F.A.Q: Can We Trust the Bible?

One of the foundational principles — perhaps the foundational principle — of Christianity is that our book, the Holy Bible, is reliable. It is a true record of historical events, poetry, and prophecy which should be treated as authentic and authoritative. Its truths are absolute, not relative. The information contained within its pages serves as the final word on matters of faith, and any practice which contradicts Scripture should be reformed or abandoned. All of this is based on the premise the Bible is accurate and inspired by God. So . . . is it? Can we trust the Bible?

Most common claims against the reliability of the Bible seem to center on its composition. After all, the people who are said to have written most books were probably illiterate, and at the very least, the stories had to survive many, many years as oral history before being finally written down as a manuscript. Then one has to consider how those manuscripts have changed across millennia. Didn’t they break down like a game of Telephone? One guy writes down something, another guy copies it but makes a mistake or a change, the next guy does the same thing, someone else didn’t like what it said and so rewrote it according to a private agenda, and on and on throughout the centuries?

Well, no. That’s exactly what did not happen. I personally believe most of those questions are based on a really arrogant view that we, modern women and men, are inherently intellectually superior to anyone who came before us. We wouldn’t make those mistakes, but the poor benighted souls in ages past just weren’t so bright, bless their hearts, and so they made mistakes. Rubbish — as we shall see.

Let’s begin with oral history. It’s true that the New Testament wasn’t completely finished until the 90s AD (most date Revelation around 96, and it was the last book to be completed/written down). Most were probably codified between 60-80, with the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) finished before 70. Even so, detractors say, that’s still at least a thirty-ish year gap between the death of Christ and written history about his life. (Let’s not even talk about the Old Testament with its books written across a span of around a thousand years by some estimates.) Could people have accurately told and retold the story of Christ and his church for decades before anyone (also accurately) wrote it down? Yes, they could have. It was common practice among ancient philosophers and historians to assess their students via recitation. You were not said to have truly learned from your teacher if you could not repeat what you had been taught verbatim. Some stories have the great Pythagoras (of theorem fame) not allowing his students out of bed until they could recite, word-for-word, everything learned the previous day. The rabbinic tradition of NT times did much the same thing: a disciple would be forced to memorize his lessons as spoken by his master. This included scripture, too; the Torah would have been completely memorized verbatim by age thirteen (at the latest). Memorization of orally-learned material was essential for the knowledge of the day to survive. (Similar methods are used among oral cultures even today.) It’s entirely possible — even highly likely — that the events recorded in Scripture happened exactly as they’re given to us.

What do we do, then, when we have seemingly conflicting reports? Not even the synoptics tell every story exactly the same way. Sometimes one leper is healed, sometimes ten; sometimes the tree cursed by Jesus on the way into Jerusalem withers immediately, and sometimes it happens much later. Can we reconcile these different accounts, or is this obvious evidence not even the authors can get their stories straight? Two considerations to take into account here are genre and private agendas. The gospels are ancient biographies, and they’re written as such. That is, they focus on the adult life of the main personage (Jesus Christ) with special attention to his death, outstanding circumstances surrounding his birth, and his teachings (especially when the main character can outsmart other teachers). Ancient biographies aren’t in chronological order; instead, they’re arranged either more topically or in the way that best presents the narratives. This is one reason, for example, the synoptics have the cleansing of the Temple just before the crucifixion, thus presenting it as a proximate cause, but John’s gospel places it at the beginning of the book, thus showing the zeal and authority of the Son of God. Agendas of the authors play into this, too. In my last example, John sets out to prove the divinity of Christ, so he highlights events showing exactly that: cleansing the Temple, the miracles/signs, the “I am” statements, etc. Luke is a historian/physician concerned with the plight of the poor and marginalized, so he includes the story of the Good Samaritan and other sayings of Christ featuring our duty to care for our neighbors. Matthew is a Jewish author writing to a Jewish audience, and so he focuses on the continuities between the covenants and how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah (the reason his book is first in the NT and thus closest to the OT, as a matter of fact). This isn’t to say that the texts are so agendized they destroy the truths they contain. Nothing is distorted or falsified; it’s simply presented in such a way as to promote a specific point or highlight a specific facet of Jesus’ life (or the life of Moses, or the Israelite monarchy).

Alright, so the original manuscripts were alright. What about how they’ve changed since then? For the continued accuracy of the manuscripts, we thank the Irish. Irish monks during the so-called Dark Ages worked tirelessly to preserve any documents they could find; they truly saved the bulk of human knowledge from being utterly lost. They also kept copies of biblical manuscripts, preserving them verbatim. There are differences, of course, in some manuscripts. The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John 8 doesn’t appear in most of the earliest copies of the gospel, for example. Do we chuck it out? No, even if a monk somewhere down the line thought, “You know, people should know about this, and since it’s in this copy, I’ll put it in that one, too.” Most of the differences/changes are discussed in the comments on the margins of the copied texts (marginalia). Marginalia, incidentally, is hilarious. You can read comments from copyists complaining about their bosses, how hard their chairs are, how bad their hands are cramping, and just about anything else (in addition to “added vv. 3-7 because of inclusion in MS P35” and the like).

So we see the original texts were solid, and the copies passed down through history are pretty legitimate, too. But how do we know we have the books we needed? Wasn’t the Bible decided by popular vote, anyway?

Nope! This is probably the greatest urban legend regarding how the canon became the canon. Rumor has it that the first Council of Nicaea (called by Emperor Constantine in 325) set out to establish what writings would and would not be included in the Bible. They didn’t. What they did do was affirm what had already been selected. The worshiping church until that time used only certain of the texts floating around based on a few rather strict criteria: the Jewish Tanakh became our Old Testament, and New Testament books had to be written by an apostle, suitable for preaching/use in worship, and it had to agree with the regula fidei (the rule of faith — that is, it couldn’t contradict known doctrine or practices as handed down by the apostles). Even so, different people came up with different lists of what they thought should be included. The church father Irenaeus came up with the first real listing in ~180: the OT according to the Greek translation (the Septuagint, a.k.a. LXX), four gospels, and the letters of Paul. Origen (~250) and Eusebius (~325) omitted some of the epistles. The Muratorian Canon was the first list widely circulated (in ~200). Nicaea then affirmed the books already in use, and some years later (367), the 39th Festal Letter of St. Athanasius gave us the listing we have today. Thirty years later, the Council of Carthage officially closed the canon in its current form.

Since then, the canon has changed for Protestants. The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church still count as canonical the Apocrypha, other books or parts of books originally included in the Tanakh. The Jews largely abandoned the use of those bits in 90A.D., and, building upon that fact as well as legitimate questions regarding content and authorship, Martin Luther moved them to reside between the testaments in the Bible. Luther also wanted to chuck other books from the NT, but he refrained. In any event, in the 1700s, a revision of the King James Bible removed the Apocrypha completely, leaving Protestants with the now-standard sixty-six books we have today.

The composition of the Bible is solid from start to finish, regardless of how many centuries it spanned in order to come to us in its present form. Modern scholarship is certainly up to the task of making new translations in any number of languages, each as accurate to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic as the earliest translations were (or even more so [sorry Vulgate fans]). The last real question of reliability, then, is whether we treat the Bible as inerrant (totally free from error in the original manuscripts in any fashion) or infallible (totally free from error in matters of faith and morals/dogma). The inerrancy debate has raged for centuries, and I’m not going to even attempt to solve it here. To me, it comes from whether we treat Scripture completely as literal history or if we take into consideration matters of genre. I doubt, for example, every event mentioned in poetry is 110% historically accurate, and the book of Revelation has so many different ways to read it most people give it a miss entirely. Regardless of one’s stance on if every Israelite king truly reigned during the given timeframes, we can all readily affirm the Bible lacks any error whatsoever when it teaches us the story of Jesus Christ, his teachings, the story of the church, and all manner of Christian doctrine as the church has understood it, always and everywhere.

I realize this doesn’t deal with what is, to most post-Enlightenment readers, the impossible: miracles, spiritual warfare, etc. But that’s another post for another day. This one is already long enough, but I hope it demonstrates to you the reliability and authenticity of the Holy Bible, God’s inspired word.

 

Frequently Asked Questions #2: “Can I do ___?”

Another question I routinely get asked is one everyone — myself included — has asked on numerous occasions: “Can I do ____?” This inevitably seems to lead to self-justification and nuancing of exactly what we were asking. “Oh, I didn’t mean that. Everyone does that . . . right? So what I really meant to ask was if I can do <minutely modified version of original action>. So, can I?”

Entire books have been written on this sort of thing, and most of them are directed at teenagers and young adults, it seems to me. Most people who grew up in church or around other Christians know you’re not supposed to have sex before you’re married, but that seemingly simple rule had caused gallons of ink to be spilled in attempts to pin down what exactly it does and doesn’t mean. If standard vaginal intercourse is right out, what about other specific intimate acts? And what happens after marriage? Does that give the married couple free reign to do anything they please, regardless of violence, humiliation, or other considerations?

“Can I do ____?” is an entire industry. The problem, of course, is it’s the wrong question to ask (or at least it is nine times out of ten, in my opinion). And we all know how perfectly useless it is to know the right answer to the wrong question. (I personally thank Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for getting that message through to me.) When we make our religion a series of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” we turn it into a legal code. Legalism, the name we give to this sort of behavior, has always been a serious problem for Christianity, but it seems to have really blossomed over the last century or so. Certain theological movements and denominations can be worse for this than others, and it creates a bit of tension between Christians. (“They believe you can do X, but I think you can’t. I believe we can do Y, but they don’t.” You get the idea.) Denominations have undergone complete schisms because of this attitude. Legalism takes a religion based upon love and holiness and turns it into a set of rules. Then people who live by the rules without having a personal relationship with the risen Lord think they’re still okay soul-wise. It’s a serious problem.

I do want to be perfectly clear, however, about what I’m saying here. I’m not advocating for some sort of antinomianism or hedonistic/humanistic Christianity where anything goes. We do have rules, and we do advocate people follow them. The Bible makes this explicitly clear. The problem arises when the rules become the main thing. Jesus is the main thing. A relationship with God, personal holiness, saving faith — these are the main thing. The main thing is not legalism.

Similarly, I’m not jumping on the “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship” bandwagon so popular among evangelicals today. It’s rubbish. A religion is a means of thinking about divinity and the interaction between humanity and deity. Christianity is definitely a religion, and Jesus Christ very much founded a religion when he and the Holy Spirit established the Church. The Christian religion has done amazing things as a religion, and it’s done horrific things as a religion. Regardless, it’s still a religion. Now, I understand what these guys are saying. They’re decrying the empty rituals, the hollow rites, the mindless adherence to church protocol which can come out of a religion being followed just because it’s a religion. I get that, and I’m on board with you 100%. Going through the motions — a form of legalism, if you will — won’t cut it, either, no matter how many times you flawlessly recite the creed, genuflect in front of the crucifix, or pray the Lord’s Prayer. All of these things must be done out of faith stemming from one’s relationship with God lest they be futile human actions. When infused with faith, all the trappings of religion come alive. So when I say the “Can I do ____?” question is the wrong one because it’s legalism vs. relationship, I’m not throwing out ritual, rite, ceremony, or anything else, even though they can become empty legalism themselves (as can about anything else).

With that said, legalism is still the wrong way to look at our faith. We don’t need to base our entire view of our religion on a yes/no dichotomy. Instead, we base it on our experience with Jesus Christ. As we grow in faith, love, and holiness, we draw closer to God. We more readily discern His will, and we’re more sensitive to the internal promptings — the “still, small voice” — of the Holy Spirit who dwells within each believer. In turn, this closeness comes out in the way we act. Instead of trying to walk a fine legal line, God shows us in our very thought processes and gut instincts what we should and should not do. God didn’t give us a thousand-paragraph legal code with two additional volumes just for footnotes (although I’m sure some people would argue the 613 commands in the Mosaic Law can come pretty close at times). What God did give us was a comforter, an encourager, and a moral guide. The Holy Spirit directs our steps the same way Scripture acts as “a light unto [our] path.” As we live in this grace-filled relationship, we occasionally stumble and cross a line, but mercy and healing follow as we ask them from a loving God.

The next time you’re tempted to turn a matter of faith or behavior into a “Can I do ____?” situation, stop for a moment. Pay attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Set aside a legalistic mindset and embrace a relationship with the God of grace and love. Then act in a way which is biblical, is consistent with the will of God, and is respectful/loving of yourself and your fellow human beings. Above all, realize it’s probably the wrong question to ask anyway. The right question is, “Will this help or hinder my relationship with God?”

The right answer to the right question is something always worth knowing.

Frequently Asked Questions #1: What about the Old Testament?

A side series on this blog is titled “Frequently Asked Questions.” In these F.A.Q. posts, I’ll address questions I get quite often from various people.

Probably the number one question I get asked about Christianity isn’t anything about the gospel, the deity of Jesus, or anything like it. The most frequently asked question I receive is “What about the Old Testament?”. It’s easy to see where this one comes from. Christians consider themselves under the plan of salvation and the lordship of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament, but we also say our holy writings contain the Old Testament record of Yahweh’s relationship with the Hebrew/Jewish people. What, then, is the relationship between the two? Do we have to follow the law of Moses, or do we discard it entirely — or is there a third way?

I think one reason we’re hesitant to make full use of the Old Testament is because many people, following an early church heresy called Marcionism, see the God of the OT as a separate, distinct God from the one of the NT. The OT God created the world — then destroyed it in water. He tried to get Abraham to sacrifice the son He had promised to him. He became a genocidal deity who ordered the mass murder of entire people groups in order to give the Israelites the Promised Land. Noted militant atheist Richard Dawkins famously wrote this in The God Delusion:

 “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

 Many people, though they disagree with Dawkins’ atheism, still feel some sort of sympathy for his assessment. How could a God who truly loves His creation commit the seemingly atrocious actions recorded in the OT? It doesn’t get any easier when we read in the NT that God is love (1 John 4:8) in such a way that He sent His only son to die for our sins (John 3:16, Romans 5:8). How can this possibly be the same God?

So, like Marcion of old, these people throw out the whole testament, saying it doesn’t reveal a true Christian God. (Others, as one friend famously phrased it, think God “really mellowed out after He had a kid.”) The cognitive dissonance, the tension of holding OT God and NT God as one figure is extreme.

Then there’s the whole matter of the law. If we live under grace and not law, as Paul writes in Romans and elsewhere, why do we even need to keep the Torah around? It’s not binding for us; it’s just a historical curiosity of sorts. We don’t have to offer sacrifices, or ritually bathe to cleanse ourselves of impurities, or drill holes in the ears of the slaves who don’t want to leave us. Salvation comes by grace through faith, not by obedience to a rigorous set of 613 separate commandments. So why keep them in the Bible? Why pay any attention to them whatsoever?

The main reason is because Jesus himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). At the very least, this means we can’t remain ignorant of the law; it should still exist and be part of our history and our faith. When Christ says he fulfilled the law and the prophets, however, it means that we can’t do it ourselves. The sacrificial system was completed by a single blood sacrifice, the shed blood of a God-man (Hebrews 10 [esp. v. 10]). The law requiring blood atonement wasn’t dismissed; it was fulfilled to the utmost.

Christ himself, before his crucifixion and resurrection, quoted the Old Testament with regularity. The same is true of many authors of the Old Testament. Even the order of the gospels is due to the use of the Old Testament in the NT. Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience, and so he quotes Isaiah and other prophets regarding the coming Messiah in order to show how Jesus fulfills those prophecies. In short, Matthew uses the OT to prove the central message of the NT: Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed Son of God. And so his gospel is placed next to the OT in your Bible (and in mine, too). Paul’s epistles do the same thing; Hebrews uses the priestly imagery of Leviticus; the General/Catholic Epistles mention Noah, Moses, and others; and Revelation borrows some of the imagery from Daniel. In short, we also keep the Old Testament around because so much of it is in the New and shaped its authors, texts, and foundation.

Alright; we still have the OT. But what do we do with it?

The law was fulfilled, and we live under grace. Just so. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn from the underlying principles of the OT in the age of the Church. It’d be pretty hard for most of us to deliberately leave part of our grain crops behind so others can glean the leftovers in accordance with Leviticus 19:9,23:22 or Deuteronomy 24:19-21, for example, but we can still show hospitality and love for visitors and immigrants. We look at the view of women (revolutionary for its time) and realize we need to take steps towards gender equality and reconciliation. We see rules made to set apart a people from other cultures and create a community of faith, and we continue to live Christian lives different from the moral standards of our surrounding world. All of these guiding principles are reappropriated in the Church, and we as believers still follow the guides set forth in the Mosaic Law, the Prophets, and the rest of the OT.

Of course, anything explicitly restated in the NT still goes, too: laws regarding murder, sexual sin, lying, etc.

Christians should find a faithful friend in the Old Testament, just as in the rest of Scripture. God still uses the OT to speak to us and provide us with guidance and identity. And if you look closely, you will see a loving God of grace readily apparent even in the Old Testament’s darkest moments.

The Lord bless you and keep you;

the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;

the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Numbers 6:24-26