Christian Basics Handbook
The Word of God
The Bible is probably the most famous and scrutinized writing of all time. It is no stranger to criticism and has been blamed for many things and attacked from many angles. As one person said,
No other book has been so chopped, knived, sifted, scrutinized, and vilified. What book on philosophy or religion or psychology or belles lettres of classical or modern times has been subject to such a mass attack as the Bible? With such venom and skepticism? With such thoroughness and erudition? Upon every chapter, line and tenet?
It seems that many (if not most) colleges and universities have a keen interest in demoting, debunking, denouncing, and dethroning the Bible, and thousands of people are now spread out over the world pronouncing it fake, mythical, adulterated, plagiarizing, outdated, and even dangerous. Even professing Christians sometimes accuse us of “Bibleolatry” if we quote it as the authoritative Word of God. Young people are forced to attend public schools where the Bible is mocked, and we owe it to them to give them confidence in this Book of wisdom, truth, and life.
We need to step back, consider the criticisms, and refute them, so that we can move on from this constant self-doubt and get on with spiritual growth. But most of the debate is at a level that many have neither the time nor the expertise to deal with, not because they aren’t capable, but because it just isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. However, everyone who has chosen to accept Jesus as Savior needs to know basic things about the Bible, so that we are always prepared to tell people the reason for our hope (see 1 Peter 3:15). After all, the Bible is the final authority on who Jesus is, what he did, and what he and his disciples taught. References to back up any claims made in the following sections can be found at this link.
What evidence backs up the Bible?
There are well-established ways to figure out whether an ancient text is accurate and authentic. One of these ways is to examine the material the text is written on, another is to study the writing style, and another is to cross-check any references to historical people or events with other writings of the era. We have copies of the Old Testament from before the time of Christ (first century a.d.) in various languages, and many more of the New Testament from as early as a generation after the time of Christ. No other ancient writing, including other religious texts, can claim better quality evidence than we have for the Bible. And in every case where its content can be checked against other historical records, the Bible has been accurate or at least can’t be debunked. The Bible’s content and teaching is at least as reliable as anything that might challenge it.
Who decided what would be in the Bible?
The content of the Old Testament as we know it today was mainly determined by the scholars and elders of the people of Israel in ancient times. They based their decisions on the quality of each prophet or writer as a righteous person according to those who knew them, and on whether any claims of words from God actually proved to be true. The order of the books isn’t particularly important, though the Israelites tended to group them according to the influence or volume of writing of each person. The original paleo-Hebrew writings were lost, but in the centuries before Christ a Greek translation was made to replace them, and there were also translations in other languages. This Greek translation (the Septuagint or LXX) was what Jesus and the New Testament writers used.
The content of the New Testament was likewise determined by the original apostles and their students or associates, as well as elders who were recognized for their character and knowledge of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. These books and letters were widely circulated among the churches of the first two centuries a.d.
There were other writings, called the Apocrypha, whose inclusion in the Bible has always been disputed. Those writings were done in the centuries between the latest book of the Old Testament and the time of Christ. Some disputes arose about other parts of the Bible that were later approved as divinely inspired, and it was because of these disputes that “official” lists of Bible books were eventually made. Critics may contend that there was a conspiracy to hide certain books or add fake ones, but such claims rarely turn out to have good evidence to back them.
Can we be confident that the Bible we have in our hands is really the Word of God? Absolutely, as surely as we can know anything about ancient writings. We should also ask why it is that only the Bible seems to be attacked by other religions and atheists.
Did the Bible borrow from other ancient texts?
No, the Bible did not borrow from other ancient texts. Does anyone ask this question of other religious writings? Certainly every writing is done in an environment where many factors have an influence, such as time, culture, language, and experiences. Many words are swapped between languages and can change meaning over time. That is the only sense in which the Bible can be said to borrow anything from outside sources. Its teachings and content are its own.
For example, today in English the word “god” is a generic reference to deity or the creator. When we say “the God of the Bible” we narrow the meaning to a particular deity of a particular religious text and faith. So use of the word “God” hardly means that the Bible adapted a story from an earlier religion; it only means that “God” is a common word. The same goes for the “sacred numbers” such as 3, 7, or 12; the Bible was not written in a vacuum without language or culture or history.
The Bible’s central message of creation, ruin, and restoration is certainly a common theme in many religions, but again, this isn’t proof of borrowing. If, for example, there was a worldwide flood, wouldn’t all cultures have a story about it? This is evidence that a worldwide flood really happened, not that the Bible is the only book that borrowed the idea. It is just as likely that the Bible’s purpose was to set the record straight because of all the inaccurate flood stories that had been told up to that time. Keep in mind also that the order in which stories were written down isn’t necessarily the order in which they were told. Spoken stories predate written ones, and no one can say which of those stories were spoken first.
Is the Bible historically accurate?
To test any text’s historical accuracy we ask a variety of questions: Can the places it mentions be identified? Do the names and dates fit reasonably well with other accounts? Are there artifacts, carvings, tools, and other materials that seem to match the accounts in the text? Do the writers seem to be honest and rational people? All of this helps to increase the likelihood that the facts are accurate, but of course we know that even today’s news is often disputed and depends more on the credibility of the witnesses than anything else.
In Old Testament times, a person could be executed for lying about God or people, and the four Gospel accounts of the New Testament have been cross-examined by more than one lawyer over the years and found to be credible witnesses. All historical records can be labeled as biased or faulty, so the Bible can’t be brushed aside as historical record just because it’s the Bible. At the very least, we can say with confidence that nothing in the Bible has been proved inaccurate.
How should the Bible be understood?
When anything is written down, it’s done for a reason. It may be poetry, or history, or business, or education, or debate, or prediction. If we read poetry as a science texbook, we’ll certainly misunderstand the writer’s intent. So when we ask how to understand the Bible, we’re asking about its context, which includes language, culture, situation, genre, era, topic, and even the writer’s personal habits.
Though the Bible has one overarching theme about the Creator and creation, it was written down by about 40 people from different times, locations, situations, and walks of life. Some of it is history; some is law; some is moral instruction; some is prophecy; some is poetry; some is philosophy and advice; some is business. We have to consider all of those elements when we read a given part of the Bible.
In contrast, some consider the Bible more a book of codes, mysteries, and allegories, so they interpret the Bible in whatever way seems best to them. Such an approach can’t be defended with evidence or logic, which may not matter to those who use it. But while the Bible certainly is a book about our spirituality, it is also a book about practicality and reason, since the Christian faith hinges on a witnessed fact of history: Jesus rising from the dead. Without that anchor in objective evidence, the Bible could mean just about anything. And if that’s the case, then there would be no way to know if Jesus really did rise from the dead… which, as the Bible itself says, means that our faith is pointless and we are still alienated from God (1 Corinthians 15:17).
This handbook approaches the Bible in a straightforward, practical way, rather than as all allegory or code.
What about different translations?
The process of translating words and thoughts from one language to another has always been as much art as science, and something is always “lost in the translation”. A good translation strives, however imperfectly, to find a balance between the accuracy of the words and the accuracy of their meaning as a whole. If that were not true, then anyone could be a translator with just a couple of dictionaries. And a “translation” like that would probably make no sense to people it was translated for.
Sometimes, an idea in one language and culture is so foreign to another that completely different expressions must be used. For example, the Bible contains many references to lambs, yet some isolated people groups have no idea what a lamb is. How should such scriptures be translated? Should the reader be left to wonder what lambs are, or should a different animal name be used instead? For another example, in the modern western world dogs are highly valued, while in the Bible they represented disgusting and unclean animals. Should the translator slavishly follow the literal animal names, or instead convey the idea of something disgusting or vulgar?
The most important purpose of translation is to convey meaning, not follow iron-clad rules. This is why Jesus was willing to cite the Greek translation of the Old Testament as the very Word of God; it was still considered inspired by God even though it was a translation. Certainly God is able to preserve what he wants to preserve, and if something is indeed lost in a translation, then God allowed it to be lost. But it is very important for translators to do the best job they can, and even moreso when it’s the Bible that’s being translated.
There are many, many translations of the Bible, in many languages and with different approaches. Most are of good quality and done with the utmost respect. Be wary of any charges of ulterior motives on the part of any particular translation; this could be considered gossip or slander. With all the difficulties inherent in the translation process, it’s best to give translators the benefit of a doubt. Pick one you like best for memorization, but keep several others for study.
How do we know that the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit of God?
Two important points must be made about the Bible: that it reports without endorsing, and that New Testament quotes of the Old Testament are not necessarily word-for-word. So while the Bible as a whole has evidence of divine authorship due to a consistent message about how the world came to be and how it will be restored, this includes the reporting of things God never endorsed and words he never uttered. The actions and teachings of even the most righteous people in the Bible cannot be expected to be micromanaged by God at all times, but we can consider their closeness to God as a good reason to consider their teachings authoritative.
That last sentence has direct bearing on questions about teachings in the New Testament letters. Was Paul always under direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit when writing? The text itself tells us “no”, as in 1 Cor. 7:10-12 for example. It seems that Paul is telling us exactly when he has a direct command from God and when he does not. Yet when he does not, can we then dismiss his words as uninspired? Remembering the principle about authoritative teaching, we can still attribute authority to them as we would to any prophet or priest in the Old Testament. But Paul himself defined exactly what degree or kind of authority this was: to build up the community of believers (2 Cor. 10:8, 12:19, 13:10). Though in very rare cases he did “pull rank” (1 Cor. 5:3,11, Gal. 2:14), the overall character of his ministry was to serve and nurture with humility and meekness (1 Cor. 2:1-5, chap. 9).
So God certainly oversaw the preservation of those words he deemed important and valuable in both Testaments, but without micromanagement or operating people like puppets. There is leeway for human fallibility without sacrificing divine authority, and if Jesus could quote a mere translation as the very authoritative words of God, then quite obviously the exact details of words and punctuation are not what matters most. Some may at this point quote Mat. 5:17-18, but the context is of prophecy and law, not a blanket endorsement of an accountant’s approach to the text. An analysis of this is as follows:
Do not think that I have come to dismantle the superstructure of promises, demands, and predictions recorded in the writings of Moses and the Prophets, leaving them unfulfilled. On the contrary, I have come to fulfill every single prophecy and obey every single requirement therein.
All scholars agree that we do not have the original “strokes of a pen” from either Testament, so to quote this passage as justification for a wooden literalism is questionable at best.
But then the questions come, “Where does it stop? Is this not a slippery slope to throwing out the whole Bible? By what criteria do we say ’this carries authority but that does not’?” The answer is in knowing the difference between the “letter” of the law and the “spirit” of the law. Communication is rarely so precise that it cannot be misunderstood, even when the words are from God, because the limitations lie with us as imperfect beings. Certainly all can agree that no amount of leeway with the details can ever overthrow core principles such as that Jesus is God in the flesh who died for us and rose again, that the overall theme of the New Testament is freedom from the rule of sin and Satan, that believers are to live in humility and love but also truth and justice, and that we are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) and all heirs of the Promise (Acts 3:25, Rom. 4:14, Gal. 3:29, Eph. 3:6, Heb. 6:17, 11:9).
There is a critical difference between lack of precision in the text itself and lack of precision in interpretation. From any reasonable understanding of the text, God’s concern is more with the message than the medium, and with character more than mere outward performance. God “remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14) and will judge us by our hearts and intents, not our honest mistakes. How we handle differences of opinion is probably as important to God as whether we have them.
Such principles (see also Rom. 13:10) are in no danger of erosion from a realistic yet respectful approach to the Bible, which was never meant to be a book of incantations or formulas, but a message and a basis for hope. We are told in its pages about the character of God so we can know how to please him and how to avoid displeasing him. So sin is still sin, honor is still honor, mercy is still mercy, and Jesus is still the only Way, Truth, and Life (John 14:6). We have no fear of critical examination but must guard against fallacious or ill-informed attacks that “make shipwreck of the faith” (1 Tim. 1:19). We must not respond to such attacks with fear and anger, but with knowledge and the confidence that comes from it. God’s Word will indeed accomplish its purpose, per Isaiah 55:6-11.