Can We Trust the Bible?
(A small-group study guide for: The Reason for God, chapter 7)
[NOTE: Throughout the text, you will see bracketed green text insertions that begin with “Discussion”. These are suggested discussion questions for small group leaders, who would like to review these topics in an interactive group setting.]
Introduction – What is the Bible?
Today’s topic is about the best-selling book in history, with total sales exceeding 100 million copies each year.
[Discussion: Do you know any other interesting Bible facts?]
Here are three more interesting Bible facts:
- The 1999 blockbuster The Matrix heavily drew from the Bible. The rebel base in the movie is known as Zion, the primary ship is named Nebuchadnezzar (after the Biblical king), and the film’s Judas character is named Cypher in reference to the name Lucifer;
- The last word in the Bible is Amen;
- John Wycliffe produced the first translation of the Bible from Latin Vulgate into English. However, after he died, the Roman Catholic Church exhumed and burned his corpse as punishment. They did not want the Bible translated into English;
[Discussion: What is the Bible? How would you describe it? Do you know how many books it has?]
Although the Bible is the best-selling book in history,
it’s actually not a single book. It’s a collection of 66 books that claims to have been inspired by God, and which has been split into the Old Testament with 39 books and New Testament with 27 books. The Old Testament has all the books to 400 years before the birth of Jesus, which is where the New Testament picks up the story —a long pause between the last book in the Old Testament, Malachi, and the first book of the New Testament, Matthew.
[Discussion: What is the basis for splitting the Bible into the Old and New Testaments?]
The word testament is a somewhat confusing translation from the Greek word diatheke, which is usually translated covenant
, meaning promise or pledge. Thus, we could talk about the Old Covenant and New Covenant or of the Old and New Promise.
[Discussion: How many major covenants does the Bible contain in total? Can you name any?]
Even though the Bible is divided into the New and Old Covenants, it contains seven covenants: Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Palestinian, Mosaic, Davidic, and the New Covenant.
All are given or promised in the Old Testament, but the New Testament gives the details of the New Covenant.
Here is a quick summary of the seven covenants:
(1) The Adamic Covenant outlined man’s responsibility toward creation and towards the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—don’t eat from it!
(2) In the Noahic Covenant, God promised to never again destroy all life through a flood.
(3) The Abrahamic Covenant includes several promises,
the main one being a promise by God to call out a special people for himself via Abraham’s bloodline, through which he would bless the world. This was fulfilled by Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, coming to the world and dying for the sins of all.
(4) The Davidic Covenant adds to the Abrahamic covenant. It promised a future king from David’s lineage would rule forever. This will be ultimately fulfilled upon the second coming of Jesus, when he will establish his everlasting kingdom.
(5) The Palestinian Covenant
said if the people if Israel were disobedient, God would scatter them around the world but would eventually restore the nation. The Jews were partially scattered for a time in the Old Testament, but never as severely as in 70 A.D. This happened some decades after the crucifixion of Jesus, when emperor Titus wiped out the nation and the Jews were scattered throughout the world. Consequently, the nation of Israel ceased to exist for almost 2,000 years, but was established again in 1948 after the second world war—quite a coincidence how no other country in world history has been destroyed and reborn two millenia later.
(6) The Mosaic covenant, given to Moses and Israel on Mount Sinai, centered on the ten commandments and God’s promise to bless Israel if they obey his law and punish them if they don't.
As we know, Israel did not keep their part of the covenant, to obey God. Thus, God came down to earth as Jesus, to observe God’s law perfectly and keep Israel's (man’s) part of the Mosaic Covenant. That’s the idea when in Matt. 5:17, Jesus said that he came to fulfill the prophets and the law. Simultaneously, Jesus advanced the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant’s blessing of all nations, plus inaugurated the New Covenant, promised in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah
(7) In the New Covenant, God promised to forgive sin and write his law on the hearts of his people (accomplished through the Holy Spirit). Now that we are under the New Covenant, both Jews and Gentiles can be free from the penalty of the Law. We are now given the opportunity to receive salvation as a free gift (Ephesians 2:8–9). Substitutionary sacrifices for our sins, such as lambs, are no longer needed, as they were merely place holders for the ultimate sacrifice, the death of Jesus on the cross.
The Story of the Bible
Did you think the Bible is a hodgepodge of random stories and developments? It’s quite the contrary. As you may have noticed, there is a line that connects the dots in the Old and New Testaments.
[Discussion: What do you think is the red line, the common theme, that shines through everything in the Bible?]
Starting from Adam, the common theme is man’s moral failure, his inability to keep God’s law, and a promised savior, who would redeem mankind, dealing with its sin. Every story is ultimately all about Jesus and, more specifically, about the redemption through Jesus.
It’s about redemption through a savior when Adam and Eve fall into sin and the first death occurs. God kills an innocent animal to provide a covering (animal skin) for Adam’s and Eve’s nakedness, while promising them a future redeemer through the woman’s seed (Mary was a virgin, not impregnated through man’s seed). It’s about redemption through a savior, when:
- God provides a ram for Abraham’s sacrifice at the mountain;
- The angel of death passes by all the Hebrew houses in Egypt that have the blood of a sacrificial lamb on their doorposts;
- God leads his people from Egypt;
- Moses holds a statue of snake on a wooden pole in the wilderness;
- Boaz rescues Ruth from her circumstances;
I could go on and on. Redemption, redemption, redemption, throughout the millennia of Bible history. This, is also your story. This is what God is offering you today: redemption from your sins and from an eternity apart from him.
The Old Testament prophesied the coming of a savior, millennia in advance. Around the year 0,
Jesus came saying he was God. He claimed he would be put to death and rise again three days later. Unbiased analysis of history shows this is what happened.
This filled his followers with such confidence that the previously timid and shaky disciples became ready to proclaim Jesus’s word in the face of death, which most of them suffered one by one. However, the message they proclaimed, the good news about the New Covenant, the Gospel, kept on spreading throughout the Roman empire, in the midst of severe persecution, until in the fourth century. That is when the Empire itself converted, not through the power of the sword or might, but through the message’s power and example of faith shown by its followers.
About the Bible’s Human Authors
[Discussion: Do you know how many human writers the Bible has?]
The 66 books of the Bible were written by some 40 people of different backgrounds over about 1,500 years. For example, Luke was a doctor, Ezra was a priest, Matthew was a tax collector, Solomon was one of the greatest kings of all time, while John was a fisherman.
It’s quite amazing how such different people, with mixed levels of education, across years and cultures, wrote a cohesive story.
Can We Trust the Bible?
The sceptics’ views on the Bible vary massively. Some take the Bible as a flat-out fairytale book. Others believe the original Bible may have had some truth to it, but throughout history its text was modified by leaders to suite their own purposes with some books even being deliberately left out.
The latter view has had somewhat of a resurgence since Dan’s Brown’s book, The Davinci Code, became a best seller. It became increasingly popular to attack the credibility and trustworthiness of the Bible to varying degrees.
[Discussion: Can you think of some objections to the trustworthiness of the Bible?]
The most common objections usually fall into four categories:
- How do we know that the Bible we have today contains the same text it originally had? Maybe the original Bible from thousands of years ago was different than what we have today;
- If it could be proven that the Bible we have today contains essentially the same text, how can we be sure the original writers were trustworthy? How can we know they wrote truth or that they didn’t lie?
- Doesn’t the Bible have scientific and historical errors? If so, how we can trust anything else it says?
- If one discovered the Bible’s text has remained pure, the stories are true, and it doesn’t have any scientific or historical errors, what about the so called “lost or Gnostic books”, which didn’t make it to the Bible? Could the Bible be missing some key information?
Does the Bible of Today Contain the Original Text?
In Matthew 24:35, Jesus makes a very bold claim: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” This is a bold assertion in the face of criticism, which suggests the text we have in the Bible today is not the original text and we can’t know what the original Bible said.
The branch of scholarship that deals with the authenticity of texts is called textual criticism. When studying classical and biblical texts focuses on the identification of textual variants in manuscripts.
I will summarize what this means.
The word manuscript is from Latin and means handwritten, manu = hand, script = written.
During Bible times, the printing press didn’t exist and books were copied by hand. This was done by professionals called scribes. However, how do we know the scribes didn’t make mistakes or even deliberate corruptions?
Textual criticism scholars seek to reconstruct the original text as closely as possible by comparing different manuscript copies, ideally from different geographical locations, times, and languages. The more copies exist—and the older they are—the easier it is to validate the original text.
Imagine you have two manuscripts of the Gospel of John, both written approximately in the year 800. In chapter 21 of copy A, you have 26 verses, but in copy B, you have 25 verses. How could you find out if the extra verse in copy A was supposed to be in the Bible?
[Discussion: How could you find out if verse 26 should be Bible?]
You could find other manuscripts of the Gospel of John, ideally written way earlier and see if they have verse 26. If you find one older manuscript, it’s possible this older manuscript was corrupted as well. However, let’s say you find 20 manuscripts—some written in Egypt, others in Rome, some written in the year 200, others written in the year 500—and all are missing verse 26. Then, likely verse 26 shouldn’t be in the Bible.
[Discussion: What is an important resource in textual criticism?]
It’s important to have as many manuscripts as possible, dated as close to the original, as possible. The closer they’re written to the original, the less time for errors to appear. The more manuscripts available for comparison, the easier to ascertain the correct rendering of a text.
The key question then is, how many manuscripts are there of the Bible? To get some context, let’s first look at the manuscript evidence of other ancient writings—which are generally considered authentic—from around the same time as the New Testament. Specifically, let’s examine how many ancient copies of these writings remain and how many years passed from the original writing to the earliest manuscripts:
- Julius Caesar's The Gallic Wars: ten manuscripts remain, with the earliest one dated 1,000 years after the original;
- Pliny the Younger's Natural History: seven manuscripts, 750 years elapsed from the original writing;
- Thucydides's History: eight manuscripts, 1,300 years elapsed;
- Herodotus's History: eight manuscripts, 1,350 years elapsed;
- Plato: seven manuscripts, 1,300 years;
- Tacitus's Annals: 20 manuscripts, 1,000 years;
[Discussion: Guess how many manuscripts we have of the new Testament and how many years have elapsed from the original writing to the earliest manuscripts?]
Turns out that the Bible being the best selling book is nothing new since The New Testament has nearly 25,000 ancient manuscripts discovered, of which at least 5,600 are copies in the original Greek. The time between the original writings and the earliest manuscripts is also remarkably short, between 40 to 60 years.
Furthermore, some of the best preserved ones, such as one that's in the British Library, Codex Sinaiticus, have been scanned and made available online.
Using this online tool, anyone can compare the Bible we have today, to a Bible certified at least 1,600 years old.
As for the Old Testament’s manuscripts
, the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls
are more than 2,000 years old, dating centuries before Jesus was born, and are also available for online viewing.
By comparing our Bible of today to manuscripts that span over thousands of years in distinct geographical locations you can conclude that not only hasn’t the Bible been corrupted throughout the millennia but also it is easily the best attested ancient writing. Any criteria used to claim corruption of the Bible would also invalidate every ancient writing ten times more. As Jesus said about 2,000 years ago, “My words will never pass away.”
Are the Bible’s Original Writers Trustworthy?
We can say with reasonable confidence that today’s Bible is essentially the same that existed throughout the millennia, but this doesn’t necessarily mean what the Bible says is true. Anyone can write down something and bury it in the sand. I could write that the Queen of England is an alien lizard that just appears to be human, bury this in the ground, and someone will find my writing 2,000 years later. That doesn’t mean what I wrote is true. Similarly, how can we know if all or most stories in the Bible aren’t legends or flat out lies? How can we be sure the writers of the Bible wrote truth and the Bible of today is the same Bible written thousands of years ago?
New Testament Writer’s Trustworthiness
In the case of the New Testament, these factors make the plausibility of legends and lies very unlikely:
- Not enough time passed from the original writings for them to become legends or lies;
- The content is way too self-defeating;
Legends? An Implausible Option
The gospels and Paul’s letters were written, while eyewitnesses to the events described were alive. Legends are often accounts of things that happened long ago which nobody can verify, because everyone from then is dead. That’s why stories often start with, “A long, long, time ago…” Furthermore, the Biblical accounts often mention specific eyewitnesses. Thus, if readers don’t believe something, they can ask someone.
In Mark 15:21, we read the man who helped Jesus carry his cross to Calvary “was the father of Alexander and Rufus”—men who were apparently known by the readers and writers. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:1–6, refers to 500 eyewitnesses who saw the risen Christ simultaneously. Would you write that in a document designated for public reading unless there really were a group that could confirm it? All of this contradicts that the gospels were some anonymous, evolving, oral traditions or lies.
Additionally, as you read the New Testament, it becomes clear that Jesus practically eliminated sickness from the region. He was doing miracles left and right, healing hordes of people. No wonder masses of up to 10,000
attended his sermons from all over the area. Non-Christian historians of the time, even those hostile to Christianity, confirm the influence of Jesus reached all the way to Rome.
Jesus was rocking the region!
On the road to Emmaus, as noted in Luke 24:18, the disciple Cleopas (again, notice a specific eyewitness), exclaims the following when confronted with an apparent stranger who didn’t know about Jesus: "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?" Keep in mind most eyewitnesses to the works and miracles of Jesus were his opponents who had watched him for years, and ultimately witnessed his crucifixion. They would have been first to challenge lies or fictional accounts written about him. As Tim Keller notes:
For a highly altered, fictionalized account of an event to take hold in the public imagination it is necessary that the eyewitnesses (and their children and grandchildren) all be long dead. They must be off the scene so they cannot contradict or debunk the embellishments and falsehoods of the story. The gospels were written far too soon for this to occur. It would have been impossible, then, for this new faith to spread as it did had Jesus never said or done the things mentioned in the gospel accounts. Paul could confidently assert to government officials that the events of Jesus’s life were public knowledge: “These things were not done in a corner,” he said to King Agrippa (Acts 26: 26). The people of Jerusalem had been there— they had been in the crowds that heard and watched Jesus. The New Testament documents could not say Jesus was crucified when thousands of people were still alive who knew whether he was or not. If there had not been appearances after his death, if there had not been an empty tomb, if he had not made these claims, and these public documents claimed they happened, Christianity would never have gotten off the ground. The hearers would have simply laughed at the accounts.
Power Grab? Worst Sales Pitch in History
Skeptics may say the writers of the New Testament wrote lies to support their new movement, prop up their influence—all to gain more power.
[Discussion: Can you think of reasons why this claim doesn’t hold water?]
Unreliable Witnesses: Women
The facts testify the contrary. In those times, women’s testimony was inadmissible in court as women were considered too emotional and unreliable. Guess who were the first to witness the resurrected the Jesus? A bunch of women. If you’re fabricating a story and want people to believe you, it would make much more sense to use some reputable men as the first witnesses.
Seriously Flawed Leaders
If you’re trying to gain influence and power for yourself plus trying to get people in your movement, how would you portray yourself—as an untrustworthy, jealous liar, with little faith, somewhat slow in thinking, who abandoned his master in his hour of need and left him to die alone? That sums up the disciples, Peter in particular. What a sales pitch right? Hey, this is the kind of person I am, join my movement!
A Weak, Lame, Crucified, Criminal-god
The whole crucifixion of Jesus is one of the worst things to invent if you wanted to gain a following in those days. First, crucifixion was reserved for the worst criminals. Second, good luck convincing anyone that God got crucified by people. That would have made no sense in their culture where gods were considered way more powerful than humans.
Who would want to follow such a weak and lame loser god? You’re going to have to do a whole lot of explaining if you want people to join a movement whose master was crucified. Sounds like if you join that movement, you might risk getting crucified—which started happening.
Hey Everyone, Let’s Get Tortured and Executed for Our Made-Up Stories
How likely is it that someone would be ready to suffer a torturous death to maintain the illusion they invented, especially if they could avoid torture and death by admitting they lied? If there were 12 people involved in the scheme, how likely that at least one of them wouldn’t come clean to avoid torture and death? Personally, I have a hard time imagining that 12 people can keep a secret even when not faced with torture and death. Well, all the disciples were executed for their beliefs—except John, who was sentenced to exile. This makes it more plausible they were telling the truth and believed, as opposed to having lied to gain power and influence.
This sounds like the worst sales pitch. Why would the authors write it? The most plausible explanation is that they documented these unflattering accounts, because it was the truth. They knew the events were such common knowledge that lies would have been discovered easily.
Old Testament Writer’s Trustworthiness
Theoretically, you could make a case for not defending the Old Testament since we have proved the New Testament writers as trustworthy and one can teach the Old Testament from the New Testament. Furthermore, the most essential teaching, salvation, is clear throughout the New Testament. One of these instances is Rom. 3:23–24:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Every person has committed crimes against God—sin. God, being a just god, must punish sin and the default punishment for committing crimes against an infinite god is infinity in Hell. Since God is love, he volunteered to suffer our punishment. On the cross, Jesus, as an infinite being, absorbed infinity in Hell for all those who repent of their sins, ask God for forgiveness, and accept him as lord and savior.
But, because we like to be thorough, we’ll briefly cover the trustworthiness of Old Testament writers as well. In the case of the Old Testament’s writers, there is less detail available, because there are few records remaining from 3,000 years ago. However, the few records we have testify to the trustworthiness of the Old Testament’s writers.
For centuries, critics claimed the prophecies in the book of Daniel were so accurately describing historical events they must have been written around 160 B.C., after the events occurred.
Since a mind hostile to God can not accept supernatural knowledge, the critic already assumes supernatural knowledge is impossible before analyzing the evidence. Here is an example:
We need to assume that the vision [of Daniel 8] as a whole is a prophecy after the fact. Why? Because human beings are unable accurately to predict future events centuries in advance and to say that Daniel could do so… is to fly in the face of the certainties of human nature.
See how the scholar had formed his opinion before he analysed the evidence? It is likely he began with a belief or desire that the god of the Bible doesn’t exist. He interprets the evidence to support his biases.
I don’t want God to exist. If he doesn’t exist, he can’t give humans power to predict the future. Thus, Daniel’s prophecy must have been written after the events occurred.
By God’s grace, there are also many Bible believers who didn’t begin as such. However, they were convinced as they analyzed the evidence objectively. A typical attitude may be something like:
I’m not sure if the God of the Bible exists. Either way, I would like to find out since this could have a bigger impact on my life and possible afterlife than anything else.
Unfortunately, there exists a third group which is a mix of the biased unbeliever and unbiased believer, which is why we have many cults who don’t believe in Hell, for example. They believe in God and think they believe in the Bible; however, they begin with a premise that “their God” wouldn’t create such a horrible place as Hell nor allow no-fault divorce if people no longer love each other. Since these people have an attitude of cherry picking what they like in the Bible without reflecting on the possibility that, if the God of Bible does exist, it’s likely he would require us to rethink certain ideas where we might have an inclination to object to some of his ways.
Personally, I can’t even think of a friend of family member with whose ways I’ve sometimes objected, and they’ve objected with mine. What makes me think things would be different with God? Sure, I would like to think I’m perfect and thus me and God will see eye to eye, but that’s just not realistic. So, when I see something difficult or unpleasant in the Bible, it’s not for the Bible to adjust its ways to my thinking, but for me to adjust my thinking to conform with the Bible.
Another example of the historical accuracy of the Bible and the trustworthiness of the Bible’s authors is the Hittites. According to the Old Testament, they were as powerful as the nation of Judah. Critics claimed such a powerful people-group can’t disappear from Earth without archæological evidence. Then, in the 19th century, archæological discoveries proved the Hittites in the Old Testament existed and were a powerful group.
There are dozens more similar examples, for which I have provided links in the footnotes.
Scientific Accuracy—Critical Claim #1: The Bible Claims the Sun Orbits the Earth
The Bible uses mostly observational and descriptive language. If someone today said he traveled “to the ends of the earth”, would you assume he thinks the earth is flat? The person means he traveled to a far away place.
Similarly, if someone in the Bible described the sun’s movement in relation to Earth, it doesn’t mean the Bible said the sun orbits Earth any more than you when you say, “What a beautiful sunset.” We don’t say, “What a nice earth’s rotation around the sun. From our perspective, it appears the sun is moving relative to us, so that’s how we express it. We aren’t making a scientific assertion that the sun orbits Earth.
Scientific Accuracy—Critical Claim #2: The Bible Claims the Earth is Flat
Many have often commented to me that the Bible is “anti-science” since the Church persecuted Galileo because it didn’t want to believe Earth is round. Here are four facts about that:
- Galileo’s ideas were nothing new. Copernicus had essentially said the same thing over 100 years earlier and nothing had happened to him. Copernicus also had a doctorate in Canon law;
- The church allowed Galileo to publish his book promoting heliocentrism. The problem was a less than intelligent character in his book, named Simpleton, who resembled the Pope closely. This is what ultimately triggered Galileo’s demise;
- We must distinguish between the Church and the Bible. The Church can allege anything, and has often made claims and acted against the Bible like the Crusades, Inquisition, etc. Just because Church does something doesn’t mean the Bible approves. The Reformation started around this same time, when the reformers had enough of the Church’s abuses and wanted to return the faith to the right track.
- The Bible supports a spherical earth that “floats” in space. These Bible verses were written over 2,000 years before Galileo and Copernicus when civilization in general thought the earth was flat:
1.Job 26:7, He stretches out the north over the void and hangs the earth on nothing.
2.Isaiah 40:22, It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in.
For a more thorough treatise on Bible and the science touching radiometric dating, evolution, dinosaurs, and more, you may refer to lesson #6.
How Do We Know the Bible Contains the “Right” Books?
The Bible text we have today is the same as always. It was also written so close to the events when a multitude of eyewitnesses were alive that it’s not reasonable to claim it’s a collection of legends and lies. Furthermore, the content of the Bible is so self-defeating—women as witnesses; jealous, fearful liars as the movement’s leaders; an offensive, weak, lame God that was crucified by humans—the most plausible explanation is the written accounts were not fabricated. It would have been ridiculous, and Christianity would have not attracted many followers.
But, one final objection remains: What if the Bible doesn’t have the right books? What if it includes books that shouldn’t be there, and those books are teaching us incorrectly? What if there are books missing that contain crucial information about God? These are important questions that deal with something called the Canon.
[Discussion: Do you know Canon means?]
Canon refers to books that are inspired by God and therefore belong to the Bible. The term canon comes from the Greek word 'Kanon', which means measuring line. In a spiritual sense, it can be said the books of the Bible, the Canon, became a measure of all truth—whether spiritual ideas, concepts, or the teachings of the Church. The apparent difficulty with defining the Canon is the Bible doesn’t directly list the books that belong to it.
Thus, the crucial question is: Who decided what books should be included in the Bible and when did this happen? How can we ensure accidental or deliberate “mistakes” weren’t made?
[Discussion: Can we ascertain the Bible has the right books in it?]
Although the books of the Bible were first officialized by the Jews and later by Christians, it would be wrong to say that they were ultimately behind it. Rather, they discovered these books had been divinely appointed for the Bible. In short, the books of the Bible have divine authority within themselves and imposed themselves upon the Church. Like a child identifies its mother, the Church identified the books that must be included in the Bible. This is called the self-authenticating model of Scripture.
Self-Authenticating Model of Scripture
According to the self-authenticating model, each book in the Bible has three different characteristics:
- Meant by God to be in the Bible;
- Produced by a prophet (Old Testament), or Apostle or their associate (New Testament);
- Accepted by God’s people at large as they recognize his voice in the book;
Furthermore, each of these three characteristics confirms the others:
- If a book was meant by God to be in the Bible and it was produced by a prophet, apostle, or an associate, it was naturally accepted by God’s people at large as they recognized God’s voice in the book;
- If a book was accepted by God’s people at large as they recognized God’s voice in the book and meant by God to be in the Bible, it was naturally produced by a prophet, apostle, or an associate;
- If a book was produced by a prophet and accepted by God’s people at large, it was naturally meant by God to be in the Bible;
Therefore, if a book being examined has two of the three attributes, it means it also has the third one. The self-authenticating model of scripture is both self-supporting and self-correcting—complicated, yet simple.
For example, a person may think we’ll find another letter of Apostle Paul to the churches which should be included in the Bible, but this is incorrect as that book was not meant by God to be in the Bible. Paul wrote more letters than in the Bible. However, since God allowed those letters to be lost, it means they were not meant to be in the Bible. The all-powerful God wasn’t sitting in heaving, watching some unknown letter of Paul get destroyed, thinking: “Oh man, I really would have wanted to have that letter to be included in the Bible, but now it won’t be. I guess my people will just have to make do with an imperfect Bible!”
Someone else might think that the Gospel of Mary was meant by God to be in the Bible. However, the self-authenticating model of Scripture will correct this erroneous belief as well. The Gospel of Mary was not written by an apostle nor was it accepted by the God’s people at large, so it was not meant by God to be in the Bible.
The compilation and recognition of the scriptures that form the New Testament began in the first centuries A.D. From then on, the 27 books of the New Testament have been recognized as canonical by Protestant, Roman Catholic, and almost all Christian denominations.Only after Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code has there been renewed interest, mostly by secular media, to discredit the Canon of the New Testament. This is often done by suggesting the New Testament is missing books, such as the Gospels of Thomas and Mary—the “Da Vinci Code effect”. As per publisher’s weekly, “Speculative histories were there before Dan Brown, but they didn’t make the bestseller lists and their authors didn’t go on The Daily Show.”
A common claim is the Roman Emperor Constantine convened the council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. to dictate which books belonged to the New Testament. This claim is utterly non-sensical without any historical basis what so ever.
Yes, Constantine favored Christianity and he seemed to have recognized his empire would be stronger with one faith. Christianity won the “religious competition” in the Roman Empire long before it had any power, when it was under persecution. Unlike the first three centuries of Islamic expansion, Christianity conquered the known world in the same time while its people were being persecuted, tortured, and killed—not through violence and wars. If a historian were cynical, he could say Constantine chose Christianity since it had already won the peoples’ hearts, and he wanted to back a winner.
However, it would be novel to think that the Christians who lived in the day of Constantine would have let him, or anyone dictate anything about their faith. The previous two Emperors, Diocletian and Galerius, ordered some of the most vicious persecutions of Christians—especially leaders—who were rounded up, tortured, and many put to death. Yet, many Christians were so eager to suffer for their faith the Bishop of Carthage demanded those who were needlessly trying to get themselves executed shouldn’t be revered as martyrs.
Yet, the Da Vinci Code and secular media would prefer we believe these Christians would allow Constantine to corrupt their faith.
Second, historians are generally in agreement that Canon of the Bible was not on the agenda at Nicaea. It was convened to mainly discuss the heresy of Arianism and topics such as the days should Easter be celebrated. Anyone can verify these details from an encyclopedia.
The Gnostic “Gospels”
What then about the books whom secularists claim should be in the New Testament, but are not? For example, the so called “gospels” of Thomas, Mary, etc.?
First, it is surprising to see secularists trying to tell Christians what should in their holy book. That’s a bit like Buddhists convincing Muslims what should be in the Quran. This topic relates to third point of the self-authenticating model of the Canon.: How was a book accepted by God’s people at large as they recognized God’s voice in it?
My Sheep Hear my Voice
Critics of the Bible can of course claim it’s biased for Christians to judge what books should be in the Bible. However, this criticism is self-contradictory. We could ask why Christians should allow those who have rejected God and the Bible be allowed to judge what books should be in it.
[Discussion: Is it logical for Christians to allow those who have rejected God and the Bible to judge what books should be in it?]
Should Christians start doubting the list of books in the Bibleif non-Christians insist some books are missing or shouldn’t have been included? The Bible states the guidance of Holy Spirit is needed to discern spiritual matters and knowing what books have God’s voice is a spiritual matter:
- John 10:27, My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
- 1. Cor. 2:14, The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned
In other words, deciding what books should be in the Bible is a spiritual matter, and non-Christians are not spiritually qualified to be making these determinations.
In his book, How We Got the Bible, Neil Lightfoot gives a great illustration of this with violinist Joshua Bell’s having once played in a metro station with hardly any attention, although he can command thousands for each concert:
One might as well ask whether Joshua Bell… should abandon his musical career because his concert in a Washington, DC metro station (on a 3.5-million-dollar Stradivarius) was met with disinterest and boredom. The answer depends on whether we have reason to think that the average pedestrians in the DC metro station can identify musical genius when they hear it. Apparently, they cannot.
Of 1,097 people who passed by Bell, seven stopped and listened. Bell was never given one round of applause.
As per Neil Lightfoot:
Again, keeping with the music analogy, that would be like allowing a person who is tone-deaf (and thus rejects this whole concept of being “on key”) to judge a singing contest. If the tone-deaf person were kept from judging, he might object and claim that this whole “on key” thing is a sham run by musical insiders who claim to have a special ability to hear such things. But despite all the protests, the truth of the matter would remain: there is such a thing as being on key whether the tone-deaf person hears it or not.
Principles for a Book to be Included in the New Testament
Although based on the self-authenticating model of scripture, the books of the Bible self-imposed to be included, how did that happen and upon whom did they impose themselves?
Contrary to what the Da Vinci Code would have us believe, the reasons for the absence of Mary's so called “gospel”, and of many fake or invented texts in the Bible's canon, has nothing to do with Christian conspiracies, but with early Christians having followed clear principles when deciding whether the New Testament books were inspired by the Holy Spirit. These four principles were:
1. Was the writer an apostle or a close associate of an apostle?
2. Was this book generally accepted as canonical by the churches?
3. Did the book contain consistent and traditional teaching?
4. Did the book contain moral and spiritual values that reflected the work of the Holy Spirit?
Regarding the first principle, Mark traveled with Peter, and his gospel contains Peter's description of Jesus's life. Luke traveled with Apostle Paul. Paul's protege, Timothy, is mentioned in Hebrews 13:23. James and Jude, who wrote their respective letters, were regarded as apostles per Gal. 1:19.
Do you a see a pattern here? The logic is simple. The people most likely to tell the truth about Jesus were either the witnesses who met Jesus or their close associates. Also, many who still claim various books should have been included in the Bible, have not read these.
First, contrary to what the Da Vinci Code claims, the Gospel of Mary has no mention of a marriage between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, or that Jesus has appointed Mary as the leader of the Church. Second, Mary's gospel has not been written by Maria Magdalene nor anyone else in the Bible. The gnostic teachings of this counterfeit place it in the second century AD, at the earliest. Thus, this writing has no weight as per the first criterion.
The Gospels of Thomas, Philip, and Judas Iscariot are the same. They are gnostic counterfeits that use the names of Biblical characters in their attempts to gain approval for their subversive teachings. The only benefit from studying these falsehoods is learning how heresies were already trying to infiltrating the Church in the first centuries. Here are the last two verses in the Gospel of Thomas:
(113) His disciples said to Him, "When will the Kingdom come?" <Jesus said,> "It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying 'Here it is' or 'There it is.' Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it."
(114) Simon Peter said to Him, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
As for what books of the Old Testament should be in the Bible, throughout history, there has been little to no debate about this among rabbis. Starting from the Old Testament times, they recognized the messengers of God and accepted their writings as inspired by him.
For the first 300 years or so after the death of Jesus, Christians commonly accepted the same Old Testament writings that the Jews by and large have always accepted. However, today’s Roman Catholic Bible differs from the Protestant Bible as it has seven additional books
—some of which support distinctive Roman Catholic teachings such indulgences
and praying for the dead.
These additional books are called Apocrypha.
This name alone should be a reason for pause. Apocrypha is Latin and means “of doubtful and/or unknown origin.”
The first person to use this term for these doubtful books was the great scholar Jerome.
Pope Damascus I selected Jerome to translate a Latin Bible (The Vulgate) for the Church around 400 A.D. and his translation still influences the Roman Catholic Bible of today.
Jerome, who was the most recognized biblical language scholar at the time, initially maintained the apocryphal books never were and should not be included in the Old Testament Canon. However, the church leadership in Rome, —which didn’t have Jerome’s qualifications in Hebrew nor Jewish culture—insisted that the apocrypha be included.
Jerome fell in line, even though, based on his research and knowledge of Hebrew and manuscripts, his strong initial conclusion had been that these books had not been held as canonical by the Jews nor should they be.
Although Jerome did translate these questionable books, he was the first to use the word apocrypha in the sense of non-canonical books.
The Catholic Encyclopedia attempts to explain Jerome’s stance:
"The inferior rank to which the deuteros [Apocrypha] were relegated by authorities like Origen, Athanasius, and Jerome, was due to too rigid a conception of canonicity, one demanding that a book, to be entitled to this supreme dignity, must be received by all, must have the sanction of Jewish antiquity, and must moreover be adapted not only to edification, but also to the 'confirmation of the doctrine of the Church', to borrow Jerome's phrase."
Yes, well said Jerome. I wish the leaders would have listened to you.
It should be noted that the Bible of the Roman Catholics today, the New Jerusalem Bible, uses the Hebrew Masoretic source text of the Old Testament as its primary source. This text does not include any apocryphal books. The Roman Catholic leadership seems to trust the Hebrew text for its textual content, but not for the books it rejects, a peculiar if not contradictory position to have.
The Apocryphal books can be useful. Although their canonicity has been shrouded with uncertainty throughout history,
many Hebrew scholars and Church Fathers have regarded some as valuable historical and religious works at a lower level than the Old Testament books. Similarly, I can write a biblically accurate sermon containing some historical facts, but that doesn’t mean my writings should be included in the Bible.
The Bible is the best attested ancient book, with an overwhelming number of manuscript sources. Skeptics can go online and compare today’s Bible to one that’s certified more than 1,600 years old by secular scientists.
The New Testament books can’t be counted as fictional stories or legends. They were written too close to events they describe when eyewitnesses were alive. The content is way too self-defeating for the authors’ wanting to gain a following and power—women witnesses; a weak, lame, crucified, criminal god; flawed leaders who were crazy enough to be tortured to death rather than “coming clean” about their alleged fabrications.
The self-authenticating model of the Canon guarantees the Bible contains the right books. A book was included in the Bible if it was:
1. Meant by God to be in the Bible;
2. Produced by a prophet (Old Testament), apostle, or their associate (New Testament);
3. Accepted by God’s people at large as they recognized his voice in the book.;
The objection of some skeptics that they, not Christians, should be deciding what goes in the Bible, is contradictory. It's kind of like saying Buddhists should be deciding what text to include in the Islamic Koran. Furthermore, the Bible says the sheep of Jesus hear his voice and the unbeliever does not understand spiritual things. Non-believers are about as qualified to judge what books should go into the Bible as a tone-deaf person is qualified to judge a singing contest.
The question is, are you hearing the voice of Jesus? He has asked you a question that will determine how you spend eternity. His question is, “Who do you say I am?”, and he gives you two choices:
- Accept him as God, lord, and savior;
- Dismiss him as a lunatic;
He hasn’t left you a third option. He has closed that escape route. Jesus doesn’t leave us the option of choosing neutrality or some middleground. We can’t pick the politically correct way and say, “Jesus was a moral teacher, a man worth imitating, but he wasn’t God.”
The problem is Jesus said he was God. That’s why the Jews wanted him dead and got him crucified. In their eyes, he was guilty of blasphemy.
If Jesus spoke the truth, then we should pay attention. If he wasn’t God, yet claimed he was, what does that make him? A crazy person, a lunatic who belongs to a mental hospital!
If Jesus was not God, then he’s either a liar, crazy, or both, and we shouldn’t pay attention to what he nor his followers said. Christianity and the Bible either stands or falls on this unique claim of Jesus: his deity.
“Who do you say I am”
I made this document as a study guide for a small bible study group I host. Feel free to use this document in your own group studies, but kindly provide a link to this page.
Chapter 7 from Tim Keller’s book, Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, served as inspiration for this document and some of the material has been derived from it. The full book is highly recommended for deeper study: https://www.amazon.com/Reason-God-Belief-Age-Skepticism-ebook/dp/B000XPNUZE/
The other main sources were: “How We Got the Bible” by Neil Lightfoot: https://www.amazon.com/How-Got-Bible-Neil-Lightfoot-ebook/dp/B007CKAM86/
and “Canon Revisited” by Michael J. Kruger: https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B007RPROCS/.
Both books are highly recommended for deeper study.
1 All five Bible facts are from: https://www.factretriever.com/bible-facts
6 Hebrews 8:6–13
7 Deuteronomy 30:1–10
9 Jeremiah 31:31–34
11 See Josephus; Tacitus; Pliny the Younger; Fox, Robin Lane (2005), The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, Basic Books, p. 48; Strobel, Lee, The Case for Christ.
14 McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, vol. 1, p. 42, as seen on: https://www.allaboutthejourney.org/bible-manuscripts.htm
16 In general, there are much fewer manuscripts available of the Old Testament than the New Testament. This is due to multiple reasons, such as:
A. Frequent wars where places of worship were raided and burned, compared to the relative peace that existed for centuries in the Roman Empire;
B. If a manuscript was found to have one error, the whole manuscript was burned to prevent God’s Word from being corrupted;
C. Much of the Old Testament
was originally written on highly perishable papyrus and animal skins, over 400 years before the oldest book in the New Testament;
D. The Jewish scribes treated their copies of the scriptures with an almost superstitious respect. This led them to ceremonially bury any worn copy to prevent the improper use of text in which the name of God had been inscribed. Worn out animal skins and papyrus in general could end up as scrap paper or even used as a “toilet paper of sorts”. This was obviously would not have been a proper use of Scripture;
19 Matthew 14:21. This account mentions 5,000 men. Add to that the women and children, and the number is easily 10,000.
21 Keller, Timothy, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Kindle Locations 1797–1815).
22 The first recorded critic of Daniel was Porphyry, a 3rd century A.D. philosopher. He wrote Against the Christians, in which he denounced the book of Daniel as a fake written in the Maccabean period (167–134 B.C.), https://www.vision.org/daniel-critics-den-367
23 Towner, Daniel, Interpreter’s Bible, John Knox, 1984, p. 115, cited in [DLIOT:332] as quoted in:http://evidenceforchristianity.org/what-is-the-earliest-proven-evidence-for-the-date-daniel-was-written-are-the-dead-sea-scrolls-relevantr/
24 https://www.jstor.org/stable/23343597?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents; http://museopics.com/Ancient-World-Wonders-History-Antiquities/MuseoPics-Ancient-Anatolian-Civilisations/Ancient%20Hittites/2-Hittite-History/Hittite%20History%20%20-%20Finding%20Hattusa.html
28 19. David Van Biema, “Rewriting the Gospels”, Time, March 7, 2007, as seen in Keller, Timothy, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Kindle Locations 4189–4190).
29 Shelley, Bruce L., Church History in Plain Language, p. 99, Zondervan, Kindle Edition.
32 Neil Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, p. 148.
39 According to Catholic.com, Roman Catholic theologians and exegetes today prefer to use the term “deuterocanonical”, second canon (deuteros, “second”), a term coined after the reformation, to describe these additional books. In turn, tThe books that “have always been received by Christendom without dispute” are called “protocanonical”, first canon, books (protos, “first”), https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/canon-of-the-holy-scriptures
42 In 1943 Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu, requires Bible interpreters and translators to have familiarity with the original languages and other cognate languages, the study of ancient codices, papyrus fragments of the text, and textual criticism’s application to them "to insure that the sacred text be restored as perfectly as possible, be purified from the corruptions due to the carelessness of the copyists and be freed, as far as may be done, from glosses and omissions, from the interchange and repetition of words and from all other kinds of mistakes, which are wont to make their way gradually into writings handed down through many centuries". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Bible
43 Jerome, in his prologue to the apocryphal book Judith, writes: “...But because this book is found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures, I have acquiesced to your request.” Edgecomb, Kevin P., 5 August 2006, "Jerome's Prologue to Judith", Biblicalia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deuterocanonical_books#Influence_of_Jerome
44 Reid, G (1908), "Canon of the Old Testament", The Catholic Encyclopedia, 3, New York: Robert Appleton Company (retrieved from New Advent)
45 One defense Roman Catholics use for the inclusion of these books is they were included in the Septuagint. Yet, the Roman Catholics declared some books of the Septuagint non-canonical, such as the Prayer of Manasseh. Their appeal to the Septuagint as a standard is inconsistent. Furthermore, no two Septuagint codices contain the same apocrypha, and the three earliest manuscripts of the LXX show uncertainty regarding which books constitute the list of apocrypha. Codex Vaticanus (B) lacks 1–4 Maccabees but includes 1 Esdras while Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph) omits Baruch, but includes 4 Maccabees. The protocanonical books are always included. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deuterocanonical_books
46 Since they were not regarded as authoritative by the Jews, they had to gain recognition from segments of the Greek-speaking church, and these books became incorporated into the Greek and Latin Bibles. However, there is no evidence the Septuagint had a canon. No two early Greek manuscripts agree which apocrypha are included in the Septuagint, and not all included are accepted by the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, in the Latin Church, throughout the Middle Ages, there is evidence of hesitation on the character of the deuterocanonicals. One is favorable. The other unfavorable to their authority and sacredness. Between the two are those whose veneration for these books is tempered by some perplexity on their standing, and among those is St. Thomas Aquinas. Few acknowledge their canonicity. The prevailing attitude of Western medieval authors is that of the Greek Fathers. Lightfoot, Neil R., How We Got the Bible, p. 169, 2010.
47 Matt. 26:25