Evangelical (Atheist) Eisegesis: ‘The Skeptics Annotated Bible’ (#2)

As is so often the case with atheistic readings of biblical texts, the annotations of Steve Wells in his Skeptic’s Annotated Bible are bewildering. At times, SAB gets things precisely correct, like when it decries what amounts to divinely sanctioned marital rape in Deuteronomy 21:10-14. Wells summarizes the passage by writing, “If you see a pretty woman among the captives and would like her for a wife, then just bring her home and ‘go in unto her.’ Later, if you decide you don’t like her, you can ‘let her go.’”[1] What Wells fails to make explicit[2] is that when the text says “if thou have no delight in her” (v. 14, KJV; “if you are not satisfied with her,” NRSV) it is asserting that the husband may release the woman after he has enjoyed carnal relations with her. In other words, after he has raped her and she no longer satisfies him, she’s free to go.[3]

Yet for as many hits in SAB there are misses. It is to these we now turn, particularly in the introduction and annotations of the Gospel of Mark. We should recall that the aim of SAB is threefold: to cause Christians to reconsider their belief in the Bible, to prevent those who have no familiarity with the Bible from believing in it, and to assist those who do not believe the Bible in defending their views.[4] Does SAB live up to its own expectations? Does it rise to the praise given by Michael Shermer that, as far as he is concerned, it “is by far the best tool for biblical research”? Or does it fall flat, having succumbed to the unnuanced and amateurish nature of atheistic fundamentalism? 

INTRODUCTION TO THE GOSPEL OF MARK

The introduction to the Markan Gospel in SAB is divided into two sections: a paragraph giving an overview of the Gospel and a list of over a dozen “highlights” from the narrative.[5]

SAB’s Overview of the Markan Gospel 

The introductory paragraph that prefaces the text of Mark itself is an interesting mixture. On the one hand, SAB manages to disseminate accurate information: the Markan Gospel is both the shortest of the canonical Gospels as well as the first to have been written (assuming Markan priority); the text is anonymous though Christians would claim that its author was John Mark, a companion of the apostle Peter; and it originally ended without any appearances of the risen Jesus as the ending of 16:9-20 in the KJV is a later addition. But it is this seemingly aberrant ending that SAB harps on in the overview paragraph, the highlights section, and the annotations themselves. “Believers have been embarrassed by [the later addition of 16:9-20] ever since,” Wells writes. 

Space does not permit a full consideration of the ending of Mark but surely Wells is aware that the so-called “Longer Ending” of Mark is a subject addressed in nearly every modern commentary on the Gospel as well as in numerous monographs, papers, etc. So then for whom is it embarrassing? Moreover, most English translations that utilize a modern critical text of the New Testament (e.g. NA28, UBS4, etc.) make note of the various endings of Mark. For example, a note in the NRSV at the end of v. 8 reads, 

Some of the most ancient authorities bring the book to a close at the end of verse 8. One authority concludes the book with the shorter ending; others include the shorter ending and then continue with verses 9-20. In most authorities verses 9-20 follow immediately after verse 8, though in some of these authorities the passage is marked as being doubtful.

Similar notes can be found in the ESV, NASB, and NIV. Additionally, there are some Christians who have no problem believing the Longer Ending of Mark to be original. I grew up in a tradition in which vv. 9-20 were considered to have been penned by Mark himself and their inclusion in the KJV was ferociously defended.[6] It is therefore unclear what Wells means when he says that the inclusion of vv. 9-20 are an embarrassment to believers. 

“Highlights” from the Gospel of Mark 

In the more than a dozen “highlights” from the Markan Gospel we are left wondering where Wells has gotten his information. For example, regarding Mark 4:25 he writes, “He [i.e. Jesus] says that those who have been less fortunate in this life will have it even worse in the life to come.” On Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in 7:9-10 he contends that “Jesus criticizes the Jews for not killing their disobedient children according to Old Testament law.” With respect to 9:43-49 he claims, “He tells us to cut off our hands and feet, and pluck out our eyes to avoid going to hell.” And speaking of 11:13-14 he observes, “He kills a fig tree for not bearing figs, even though it was out of season.” The framing of these highlights is such that it betrays Wells’ fundamental inability to understand what he has read. For example, the assertion that Jesus “criticizes the Jews for not killing their disobedient children” in 7:10 is fundamentally a misreading of Jesus’ argument against the Pharisees in 7:6-13, a subject we will broach in our discussion of SAB’s annotations in chapter seven. In short, Jesus emphasizes that the Pharisees create traditions that allow them to dishonor their parents (vv. 11-12) and ignore the explicit commands of God not to do so (v. 10). Jesus appeals to the tragic irony of their views to illustrate how empty their piety truly is. 

Space does not permit an in-depth discussion of each of these passages, but they will be addressed in future posts as they appear in SAB’s annotations. For now, it should be obvious that the introductory remarks from SAB on the Gospel of Mark are lackluster, revealing a very inept reading and understanding of the biblical text. Moreover, it seems that Wells is unaware of the scholarship on texts like the Longer Ending of Mark or that many Christians feel the text was part of what the Markan author originally wrote. Or, Wells is aware but simply doesn’t care.

I’m not sure which is more dangerous. 


[1] The Skeptics Annotated Bible, Steve Wells, editor (SAB Books, LLC, 2013), 279. SAB is available online as well.

[2] Through the use of the icons for misogyny, sex, and “biblical family values,” Wells does seem to acknowledge that the text is anything but promoting sound moral principles. However, I would have included the icon for “cruelty and violence” since the passage is quite clearly suggesting the captured woman’s rape.

[3] That the passage is describing marital rape is all but confirmed by the wording of the end of v. 14: “You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.” The verb underlying “dishonored her” is from ʿānâ which is in numerous places used to describe rape (e.g. Judges 19:24; 20:5; 2 Samuel 13:12, 14, 22; Lamentations 5:11). Robert Alter explains that the verb’s “employment here astringently suggests that the sexual exploitation of a captive woman, even in a legally sanctioned arrangement of concubinage, is equivalent to rape” (The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary [New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004], 982). Cf. Carolyn Pressler, The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1993), 10-15.

[4] SAB, x.

[5] SAB, 1256. The version found online is different than the one in the copy of SAB I own. This is especially true of the “Highlights” portion which includes unique additions and reworded sentences.

[6] A staple in my personal library as a teenager was John Burgon’s The Last Twelve Verses of Mark which defended the inclusion of the Longer Ending in the Textus Receptus. More recently, Nathan Lunn has written an updated defense of the Longer Ending. See his The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014). 

9 thoughts on “Evangelical (Atheist) Eisegesis: ‘The Skeptics Annotated Bible’ (#2)

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  1. “Jesus criticizes the Jews for not killing their disobedient children according to Old Testament law.”

    I would say this is at least implied by 7:10. Instead of executing those who speak evil against parents as the Law commands, let alone chastizing them, the Pharisees have contrived a way by which filial disrespect becomes a form of devotion to God. Interested to hear your views on this further.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is Jesus actually criticizing them for not executing their children, though?

      The Law Jesus cites recommends execution for children who “speak ill” of their father or mother, which is not what the Pharisees are doing in this passage, nor are they failing to execute their slanderous children.

      It looks like Jesus is citing this passage for its rhetorical value. There’s a commandment to honor father and mother, and this commandment is meant to be taken so seriously that the Law even says to execute children who slander their parents. I think Jesus is illustrating how seriously the Law takes this commandment, and it’s hypocrisy, then, to claim that neglecting one’s parents through a tradition they’ve established is following the Law.

      Whether or not Jesus would have recommended executing slanderous children is unknown, although he didn’t seem to have an issue with breaking the Sabbath, which also carried the death penalty. But I don’t think this text portrays Jesus criticizing a group of people for failing to kill their children.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I don’t think Jesus is drawing a one-to-one comparison between the Torah passage and the behavior of children under Corban. What these children do isn’t necessarily a capital crime—but it also isn’t honoring to parents.

        But Jesus is affirming the authority of the Torah regarding filial behavior and consequences by citing the two extremes: “honor your parents” and “the one who speaks ill will die.” The rhetoric relies on the fact that both Jesus and the Pharisees are under the Law in my opinion. Jesus is an insider debating insiders. (There’s lot to think about here though in light of Jesus’ other sayings about abandoning one’s [unbelieving?] parents in light of the coming kingdom.)

        I would argue Jesus positioned himself as a Law-observant Jew, and not as a Sabbath breaker. This is why Jesus attempts to justify his Sabbath-action as obedience to the Law-giving God.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I agree with all of that, and it’s well said. To that end, I think AE’s contention is still justified that this passage isn’t really Jesus criticizing the Pharisees because they aren’t killing their children.

        It would be interesting to see how Jesus handled that situation. As you noted, Jesus defends his Sabbath breaking as obedience to God, but he has to go outside the Law for those defenses most of the time. It would be interesting to see what he might say if he came across some angry dad about to stone his child in public.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I would agree, but my point is that Wells in SAB can’t see the forest for the trees. Jesus isn’t demanding the Pharisees start executing disrespectful children but highlighting that they weaponize the Law to preserve their own power and wealth. Thus, Jesus’ criticism is not *specifically* about their not following that particular command but is a statement about their general lack of fidelity to what God has truly commanded while they adhere to what he truly hasn’t.

      Does that make sense? It makes sense to me but it helps to have someone give me feedback.

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  2. I’ve found this to be pretty common in atheistic critique of the Bible (#NotAllAtheists). You take the most wooden, literalist, ahistorical reading of a passage that you can, and then point out how crazy that reading is.

    While it is true that there are segments of Christianity who read their Bibles that way, many Christians as well as scholars of all stripes of religion (and no religion at all) would argue that such readings would have been foreign to the authors and original audience.

    It’s sociologically interesting to me that there is such agreement between Christian fundamentalists and certain kinds of atheists on the correct way to read and understand the Bible, yet this gives neither group pause.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Right?!?! I think quite often atheists who were once Christians but left the fold actually left some form of fundamentalism. Therefore, their reading of the biblical texts is molded after the last hermeneutic they employed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think that’s very true. Also, the uncritical fundamentalist Christians do tend to be disproportionately loud, especially in the public sphere. So, if you’ve got someone trying to take evolution out of your schools or allow businesses to have “religious liberty,” there’s a decent chance that’s the kind of Christian you’re going to be clashing with. So, I get that.

        I also wonder, though, if “fundamentalism” is a pattern of thought or way of seeing the world and its issues that transcends other particulars of a worldview. If someone is epistemically a “fundamentalist,” they made trade one set of claims for another, but their fundamental (no pun intended) way of thinking and operating and interpreting hasn’t really changed.

        Liked by 2 people

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