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This entry is part 1 of 6 in the seriesCan You Trust Your Bible?

Old holy Bible in German little dusty and used.The Bible is of the utmost importance to Christians. This is our foundation for life and godliness; the source for our beliefs about God, ourselves, and our world; and the place we go to hear the voice of God. Whether your Bible is dusty or well-worn, the Bible is essential to your life as a Christian.

But can we trust it? Most of us would say yes. Yet most Christians would be hard pressed to explain why they believe the Bible is trustworthy. When skeptics tell us that the Bible is unreliable, that it has been copied and recopied so many times that it can’t be trusted, that the Bible has been changed by human beings, that it’s old fashioned and irrelevant for today, and many other such accusations, we brush them aside. But deep down, many of us feel uneasy.

So can you trust your Bible? Absolutely you can. I’m going to take six posts to explain why. Here’s my gameplan:

Part 1: Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed Over Time?
Part 2: Doesn’t the Bible Contain Errors?
Part 3: How Do We Know the Bible Is Scripture?
Part 4: Who Put the Bible Together?
Part 5: How Do We Know We Got the Right Books?
Part 6: What Gives the Bible Its Authority?

  So here we go.

 

Part 1: Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed Over Time?

Two accusations against the Bible go hand in hand. One is that the Bible contains errors (we will deal with this tomorrow), and the other is that the Bible has been changed over time. Christians have historically believed that the Bible is inerrant (i.e., it contains no errors). So if the Bible does indeed contain errors—whether historical, scientific, self-contradictory, etc.—and if the Bible has indeed been changed, then we have a problem.

First of all, it is important to clarify that when we say the Bible is inerrant, we mean that it contains no errors in its original manuscripts. We don’t have any of the original manuscripts for any of the books of the Bible (this seems like a good thing considering how easy it would be for these manuscripts to become idols). We have many (I mean that: many!) manuscripts that are very old, but none that are original. So if we find a minor mistake here and there (and we do find minor inconsistencies), we don’t need to be unsettled—we’re only claiming inerrancy for the original documents.

Coptic ManuscriptNow, I just mentioned two scary things: (1) we don’t have any of the original manuscripts, and (2) our copies contain minor errors. Don’t be afraid. In reality, the diversity of the manuscripts we have actually strengthens the reliability of Scripture. Early on, the books of the New Testament were copied, translated, and spread across the known world. So if someone was going to tamper with the words of Scripture, they had a narrow time frame in which to do it. The reality is that we have many manuscripts in a handful of languages. So there are “families” of Greek manuscripts that are very similar to one another. There are also “families” of Coptic manuscripts that are very similar to one another, etc.

Let’s put this into perspective. We have somewhere north of 20,000 manuscripts of the New Testament in museums and collections around the world. That’s a lot. And if that doesn’t sound impressive to you, consider that many of other works we have from the ancient world are considered reliable even though they are based on no more than a few manuscripts.

And here’s the impressive thing. These diverse manuscripts agree with each other more than 99% of the time. So the Bible spread around the world, was translated into a handful of languages, and was copied like crazy. And all of these copies agree with one another almost completely. That less than 1% disagreement is not scary in number or in content. It is significant that we know exactly where these discrepancies are located. You can see them as you’re reading your Bible. Most English translations mark these with footnotes that indicate “Some manuscripts read “_____.” Pay attention to these while you read, and you’ll find that they are rare and that none of them are very significant.

Dead Sea Scroll IsaiahWe’ll talk about the Old Testament a bit in Part 4, but it’s worth pointing out the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls were discovered in 1948 in caves near the Dead Sea. They contained a lot of things, but significantly, archaeologists found several copies of the Old Testament. Prior to their discovery, the oldest manuscript of the Old Testament that we had was dated around 1000 AD. The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, were dated around 200 BC. This means that they were written, sealed up, and hiding in the darkness long before Jesus and his followers were born, just waiting to be discovered in the 20th century. In many cases, these Old Testament scrolls match our Bibles very closely. In some cases, the scrolls differ. What this means (and this was not news to scholars) is that a handful of textual traditions were in circulation even at that early date. In any case, this finding confirms that our Old Testament has not been reworked wholesale since the time of Christ. (For more on the reliability of the Old Testament, stick around for Part 4).

So we can be confident that the Bible we have matches the Bible that the inspired authors wrote. But does that matter? If the original manuscripts contain errors, then we can’t trust our Bibles. I’ll address that possibility tomorrow.

 

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the seriesCan You Trust Your Bible?

Bible ContradictionsWe can be confident that the Bible we have matches the Bible that the inspired authors wrote. But does that matter? If the original manuscripts contain errors, then we can’t trust our Bibles.

We have all heard examples of the Bible contradicting itself or saying something historically inaccurate. Here’s all I have time to say in a blog-length treatment. None of these have to be contradictions. Some of them seem to be contradictions, but don’t have to be.

For example, there are a few places where two different authors describe the same event, and in doing so they assign differing numbers to the same feature in the story. We must make a decision about what is going on in such cases. These could be contradictions, or they could be instances of textual variants (as I described in the last post), or it could be that one account is being precise while the other account is rounding off, or it could be that two similar (not identical) events are being described and the numbers are not meant to correlate.

NooseA similar discrepancy involves the death of Judas Iscariot. He died soon after betraying Jesus, but Matthew says he hanged himself (Matt. 27:5) and Luke says he fell and “burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18). Now, we don’t know exactly what happened, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture Judas hanging himself, only to have the branch from which he was hanging snap and have his entrails gush out. I’m not saying that’s how it went down, I’m just saying these two accounts aren’t incompatible.

Others will point to the color of the robe the Romans put on Jesus before his crucifixion. Matthew says it was scarlet. John says it was purple. Are these colors so different that two people watching the same event might not describe the robe as scarlet and purple, respectively?

The point is, these don’t have to be contradictions. We may not be able to prove that they are not contradictions, but neither can we prove that they are contradictions. There are good and reasonable alternatives to the accusation of contradiction.

Here’s my approach to these potential discrepancies: Given ambiguity, I’m going to side with God rather than a 21st century skeptic trying to poke holes in the most significant book ever written.

Walking on WaterAnother big reason that people discount the accuracy of the Bible is its portrayal of miraculous events. Since modern skeptics tend not to believe in the supernatural, they’re going to say the gospels are inaccurate when they portray Jesus as raising the dead or walking on water or whatever. But that’s only a problem if we begin by assuming that the types of things the Bible describes must be impossible.

Still others have questioned the Bible on the grounds that much of its content cannot be historically or archaeologically verified. This accusation has been around for a long time, but the Bible has never been proven inaccurate in this way. People will argue that there is no evidence for this or that portion of Scripture, but then, years later, evidence will turn up. And though we can be excited when archaeology confirms biblical descriptions, we shouldn’t forget that the absence of collaborating evidence does not equal inaccuracy.

Here’s the takeaway. People will always make accusations against the Bible. But there are answers out there. Skeptics will remain skeptical, but we can answer their questions. If you’re looking for a good source for answering some of the questions that skeptics will raise, along with explorations of some of the “problem passages” in the Bible, I’d recommend the following:

So far so good. But we still have plenty of ground to cover. Since some skeptics try to cast doubt on the Bible by pointing to the process by which it was compiled into a single book, I will examine that reality tomorrow.

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the seriesCan You Trust Your Bible?

God wrote the Bible. (More specifically, God inspired human authors to write each of the 66 books contained in our Bibles.) But God didn’t lower the completed Bible from the heavens leather-bound and double-columned.

The Bible is a unique book. It was written over the course of 1,500 years or so by more than 40 different authors from backgrounds as diverse as prophets, doctors, tax collectors, and kings. It was written in Greek and Hebrew, with a little Aramaic thrown in for good measure.

So how did these diverse writings come to be bound together in the bestselling book of all time?

First comes the Old Testament. The Old Testament “canon” (the collection of authoritative books that make up our Bibles) has been pretty well established for a long time. For our purposes, we can begin with the view of Jesus and the apostles regarding the validity of the Old Testament.

Hebrew BibleThe books we have in our Old Testament had all been written for a few centuries prior to Jesus’ arrival on earth. They were collected into three “parts:” The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Not only did Jesus affirm the validity and authority of most of the books individually (he quoted from every Old Testament book except for Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon), he also affirmed the three parts of the Old Testament canon:

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’” (Luke 24:44)

So the Old Testament in its three parts (Law, Prophets, Writings/Psalms) was the canon accepted by the Jews and affirmed by the New Testament.

A question that many people will have at this point is how the apocrypha fits in. The Roman Catholic Bible adds an additional 14 or 15 books (though not officially until 1546) that we don’t have in our Protestant Bibles. To oversimplify, we Protestants follow what is called the Palestinian Canon—this arose in Palestine, was written in Hebrew, and was accepted by the Jews. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, follow the Alexandrian Canon—this arose in Alexandria (Egypt) and was based on a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The issue is too complex for a blog, but Protestants believe this Palestinian Canon is the right one, so we leave out those extra books. This doesn’t mean that the apocrypha is useless (see Preston’s post on why we should read the apocrypha), it just means that it’s not Scripture.

Greek BibleWhen we turn to the New Testament, it’s important to first take note of the way the New Testament authors viewed the Old Testament. They looked at these books as a collection of authoritative documents that God himself had written. Paul refers to the Old Testament as Scripture, says that it is able to make a person wise for salvation, and then explains that all Scripture is actually breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:15–16). Peter says:

“No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20–21).

So these New Testament authors believed that there was such a thing as Scripture, which they defined as authoritative documents written by human beings under the guidance of the Spirit of God. And here’s where it gets interesting. They were conscious that they, too, were writing Scripture. Peter refers to Paul’s writings as Scripture and places these writings on the same level as the Old Testament (2 Peter 3:16).

In an interesting passage, Paul cites two quotations as Scripture:

“For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” (1 Tim. 5:18)

The first citation is from Deuteronomy 25:4, and the second is a quotation of Jesus in Luke 10:7. This verse reveals that the early church saw both the Old and New Testaments as Scripture. It is also worth noting that the epistles sometimes end with a directive to have the letter spread around and read in various churches—a practice that signified their Scriptural importance.

So here’s where we stand. God’s people have long believed that there is such a thing as Scripture, they believed that the Old Testament ought to be considered Scripture, and they believed that their New Testament writings ought to be considered Scripture as well. But it still took centuries for the 27 books that make up our New Testaments to be gathered together under the same table of contents. So tomorrow I will finish the story of how the New Testament came to be bundled together and placed at the end of our Old Testaments.

 

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the seriesCan You Trust Your Bible?

Douce Apocaplypse John and AngelYesterday I explained how we know that the Old Testament is God’s word and why the New Testament ought to be considered Scripture, on the same level as the Old Testament. Today I’m going to continue that story and explain how the Bible came to take on its current form.

I explained that as the New Testament books were written, they were recognized as Scripture and spread from church to church. Even so, they were being spread somewhat independently: there was no official table of contents for the New Testament. What we can see, however, is that the church recognized that these writings were sacred. They were written by the apostles and their close associates, and these texts were passed around from church to church. The teaching of these books formed the foundation for the early church (Eph. 2:20).

There wasn’t uniformity of opinion over which books were “in” and which were “out,” but it seems that early Christians had a sense of what the New Testament was. When a heretic named Marcion proposed the wrong table of contents (part of Luke and ten of Paul’s letters), the church got some motivation to put together an accurate list of which books were in. Persecution also played a role in pushing the church to define the New Testament. When the emperor Diocletian ordered all sacred books to be burned, Christians had to decide which books were Scripture and therefore worth risking their lives to protect.

Yet there wasn’t an official list of New Testament books for a couple of centuries. What did everyone do in the meantime?

Well, they continued to follow Scripture, which to each particular church would mean the Old Testament and whatever New Testament books they had access to (early on, not every church seems to have been aware of every New Testament book).

Greek ManuscriptEventually, church leaders began discussing the New Testament canon in order to settle the matter. They looked at all of the books that various churches considered Scripture and put them in three categories: (1) Acknowledged Books, which were clearly authentic and whose apostolic authority was clear, (2) Disputed Books, whose authenticity (2 Peter was here briefly) or apostolic authority (James, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude were here briefly) was less than clear, and (3) Heretical Books, which were known to be inauthentic or contained teaching that contradicted the rest of Scripture.

What these church leaders was looking for was books that authenticated themselves (they had the authority of God behind them), books that the church had incorporated into its public worship (the church was acknowledging through its practices that such books were on the same level as the Old Testament), and books that could be linked to the apostles and their associates.

So it wasn’t that church leaders sat down and created Scripture in the fourth century. They didn’t put together an authoritative list of books that should be considered Scripture (this is the Roman Catholic view). Rather, church leaders asked which books were authoritative, and then made a list based on their findings. The distinction is important. The authority does not come from the leaders making the list. The authority resides in the New Testament books themselves, and the church leaders simply acknowledged which books clearly had the authority. John Frame explains:

“The Roman church has claimed that the authority of the canon rests on that church’s pronouncement. But (1) the church’s conviction on this matter, unanimous since A.D. 367, precedes any statement by a Roman Catholic pope or council; and (2) as we have seen [here he is referencing his excellent book, The Doctrine of the Word of God], God intends to rule his church by a book, not a church authority.”

So in 367 A.D., when Athanasius wrote down a list of the 27 books that we now have in our New Testament, it didn’t create a scandal. It was generally understood that these books had proven themselves as Scripture. So the Bible didn’t come to us through manipulative religious types who wanted to dominate history by choosing only the books that fit their agenda, as some would have us believe. The Bible consists of the words that God wrote through human authors, words that were recognized as God’s words by God’s people, words that were eventually bound together in a single volume for our benefit.

But some will still be nagged by an important question: How can we be sure that we got all the right books? Did we include some erroneous books? Did we exclude some that actually belong? Should we be looking for further revelation today? I’ll address each of these questions in the next post.

 

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the seriesCan You Trust Your Bible?

RevelationIn this post, I want to answer three questions:

  1. How do we know all of the books in our Bibles belong?
  2. How do we know we are not missing any books from our Bibles?
  3. How do we know God doesn’t want to add to our Bibles?

 

How Do We Know All of the Books in Our Bibles Belong?

Very simply, I would appeal to the information in the last post as evidence that all of the books in our Bibles actually belong there. When the time came to write down a complete list of New Testament books, God’s people looked at which books carried the authority of God and were being accepted and used by the church in its life and worship on the same level that they used the Old Testament Scripture. As I said in the last post, there are good historical reasons to see that the right books were chosen. And add to that the reality that God is faithful to his people and would not have allowed an erroneous book to have slipped into the Bible that his people would be trusting as his word.

 

How Do We Know We Are Not Missing Any Books from Our Bibles?

Once again, I would argue that because God is faithful to his people, he would not have spoken words that were essential for our life and growth and then allowed those words to be lost. This confidence in the faithfulness of God is backed up by historical research. While some people would like to add other books (the Apocrypha, the Gnostic Gospels, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and others have all been candidates), these books are either known to be inauthentic or they teach doctrines that contradict the teaching of the biblical books. Though there was some debate over the canonicity of some of these books, the early church ultimately decided against them for strong reasons.

Da Vinci CodeIn recent years, some of the Gnostic Gospels have gotten a lot of press. For example, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (keep in mind that this is a work of fiction) explains that The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene show clear evidence that Jesus was married and claims that these books were only excluded from the New Testament because of the bias of manipulative church leaders.

In reality, the Gnostic Gospels do not compare to the New Testament writings whatsoever, not least in terms of credibility. Most of these gospels were written much later than the accounts they record. It is possible that The Gospel of Thomas was written in the first century, but this is extremely unlikely. The Gnostic texts were actually written in the second and third centuries, and they reinterpret the life of Jesus through the lens of a worldview that does not fit the four biblical gospels.

If you want assurance that books like the Gnostic Gospels don’t belong in our Bibles, I’d suggest reading The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. I know I’m biased, but I think you’ll immediately see a qualitative difference between these writings and the biblical writings. I am convinced that what makes that difference is the inspiration and authority of God.

Ultimately, the books in our Bible are completely unique, and no other ancient documents measure up.

 

How Do We Know God Doesn’t Want to Add to Our Bibles?

The Bible begins with the beginning and ends with the end. The Old Testament records how God set his plan of redemption into motion, and it ends with a cliff-hanger. God created humanity, humanity failed, God made a promise to redeem the world, God gave the mission to Israel, and Israel failed. We are left with the question: how will God’s plan of redemption be accomplished?

The New Testament answers that question by recording both the climax of that plan and its consummation at the end of all things. God’s word to us in the New Testament consists of the word that he has spoken in Christ in the last days (Heb. 1:1-2). Since this authoritative word about Christ has come to us in the New Testament, and since the book of Revelation takes us right up to eternity future, what more do we need? Revelation then ends with a warning to not add to the words of that prophecy (22:18). We should not expect God to change or add to this final revelation in the New Testament.

It simply does not work for God to have spoken a definitive word “in these last days” (Heb. 1:1-2), and then for him to later add a few follow ups that contradict what he has already said. (Mormons believe that Jesus later added The Book of Mormon, The Doctrines and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price. They will deny this, but each of these contradict the Bible and must therefore be rejected.)

 

I will conclude this series tomorrow by adding a final thought on how exactly we come to trust the validity of Scripture. And just as a hint, I think it goes far beyond the solid historical evidence we possess.

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