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Is the Bible Trustworthy?
The passages below are taken from Tremper Longman III’s book “Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind,” published in 1997 by NavPress Publications.
“I thought there was nothing new under the sun!”
The comment rang out in the locker room as I rested briefly after my routine thirty minutes on the stair climbing machine. John, a man I often saw around the gym, had been examining something lying on a table---a strange object that no one could identify.
“Ecclesiastes,” I said. “You just quoted the book of Ecclesiastes.”
We introduced ourselves and, upon discovering that I was a professor of Old Testament studies, John uttered another loud comment: “You shouldn’t have told me that. I have a lot of trouble with the Bible, and I don’t mind telling you about it.”
“Fire away,” I said.
“Okay. Maybe the Bible is divinely inspired, but even if I grant you that, what we have is the product of human effort and thought. After all, we don’t have the original writings; we have later copies. Furthermore, we don’t read the original Hebrew and Greek; we read translations. And these translations are made by fallible humans, so they have given us fallible texts. How can I entrust my life to a bunch of human documents, even if their origins are divine?”
SOME GOOD QUESTIONS
I have to admit, John raised some excellent points. Have you, too, ever wondered about these things? Does what we have before us really represent God’s Word to His people? Or is this Book a strange, unidentifiable object, irreparably marred by human error and weakness?
I had only five minutes to respond to John because I had to catch a plane. What astounded me was that by the end of that five minutes everyone in the gym had gathered around to listen. Though not religious people, they were vitally interested in hearing something about where the Bible came from and whether its present form communicated or betrayed its supposed divine origins.
The Bible we have in our hands has come a long way, so it’s natural for us to raise questions about its present integrity. These writings began in the hoary past when prophets and apostles claimed to bring their contemporaries a divine message. Is that what actually happened? If so, then we can assume that the message was intended by God for more than the immediate audience and that He therefore providentially guided its transmission down through the ages. But let’s explore the foundations for such assumptions by looking more closely at how the Bible actually came into being. We’ll consider five critical issues related to the Bible’s development---things I might have covered with John if I had had the time: its composition, canonicity, transmission, translations, and incarnational nature.
1. COMPOSITION: WHO WROTE IT?
Who authored the Bible? When and how was it written? Did the authors know that God was moving them to write sacred Scripture? These are valid questions that occasionally cross the minds of thoughtful readers.
When we stop to think about it, the answers to these questions, as far as we know them, are quite surprising. God used many people, from many different walks of life, to bring His Word into existence. Kings, prophets, farmers, priests, eccentrics, perhaps a doctor, scholars---all were called upon by God to bring His written Word to humanity.
The first written Scripture comes from the time of Moses, which I date to the fifteenth century B.C.1 The latest writing is perhaps the book of Revelation, which is dated by many to the end of the first century, A.D. The rest of Scripture comes from the time period between these dates.2 It is interesting to note, however, that the out flowing of Scripture falls within four distinct periods of history: the time of Moses, the rule of David and Solomon, the time surrounding the exile to Babylon, and the time right after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The only truly silent period is the so-called intertestamental period, from about 400 B.C. to the beginning of the New Testament epistles in the first century AD.
Did the Bible’s writers feel the inspiration of God within them? Certainly many of the prophets sensed God’s guiding hand as they spoke in His name, and they didn’t hesitate to identify their words with the words of the Lord of the universe. But we cannot be sure they all were conscious of the great significance of their work. We do know that God never overrode their individual personalities, as we can see by noting their varied styles of writing. Luke, for instance, wrote in an educated Greek. Compare that to fisherman John’s simpler language and more limited vocabulary.
We tend to think that when a prophet or apostle wrote Scripture that he sat down for a period of time and concentrated on his work, from beginning to end, until it was finished. That is how we would write a letter or report today. Actually, the evidence shows that different biblical books came into existence in different ways. Sometimes a prophet did sit down and write his prophecy in one sitting. At other times, a Bible book (such as Jeremiah) was the product of a long ministry and came into existence in various stages. Still other writers drew upon available sources (from a king’s historical records, for instance), and sometimes biblical books were added to by other inspired prophets before the period of inspiration ended. You can learn more about how a specific writer approached his work by consulting a good introduction or commentary related to each specific Bible book.
2. CANON: WHY THESE BOOKS?
The term canon means “standard” or “rule.” With regard to the Bible, the canon refers to the sacred writings that God’s people use as their standard of faith and practice. They are the writings upon which believers base their lives. But why these writings and no others? What is so special about them?
As Christians living at the turn of the second millennium, we don’t often reflect on the canonical status of the Bible; we simply accept it. Our Bible is something that is “given” to us as a completed whole. We grow up with the idea that the sixty-six books of the Bible are fixed, and we aren’t actively debating whether some new book ought to be added or another removed. We just accept what is there, though we might wonder why in the world God wanted a certain book, like the Song of Songs, in His Word.
Then again, we might have a Roman Catholic friend. Borrowing her Bible, we open it up and see some strange titles: The Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Baruch, and The Song of the Three. Where did these books, commonly called the Apocrypha, come from? And why do Catholic believers read these books and Protestants not include them in their Bibles? This kind of inquiry might lead to the broader question of why we accept any books at all as God-given. What makes a book canonical?
The key thing to remember about the canon is that human beings have not invested these books with their authority; they are inherently authoritative. They do not become canonical once we accept them as such, but they are authoritative by virtue of the fact that God is their ultimate author. They speak with the voice of God, and we are to accept them as such. In other words, the church does not define the canon; the canon defines the church.
There were, however, in the early days of the church, canonical councils organized for the purpose of surveying the writings that believers were using in their worship and devotional lives. The councils simply recognized those writings as having proven their God-given authority. By the year 400 A.D., the canon---the list of Scripture books as we now have it---was likely complete. Christians through the centuries have widely agreed on these books, though Catholics and Protestants differ in their view of how much authority resides in the Apocryphal writings. (For Protestants, the Apocryphal books provide good devotional reading, just as any book from the local Christian bookstore might be helpful today.)
Perhaps putting our faith in the Bible is made harder by the fact that the canonical books do not have an obvious trait that makes them different from all other ancient writings. Yes, some of them claim divine inspiration pretty clearly. The prophets of the Old Testament constantly call out “Thus says the Lord” and claim to speak in the name of God. But most of the books do not speak that directly, and we have writings from the same historical periods that do claim direct inspiration but are not in our Bible.
Surprisingly not even divine revelation is the sole criterion of canonicity. For God has revealed more than is canonical. Before Moses wrote, the people of God knew and spoke with God, but these revelations are not part of our Bible. Paul wrote other letters that we do not have (Colossians 4:16 refers to a letter to the Laodiceans), and even if we discover them they would not become a part of our Bible. The Bible, then, is not just God’s revelation. It is the part of revelation that is intended to be the standard of faith and practice for God’s people through the ages.
Our discussion so far is, of course, sort of circular, for we are asking how we know that the Bible is God’s Word. Our answer is to say that its authenticity was self-evident from the beginning. Does that sound like an overly daring leap of faith? If so, remember that such a “leap” is something we have to do in almost every area of human inquiry. As Christian apologist C. S. Lewis once said: “if nothing is self-evident, then nothing can be proved.” It’s true, isn’t it? All of our most basic principles especially in philosophy and religion, must start with unprovable assumptions about the nature of reality that must either be accepted by all---or no further discussion can follow. One such assumption is, “It is true that when I am thinking, I am doing something that is rational.” Now that statement can’t be proven from some outside source. But everyone accepts it, by faith, as self-evident. Otherwise, attempting a conversation would be silly. What would be the point?
`Additionally, if our belief in God and the Bible were based purely and primarily on logic and deductive evidence, then only the smartest people would be Christians. But Paul tells us that belief is not based on the intellect but on faith, which is a gift from God. The passage from 1 Corinthians 2 that I quoted in the last chapter is relevant here again: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (verse 14). Paul goes on to argue that the spiritual person (that is, the one who possesses the Spirit of God) can make such judgments because “we have the mind of Christ” (verse 16). Ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who convinces us of these important truths (see 1 Thessalonians 1:5).
Nonetheless, while our belief concerning the Bible as canon is a matter of faith, we can find some relief in the strong evidence that the Bible we accept as divinely given is the right one. This is not the place to lay out all the evidence because there is so much. At this point, though, I want to point out that we accept the same Bible as did our Lord Jesus Christ. Roger Beckwith, in a powerful study of the early rabbinic sources, has shown that there is no doubt that the Pharisees of the first century A.D. had a Bible that was exactly like the Old Testament we read today.3 And when Jesus got into debates with these religious leaders, He appealed to Scripture to silence them (see Mark 12:28-40 for an example). There was no debate about the standard, or rule, that governed their arguments; they both appealed to the same authority. In other words, though many deep issues separated Jesus and the Pharisees, they were united in their understanding of what constituted the Word of God. Thus when Christians accept the Old Testament without the Apocrypha as the Word of God, they are following in the practice of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
But what about the New Testament? No part of the New Testament was written until after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He did not affirm them, so how do we know that these books are divinely inspired? We might begin a response by first recognizing the need for a written record and interpretation of the great acts of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Once the eyewitnesses were gone, something was needed to let the future generations know what had happened and to explain the significance of these great redemptive events. Who better to do that than the apostles? Passages like Ephesians 2:19-20 show the importance of the apostles to the establishment of the church.
You are fellow citizens with God’s people and members of
God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
The prophets, who predicted the ministry of Jesus, gave us the Old Testament. Then Jesus, through His death and resurrection, brought the church into existence. The apostles of the church experienced the climax of God’s great plan of redemption with their eyewitness testimony, and they left a written record for later generations. The revelation of the prophets, of Jesus, of the apostles makes a progressive whole. Notice how Peter equated the words of the prophets and the apostles in his second letter: “I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2). A little later he specifically equated Paul’s writings with Scripture (see 3:14-16). So, once again, we will be a bit circular and say that the New Testament itself witnesses to its own authority and that this is confirmed by the smooth progress of revelation and the belief and practice of the church down through the ages.
Ultimately, though, our belief in the authority of both Testaments rests with our decision about the resurrection of Christ. This is the call to faith that confronts everyone who hears the gospel message: Did Jesus truly rise from the dead? After checking all the evidence, if we answer yes, then we are dealing with the most unusual Person ever to enter human history. Here is a Person who claimed to be God and then proved it by leaving behind an empty tomb---and countless followers who were willing to die for Him! Yes, if He is the risen Lord, then we can be confident that everything He ever said was the truth. This applies to His words about Scripture as well.
Regarding the Old Testament: “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18 NIV)
Regarding the New Testament: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” (John 16:13 NIV)
3. TRANSMISSION: IS IT ACCURATE?
Some people are unnecessarily disturbed by the fact that we do not have a single piece of the Bible’s original parchment and ink. The technical name for the first written form of a biblical text is autograph. The Hebrews and Greeks wrote mostly on perishable materials like leather and papyrus. Only rarely are such written materials preserved through the ages. (A well-known example is the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in caves in an extremely dry climate on the northwest corner of the Dead Sea area.) Since hundreds, even thousands of years separate the original writings from our contemporary translations, many people assume that the text is riddled with errors that have arisen due to careless scribes.
Since we don’t have those original pieces of leather or papyrus, it remains for biblical scholars to compare the copied portions that have survived and then compile a single biblical text from them. Does that make sense to you? It would be as if you had written a letter to your mother and then she made photocopies to send to all your relatives. But suppose your mother then lost the original letter. No problem! There would still be dozens of copies around for anyone to discover what you had written. Of course, if your mother had made the copies by handwriting each one rather than by photocopying, then some of the copies might be slightly different from others. A comma might be missing in this one, a word added or left out of that one. By comparing all the copies, though, a person could reassemble the words of the original with great confidence.
That is what scholars do with thousands of copies of the original autographs, in a literary science called textual criticism. They compare the copies that come from various dates in ancient times and use them to assemble a complete Hebrew and Greek text that reflects the errorless original. They also make notes about any textual “variants” (those minor differences in spelling and wording, similar to what would have occurred in Mom’s hand-copied letters to your relatives).
In light of the little variations in the copies, we have to say that no single ancient Hebrew or Greek manuscript portion preserves an ideal, error-free text. We have many manuscripts and versions of the Bible going back hundreds of years, and they do show variations as they are compared with one another. But the truly amazing thing is how similar they are and how minor the differences. With this in mind, a couple of observations should set you at ease about whether you are reading God’s Word or the results of human ineptitude.4
First, remember that modern translations are based on an extremely reliable textual base. One reason we know this is because of an amazing discovery back in the 1940s: the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here’s what I mean. Hebrew scholars work primarily from the oldest complete manuscript of the Old Testament (called Codex Leningradensis), which dates from A.D.1006. To be sure, this is more than a millennium after the last Old Testament book was written. Yet when we compare it with the earlier manuscript portions, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls (which provide texts from about 150 B.C. to A.D. 100), and the Septuagint (a Greek translation, which in some instances takes us a century earlier than that), we find astounding similarity in the readings. Over a period of a thousand years the text was faithfully and accurately copied by hand. Such comparisons prove it.
The New Testament manuscript fragments do have many more variants among them than the Old Testament portions. But that is partly because we have many more copies of the original autographs, and earlier ones at that. Early papyri, uncials (manuscripts in all capital letters), miniscules (manuscripts in all lowercase letters), and lectionaries, as well as citations in the writings of early church fathers, provide numerous witnesses to the original text. And keep in mind that the vast majority of the variants are merely differences in spelling or grammar that are of no significance to the meaning of the text.
The bottom line of our first observation is that the evidence overwhelmingly supports an astoundingly accurate transmission of the Bible. Our Hebrew and Greek texts are extremely close to the original writings of the prophets and apostles. Through the exercise of textual criticism, we know that we have arrived at a highly reliable Bible.
This observation leads to a second one: In no case does textual transmission blur our understanding of any significant teaching of the Bible. Sure, there are some important textual issues that we wish we could resolve with perfect certainty, but no fundamental doctrine is affected by lack of certainty about the text. To question Christianity because we don’t have the original autographs is simply to raise a nonexistent problem in order to avoid dealing with the claims of Christ.
4. TRANSLATIONS: WHY SO MANY?
Few Christians can read Hebrew and Greek, the two major languages of the Bible. And fewer still can read Aramaic, the language used in parts of Ezra and Daniel. Therefore, translation plays a key role in our access to God’s Word.
English-speaking Christians have an unprecedented richness in their translation options. Instead of moaning, “Not another translation,” when a new version appears we should get on our knees and thank God for His gifts to this part of the church! And we can throw our support behind the efforts to translate God’s Word into other languages, as well.
The point is that multiple translations serve two important purposes. First, they meet the differing needs of various kinds of people. Children, or people who speak English as a second language, and adults with limited reading skills benefit greatly from translations that utilize a simple vocabulary and sentence structure (for example: The New Century Version, also called The Everyday Bible). Readers who have a high level of literary sophistication might gravitate toward The King James Version or The New Revised Standard Version. Others, who want a relatively bland, but literal text will use The New International Version. Still others, who like the combination of exegetical accuracy with a vibrant and interesting English style, will like The New Living Translation. The New American Standard Bible rightly has the reputation as the most literal translation around. It is a highly regarded study Bible, but many people do not prefer it for devotional reading. Many people use several translations, depending on their primary purpose during any particular reading---literal translations for studying words and syntax, looser paraphrases for focusing on the overall flow of ideas in contemporary idiom.
The second purpose of multiple translations is to enable us to get a better picture of the original language because no language can be exactly translated to another. Language is fluid and full of nuances; words have a “feel” as well as meaning. To be sure, any one of the versions I’ve mentioned is accurate and reliable. But you will get a richer understanding of the original text when you read from more than one. I suggest starting with a translation whose concern it is to communicate the message of the original text to modern readers like ourselves. In my opinion, no version does that better than the New Living Translation. The New International Version is a close second but tends to be a bit more wooden and difficult for a modern reader to understand. Then use two more Bibles: a more literal text, and a freer paraphrasing text. The first gives you a feel for the original text, though it does not communicate the message as well to English speakers. For this purpose I recommend The New International Version, The New American Standard Version, or The New Revised Standard Version. Then, the most interesting paraphrase available is being written by Eugene Peterson. His New Testament, The Message, is available now, and he is presently translating the Old Testament, and it is available in parts.
5. INCARNATION: HOW DO WE BRIDGE THE DISTANCE?
The Bible is the Word of God incarnate. From our review of the process that brought us the Bible, we see that it did not simply drop out of heaven. The analogy, of course, is with Jesus. Jesus was fully God and fully human. Yet He did not just drop out of heaven but came into the world through the process of gestation and birth---a remarkable conception to be sure but a birth process nonetheless. He was a particular human being, a Jewish male who lived in the first century A.D.. He was a human but without sin.
As the Word of God incarnate, the Bible’s ultimate origin is also divine; its more immediate source is human. It came into existence by the type of literary “birth processes” typical of any human composition. Human beings took up writing instruments and wrote symbols on a page. The books of the Bible are particular writings, written in a specific known language, using genres and other writing conventions common in the secular writings of the day. The result was a collection of writings developed over sixty generations, written by scores of people on three different continents, covering hundreds of controversial subjects with harmony and absolute continuity from Genesis through Revelation. This astounding unity makes the written Word a truly miraculous incarnation.
And the incarnational aspect of the Bible means that God spoke to His people in a way that they understood. He used Hebrew, not some new divine language. As we will see later in this book, God used typical ancient Near Eastern literary forms like history, law, wisdom, prophetic writings, as well as Palestinian-Hellenistic forms like the epistle. This simple fact means that there is a distance between us and the original audience that needs to be bridged for proper understanding to take place. Yes, we are somewhat separated from the Bible by virtue of the language, culture, and literary conventions of its first readers.
How shall we bridge that distance? The rest of this book is devoted to exploring the ways in which we can go back to the text and build a solid applicational bridge into our lives today, for our primary purpose is to read the Bible so it reads us like a mirror, transforms us like a seed, and reveals Jesus Christ to us as a close friend, here and now.
After all, it is personal experience that counts. And if anyone has reason to doubt the inspiration of the Bible, the certain yet simple test to apply is to yield oneself to its power, strive faithfully to follow its commands, act as it suggests. As a result, the conviction will irresistibly grow upon the mind seeking proof in this way, that its claim to be inspired of God is not to be questioned, but reverently received as just and undeniable.5
In other words: Take up and read with a fully engaged heart and mind! (71-81)
I. There is a disagreement among evangelical scholars as to the time of the Exodus and Moses’ leadership. Some believe the evidence points to a period of time in the thirteenth century B.C.
2. Serious students of the Bible should have introductions to the New and Old Testament in their libraries. These works give the dates and backgrounds to all the hooks of the Bible. Try R. B. Dillard and Tremper Longman III, An introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) and D. A. Carson, D. Moo, and L. Morris, An introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
3. See R. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, London, 1987).
4. If you want more detailed information about biblical textual criticism, ask your pastor for a good book dealing with the subject. It can be interesting, though heavy, reading. One excellent older book would be: J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964).
5. Herbert Lockyer, All the Doctrines of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1964), p.8
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