Nicholas Kristof Fails Sunday School


May 24, 2011


Nicholas Kristof doesn’t appreciate the Bible being used to support conservative moral positions with which he disagrees, so it must have been an exciting moment when he unwrapped Jennifer Wright Knust’s new book, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire. Knust, an ordained Baptist minister and assistant professor of religion at Boston University, intends to prove that “the Bible is Not a Sexual Guidebook,” in response to the crowd of zero who thought it was.

Nicholas Kristof

Using Knust’s book as a reference, Kristof turned his Sunday New York Times column into a quiz on the various (contradictory!) things the Bible has to say about sex and morality. Unfortunately, his questions reveal a basic confusion over how the Bible — and any other collection of ancient documents, for that matter — should be read and understood.

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For example, the first question:

1. The Bible’s position on abortion is:

a. Never mentioned.

b. To forbid it along with all forms of artificial birth control.

c. Condemnatory, except to save the life of the mother.

Obviously, the first answer is technically correct — abortion is never mentioned explicitly in the Bible. But, of course, neither is mountaintop removal mining, though I’m sure both Kristof and Knust would consider that a sinful violation of God’s creation. The prohibition against abortion is an extension of the prohibition against murder — which is explicit in both the Old and New Testaments. If killing an innocent human is a violation of God’s law, then any human who qualifies — at whatever stage of development — shares that protection.

The second question is no better than the first:

2. The Bible suggests “marriage” is:

a. The lifelong union of one man and one woman.

b. The union of one man and up to 700 wives.

c. Often undesirable, because it distracts from service to the Lord.

All three answers are correct, insofar as they appear in various books of the Bible, and this leaves Kristof flummoxed:

The Bible limits women to one husband, but other than that is all over the map. Mark 10 envisions a lifelong marriage of one man and one woman. But King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (I Kings 11:3). And Matthew (Matthew 19:10-12) and St. Paul (I Corinthians 7) both seem to suggest that the ideal approach is to remain celibate and avoid marriage if possible, while focusing on serving God.

What Kristof doesn’t understand is that these aren’t contradictions at all, but are rather indications that revelation came to God’s people gradually, and in two separate covenants. In the period of Solomon, the Israelites were still a tribal people, and thought very much in those categories. Survival required reproduction, so a man might have many wives, as a sign of status or for social welfare (as with widows, or in the case when the wife was thought infertile).

That changed with the New Covenant, when Jesus commanded a different kind of marriage — an unbreakable covenant between a man and woman. This isn’t a contradiction but a development that flows naturally out of the Christian idea that the New Covenant fulfills and expands the Old.

The fundamental problem with Kristof’s quiz — and, presumably, Knust’s book as well — is that it treats the Bible as if it were a guidebook or catechism. If there’s a command in Leviticus that seems to be abrogated in Matthew, then that must be a contradiction. But this is completely off the mark: The Bible is an inspired collection of ancient documents that were written in at least two languages, at locations across the Meditteranean, and over a period of close to 2,000 years. The books are amazingly consistent with one another, but must be read with context, purpose, and genre in mind. Any attempt to interpret Scripture that fails to do so will slip into anachronism and confusion.


  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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