What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?

I could tell he was reluctant to ask his question, but I encouraged him that any sincere question was welcome. He seemed shocked at himself for actually expressing his doubt aloud, but he blurted out anyway: “I just don’t understand how this kind of verse can be the Word of God!” The passage that was troubling him was Psalm 137:8-9:

O Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy is the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who takes your babies
and smashes them against the rocks!

The first thing I said in response was that I would be troubled by anyone who didn’t find this passage disturbing! I could immediately see the relief on his face. He later explained that he was afraid we would think he was some kind of heretic or atheist because he dared to even wonder about a particular verse of Scripture. We went on to discuss this passage in its context. But before I share more with you about this specific case, I want to step back and look at this more general question: What do we do when we run across a passage of Scripture that really troubles us or even makes us doubt? How do we handle it when it seems the Bible might be wrong?

When facing such a problem, it’s easy to fall into one of two extremes. We can just rely on blind, irrational faith, insisting that if the Bible says it—no matter how illogical or silly it sounds—then it’s true. The problem with this approach is that we may be holding sacred our own mistaken idea of what the Scriptures are saying, not what the Bible actually communicates. (We’ll see some examples of this below.)

But then, at the slightest hint the Scriptures might be in error, we could also simply reject the Bible as inspired or infallible. We can assume that all the critics are right and the Bible is a merely human book, describing the beliefs of people in the distant past. The problem with doing this is that the Bible has a long track record of refuting its critics. (We’ll see some examples of this below also.) If we too easily reject the Scriptures, we might find ourselves rejecting the very Word of God.

So what do we do? It’s interesting that even Christians in the relatively early history of the church had to face difficult passages of Scripture. Sixteen hundred years ago, the pastor and scholar Augustine described how he approached these kinds of challenges. His methods are still sound for us today, and we’re going to look at each of his three suggestions. But we begin with a fourth step I’ve added (with which I’m sure Augustine would agree):

1. Pray
It often goes without saying, but the first step in studying the Bible—especially when struggling with something difficult to understand—should always be to pray. If the Bible was written through the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then we need the illumination of the Spirit to properly interpret the Scriptures. We need to humbly ask God to help us understand the heart of what he’s telling us in his Word.

2. Check the translation
It’s easy for us to get the wrong understanding of a Scripture passage because of an unclear translation. This is especially true of older translations that use more archaic English. I love the King James Version. I grew up with it; it was the only Bible I knew for years. But I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me with a passage they don’t understand in the KJV. When I show them the passage in another, more clear translation, the response is usually, “Ohhhhhh, that’s what this means.”

For instance, many people are confused by Jesus’ desire to “suffer the little children [Matthew 19:14],” not realizing that today this would be expressed as “allow the little children” or “don’t prevent the little children.” So if you’re reading something that doesn’t make sense, try reading it in a different translation. Many times, reading the same passage in different words can help you better understand the passage.

3. Check the notes
Augustine would say ‘check the manuscripts.’ This sounds overly technical and even intimidating to many ordinary Christians today. Thankfully, we can all check the manuscripts; all it takes is reading the notes in our Bibles. If you check the little footnotes in your Bible, you’ll see a few of them that say something like: “The oldest and most reliable manuscripts do not contain this passage.” These notes refer to verses that the vast majority of biblical scholars agree were accidentally added to the text centuries after it was originally written. We know these passages shouldn’t be included as Scripture. Here’s an example from John 5:4 (from the KJV):

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

This was apparently someone’s attempt to explain why the people were trying so hard to get into the pool. At first, this explanation was written in the margin, but it eventually was incorporated into the text itself. But—by comparing all the thousands of manuscripts we have available—textual scholars can ascertain the original reading and the spurious addition (and even determine the general timeframe when it was added). So we don’t have to accept this odd and superstitious reading as part of John’s Gospel.

Another example is the reference to handling snakes in Mark 16:18. Here again, practically all biblical scholars agree that this section of Mark was not part of the original. So after making sure you understand the translation of a difficult passage, check for notes to make sure it was genuinely part of the original text. (Anything that was added is likely to be problematic [like snake-handling], but be careful; just because a text is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not part of the original!)

4. Work to truly understand the passage
If you’ve verified that the translation actually means what it seems to mean, and there are no notes in your Bible indicating the passage isn’t authentic, then it’s time to push up your sleeves and do the work necessary to properly understand the passage. While the essentials of the gospel are crystal clear in Scripture, not everything is as easy to immediately grasp. Speaking of Paul’s letters to the churches, Peter wrote that “some of his comments are hard to understand [2 Peter 3:16].”

In passages such as John 6, we see Jesus teaching things to the people that were difficult to hear and accept. He knew that many of them were following him for superficial reasons, not because they understood the spiritual significance of what he said and did. So he would occasionally teach hard truths, to distinguish between those who had “ears to hear,” and those who weren’t willing to truly hear. We need to not reject a passage right away just because it disturbs or confuses us. We first need to make sure we accurately understand the passage.

In the passage we began with, Psalm 137:8-9, who is speaking? It’s not God. The author is one of the refugees from conquered, destroyed Jerusalem. He’s a Jew who now lives in the land of his conquerors: Babylon. He is overwrought with what has befallen his people and his homeland, and he longs for vengeance against the people of Babylon. He cries out for them to experience the same horrific fate they’ve perpetrated upon his people. The psalm is very expressive and even moving in places, but it doesn’t express the heart of God; it dramatically expresses the heart of these devastated Jewish refugees. Once we’ve done the work to understand the passage in context, it still disturbs us, but we don’t have to accept it as the will of God. [For more on this, see The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us.]

An earned benefit of the doubt
We don’t want to fall back on a blind, subjective faith in Scripture. On the other hand, we need to realize how often the Bible has proven itself accurate against the attacks of the critics. A classic example concerns the existence of the Hittites. The Old Testament refers many times to these people, portraying them as a major power and sometimes foe of Israel. Not long ago, if you had suggested in a secular university that this biblical portrayal was historically relevant, you would have been laughed out of class. Everyone knew the Hittites were a biblical myth, at most a minor, insignificant local tribe. That is until a few decades ago, when archaeologists began uncovering confirmation of the Hittite empire. As it turns out, these Hittites had a rich, longstanding culture, they were dominant over a widespread territory, the other major powers of the region considered them a threat, and they existed during the same timeframe the Bible describes. Score one for Scripture.

This same kind of scenario has played out again and again. Many times the Bible has proven itself to be far more accurate than the supposed “experts.” This doesn’t mean we should just assume it can never be wrong, especially in our interaction with skeptics and unbelievers. But it does mean that none of us should too quickly dismiss the claims of Scripture because of the current consensus of skeptical critics. We need to resist the temptation of a knee-jerk reaction, either in support of a particular reading of the Bible or in opposition to it. Especially for those who are followers of Christ, we must:

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15

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

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages? [see above]

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?