Thursday, July 23, 2015

Bible 101, Question 1: Is the Bible the inspired Word of God? If so, what are the implications for its inerrancy and authority?



How can we know God? 
This question, and the search that often results as people seek to answer it, is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s one of the things that distinguishes us from animal life. From Aztec ruins to the buried city of Pompeii to ancient China, archaeologists unearth so many religious artifacts that an entire field of study has resulted.

People’s answers to this question have varied widely: polytheistic societies with their competing deities vying for power or sharing tenuous alliances; pantheism which sees everything as divine; deism which envisions a creator distant from everyday life; monotheism which holds firmly to the idea that there is only one God. Whatever the answer people give, archaeological research consistently finds some attempt to connect to God everywhere on the earth. To be human is to some way, somehow relate to something beyond ourselves. The question of the existence of God thus seems to be the default position of humanity; it’s what we assume by instinct. Given that assumption, then, where does the Bible fit in?

Scottish theologian Hugh Ross Mackintosh put it this way: “A religious knowledge of God, wherever existing, comes by revelation; otherwise we should be committed to the incredible position that a man can know God without His willing to be known.” (McGrath, 153). Christians through the ages claim that God reveals Himself through the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. Other religious texts also claim to be the revelation of God; it is not my purpose here to evaluate those claims. Instead, we will take up the question of Biblical revelation. Is the Bible the inspired word of God?

What do we mean by inspiration?
To say the Bible is the inspired word of God is to make the claim that God is the ultimate author of Scripture. The Holman Bible Handbook puts it this way: “By inspiration we mean the Holy Spirit’s activity of directing and guiding the writers of Scripture so that what they wrote was actually the Word of God or was just what God wanted recorded….it preserved or recorded what God had revealed so that the resulting document carried the same authority and effect as if God Himself were speaking directly.” (Dockery, 7).

That’s a big claim. It’s easy to understand why many people assume that this is a claim that must be taken by faith alone. Indeed, Scripture itself alludes to the idea: “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). And yet as I shared in my first post of this series, that simple faith is not my story. I required more evidence, the “doubting Rosa” that I am. So what convinced me?

Evidence of Inspiration
Before assessing the inspiration of the Bible, I wanted to be sure that the text we have is accurate. Does it say what the authors originally wrote down? According to Bible.org, there are three main tests of Biblical accuracy: Bibliographic (the quantity and quality of the manuscripts); external; and internal. Each of these tests provide layers of evidence that we can use to determine whether the Biblical text is accurate – something that for me was a pre-requisite to believing it truly is the inspired word of God. (Note: For purposes of this question we will focus on the Old and New testaments. The Apocryphal writings will be considered separately when we discuss the canon of Scripture.)

Bibliographic Evidence
First, let’s clear up a common misunderstanding: There is no single “original Bible” that is held in protective status anywhere. The 66 books were written separately over a period of thousands of years, by multiple authors, in a variety of cultural and political settings. As with any ancient texts, what we have are copies. Bibliographic evidence examines what we know about those copies.

Old Testament. Time has taken its toll on the Hebrew manuscripts. The temple, where many of the scrolls were stored, was destroyed twice, first in 586 BC by the Babylonians and then in 70 AD by the Romans. The surviving scrolls were traditionally buried by scribes when they became too worn. However according to Bible.org, there are six major sources of Old Testament texts:

  •          Masoretic TextJews standardized all their various Hebrew texts into the MT by the sixth century A.D. and, apparently, eliminated texts that deviated from this standard.
  •          Septuagint – In the third century BC, the Hebrew text was translated into Greek by Jewish scholars in Egypt. This Greek translation is used extensively in the New Testament. Although a translation, there is no significant difference to the known Hebrew texts, and no differences that affect any major doctrinal issue. For example, there is a different order of passages in the Hebrew and Greek versions of Jeremiah; however, there is no difference in the prophetic content of that book. 
  •          Dead Sea Scrolls – These scrolls contain some of the oldest-known transcripts of the Old Testament books. Most are in Hebrew, with about 15% in Aramaic or Greek. Partial or complete copies of every Old Testament book, with the exception of Esther, are included in these scrolls.
  •          Samaritan Pentateuch – A paraphrase of the first five books of the Old Testament written in the Samaritan alphabet. Translations of this work exist in Greek, Arabic, and Aramaic.
  •          Targum – A paraphrase of the Old Testament in Aramaic, commonly used in synagogues.
  •          Talmud – Jewish teachings and commentaries on the Hebrew scriptures, which often include the text of the Scripture being discussed.


Despite the lack of copies of the Old Testament, the reliability of the existing copies is excellent. We can thank Jewish scribes for this, because they were vigilant in accuracy. They would destroy any copy that included a single mistake. It’s hard to over-emphasize the care they took; according to Bible.org:  “The number of letters, words, and lines were counted, and the middle letters of the Pentateuch and the Old Testament were determined. If a single mistake was discovered, the entire manuscript would be destroyed.”

In 1947, the Old Testament text got a major test: The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Qumran. These scrolls are about 1000 years older than the Masoretic Text, the standard text of Jewish scholars. What differences would show up in those 1000 years? Well, the surprising answer (for many) is – not much! There are a few textual differences, but most simply affect spelling and style. You can get a sense of the type of differences by looking at the plain text of the U.S. Constitution and then compare it to the copy housed at the National Archives. While there are some differences in style, there is absolutely no difference in meaning.

So with that brief overview, what is your conclusion about the bibliographic evidence that the Old Testament in your Bible is accurate? For me, I’m convinced. The level of care taken by Jewish scribes, the consistency between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the copies of the texts 1000 years later, the wide use of the Septuagint throughout the Roman Empire and in the New Testament quotations from the Old Testament, and the supplemental Jewish writings which include passages from the various Old Testament books, all support the conclusion that the Old Testament texts are accurate. What we have in those first 39 books of our Bible is what the authors wrote down.

New Testament. What about the New Testament? First, we have many, many more copies of the New Testament manuscripts – literally thousands. The earliest of these copies date to just within a few years of the events they occur – early enough that eyewitnesses would still be alive to challenge any false statements. Often scribes would copy texts that were read aloud, so there are more variants than in the existing Old Testament documents – but again, no major doctrines are affected. Because of these variants, scholars are able to compare documents and make decisions that affect translations – something we will discuss when we get to question three, “Which version should I read?” Bible.org gives the mind-blowing conclusion about the New Testament copies: “The New Testament can be regarded as 99.5 percent pure, and the correct readings for the remaining 0.5 percent can often be ascertained with a fair degree of probability by the practice of textual criticism.”

By comparison, check out this chart from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry that compares ancient Greek texts by number of copies and reliability of content. The 5600 copies of the New Testament have a 99.5% accuracy rating – they are consistent with each other 99.5% of the time. By comparison, Homer’s Iliad has 643 known copies and boasts a 95% accuracy rating. Did you read Homer in college like me? If so, do you recall your professor even raising the question of the authenticity of the text? Me either. Yet the accuracy of the New Testament surpasses even that.  

Furthermore, the New Testament was written by individuals who either walked with Jesus while on earth, or in the case of Paul, encountered the resurrected Lord in a dramatic fashion. They did not keep their writings secret; anyone was free to challenge their statements. This is an incredible level of transparency that, in my opinion, reflects an underlying confidence in their message.

So what’s your conclusion about the New Testament? Personally, I’m sold on its accuracy. We have far too many consistent copies, some of which are incredibly close to the date of the original, and the books were by and large written so quickly after Jesus walked the earth, that to conclude anything short of accuracy would require a logical leap. I’m convinced that what we have in its pages is what the authors wrote in these 27 books.

External Evidence
Assessing the inspiration of the Bible includes not only being sure that the text we have is accurately what was originally written. If the Bible is truly inspired by God, we can expect that it will be factually accurate as well. There is a vast body of literature on this subject, far more than I can easily summarize. However, I can note that there are some general categories of facts that can be researched and a vast number of scholars who do just that. I’m including a basic bibliography if you are interested in studying these areas further. One general principle to note: Watch out for skeptics who argue from silence. Many of the discoveries that prove Biblical facts right were unknown a century ago, leading to a lot of doubt about the Bible. Time and better research skills have changed that and revealed the accuracy of facts that previously were questioned or dismissed altogether.
·        
          Historical: From the earliest years after Jesus walked the earth, Roman writings referred to Him and some others from the New Testament, including John the Baptist, by name. Josephus is a must-read for any serious historical scholar. He was not a Christian but was a Jew who first fought against, then worked for the Roman government. Other historical sources include Tactitus and other Roman historians. With regard to the Old Testament, a number of writings make reference to rulers and events included in those books; Eugene Merrill’s An Historical Survey of the Old Testament provides an excellent overview.

·         Archaeological: Archaeologists continually unearth new items in ongoing digs. Much of it is discounted as inauthentic or meaningless; however, there have been some significant discoveries. One of my favorite stories is the walls of Jericho. Long thought to be a Biblical “problem”, recent research has proven every bit of the story accurate. Excavations not only showed that the walls did, in fact, collapse to the ground, but the researchers also found a section of wall uncollapsed with houses tucked safely against an embankment – providing consistency with God’s promise to protect Rahab’s family. Furthermore, the rubble fell in such a way that it would be easily scalable by the Israelites to enter and take the city.  Dr. David Graves’ Biblical Archaeology: An Introduction is a great starting point in this area.

·         Scientific: The Bible never claims to be a textbook on science; however, it does reflect a consistency with scientific discoveries that one would expect from a book inspired by the Creator of the universe. Not only does it hint at facts that would not be discovered for thousands of years after the writing, but it also avoids some of common scientific errors of its time.   

Internal
The strong bibliographic and external evidence give assurance that the Biblical text is accurate in what it says. With confidence in the books, we can begin to examine the internal evidence. What do we see in the text itself that points toward inspiration?
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           Authorship. 40 men over 1000+ years wrote 66 books. Overwhelmingly these individuals did not know each other, especially the Old Testament writers, though of course there are exceptions. Yet there is an internal cohesion to the books, with themes that run through the entire Bible. Some of the authors reference other books, such as when Daniel refers to reading Jeremiah, indicating an acceptance of other works as authoritative. Despite the differences in time, location, style, genre, and language, the Bible has a “built in redundancy” about all significant doctrines.
·        
          Eyewitnesses. The Bible includes a number of eyewitness accounts. Indeed, “eyewitness” is an important element throughout the entire New Testament (see John 19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1-3; 2 Peter 1:16).  These men wrote very close to the time of the events and maintained their testimony through persecution and martyrdom.
·       
          Internal claims of inspiration. The Bible itself claims to be inspired. Short of discarding the text as inauthentic – something our research to this point makes it impossible to do with intellectual integrity – we are confronted with these claims. Phrases like “The word of the Lord came to…”; “Thus saith the Lord”; “by the authority of the Lord Jesus”; “God said”; and more pepper the entire Bible. The New Testament upholds the inspiration of the Old Testament in passages such as these:
o   2 Timothy 3:16-17 "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;  that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." “Inspired” literally means “God-breathed”.
o   2 Peter 1:21, "for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."
o   Hebrews 1:1-2: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

The argument from Scripture itself that it is inspired is undeniable. Faced with the bibliographic, external, and internal evidence, we are left with one conclusion: The Bible is comprised of accurate texts that claim to be the word of God. What we do with that fact will define our lives.

My study years ago led me to the conclusion that God did, indeed, choose to reveal Himself through the pages of the Bible. Let me be very clear about biblical revelation. Revelation does not require a recipient. God’s words are true, eternal, written in heaven, and firm whether they fall or receptive ears or not. However, my part is to receive these words not as the words of men, but as the word of God, which is at work in those who believe. When I receive His word in this manner, I will understand its implications in ways I simply cannot if I look at it the same way I look at any other ancient writing.

The Bible is the inspired word of God, without error in the original texts, trustworthy in the content that we have today with minimal variations from those texts. It is God-breathed and authoritative. Its claims lay forth a question that everyone must answer: God has revealed Himself through these words. What then will you do with what He has said?

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Dockery, David. Holman Bible Handbook. Holman Bible Publishers, 1992.
McGrath, Alistair. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Fourth edition. Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

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