Can We Trust The Bible?

I have been thinking a lot about lately for this blog about particular topics that are “hot” right now in today’s culture. There was one article that I came across written in Newsweek  by Ken Welsh. The author discussed how Christians, by and large, are ignorant to the fact that the Bible is not a trustworthy document. The author explains also the dangerous consequences to taking the Bible too literally:

No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.

The author continues with making another significant point by quoting New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman:

“And what biblical scholars now know is that later versions of the books differ significantly from earlier ones—in fact, even copies from the same time periods differ from each other. “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” says Dr. Bart D. Ehrman.”

I was exposed to Ehrman’s work early on in college while studying New Testament historiography. Ehrman essentially argues that the New Testament accounts have been changed and corrupted over time. They cannot be considered trustworthy historically. In my own personal experience, I’ve heard other individuals simply tell me, “there are a lot of good things in the Bible but there are also a lot of bad things in the Bible too.”

On a popular level, the assumption is that the winners of Christianity made up the gospels in order to bolster their religion. The argument has been made that the gospel accounts were written many years after Jesus’ death, have been lost in translation, and therefore, there is no way of telling who the real Jesus was. This idea first originated in the 19th century with D.F. Strauss who basically said the gospels are nothing more than legendary accounts.

What could be said in response to these critiques? I would like to explore these critiques and, of course, argue on the contrary. You can trust the Bible. You trust the Bible historically for three reasons: the gospels are too early to be forgeries, they’re too counterproductive to be forgeries, and they do not read as mythological narratives. Moreover, seeing the Bible is all about Jesus and being all-authoritative is the precondition to having relationship with God.

1.  The gospels are too early to be forgeries:

One of the major problems with these critiques against the gospels is that the time between Jesus’ death and the writing of the gospels are too short. The gospels were written within the span that the eyewitnesses would still be alive.  By comparison to the other texts in antiquity, it is truly remarkable how close these accounts were written to the events that took place in the gospel accounts. Consider the chart below:

Apologetics presentation

By comparison to the other ancient texts, the gospel accounts were written with the shortest intervals from the event they claimed to be writing from. This point has been well-explained by A. N. Sherwin-White in his book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Professor Sherwin-White is not a theologian; he is a professional historian. Sherwin-White argues that the sources for Roman and Greek history are usually biased and removed one or two generations or even centuries from the events they record. Yet, he says, historians reconstruct with confidence the course of Roman and Greek history. For example, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than 400 years after Alexander’s death. The overwhelming majority of classical historians still consider them to be trustworthy. He further states that elaborate legends about Alexander the Great did not develop until during the centuries after these two writers.

Now compare Alexander’s biography, which is considered historically reliable, with the gospel accounts themselves. There is every indication to see they were written prior to 70 AD. Colin J. Hemer, a New Testament historian, wrote a book called The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. In his masterful book on Luke-Acts, Hemer argues for “a dating of Acts in 62 AD” (p 408) after an exhaustive investigation into the evidence. He insists that various “inconsequential details are hard to explain except as vivid experiences recalled at no great distance ” (p 389). This is because there is no mention of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem anywhere in the gospels. The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. This was a catastrophic event that would have been certainly been mentioned. The fact that the destruction of the temple isn’t mentioned must mean that the gospels were written, at the latest, 70 AD which was just 37 years after Jesus’ death. According to Sherwin-White, “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd.” Sir William Ramsay, the world-famous archaeologist, commented that: “Luke is a historian of the first rank . . . . This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”

Even more devastating for the skeptic is there are accounts that go even earlier than Luke-Acts. For example, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, (the Passion Story), was more than likely not written by Mark. On the contrary, Mark used a source for the passion narrative (the “Q” document). Since Mark is the earliest gospel, his source must be even earlier. Rudolf Pesch, a German expert on Mark, argues that the Passion source must go back to at least 37 AD. That is just seven years after Jesus’ death. Another example is Paul’s letters were written even earlier than the gospels. Some of his information, for example, what he passes on in his first letter to the Corinthian church about the resurrection appearances, has been dated to within five years after Jesus’s death.

It just becomes not only absurd but downright irresponsible to speak of legends in case of the New Testament. Even when pressed, skeptics like Bart Ehrman will cave. One particularly bizarre example is found in his New York Time’s best seller book Misquoting Jesus. This is where Ehrman famously says “there are more variants than there are words in the New Testament.” This is a claim to show how unreliable the New Testament is. But later on in the book, he back pedals and down plays the significance of that claim:

“To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, and of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us” (Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, p. 207).

“The changes [the scribes] made-at least the intentional ones–were no doubt seen as improvements of the text, possibly made because the scribes were convinced that the copyists before them had themselves mistakenly altered the words of the text. For the most part, their intention was to conserve the tradition, not to change it” (Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, p. 215).

images

This is Bart Ehrman shooting himself in the foot.

One would expect to find these claims in a book touting the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts! Ehrman, in spite of his bias, is too good of a scholar not to tell the truth here. The truth is with textual criticism we can recompile the original words of the New Testament to 99.5% accuracy. The other .5% of textual variants hinge on no major theological doctrines and are utter trivial. N.T. Wright, a prominent New Testament scholar, states that the resurrection narratives, such as the empty tomb and appearances have an historical probability which is so high as to be “virtually certain,” like the death of Augustus in AD 14 or the fall of the Jerusalem in AD 70.

2. The gospels are too counterproductive to be forgeries

Others have claimed that the church leaders wrote the gospels and created a Jesus which helped solidified their power and religion. However, that seems highly unlikely considering if you’re making a forgery, why put embarrassing features to promote your religion? When you understand the religious culture of the time you began to notice how certain facets of the gospels would have been utterly ridiculous to it’s reader.

For example, why do the gospel writers constantly depict the apostles as petty and jealous? Why would anyone in the early church want to play up the terrible failures of their most prominent leaders of the church? If you think about, the gospel writers make themselves and the disciples look like jerks. If you’re writing a forgery to promote your religion, why in the world would you make the leaders of the movement look bad? It totally undermines the leadership.

Even more significant is the fact that the  first people to discover the empty tomb was Jesus’ women followers. This is significant because in 2nd century Palestine, women’s testimony was considered worthless. There was a popular rabbinic expression that said “sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women” and “happy is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.” The Jewish prayer book called the siddur had one particular prayer which went like this:

“Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me a goy [Gentile],” “a slave,” and “a woman.”

Women were also forbidden to serve as witnesses in a court. If the empty tomb narratives are simply made up or are later legendary accounts, it makes no sense placing women at the tomb. That would directly undermine the credibility of the story. The fact that every gospel writer has women discovering the tomb demonstrates that the gospels writers were writing sincerely and they were honest in their reporting.

Not only that, you have other countless examples that are flat out embarrassing for the Church. If you are familiar  any of the Jewish martyrs, they died a lot better deaths than Jesus did. There are numerous instances in Jewish literature where Jewish martyrs are absolutely fearless in the face of gruesome executions. One such example is found in second Maccabees 7. In this text, a Jewish mother and her seven sons were arrested for not forsaking their faith. The king was so furious at their defiance that he ordered huge pans and kettles to be heated red hot. Then he told his men to cut off the tongue of the one who had spoken and to scalp him and chop off his hands and feet, while his mother and six brothers looked on. The author describes in great detail how they bravely endured execution for their faith:

“As a cloud of smoke streamed up from the pan, the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die bravely, saying, The Lord God is looking on and understands our suffering. Moses made this clear when he wrote a song condemning those who had abandoned the Lord. He said, The Lord will have mercy on those who serve him…God gave these to me. But his laws mean more to me than my hands, and I know God will give them back to me again.  The king and those with him were amazed at his courage and at his willingness to suffer…” (2 Maccabees 7:6-7;10)

Now contrast this to Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus asks God if he could get out of his mission? Jesus cries out, while sweating blood (actual medical condition caused by extremely stress), and he fell to ground, face down, and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39; cf. Luke 22:42; Mark 14:36). If the church leaders were trying to convince people to follow Jesus, would they write that Jesus asked God if he could get out of his mission? Given the Jewish writings of martyrs, it’s inconceivable that this was made up. It must have happened or why else did the gospel writers put that in there?

Historians call this the criterion of embarrassment. If the accounts are embarrassing enough, they help substantiate historical credibility to the historical accounts. In other words, if there is no sensible reason as to why these embarrassing events are mention, then the more probable these historical events occurred.

3. The gospels do not read as mythological narratives

Additionally, the gospels do not read like fictional accounts. This is hard to miss because we are living 300 after the novel was created which is realistic fictional stories. But you never have in these ancient mythological stories something like, “…Zeus came to meet Hermes at 3 0’clock in the afternoon in Athens.” However, the gospel writers use details in their biographies. Reynolds Price, an professor of English wrote a book called The Three Gospels. He states that the gospel accounts are not a work of fiction. He argues that the gospels were, “…written by clear-minded thoughtful eyewitness to the acts and mind of Jesus.” Some of the examples he gives is how Mark reports that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of a boat. Or how Peter was 100 yards out in the water when he saw Jesus on the beach. Another specific  detail was Peter had jumped in the water and together they caught 153 fish. Such details were not a feature in ancient literature. The only explanation of these specific details is they are recollections of eyewitnesses. C.S. Lewis states the significance of this:

I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life.  I know what they are like.  I know none of them are like this.  Of this text, there are only two possible views.  either this is reportage…or else, someone unknown writer…without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative…The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned how to read.

Claiming the Gospels are myth has become popular among skeptics recently. But there’s a very good reason why experts have never treated the Bible as myth or historical fiction.  Literary scholars know the difference between myth and eyewitness accounts.  Whether they believe them is different matter. They recognize the characteristics and note the differences.

4. We can trust the Bible personally

As previously shown, there are good reasons to trust the historicity of the Bible. But why is it that people do not trust the Bible? Certainly there  are individuals, such as Bart Ehrman, who know all of historical circumstances surrounding scripture but yet reject Christianity. Of course, there are plenty examples of people knowing a lot about God but they do not actually know God personally. Maybe you’re not a Christian and you are saying to yourself, “you know, I’ve tried being good, tried reading my Bible, living up to the standard, and it just did not work out.” If you feel this way, you have totally misunderstood what the Bible is all about.

The Bible is not all about you. It’s all about Jesus.

There are few reasons as to why that is. The first mistake people make is when they read the Bible, they read it as if the Bible is all about them. They read scripture and view it as the moral example in which we need to fulfill. For centuries, the Jews looked at the Old Testament figures, like Moses, and said, “we need to be more like Moses,” or “we need to be more faithful and more obedient to God.” Jewish people adored Moses because he was God’s guy. They wanted to live up to that standard.

The gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. After Jesus’ resurrection,  he comes to his disciples to properly expound to them all that the Bible was about. You have to understand these were Jewish men who knew their scripture. They sat and talked with Jesus, who was God incarnated, for three years. They walked and talked with Jesus, heard him preach, and watched him do miracles. But after Jesus was crucified and buried, they were dismayed because they expected for Him to overcome his enemies. They certainly did not believe in a dying much less rising Messiah. When Jesus appeared to the Emmaus disciples they did not recognize him.  Not knowing who he was, Jesus asked why they were so downcast?  The Emmaus disciples explained how they were expecting that Jesus was going to redeem Israel and how he was crucified instead. Jesus’ response is amazing:

And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the  Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and  with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.

Luke 24:26-27

If you do not understand the last sentence (v.27) the Bible will absolutely crush you to the ground.

The Emmaus disciples, understandably so, looked at Moses and thought, “this is the guy we need to be more like. He is a paradigm being a faithful follower to God.” They looked at scripture as if it’s all about them and what they had to do. But Jesus, more or less says, “No, scripture is not all about you. It’s all about me. It’s not about what you have to do. Scripture is all about what I have come to do and what I already have done.” If you think the Bible is all about you and how you get the blessing, then of course, you do not need a Messiah that dies for you. All you need is the rules. You can be your own savior. Therefore, you can either read the Bible as if it’s all about you or you can read the Bible as if it’s all about Jesus.

Like Jesus did on the road of Emmaus, let’s begin with Moses. Read the story of Moses. Is the story of Moses about you?  Is it all about how you have to be brave in the face of Pharaoh? Or how you have to be a good leader in order to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?

Of course not! God did not come up to Moses and said, “ah Moses, you’re such a great man. You know what you deserve to be the leader of the Israelites because you’ve been so faithful. Because you’ve obeyed the ten commandments, I am going to let you lead the children of Israel out of Egypt.” Quite the opposite! Rather, God came to Moses and the Israelites and said, “you all deserve to die for your sin. Slay a lamb. Put the blood of the lamb on the door. When the angel death passes by,  you won’t pay for your sins.”

I can only imagine what happened on the road of Emmaus. Could you imagine what happened in the disciples hearts when Jesus said; “Do you really think the God of the universe put your sins away because of those little itty bitty lambs? I am the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. I am God himself  who has come into this world to absorb your debt so you and I can be together for eternity.”  Every part of the Bible is all about Jesus. Compare Moses to Jesus. Moses is a figure pointing to someone greater than himself (Deuteronomy 18:18). When Moses struck the rock in the desert so the Israelites could have water it was showing how Jesus is the true and better rock of Moses. Jesus was the one who was struck with the rod of God’s justice and now gives us water in this desert. Jesus is the true and better Moses, who stands in the gap between the people and the Lord and who mediates a new covenant. When Moses throws the tree in the bitter waters of Marah in Exodus 15, the waters turn sweet. Jesus takes the tree of death so that we can have the tree of life. He drinks the bitter cup of God’s wrath so we can drink the sweet waters of grace.

When the disciples realize they were talking to Jesus, they said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?”  The scripture is all about Jesus. When you begin to realize this, it gets personal. It turns from information getting in your head to changing your life. You begin to sense God and experience his presence. The Emmaus disciples certainly did.   You have a longing for love and purpose that this world cannot possibly satisfy. Your hearts are not going to be satisfied until you realize it’s not all about you but all about Jesus.

An authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.

Additionally, you not only have to see it’s about Him but you also have to see scripture as authoritative. With a personal relationship, there are finalities to the person; things about them that are unconditional.  There are some things you can’t change about people. You cannot adjust God to fit your view of what he looks like. You have to accept all of him, including the parts you do not like. You either accept all of him or none of him at all (I mean try telling your spouse or someone your dating “I love this part of you but not this part of you,” you’ll probably be in ‘dog house’ for the rest of your miserable days).

You may still very well retort, “I believe in an a God of love. Not a God of wrath, justice, and holiness.” Yet, belief in an all-authoritative Bible is not just essential but it’s a prerequisite to having relationship with God. What if you get rid of anything in the Bible that offends your sensibility or that crosses your will? If you pick and choose, how can you have a God who can contradict you? If that is the case, you do not have a relationship with God. On the contrary, you have a god of your own making. It’s only the one true God that can say things that would outrage you and make you struggle, like as in a real friendship or marriage. When you get to this point, you know you’ve gotten ahold of the real God.

In order to have a relationship with anyone, you have to adjust to people’s finalities. The problem people have with relationship with God is they may ask, “you keep saying I have to adapt to God’s finalities. But don’t I have finalities of my own? Shouldn’t God have to adjust to me?

The amazing thing is God did. He adjusted to us.

You know what our finality that we can’t change that is true of us? We are all sinners and we are not perfect. The only way a holy God could relate us was for him to humble himself to our level. When he was born in a manger, lost his glory, became a weak human being, endured death on a cross, and hell itself. Why did he do that? He took what we deserved and gave us what He deserves so we could have relationship with God. He did that so we can be with him forever. Look at how Jesus adjusted to us! When he asks us to surrender to Him and follow His will, He’s not asking us anything even close to what He has given us. How can you not give everything to a God who has given everything just to be with you?

Read the Bible and see for yourself. See how Jesus Christ adjusted to you at infinite cost to himself. Come back into the only arms that can truly satisfy the deep longings of your heart.

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