitution itself, as evidenced by some liberal professors disqualifying much of our Constitution since it was written, as they opine, by “Dead White Males” and “accommodated slavery”. The liberal playbook today is to disqualify those previous leaders and seminal American documents that do not agree with their cultural Marxism. It is central to their across-the-board effort of destroying the documents and ethos upon which America was founded and replacing them with theories and documents that will advance their economic and cultural Marxism. In a form of self-worship, nothing nor anyone is qualifiable if it does not represent their point of view. Ironically, one day in the future, they may be disqualified when their views are out of fashion.
O’Donnell and liberals have never accepted the role of religion. Religion comes not to affirm the desires, conveniences and lusts of the undisciplined, but to inform and guide society toward a more transcendent and sacred view, with a distinct moral clarity at odds with the moral relativism championed by those hostile to the Judeo-Christian ethos. Leftists do not want co-existence with the Judeo-Christian ethos but to separate society from it and assign it pariah status. They do so through cynicism and mockery, and they enforce on us standards they never demand of themselves or their theories.
Comments from Dr. Alex McFarland, author and Director for Christian Worldview and Apologetics at the Christian Worldview Center of North Greenville University, reflected these same sentiments, dismissing O’Donnell’s views as “bias and intolerance against the Bible and people of faith.” Here, he tackles some of the fine points:
With regard to O’Donnell’s specific claims regarding Leviticus: O’Donnell fails to recognize laws given by God to the Nation of Israel in a specific point of time in history versus the principles laid out for all men, and he also fails to recognize God’s plan of salvation.
When referencing I Corinthians 6:9 – O’Donnell points out that the actual word homosexual is not used in the Bible. And in doing so, fails to miss the entire point of the passage – that sin, including all sorts of hetero or homo sexuality – are displeasing to God. All sin is the same, and God wants people to turn from sin in order for them to be with him for eternity. God does not single out homosexuals: he singles out sinners. [...]
O’Donnell calls President Obama’s being sworn in with his hand on a Bible one of our most ridiculous traditions. This is a shocking statement that not only reflects an ignorance of our history and democracy, but is a reckless statement that undermines the democratic system that gives him the freedom to speak his mind.
Of course, it’s no surprise that people of faith would disagree with O’Donnell, but it seems his views on the Bible also deviate from historical truth, specifically when it comes to the context of the scriptures he referenced. What do you think? Let us know in the comments section.