Why we can trust the Bible

If I asked you, “Why do you believe the Bible?” some of you might respond by sharing your personal experiences, how the Holy Spirit confirmed the truth of God’s Word within your spirit. You might describe how he helped you to just know that the Scriptures are the infallible Word of God. I have no interest in challenging this kind of assurance because I know the Spirit does work like this in our hearts and minds. But is this the only reason for trusting the Bible?

Imagine if you were talking with a Mormon. He asks you why you believe the Bible is the Word of God, and so you share your Spirit-given assurance. He responds by telling you about how he prayed to God to let him know if the Book of Mormon was really true, and how he felt a “burning in his bosom” from God that assured him the Book of Mormon was indeed the Word of God. What now? Do your spiritual experiences cancel out each other? Are both conclusions true (even though they contradict each other)? It seems we need some objective criteria in seeking to determine the validity of the Bible.

Start with Jesus
In establishing the authority of Scripture in the life of the believer, I don’t begin with the Bible itself, but with Jesus. The historic Christian faith is based on the person of Jesus Christ. And even without an inerrant Bible, we can have complete faith in Christ. For instance, we have very convincing historical evidence confirming not only the existence of Jesus, but the historical events of his ministry, crucifixion, burial and physical resurrection. [For more on this, you can see my series on the historical Jesus, beginning with In search of Jesus. I’ve neglected this series for too long, but hope to add to it soon.]

Many scholars who study Jesus and early Christianity don’t believe the New Testament is divinely inspired or infallible, but most of them still accept the New Testament Gospels as generally reliable historical sources. Not only do we know historically that the earliest Christians worshiped Jesus as God, but we’re also challenged by Jesus’ own teachings as recorded by people who heard him. These statements are so striking they’ve caused people such as CS Lewis to make observations like this one:

I am trying here to prevent the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Lewis later concluded: “Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

[I realize I’ve just barely scratched the surface regarding the historical evidence for Jesus, and that I haven’t addressed here any of the counter arguments. This is why I’m devoting an entire series to this topic. I would encourage you to be clear about what you believe about Jesus before tackling the exact nature of Scripture. I believe in the Bible because I believe in Jesus, not the other way around.]

I believe in the Bible because I believe in Jesus.

But how is this emphasis on Jesus relevant to our current questions regarding the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture? Well, if we accept the New Testament Gospels as generally historically reliable (as most scholars do), and if we’re convinced by the historical evidence concerning who Jesus was and what he did, and if we want to follow Jesus and pattern our lives after him, then what Jesus believed and taught about the Scriptures becomes incredibly important. And we get a clear picture of his views on the pages of the New Testament Gospels.

Jesus’ view of Scripture
It doesn’t take long in our reading of the Gospels before we see how Jesus consistently relied on and appealed to the Scriptures. When he is tempted repeatedly by Satan in the wilderness, each time he responds with the words of Scripture (Matthew 4:1-11).  We see this appeal to the authority of Scripture in his frequent challenge “Have you not read . . . [e.g. Matthew 12:3; 22:31; Mark 12:10].”

When Jesus is challenged by the Sadducees, he responds by telling them, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures [Matthew 12:29].” He goes on to quote a specific passage of Scripture and use this passage to teach definitively about the resurrection from the dead and the nature of God. In Matthew 15:1-9, Jesus challenges an unbiblical practice of the Pharisees, saying, “You cancel the Word of God for the sake of your own tradition.” In other words, he uses the Scriptures to determine the validity of someone else’s spiritual practice. In John 10:22-42, Jesus quotes a certain passage of Scripture, emphasizes a single, specific word, and then insists that “the Scriptures cannot be altered.”

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, he spoke to two disciples who didn’t realize who he was. Finally, Jesus lovingly rebuked their hopelessness:

“You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Luke 24:25-27 

Over and over again, we see the place of absolute trustworthiness and authority the Scriptures held in the life and ministry of Jesus. One could be excused for describing Jesus’ view of the Scriptures as “evangelical.” It seems apparent that we should follow him in his devotion to the Scriptures.

Jesus’ apostles
In Matthew 10:1 (and parallel passages), Jesus chooses 12 of his followers to be his apostles. Later, Paul and James are also described as apostles of Christ. What does it mean to be an apostle? One aspect of their ministry is fairly common to us today. We’re very familiar with someone representing and speaking for another person or group, and even exercising authority in their name. If a US ambassador or the Secretary of State speaks to a foreign government in an official capacity, everyone understands they speak with the authority of the US president.

This is what the apostles were; they were official, personally-commissioned represent-atives of Jesus Christ. They taught and wrote his words with his authority. This is intrinsic to the role of the apostle, and it was universally understood in the 1st century church. This is why, in their letters, both Paul and Peter identify themselves as apostles of Christ. This is why they write with authority, instructing the believers regarding salvation and the Christian life.

This is why Paul could remind the Corinthians that what he wrote was a command from the Lord himself (1 Corinthians 14:37). This is why he explains how God was revealing his eternal plan through his apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:1-5). This is why they could make demands in the name of Christ (1 Thessalonians 2:6; Philemon 1:8). This is why, though Paul sought to lead in humility and gentleness, he makes clear that he will exercise his apostolic authority for the sake of the flock (2 Corinthians 13:2-10). This is why they could decisively and authoritatively correct false teaching (for a clear example of this, see the entire letter to the Galatians). And this why they could praise the Thessalonians with these words:

Therefore, we never stop thanking God that when you received his message from us, you didn’t think of our words as mere human ideas. You accepted what we said as the very word of God—which, of course, it is. And this word continues to work in you who believe.

1 Thessalonians 1:13

And the Thessalonians weren’t alone in this. From the very beginning, the followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [Acts 2:42].” Years later, Peter would write this about the letters of Paul:

This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.

2 Peter 3:15-16

Did you notice how Peter includes Paul’s letters with “other parts of Scripture”? The earliest believers universally followed this devotion to, and adherence of, these apostolic writings, viewing them as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture.

The Bible’s claims about itself
The Old Testament is filled with strong claims about its own authority. But let’s look at two claims from the New Testament:

Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, these prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.

2 Peter 1:20-21

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

Now, don’t misunderstand. We’re not saying we have to believe the Bible is the Word of God because it says it’s the Word of God. We don’t want to return to the circular reasoning we discussed a few weeks ago. But the Bible does make some very strong claims about itself. These claims challenge us just as the statements of Jesus challenge us. These claims demand that we make a tough choice: Is the Bible what it claims to be, or not?

If these claims are wrong, they’re either the diabolical rantings of 1st century charlatans, or the grandiose fantasies of well-intentioned, but self-deluded, fanatics. The idea that the Scriptures are not truly the inspired, inerrant Word of God, but that they’re still somehow spiritually beneficial to us and even authoritative for the church is ultimately incoherent and nonsensical. To paraphrase Lewis, the biblical authors have not left that open to us. They did not intend to.

If the Scriptures are neither evil spiritual manipulation
nor wide-eyed fairy tales,
then they must be what they claim to be—the Word of God.

The internal consistency of the Scriptures
Imagine trying to compile writings on a single theological subject from a 100-year span, all by authors who were native English-speakers and who were educated at Oxford. Would anyone mistake these writings for the work of a single author? Would these works even fit well within a single compilation?

The Bible was written in three different languages; on three different continents; by more than 40 authors of incredibly varying educational, social and cultural backgrounds; over a period of 1,500 years. And yet it uncannily seems to be the product of a single, unifying mind. And this perception isn’t diminished by in-depth study. No, the more one digs below the surface in the Scriptural texts, the more the cohesive nature of Scripture is hard to deny. Though there were many human authors responsible for the biblical books, it’s difficult to escape the guiding hand of a divine Author who stands behind the whole. The more one studies, the more unavoidable the conclusion that the Author of Genesis is also the Author of Revelation.

But what about things in Scripture that do seem inconsistent? What about passages that appear to be problematic? We’ll look at some of these issues next week.

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible [see above]

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Did you ever play the game ‘telephone’? That’s where you sit in a circle, and the first person whispers some nonsensical phrase to the next person, something like: “Sally sold all her shells.” Each person whispers it—only once!—to the next person until the phrase gets all the way around to the last one in the circle. Then they venture their best guess as to what they heard (“Sand your soles or else”?), and everyone gets a laugh at how badly the message got mangled.

It’s not unusual to hear people compare the way we’ve received our current Bible translations to this children’s game. But is this a fair comparison? Let’s think about this. What if the statement being repeated wasn’t a silly, meaningless phrase? What if it was a profound truth so important to the people repeating it they’d be willing to die for this belief? Would this improve the accuracy somewhat? And what if they wrote these truths down, and then others made new copies from these written accounts? Wouldn’t this make the end result more trustworthy? Maybe this children’s game isn’t really the best match for how the Bible has been passed down over the centuries.

Here’s another of the most commonly repeated, but erroneous, criticisms about the Bible:

What we have with the Bible are translations of translations of translations. How can we know what we’re reading is what they actually wrote?

These kinds of statements just reveal that most people don’t know much about the process of translating the Bible. Unless you read ancient Hebrew and Greek, you’re going to require a translation of Scripture in order to read it. Usually these translations are produced by teams of scholars who are skilled in both their knowledge of ancient languages and their knowledge of the Scriptures. They never begin with another translation of Scripture; they always begin with a careful study of the original languages used in the ancient manuscripts. So the statement highlighted above is simply wrong.

Is the process foolproof? No, it’s not. But scholars seek to ensure that this process—and the end result—are as free of error as possible. This isn’t just true for the study of the Bible, this is done for all important ancient works. A whole scientific field has developed because of the need for these kinds of studies: textual criticism. (This doesn’t mean critical in a negative, tear-it-apart kind of way, but an exacting, precise manner of studying ancient texts, including the Bible.) There are three criteria these scholars consider in determining how trustworthy an ancient document is:

1. How early is the oldest manuscript?

2. How many manuscripts do we have?

3. How much of the content is in doubt?

Let’s evaluate the New Testament using the same tests we’d use for any other ancient book:

How early is the oldest manuscript?
We don’t have any of the original, “first-edition” biblical manuscripts. This may surprise some people, but we don’t have the original manuscripts (called ‘autographs’) for any piece of ancient literature. Obviously, the earlier the earliest copy is, the more we can be sure it’s accurately conveying the original writing. How early are the copies we have?

Let’s discuss some comparative writings from antiquity so we know what’s acceptable. Many of us read Plato in school. Plato wrote around 400 BC. The earliest manuscript for any of Plato’s writings dates from approximately 900 AD. That’s a difference of 1,300 years. And no one in a political science class ever suggests that we don’t know what Plato actually wrote. Let’s look at a couple of examples from the 1st century for a better comparison. The earliest manuscript for the Jewish historian Josephus is from the 11th century, and for the Roman Tacitus from the 9th century.

In comparison, the earliest manuscript from the New Testament is part of a Gospel of John and it’s dated approximately 125 AD. If John wrote his Gospel around 90 AD, as most scholars believe, this means the time that elapsed between his writing and our earliest manuscript is only around 35 years. In the study of ancient literature, this is astounding! We have many very early manuscripts, and we’re finding more manuscripts all the time. [A fragment of the Gospel of Mark was recently discovered that scholars say dates from the 1st century. If so, this will now be our earliest manuscript. The findings are due to be published later this year.] How does the New Testament handle this first test? I’d say pretty well!

How many manuscripts do we have?
It’s almost embarrassing to compare the number of New Testament manuscripts to other ancient works. If we have 20 copies of an ancient work, it’s generally considered very well-attested. For Plato, we have only 7. For Tacitus, we have only 3, but Josephus fares better with 133 manuscripts. Next to the New Testament, the most manuscripts for an ancient work are for the writings of Homer, for which we have a little less than 2,500 manuscripts. Very impressive.

How about for the New Testament? Well, if we count only the Greek manuscripts, we have over 5,700 (and the number is still growing). Textual critics also highly value ancient translations of works into other languages. If they can compare how a certain Greek word was translated into Latin, Syriac and Armenian, for instance, it gives them greater insight into the original Greek meaning. In addition to the 5,700+ Greek manuscripts, we have over 10,000 Latin translations, thousands more in other various languages, and over a million (that’s right million) quotations of the New Testament in the writings of the early church leaders. In fact, if we didn’t have any New Testament manuscripts at all, we could duplicate almost all of the New Testament by using only the quotes contained in the early Christian writings. And we should remember this was a faith and a Book that was outlawed for the first 300 years of its existence. How is the New Testament doing so far?

Why is it so important to have a lot of manuscript copies? Let me give you a real illustration. Classes in Bible college or seminary will sometimes do an experiment. Let’s say we have 30 students. The teacher recites, in English, a certain passage of Scripture (maybe a chapter from a gospel such as Matthew), and the students copy down what they hear the teacher reading. Now it’s highly doubtful we’ll have 2 identical copies produced in this experiment. They’ll all have variations. And there won’t be a single perfect copy produced. Everyone will make some mistake. Some will just misspell a word here and there, but some will miss a whole phrase or put down an entirely wrong word. But here’s what’s important: not all of the students will make the same mistake. Even if 3 students make the exact same mistake, we can correct their mistake by comparing it with the other 27. So, by comparing the 30 different copies, we can determine the correct original reading. Do you see how this works? Do you think having over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is important? So just how much of the original New Testament reading can we determine by comparing these manuscripts?

How much of the content is in doubt?
No two manuscripts of the New Testament are identical. Critics of the Bible sometimes toss out this fact as if they’re revealing some deep, dark secret. But every first-year Bible college or seminary student knows this, and all Christians should be aware of it. All this proves is that the transmission of the New Testament wasn’t highly controlled (which calls into doubt many of the more outlandish conspiracy theories regarding the early church). As we’ve seen, we should expect these differences in the manuscripts, what the scholars call ‘textual variants.’ The question is, how serious are these variations?

There are hundreds of thousands of variations in the New Testament manuscripts. This may sound bad, until we realize that every time even one letter is changed in the spelling of a word, this counts as a variation. If 3 letters are different, then that counts as 3 variations. Many of these, if not most, might not even have been considered errors at the time because the people were accustomed to great variation in how they spelled things like names. Other differences involve variations that are so slight we can’t even reflect the differences in our English translations. Almost all of the differences between New Testament manuscripts involve these very minor variations.

So the question is, how much of the actual text is in question? And the answer is less than 1%. And there is no essential Christian teaching that is dependent on one of these few uncertain texts. What are some of these passages we’re not quite sure about? Here’s one example from Romans 5:1:

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.

Most current translations read as this one does, “we have peace” with God. But, in some Bibles, we’ll see a note telling us that some early manuscripts read “let us have” peace with God. “Not a huge difference,” you might say. Yet this is how exacting the biblical scholars are. They invest great amounts of time to even studying such relatively subtle differences. Another one we could mention is 1 John 1:4. We can’t be entirely sure whether he wrote so that “our joy may be complete” or that “your joy may be complete.” Despite the offhand dismissals we often hear in casual conversation, we are actually certain of the reading of the New Testament in over 99% of the text. So when we test the New Testament, we see we have extremely early manuscripts, a wealth of manuscripts to study and compare, and we’re therefore able to be very confident that we’re reading what the original authors wrote.

But what about the Old Testament?
While we do have thousands of Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament, the numbers are not quite as impressive as the New Testament. There is a much greater span of time between the last writing of the Old Testament and the earliest manuscripts. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, our earliest Old Testament manuscripts were relatively recent (10th century AD).

Part of what gave scholars confidence in the Old Testament text is knowing the exact nature of the process for copying it. Professional scribes were trained to copy the Hebrew Scriptures, and they went to extreme lengths to make sure they didn’t alter anything in their copying of the text. They would count the total number of words and letters in a book, and in specific sections of the book. If the numbers varied, they would destroy their copy and begin again. They would count to the specific word at the very center of a book and sections of a book. They would verify even the middle letter of a book or section of a book. Any variation and they would scrap their work and start all over again. (And I thought I was a perfectionist!)

One of the most electrifying discoveries in the Dead Sea Scrolls (found between 1947 and 1956) was a complete Hebrew manuscript of the Old Testament book of Isaiah. This newly discovered copy of Isaiah was 1,000 years older than the oldest manuscripts previously available. How would the 10th century Hebrew manuscripts compare to what had been copied 1,000 years earlier? The results were breathtaking. The versions were practically identical, with only a few minor variations. This, after 1,000 years of copies and recopies. Amazing!

So we enjoy overwhelming evidence that when we read the Bible, we’re reading what was originally written by the biblical authors. But how do we know that what they wrote is actually true, and even the inspired, infallible Word of God? We’ll continue exploring this subject next week.

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote? [see above]

Why we can trust the Bible

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?