Tough Questions: Can We Trust the Bible?

When I was a senior in high school, an adult I highly respected said something devastating to me: “Someday, you’re going to realize how the Bible was put together, and that it can’t possibly be the Word of God.  You’re going to realize how deceived you’ve been.”  I wasn’t a new Christian at that time.  But I had recently made a decision that Jesus wasn’t just the Savior of my soul, He was Lord of my life.  I didn’t just want to go to Heaven when I died; I wanted to live for Him.  In my youthful idealism, I scoffed at her words and thought, “We’ll see about that.”  Over the three-plus decades since then, I have heard and seen lots of arguments that reinforce what she said.  Was she right after all?  This is no minor question.  As evangelical believers, we say that the Bible is our source for knowing what is true and what isn’t.  When contemporary culture changes its views on a matter, we stay with what the Bible says, even if it makes us unpopular.  If a gifted preacher says something that doesn’t square with Scripture, we reject his teachings.  Ultimately, what we know about God, morality, and truth is not determined by what we hear on the news, or what our church tells us, or even what sounds right in our own eyes; it is determined by this book.  But what if we’re wrong?  What if we’re staking our belief system on a book that is not worthy of our trust?

This is really two questions: One, should we really base our lives on words written thousands of years ago, a book that depicts miraculous events unlike anything we’ve seen, especially since we know there are many other supposedly holy books that have been written in human history?  We’ll explore that question next week in our Tough Question: Why Should we Believe the Bible?  The second question, and the one we’ll consider today, is this: How do we know the Bible we have today is authentic?  That’s what my adult friend was really questioning all those years ago.  She had heard that the Bible was corrupted over the years by different people adding their own perspectives, so we don’t even know what the original authors actually wrote down.  It’s sort of like the telephone game.  Remember that when we were kids?  My most memorable instance of the telephone game came when I was a young adult in college, and we played the game as part of a training session at my job.  One of my co-workers was an Indian student named Haroon.  Our boss whispered something innocuous in the ear of the person at the front of the line, like, “Haroon goes grocery shopping on Fridays.”  By the time it reached the end of the line, that simple statement had morphed into, “Haroon goes ‘va-room’ in the bedroom.”  We died laughing, and Haroon turned purple.  But it stands to reason that the same thing happened to the words of the Bible.  As I got older, I was surprised to learn that we don’t have an actual copy of any of the original manuscripts of Scripture.  I just assumed that, somewhere in a museum was the first Bible.  But it wasn’t so.  The books of the Bible were hand-copied for centuries, until the invention of the printing press 1500 years after Jesus.  Surely mistakes were made, right?

And besides that, there was another reason to doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible.  These books weren’t the only ones written about Jesus and Christian doctrine in the early days of the church.  By some estimates, as many as 3000 books existed.  Who decided on the 27 we consider Scripture today?  Why wasn’t the Gospel of Thomas included?  Or the Epistle of Barnabas, or the Apocalypse of Peter, for instance?  A common belief is that the bishops of the Church, some four hundred years after Jesus, chose books that fit a narrative they wanted to promote, and banned the rest.  In the blockbuster best-selling novel, The Davinci Code, a character explains that Jesus’s followers saw Him as a prophet, but otherwise a mere man.  But the Roman emperor Constantine had Him declared divine so that his power would be unchallengeable.  He published the biblical books that emphasized Jesus’ divine nature and banned the ones that showed Him as more human.  Yes, that was a work of fiction, but it parroted a common conspiracy theory.

So let’s look at both of those reasons to doubt the Bible’s trustworthiness.

Do our current Bibles contain the words of the original authors?  The analogy of the telephone game would seem to make that unlikely.  But that actually isn’t a good analogy at all.  In the telephone game, a person in the line hears a whispered message—only once!—and has to pass it along with another whisper.  But the books of the Bible were hand-copied, not whispered.  Scribes in the ancient world took their work very seriously.  Not only that, but there were multiple streams, not just one line of transmission.  To make the analogy more accurate, imagine there had been sixteen different lines of people passing along the message, “Haroon goes grocery shopping on Fridays.”  The first person would write the message down and give it to the next person in line.  He would then write it on another piece of paper, and pass that along to the third guy.  If one person in the line wasn’t sure what the message said, he could ask the person to re-send, or even check it against the other lines.  Mistakes are much harder to make in that scenario.  That is more like how the Bible was transmitted.

Is it still possible that mistakes were made?  Absolutely…and they were!  That’s why there’s an entire field of study known as textual criticism.  So imagine a translator is working through a manuscript of Luke 11:2 that has just been found.  It says, Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.  He notices that the other Greek manuscripts he has read slightly differently.  They say, Father, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come.  So which is the right one?  His textual critical training tells him that the more accurate manuscript is likely to be older, and shorter.  So he looks at his new manuscript, which is newer and longer, and assumes that the scribe must have mixed up Luke 11:2 with Matthew 6:9-10, which is the start of the Lord’s Prayer.  But just in case, in his translation he puts a little footnote so that the reader is aware that some manuscripts read a little differently.  You can probably see it in your English translation. There are dozens of those…the work of textual critics who devote their lives to making sure the Bibles we have are completely accurate.  If you decide to carefully read all of those footnotes, what you will find is that not a single major doctrine of our faith is in question.  They are all minor quibbles about wording.

I said a little earlier that the telephone game would work better if you had sixteen different lines of transmission, not one, so they could be checked against one another.  So how many different manuscripts of the Bible do we have?  Just to limit things, let’s consider the New Testament.  We currently possess over 5800 Greek New Testament manuscripts.  There are also another 20,000 ancient copies in other languages such as Latin or Syrian.  And there are over a million quotations from the New Testament in the writings of early Church leaders.  That’s a lot of streams of transmission, and plenty of opportunity for scholars to be certain of what the original message said.  By comparison, other ancient documents that we study in our history classes have between 100 and 200 ancient manuscripts, yet virtually no one questions their authenticity. In other words, we can be absolutely certain the words of our modern Bibles are the words of their original authors.

So let’s look at the other issue.  How were these books chosen to be in the Bible? As I mentioned, conspiracy theorists point to political decisions made by church councils in the Fourth Century.  But for the real answer, we have to go much further back.  The first and second generation of Christians had a very different form of worship from us.  They would gather together in homes on Sunday, the first day of the week, probably in the evening when everyone was off work.  They would share a meal, sing some songs, and someone would read a text from the Old Testament—the only Bible they had—and teach about what the Scripture said or share some prophetic thoughts from the Holy Spirit.  If there happened to be an apostle in the area, they would set everything else aside and let him speak instead.  An apostle, by the way, was someone who had known Jesus personally and been commissioned by Him to be His representative.  Some of these apostles starting writing letters to churches when they couldn’t be there in person.  A trusted friend would bring the letter to the church, and it would be read aloud to the entire congregation on the next Sunday.  We know that the people believed these were more than letters—they were the inspired words of God through those apostles. See 2 Peter 3:16, And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.  I used to laugh at that passage, imaging blue-collar Peter struggling to understand the educated, erudite Paul.  Then I noticed: Peter was calling Paul’s letters Scripture!

People in those churches would copy the letters and share them with other churches.  That’s how the Scriptures first were circulated.  Over time, churches would gather all the letters and Gospels into a single volume or scroll.  It is absolutely true that lots of other people were writing letters to churches and stories about Jesus in those days.  Some of them were even written in the name of an apostle.  Church leaders would compare notes to see if what they had was true or not.  As best we can tell from reading their letters to one another, they used four criteria to determine what was true Scripture and what wasn’t:

One: Scripture comes from an apostle.  Luke and Mark weren’t apostles, but the early church believed they got their sources from eyewitnesses.  Mark was said to have interviewed Peter for his Gospel.

Two: Scripture is confirmed by God’s power.  Reading the letter or Gospel should produce life change in the reader if it is truly the word of God.

Three: Scripture is true.  In one of the stories of Jesus written in those times, Jesus as a boy acts like a spoiled wizard.  He makes clay birds, then brings them to life. He strikes another little boy dead for bumping into him, and when the parents complain, he turns them blind.  The early church rejected these stories, because they weren’t consistent with what the Bible said about Jesus.

Four: Scripture is accepted by God’s people.  Several years ago, books were written claiming that the Gospel of Thomas should be considered Scripture.  But the Gospel of Thomas was rejected by the people two thousand years ago, because it taught an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism.

It is true that Constantine convened several Church councils in the fourth century AD, and at those councils, bishops discussed what would be considered official church doctrine. This occurred because there were heretical movements cropping up, and Constantine wanted to keep this from disturbing the peace of his kingdom.  And yes, at one of these conferences, the Council of Carthage in 397, a vote was taken to officially decide on the canon of Scripture.  But the true decision was made in most churches centuries before that.

Christians and others sometimes ask me about certain books that Catholics have in their Bibles, that we and other Protestants don’t.  These 14 books are commonly known as the Apocrypha.  Here’s the story: The last of the books of our current Old Testament were completed four hundred years before the birth of Christ. But when the Old Testament was translated into Greek—a translation known as the Septuagint—the rabbis included fourteen extra books that had not been in the Hebrew Bible.  Centuries later, when Martin Luther and other leaders of the Reformation were finally translating the Bible into the languages people actually spoke—such as German, English, French, etc—they put these fourteen books into a special section in between the two testaments, or left them out entirely.  Here’s the important point: The Reformers didn’t consider these books heresy.  They said they were fine to read, but didn’t rise to the level of Scripture.  These books do not contain anything that disagrees with Christian doctrine.

I think back on that day when my adult friend told me that someday I would discover the truth about the Bible.  She was right, but not in the way she thought. The more I have learned about how God’s Word came to us, the more amazed I am at His incredible love for us.  It took the work of thousands of scribes, the courage of martyrs, and most of all, the wisdom of a God who wants us to know Him, to bring us this book we hold in our hands. And the more I study it, the more I grow into the person God made me to be…and the more convinced I am that this is the true Word of God.

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