Posts Tagged ‘mistakes in the bible’

By Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the series on the reliability of the Bible. Please see the introduction if you have not read it yet.

Introduction

Have you ever been singing a song, but then forgot some of the lyrics? It happens to me sometimes, but I have even seen examples of people thinking that they are singing the correct lyrics, when in reality, they are not even close. However, it does not even have to be a huge difference in wording to drastically change the meaning of a song. I recently saw a list of the Top Ten Misheard Lyrics and some of them become quite comical when altered from the original. Some examples are in order.

Right1A line from Elton John’s song Tiny Dancer, “Hold me closer tiny dancer”, has been misinterpreted as “Hold me closer Tony Danza”.

In Black Sabbath’s song Paranoid, “I tell you to enjoy life” has been mistakenly thought to be “I tell you to end your life” by some.

Jimmy Hendrix’s song Purple Haze includes the line “’Scuse me, while I kiss the sky” which is sometimes incorrectly changed to “’Scuse me, while I kiss this guy”. In fact, there is even a website called kissthisguy.com devoted to similar instances of misheard lyrics.

Examples like this could be multiplied, for, whether through misinformation, mishearing, or just plain old forgetfulness, we do not always get all the details right.

Now the examples I have given range in seriousness. On the one end, some parents have blamed Ozzy Osbourne (who was the lead singer of Black Sabbath at the time of the song) for select suicides, and on the other end, a couple of sitcoms (Friends, Will and Grace) have had some good fun with the Elton John parody. Right2Jimmy Hendrix even had some fun with his own misheard line by singing the misheard version, “’Scuse me, while I kiss this guy”, during a concert and pointing to his guitarist. Though I do generally think that it is important to get things right, I think the significance is multiplied when we turn our attention to the Bible. In part 1 of this series, I gave reasons for believing that God really has spoken in history and that these words are recorded in the Bible. However, even if someone concedes that God did speak some things at certain times, is there further reason to believe that those words were recorded accurately? After all, the evidence I gave in defense of the Bible claiming to be from God was more general. I think it at least shows that God has spoken in history, but are we able to say more by assessing the quality of the recorders of that history? From one perspective, perhaps Jesus did speak the truth from God, but the four Gospels have obscured that message. From another perspective, perhaps our understanding of the general reliability of the Gospels will bring us back to trusting the purity of the message as communicated from God.

Right-figure2

The Reliability of the Gospels

Right3In considering the question of whether the right words were written down, I have chosen to focus on the Gospels for a few reasons. I mentioned in the introduction to this series that I would pay more attention to the New Testament than the Old Testament. This is both because there is more that we know about the time of the New Testament for us to evaluate, being nearer in time, and because the New Testament bears witness to the Old Testament.

Second, though there are other books in the New Testament, the letters do not have many historical references for evaluation. The Gospels (and I could add the book of Acts), however, present narratives that could be questioned or confirmed based on coherence with history.

Third, there are four Gospels, so this allows them to be examined side by side and compared to establish a level of internal consistency. They can be read vertically, looking at the consistency of a Gospel within itself, but also horizontally, looking at the consistency of a Gospel compared with the other three.

Finally, the Gospels, for different reasons, have been the target of considerable opposition, especially in recent decades. This opposition has great significance, wherever the evidence may lead. Right4Because the Gospels are narratives of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity (the very One from whom the name “Christian” is derived), to largely discredit these narratives would be to largely discredit Christianity itself. According to the Bible’s own testimony, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17) and the Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 26:63-64), and verses emphasizing the centrality of Christ to the Christian faith could be multiplied. However, the Apostle Paul makes very clear that this faith could be falsified if Christ has not been raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17), while at the same time strongly asserting that Christ has been raised (1 Corinthians 15:20). This very important detail of Christ’s life is recorded in the Gospels, among others, so it is certainly worth considering if this information is reliable. However, the knife of critical examination cuts both ways, and this is why I said above that the opposition has great significance. It is not only the case that discrediting the Gospels would have implications for the Christian, but also that confirming the Gospels would have implications for the skeptic. After all, if the kinds of things that Jesus said and did were shown to be accurately recorded history, it would demand a response from all who read it, regardless of their predispositions.

In light of this, I intend to go about making a case for the reliability of the Gospels by starting with a little perspective, comparing the Gospels to other ancient histories and works in terms of historical standards. I will also look at the Gospels individually in terms of historical accuracy. Then I will examine the Gospels together in terms of internal consistency. That will be the extent of this article, but because of the above mentioned objections, I will also address common objections in the accompanying article, for those who are interested.

A History Lesson

How Did We Get the Gospels?

While this may not be a question that people are used to asking, it is an important one for evaluating the historicity of the Gospels. Right5After all, we must first get an idea of the process of transmission before we can assess its reliability. If you were thinking of Jesus teaching while a stenographer types down every word He says, think again. However, just because a modern method of the transmission of information was not in place, it does not mean nothing was in place or that the transmission of information was unreliable. Though different stages have been suggested by different scholars for the writing of the Gospels, I would like to focus on the period of oral transmission. I will do so because it is the period people would generally consider to be less reliable than the written period and because there could be misunderstandings concerning the reliability of oral history.

Oral Compared with Written History

One aspect of oral history that may surprise you is that, in some ways, oral history was actually preferable to written history in the ancient world. A good reason for this would be that a written account of something was set, while a verbal account could be given further explanation if necessary.

Timothy Paul Jones

Timothy Paul Jones

As Timothy Paul Jones puts it, “In some cases, first-century folk may have been less likely to trust written records, because they couldn’t speak personally with the individual that was telling the story!” (Misquoting Truth, p.85). At first, this might give the impression that a verbal account is taking liberties with what would have been written down in a book. However, this is forgetting that written accounts can often be limited in scope. Right7To give an illustration, have you ever asked yourself why we have history teachers? After all, if we have a history textbook, can we not simply read the book and know all we need to about the subject? If you answered yes, I fear it might have more to do with not liking your history teacher than actually thinking there is no more to history than what can be recorded in a book. However, my point is that the teacher is there to give context, point to the significance of events, answer questions that come up, and so on. Turning our attention to the Gospels, we must begin to realize that these accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching are very selective. John 20:30 and 21:25 tell us as much.

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book”

“Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

We are also informed by the Gospels themselves that Jesus explained things privately to His disciples. Mark 4:34 is a representative example, but there are many more instances where Jesus teaches the crowds, while telling more to His closest followers. It makes sense if you think about it. If the Gospels contained everything Jesus ever said and did, we would have to conclude that Jesus did not say or do many things, especially considering that the majority of His life before He was 30 years old is not recorded. However, our concern is mostly with what is recorded and with the reliability of this witness to what happened.

Papias of Hierapolis

Papias of Hierapolis

One person in the early church who appreciated the value of this witness was a bishop of Hierapolis, named Papias. He lived in the second half of the 1st century, when some of the disciples of Jesus still lived, but he also lived on into the 2nd century. Papias talks about how he sought what the disciples had said, asking those who had heard them. Looking back on his encounters with those who heard their words and speaking about what came from the disciples, he said,

“For I perceived that what was to be obtained from books would not profit me as much as what came from the living and surviving voice.” (Quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39)

Papias is not saying that books are somehow unreliable, because that would undermine the reliability of the Gospels. What he is saying is that he would rather hear the testimony of the disciples themselves. This would not be possible forever, of course, because the disciples of Jesus did eventually die, but it is significant that this oral history of what Jesus did and taught was so highly valued.

Regulating Oral History

This leads into another important point to make about oral history, which is the fact that not just any story was considered oral history. A person was not free to make up a story about Jesus or to change what had been proclaimed. In terms of what was considered oral history,

Richard Bauckham

Richard Bauckham

Richard Bauckham, a professor of New Testament Studies, points out how a distinction was made in oral societies between tales and accounts.

“…oral societies treat historical tales and historical accounts differently and in such a way that the latter are preserved more faithfully.” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.273)

If we imagine every story in the ancient world to have been accorded the same historical value by the ancients themselves, we would be quite mistaken. Professor of New Testament Craig Keener points out several ancient authors who differentiated between what was historical and what was fantasy. Right10Among them is Arrian, who, in his biography of Alexander the Great, complained that some writers tell of wonders at the ends of the earth only because they can get away with inventing stories that their readers cannot check. Diodorus Siculus even attempted to “demythologize” some accounts, depicting how he saw accounts reworked into mythological ones. Thucydides claimed to deal with probable events, rather than the pleasant-sounding myths. Livy warns that the more incredible reports are believed, the more others will spring up, implicitly distinguishing those spurious accounts from his own.

Plutarch

Plutarch

Perhaps the clearest illustration is found in a quote from Plutarch, who himself encouraged neither believing too much nor disbelieving too much (Miracles, p.90-92), for he said,

“Whenever you hear the traditional tales which the Egyptians tell about the gods, their wanderings, their dismemberments, and many experiences of the sort,…you must not think that any of these tales actually happened in the manner in which they are related.” (Quoted in J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, p.252).

So we can see that there was a difference, but how does the oral history of Jesus’ disciples distinguish itself as different from tales? Tales could develop from some historical core that was embellished over time, or they could be entirely made up to explain something through the use of a story. The oral history spread by the disciples of Jesus distinguishes itself by close proximity to the events described. So not just any person could make up a story about Jesus and have it become oral history, because the followers of Jesus were around to correct them. Right11Before the Gospels were written, the disciples were not just sitting around waiting for them to be written, but they were proclaiming the message about Jesus that would eventually be written down in the Gospels.

“…the interval between Jesus and the written Gospels was not dormant. The apostles and other eyewitnesses were proclaiming the good news about Jesus Christ wherever they went.” (J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, p.34)

We can see hints of this in other parts of the New Testament. The Apostle Paul writes a few references to traditions of Jesus in 1 Corinthians, written around the mid-50’s. 1 Corinthians 9:14 makes a reference to the Lord’s command, which is very likely referring to what Jesus says in Luke 10:7, that “the laborer deserves his wages”, and this is even quoted more explicitly in Paul’s 1st letter to Timothy (5:18). Paul’s description of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is quite similar to the words of the Lord Jesus recorded in Luke 22:19-20. There are other references, such as 1 Corinthians 7:10 and 15:1-5, but I want to pay special attention to the parallels in Luke. 1 Corinthians was written before Luke and very likely before any of the Gospels, so it is not as if Paul is simply quoting from a Gospel here. It may be that Paul and Luke draw from the same oral history. I cannot prove that these parallels come from the same source, but even if they do not, that only strengthens the case for the idea of a uniform oral history before the writing of the Gospels. That would mean that Paul and Luke drew the same saying of Jesus from different sources.

Right13There are also examples of people trying to teach what was not true of Jesus, in opposition to the disciples. In 1 John 2:22 and 4:2-3 we see indications that there was a false teaching about Jesus that needed to be corrected. The authority for this correction comes from the firsthand nature of the testimony about Jesus (1 John 1:1-4). Paul encouraged a confused church at Colossae to not be led astray according to human tradition, but to follow Christ (Colossians 2:8-9). Examples of the teaching of Jesus, either explicitly or implicitly, in the writings of the New Testament outside the Gospels could be multiplied, but the point is that the witness of the disciples was being preserved, through proclamation of the truth and rebuke of false teaching.

The Gospels Compared with Other Ancient History

Right14aIn addition to not being dormant, but filled with oral history, the interval of time between the time of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels was not even relatively long. When some people hear the generally accepted dates for the Gospels, about 30-70 years after Jesus (Mark Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.58), they think it sounds like a considerable amount of time. Would accurate oral history be able to be preserved over this time period? Philosopher William Lane Craig references a well-known historian to answer that question.

William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig

“Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White remarks that in classical historiography the sources are usually biased and removed at least one or two generations or even centuries from the events they narrate, but historians still reconstruct with confidence what happened. In the Gospels, by contrast, the tempo is ‘unbelievable’ for the accrual of legend; more generations are needed. The writings of Herodotus enable us to test the tempo of myth-making, and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of oral tradition. Such a gap with regard to the Gospel traditions would land us in the second century, precisely when the apocryphal Gospels began to originate.” (William Lane Craig, in J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.154)

So if history can be accurately constructed based on sources a couple generations, or even centuries, after the actual events, great confidence can certainly be put in the Gospels in terms of their close proximity to the time of Jesus. Some may claim that the Gospels present legendary accounts of Jesus, made up long after the events, but the claim of legend goes against the evidence and “long” must be understood in a relative manner. Right15This is further strengthened by the fact that when we see Gospels outside the New Testament starting to fit the profile of legend, it is in the second century, long after the people who actually followed Jesus were no longer living. I will have more to say about these so-called Gospels later in this series, but it is enough to notice here that the poor quality of the apocryphal Gospels, those outside the Bible, serves to indirectly confirm the good quality of the biblical Gospels.

If we make a comparison with the works of two trustworthy writers I have already mentioned, Arrian and Plutarch, it will serve to give greater perspective on the relatively short interval between Jesus and the Gospels.

Craig Blomberg

Craig Blomberg

New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg notes that even with later dates for the Gospels than he considers necessary,

“… we are still far closer to the original events than with many ancient biographies. The two earliest biographers of Alexander the Great, for example, Arrian and Plutarch, wrote more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., yet historians generally consider them to be trustworthy. Fabulous legends about the life of Alexander did develop over time, but for the most part only during the several centuries after these two writers.” (In J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.29-30)

Another New Testament scholar, Richard Bauckham, also sees the significance of the interval from events to Gospel writing.

Right14b“The Gospels were written within the living memory of the events they recount…This is a highly significant fact, entailed not by unusually early datings of the Gospels but by the generally accepted ones.” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.7)

“…oral transmission is quite capable of preserving traditions faithfully, even across much longer periods than that between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels…” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.240)

So, all of this testimony to the reliability of the oral history and the distinctions that would be made between tales and accounts, together with the relatively short interval in time, tells us that the disciples of Jesus were able to record accurate history concerning the life of Jesus. Those who were closest to Jesus certainly had the ability, and we could even add the motivation, to write about the things concerning their Lord, since they followed Him closely and were immersed in His teaching. After being sent out by Him to spread that teaching, they would have used the conventions of oral history to convey the message until writing became expedient.

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The Historicity of the Gospels

How Well Did the Gospel Writers Record History?

Establishing that the Gospel writers had the ability to record history correctly is not the same as establishing that they did. Though they had the right position, opportunity, and motivation, perhaps they were not concerned with accuracy. However, if it could be shown that the authors were concerned with accuracy, and that what they wrote lines up with other historical reference points, it would significantly strengthen the claim that the Gospels are indeed reliable history. Going through all four Gospels for historical references is beyond the scope of this article, so some examples will have to suffice.

The Gospel of John

RIght18I think John is a good Gospel to look at first, because it is the one that skeptics have often considered to be the least historically reliable. If the general reliability of this Gospel can be demonstrated, it would implicitly provide additional credibility to the Gospels that have faced fewer challenges. In presenting the following evidence, I do not intend to prove every part of John historically, but by giving a framework that can be found trustworthy, I would hope that the benefit of the doubt could be extended to the parts of the book that have no direct corroborating evidence. In this vein, I agree with Craig Blomberg’s assessment of how historians should be judged.

“A historian who has been found trustworthy where he or she can be tested should be given the benefit of the doubt in cases where no tests are available” (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, p.63)

One aspect that is easy to overlook, and yet is of significance in historical documents, is the use of names. First of all, we could consider whether the names used in the Gospel even fit the places they are supposed to be from. If they do, we could further consider whether the Gospel writer remembered the names accurately. If we think of the song lyric example, I find song lyrics easier to remember than the names of certain people and I am sure most people have experienced forgetting someone’s name at one time or another. If John got the names right, something difficult to remember, it is very likely that he would be accurate regarding other historical details that would be easier to remember. We might just assume that John would record the right names, but as we will see, it was not a simple task.

According to Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.85, 89) the most popular male names and female names in Palestine from 330BC-200AD were:

  1. Right19Simon
  2. Joseph
  3. Lazarus
  4. Judas
  5. John
  6. Jesus
  7. Ananias
  8. Jonathan
  9. Matthew
  10. Manaen
  11. James

Right211. Mary

  1. Salome
  2. Shelamzion
  3. Martha
  4. Joanna

Now, those familiar with the Gospels (and Acts) will notice that most of these names can be found in the narratives, and a quick reading of any list of the twelve disciples will reveal that eight of them have names from the male list. Why is this significant? Well, if you were going to make a story up, it would be unlikely that you would get this kind of detail right. We can demonstrate this by applying the same criteria to Egypt, for in descending order of popularity, we get Lazarus, Sabbataius, Joseph, Dositheus, Pappus, Ptolemaius, and Samuel (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.73). Now, while we do see Lazarus and Joseph again, they appear in a different order, and more significantly, alongside names foreign to the New Testament. Think back to the New Testament now, and observe how the only unfamiliar male name is Manaen and the only unfamiliar female name is Shelamzion (which is even just the longer form of Salome) (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.74). Also, comparing the proportion of the most popular names in total with those in the Gospels and Acts, there is a remarkable similarity in the percentages of the names used, and we can notice that around half the population had names that were among the most popular (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.71-72).

This is a strong indication that the Gospel writers were familiar with the people that the narratives are purported to have taken place among, but this would be true of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (and Acts) as well, so what is so great about John in this respect? Well, when you have half the population of a relatively small area sharing only a select number of names, you would need to distinguish who is who in other ways than by first name. This could be done in a number of ways, observable in the Gospels and Acts, but what is unique about John is how he does it and with whom.

Right22The first thing to notice about John’s Gospel is a notable omission, and try to follow me, as I will be using the name John to refer to different individuals here. In the other Gospels, the John (not the author of the Gospel) who baptized Jesus is known as “John the Baptist” and “John the son of Zechariah”, but in the Gospel of John, he is only called John (John 1:6, 15, 19). In the other Gospels, they need to distinguish John the son of Zechariah from John the son of Zebedee, but in the Gospel of John, any such identification would be unnecessary, because John the son of Zebedee is not mentioned by name (probably because he is the author of the Gospel) and because John the Baptist’s ministry of baptism is made plain. This shows that the Gospel writer knew what he was talking about and was not just copying the conventional name of this well-known figure.

Right23Another John is mentioned, but only when making another identification; that of Simon, who had the most popular Jewish name for a male (John 1:40-42). What is interesting here is that the other Gospels say that Simon was also called Peter, but only John explains the reference. In this case, John actually interprets two names, Christ (Messiah) and Peter (Cephas). He first gives their Aramaic originals transliterated into Greek and then tells his audience what they mean by giving the Greek version. This is another indication that John is interested in precision, because he explains the events surrounding these individuals, as Messiah and Cephas are the words which would have naturally been used in the actual dialogue.

Right24In dialogue a little further down (John 1:45), Philip describes Jesus as both “of Nazareth” and “the son of Joseph”. While the name Jesus springs one figure to mind for many today, keep in mind that Jesus was number 6 in popularity back then. John records not one, but two, distinguishing characteristics for the One who founded their religion. If this were to be made up much later, no such distinctions would likely be considered, but it fits perfectly in the time in which it is supposed to have been spoken. In fact, the so-called Gospels outside the Bible mostly call Jesus “Christ” or “Saviour”, which fits their later composition.

John also deals with other well-known figures in an interesting way, with one being Lazarus. John 11 tells us of Lazarus, who had sisters named Mary and Martha. The text talks of an amazing miracle, in that Lazarus, after being dead for 4 days, was raised from the dead. Apart from a passing parabolic reference in Luke 16, this is the only place where we find the name Lazarus and the event is not narrated in the other Gospels, as amazing as it was. The single attestation and the miraculous nature of the account have led skeptics to doubt the historicity, but there are indications that speak for the historicity, if the skeptic is willing to listen. First, even though this particular miracle is unique to John, the type of miracle is not (Mark 5:35-43; Luke 7:11-17). Second, there are several unlikely inventions that would seem to emphasize Jesus’ humanity over His divinity, and thus, would not likely be later additions. These would be things like Jesus’ seeming to arrive “late” (11:21, 32), Jesus being troubled (11:33), and Jesus weeping (11:35) (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, p.169). Right26Third, Lazarus seems to be in less focus than his sisters, even though he is a male and the subject of the miracle Jesus was about to perform. The village of Bethany is called the village of Mary and Martha. This fits with the sisters being more well-known, because again, the story of Lazarus is not narrated in any other Gospel, but Mary and Martha are talked about in Luke 10:38-42. Fourth, Mary and Martha are among the most popular names for women, just as Lazarus is for men, and inscriptions have even been found near Bethany, connecting all 3 names to that place. However, because of how common the names were, no direct identification can be certain at this point. Fifth, Mary is introduced by connecting her with the account of the anointing of Jesus, which is recorded in Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9. Interestingly, neither Gospel names this woman, even though what she had done was to be known wherever the gospel was preached. John gives this introduction, but he has not yet narrated the event at this point (it appears in his next chapter), so he is counting on people knowing what great act she did, but is simply supplying the added detail of the woman’s name (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, p.165).

In John 12:1-8 we have a narrative that is found in Matthew and Mark as well, the anointing of Jesus, but only in John are we told that Judas Iscariot is the one who initiates the complaining about this ointment not being sold and the money given to the poor. Also, only in John are we told the reasoning. Right27Judas was in charge of the moneybag and he used to steal from it, so he was not actually concerned for the poor, though the other disciples who agreed with him may have been. This detail also explains why none of the disciples thought it was strange that Judas left their company in the middle of a very solemn moment. Jesus said for Judas to do what he was going to do quickly and the disciples thought that meant to use the moneybag to either buy something or give to the poor (John 13:21-30).

In John 14:22 we find the name Judas again, which would need further identification for obvious reasons, being both generally popular and specifically used just recently in John. In an odd description, John does not provide information about who Judas is, but who he is not. John knows that the much more well-known Judas is the son of Simon Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus (13:2, 26). He also knows that there are only 2 men named Judas in Jesus’ group of followers, even though Jesus also had a brother named Judas and it was a popular name. This again shows familiarity with the original situation, enough to identify the Judas that was speaking by saying he was not the other Judas, who had already gone out from the group (John 13:30) and had been a major character in the previous passage.

Right28Finally, just as Mary was identified as the one who anointed Jesus from other Gospel narratives, Simon Peter makes a revealing appearance in John that stood anonymous in the other Gospels. All 4 Gospels record that one of Jesus’ followers cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant with a sword, but only John tells us that it was Simon Peter who did this (John 18:10). John is also the only one to tell us that the name of that servant was Malchus.

Right29Now, I am not saying that any of these are of major significance in isolation, but they do give the picture that John is concerned with historical accuracy. Many more details could be noted, but suffice it to say that John shows considerable attention to historical factors. Norman Geisler and Frank Turek list 59 details of John’s Gospel that are either historically confirmed or historically probable (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.263-268). Right30Those that are historically confirmed have some other trusted source that lines up with what John says. One quick example would be the 5 roofed colonnades at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) being confirmed by archaeological and literary sources (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, p.109). Right30aThose that are historically probable are details that are very unlikely to have been made up for various reasons. A quick example of this would be the fact that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus. It would be embarrassing to admit that a peripheral figure and not Jesus’ disciples buried Him, and it would be easy to refute if not true, because Joseph was a member of the Jewish council and would thus be well-known. For these and other reasons, most scholars accept the authenticity of this account (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, p.256). Craig Blomberg even puts the Gospel of John above the other Gospels (the Synoptics) in certain respects.

“Another interesting feature of John is that, when compared with the Synoptics, his Gospel consistently gives more references to chronology, geography, topography, and the like.” (In J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.39)

Blomberg goes on to say that this is all the more significant, because John does not seem to be making any point with it and it seems to appear incidentally. John is not trying to convince us that he knows what he is talking about, but he simply reflects that he does through his natural narration of the events in Jesus’ life. So, since John’s Gospel turns out to be a lot more accurate than many skeptics give it credit for, further confidence can also be placed in the Gospels in which there was already a greater level of confidence than in John.

Acts and the Gospel of Luke

It is of interest to investigate both the book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke, though not much detail will be necessary, since this history happens to be the one that skeptics are least skeptical about, as opposed to John’s Gospel. One reason the books should both be considered together is that they are similar to a two volume set, both addressed to the same person (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1), with the second book making reference to the first. Right31Another reason would be that the Gospel deals with one corner of the Roman Empire, while Acts narrates events over much more of it. So with Acts there are potentially more details that could be historically examined through what we know of the Roman Empire. In fact, one of the greatest archaeologists in history, Sir William Ramsay, thought that it would be easy to show that Luke’s history in Acts was incorrect, because he mentioned so many details. However, having examined the evidence himself, he was forced to completely reverse his earlier skepticism.

Right32

William Ramsay

“I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without any prejudice in favour of the conclusion which I shall now attempt to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavourable to it, for the ingenuity and apparent completeness of the Tübingen theory had at one time quite convinced me. It did not lie then in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely; but more recently I found myself often brought in contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvellous truth. In fact, beginning with the fixed idea that the work was essentially a second-century composition, and never relying on its evidence as trustworthy for first-century conditions, I gradually came to find it a useful ally in some obscure and difficult investigations. ” (William Ramsay, Saint Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen, p.12)

Josh McDowell quotes Ramsay in having said that Luke “should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” (The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p.63). McDowell then quotes already noted historian A.N. Sherwin-White in confirmation of this assertion as well.

“For Acts the confirmation of his historicity is overwhelming…Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.” (The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p.64)

Right34Another Roman historian, Colin Hemer, went through the last 16 chapters of the book of Acts (which records the major travels of Paul through the Roman Empire) and noted 84 facts confirmed by historical and archaeological research (The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic Culture, p.108-158). Since it took Hemer 50 pages, I will not attempt to give all the details, but an example will illustrate Luke’s accuracy. The leaders of different places and different responsibilities had different names, and Luke is very accurate in this regard, as he mentions these different titles correctly for any given place and position. Right35On Cyprus, the governor is called proconsul (ἀνθύπατος) (Acts 13:7). In Philippi Luke describes magistrates (στρατηγοί) (Acts 16:20, 22). Those in Thessalonica are called authorities (πολιτάρχαι) (Acts 17:6, 8). In Ephesus we hear of the town clerk (γραμματεὺς) (Acts 19:35). The leader on Malta is called the chief man (πρώτος) (Acts 28:7). This may seem simple, but someone writing about these people and places could very easily use a more general name and thereby make a mistake. This would stand in contrast to Luke, who exhibits remarkable familiarity with the history he describes and makes no mistake in his narrative. Other examples involve details of geography, language, religion, and society, but suffice it to say that Luke knew what he was talking about and recorded accurate history.

Right36What does this say about Luke’s Gospel, then? Well, I believe we should remember the quote from Craig Blomberg above. We should give a historian the benefit of the doubt where they cannot be tested when this historian has proven trustworthy where they can be tested. When we read Luke, we can keep in mind that this is the author of Acts, so if he paid such attention to accuracy in the latter book, his quality as a historian should also be connected with the former book. You do not simply need to take my word for it, though, since Luke himself tells us of his attention to detail.

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4 ESV)

This introduction to Luke’s Gospel does not in itself guarantee that everything he writes is correct, but it does give the impression that this is Luke’s intention and that he did the research to make sure that Theophilus could have confidence that the account was accurate. Right37To see this demonstrated, one need only turn to the beginning of Luke 3, where not 1, but 6 historical reference points are given for the start of John the Baptist’s ministry in the span of 2 verses (Tiberius was Caesar, Pontius Pilate was the governor, Herod, Philip, and Lysanias were tetrachs, Annas and Caiaphas were high priests). However, some have still claimed that Luke did not live up to his introduction, but just as historical information has confirmed Acts, the same has been true of Luke. There will always be skeptics, so even though Luke is considered generally reliable, it may be instructive to consider a charge of inaccuracy to see how the Gospel holds up.

A commonly cited example is the census described in Luke 2:1-5, for which some evidence suggested that Luke got his facts wrong.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins uses this example to refute the reliability of the Bible (The God Delusion, p.119), making fun of the idea of returning to an ancestral city for a census and accusing Luke of carelessness in “mentioning events that historians are capable of independently checking.” I use Dawkins as an example because of his popularity among skeptics, but I must say that he does base his objections on the work of historical scholars. To spell it out, the problems presented by this passage are that Augustus called for the census of all the people, that people had to return to their ancestral city, and that Quirinius was the governor at the time.

To consider Augustus calling for the census, there was no evidence that he registered the whole Roman Empire at the same time. However, it is an assumption to claim that Augustus would have to register all at the same time and Luke does not say that, but merely that they “should be registered” (ESV). In light of this, evidence has been found that these events happened regularly around the Roman Empire, starting in the very reign under question, the reign of Augustus. In fact, it took place about every 14 years. Furthermore, an Egyptian papyrus describes the practice of returning to one’s ancestral city. Right39Finally, the issue with Quirinius is that we know he was made governor of Syria by Augustus in 6AD and that a census took place around this time in Syria and Judea, but the birth of Christ is placed around 6BC. The interesting thing is that Sir William Ramsay comes in to correct Dawkins and others who thought the same way Ramsay did before examining the evidence; namely, that Luke was foolish to mention historical events that could be checked. As it turns out, Ramsay discovered several inscriptions indicating that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, once before the time in 6AD that I already mentioned around 7BC. So, if one census occurred no earlier than 6AD, the average timing would place the previous census within an adequate timeframe to send Jesus’ parents to their ancestral city of Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth while Quirinius was governor the first time. We have even further reason to believe that Luke knew what he was talking about, because he makes a reference to the later census in Acts 5:37. It seems that he knew of two and distinguishes one from the other in his Gospel. Looking back to Luke 2, possible translations of the verse in question are “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” and “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria”. So however it is translated, history has a satisfactory answer (Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus, p.172-173; Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p.63-64).

So, having looked at the Gospel generally thought to be the least reliable and then the Gospel considered to be the most reliable, I believe we can observe a pattern. General skepticism does not hold up upon closer scrutiny and the Gospel writers demonstrate attention to accurate detail, even in matters that might initially seem to be of little consequence. Therefore, I suggest that since the Gospels have been historically tested and been confirmed in certain areas, that we should extend a strong vote of confidence to the portions of the Gospel that are thus far untestable.

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The Internal Consistency of the Gospels

How Well Do the Gospels Line Up with Each Other?

I have often heard people talk about apparent contradictions in the Gospels, and ask how, if one Gospel says one thing about an event and a second Gospel says another, are we to know which Gospel to believe, if any? This is important to ask and is a common objection, so I will certainly address this in the objections article that will accompany this article. After all, even if the disciples were able to record accurate history and even gave many historical indications that they did this, having various contradictions between them would undermine the historicity in the minds of many. Though I will address contradictions, as I have said, what I have not often heard is how well the Gospels fit together. Amidst all this talk of how the Gospels might disagree, I would like to present evidence of their remarkable agreement. I hope this will also provide a foundation from which to assess alleged contradictions.

The way I plan to do this is through the evidence of what have been called “undesigned coincidences”, which I have based on the work of 19th century scholar John James Blunt (Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings Both of the Old and New Testament). More recently, his work has been revived by philosopher Timothy McGrew, specifically regarding the Gospels. Right40An undesigned coincidence is basically a feature of a narrative where an event(s) is more fully explained in another narrative. Though undesigned coincidences appear throughout the Bible, I believe they are most evident in the Gospels, because there are 4 of them and some of the same events are narrated more regularly than in other portions of the Bible. If you do not understand what I mean, examples are usually the best way to clear that up, but hopefully explaining the name will give a little more clarity. These features are called “undesigned” because they would be very difficult to explain if they were planned and they are called “coincidences” because they connect narratives together, though incidentally. In other words, there may be no obvious intention, and yet the Gospels line up with each other in extraordinary ways, like pieces of a puzzle.

Right40aI have read the Gospels many times, and in a way, that can work against me in noticing the confirming details that are there to be found. I never really thought about undesigned coincidences before they were pointed out to me. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I was just hindered from seeing a different perspective by my familiarity with the Gospels. So, whether you have read the Gospels 30 times or none, I plan to help you see something that is likely new to you. I can say that, because last year I taught this in Stockholm to a group of 30 people of all different ages and not one of them had heard anything like it before. A major reason many do not think of these features is because we do not often think of the uniqueness of each Gospel, but lump them all together into one big Gospel with all the events. However, when we appreciate each Gospel individually, and then compare them very intentionally, some interesting observations arise.

Just One Thing

Sometimes the events narrated in different Gospels will be nearly identical, but 1 Gospel will have a single detail not found elsewhere. This is not strange, because rarely do different people telling the same story agree exactly, but it is significant when this little detail explains something puzzling about the other account.

Right41Matthew 26:67-68 describes how the council that condemned Jesus to death started to strike Him after they gave the sentence. Have you ever asked yourself why they tell Jesus to prophesy who struck Him? After all, could He not simply look and then say who had struck Him, without using His prophetic abilities? Well, you might be tempted to just forget about it or to offer some extravagant interpretation…or you could just look at the same event narrated in Luke 22:63-64. Luke gives us the tiny little detail that puts the pieces of the puzzle together; namely, that they blindfolded Jesus for this. That is why He would be forced to prophesy to identify who struck Him, because He could not actually see at the time. In this way, Luke explains Matthew.

Right42Luke 9:29-36 describes the transfiguration of Jesus, including Jesus’ altered appearance, Moses and Elijah talking with Him, and a voice from the clouds saying to listen to Him. It is safe to say that this would have been an amazing experience for the 3 disciples who were there. However, Luke tells us that they told nothing of what they had seen to anyone in those days. If that seems a little odd to you, you are not alone. Why would they not tell anyone? We need look no further than the same event in Mark 9:2-10. As it turns out, Mark records how Jesus commanded the disciples to tell no one until after His resurrection. This explains both why they did not proclaim it initially and why they eventually did proclaim it, based on Jesus’ instruction. In this way, Mark explains Luke.

Right43Matthew 26:20-25 records Jesus revealing to His disciples that one of them would betray Him, and Judas, the one who was going to betray Him, asked Jesus directly if it was him that would commit the betrayal. Jesus responds “You have said so” (ESV), but there is no reaction recorded from the disciples. Why would no one say anything after such a serious accusation? John 13:21-30 tells us that, even though some of this conversation was public, the actual identification of Judas as the betrayer was not perceived by the majority of the disciples. In this way, John explains Matthew.

Mark 9:11-13 contains a description of Elijah, how he had already come and that “they” did to him whatever they pleased. The disciples bring up the question and Jesus gives an answer, but it is not at all made clear what they are talking about. Who is this Elijah and why does it matter? The parallel passage in Matthew 17:11-13 gives us a better idea. Matthew includes the fact that the disciples understood that Jesus was referring to John the Baptist, and since he had been imprisoned and eventually executed (Matthew 11:2, 14:1-12), Jesus was using this description to point to His own imminent suffering and death. In this way, Matthew explains Mark.

Mentioned in Passing

These undesigned coincidences are often subtle or mentioned in passing. These would be details that are not necessarily linked to major points, which also makes them easy to miss. However, if we think about them in terms of historical value, they have added significance, because they reflect that the author sees the historical picture and records the detail, even if it is not directly important for his message.

Luke 5:27-28 introduces us to a tax collector named Levi. Jesus calls him to follow and it says “leaving everything, he rose and followed him” (ESV), which sounds a lot like the calling of Peter, James, and John a little earlier (Luke 5:11). This has every appearance of the calling of an important disciple, but oddly enough, we hear nothing else about this Levi. Luke 6:14-16 records the names of the 12 disciples, but Levi is nowhere to be found. Why would Luke include this specific calling if he played no further part in Luke’s Gospel? Right45For those more familiar with the Gospels, you might have been thinking that Luke 6:15 does mention that one of the disciples was named Matthew and that Matthew was a tax collector. This is the answer, of course, but it illustrates how easily we can gloss over the fact that Luke does not give us all the information we need to work that out, so it would be easy to miss that detail. Matthew 9:9 gives the same narrative as in Luke 5, but the name given is Matthew, which is the more well-known name of the tax collector who left everything to become a disciple of Jesus. Matthew’s list of the 12 disciples includes Matthew and adds that he was a tax collector (Matthew 10:2-4). The name change may have been something that Jesus Himself initiated, as He did with other disciples, or it may have Matthew’s own decision. Whatever the case, the Gospel traditionally ascribed to Matthew is the only one that connects the tax collector and the disciple, so even if we have it in our minds that Matthew was a tax collector, we have to remember that only Matthew’s Gospel tells us that. In this way, Matthew explains Luke.

John 3:24 and 6:67 include references to details that John mentions briefly, but never takes the time to explain or narrate. The first verse says that John the Baptist had not yet been put in prison and the second verse mentions Jesus saying something to the Twelve. This might not seem odd to you, but the fact is John the Baptist’s arrest is not described anywhere else in the book, nor is any identification given for the Twelve. Right46On one side, why would John make a chronological reference to an event he does not narrate later? On another side, why would he make a biographical reference to a group he has not introduced before? Mark 6:17 describes that John the Baptist was indeed arrested and Mark 3:13-19 does include a list of names for John’s mystery group. Now, what is helpful to understand is that John is very widely held to have been written after Mark. So it would make sense that John would not have to narrate John the Baptist’s imprisonment or tell his audience the identity of the Twelve, because it would have already have become known through Mark and the other Gospels. John mentions historical persons and events in passing, confirming their veracity, though without actually making a big deal of it. Mark fills in the details, but John is content with what is more relevant to his Gospel in particular. In this way, Mark explains John.

John 21:1-3 describes Peter, the sons of Zebedee, and some other disciples deciding to go fishing at Peter’s initiative, after Jesus had revealed Himself to His disciples. Right47Why would they go fishing? The answer is quite simple to those familiar with the Gospels. Peter and the sons of Zebedee were fishermen before Jesus called them to be His disciples. However, I am sure by now that it will surprise no one, based on the evidence I have already presented, that John does not in fact divulge this information anywhere in his Gospel. This is another illustration of how we can form a conglomerate picture of the Gospels, forgetting what each Gospel includes or omits. If we go to Matthew 4:18-22, though, we see James and John, sons of Zebedee, in addition to Peter, leaving their fishing nets to follow Jesus. In this way, Matthew explains John.

Filling in the Blanks

Sometimes the Gospels interlock so well that a detail in one Gospel explains an aspect of a second Gospel, but then that second Gospel also contains a detail that explains an aspect of the first Gospel. In other words, sometimes it is almost as if the Gospels fill in each other’s blanks to create one fluid account. One coincidental detail is significant enough as evidence for reporting accurate history, but it is naturally more significant when there are multiple details that fit together.

Luke 23:1-4 and John 18:33-38 each give an account of Jesus before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, but as it turns out, neither account makes total sense on its own. However, when the narratives are read in parallel, the puzzle pieces come together. To begin with Luke, the leaders of the Jews accuse Jesus before Pilate and one of the charges is that Jesus was claiming to be a king. Pilate proceeds to go and ask Jesus if He considers Himself the King of the Jews. Jesus answers in the affirmative and then Pilate goes out to those that made the accusation and declares Jesus not guilty. Right48Why would Pilate declare Jesus innocent if He confessed to what He was accused of? John provides the answer, giving more of the conversation between Pilate and Jesus. In this conversation, Jesus explains that His kingdom is not of this world, so He was not actually rebelling against the current ruling authority; namely, Rome. Whatever Pilate thought of Jesus, he did not see Him as a rival King. However, the explanation goes the other way too, for in John’s description of the accusation portion just before the conversation with Pilate, there is no mention of a charge of Jesus claiming to be the King of the Jews. Why would Pilate, out of nowhere, ask Jesus if He was the King of the Jews? The answer, of course, has already been given above in the discussion of Luke’s account, but it would remain a mystery if John was the only Gospel we were looking at. In this way, Luke explains John, and John explains Luke.

John 11:1-2 has John again making a passing mention of something. Contrary to the examples above where he does not refer to it later, in this particular instance, he does narrate what he refers to briefly, doing so in John 12:1-8. The event is the anointing of Jesus by Mary (chapter 12) and John uses this to identify which Mary he is talking about (chapter 11). Why would John use an event he has not yet narrated to identify this woman? Right49He can do so, because this event was well-known. Matthew 26:6-13 includes the account of Jesus being anointed, so John can make a passing reference to it, even before he has come to that point in his own Gospel. However, Matthew does not have all questions answered on its own either. Matthew 26:13 says that what this woman had done would be told in the whole world in memory of her. Why would this woman be so famous, yet anonymous? I suppose she could have been known as the woman who anointed Jesus, but thankfully, John identifies Mary in the way that he does, even before giving the description of the event. In this way, Matthew explains John, and John explains Matthew.

Confirming Miracle Accounts

Another interesting feature of these undesigned coincidences is that some of them appear in the context of a miracle happening. While the accurate detail may not automatically guarantee that the miracle actually happened, it does support the idea that the Gospel writers paid attention to accurately recording history. In other words, if the author was correct regarding a comparatively insignificant detail of the event, it would make sense that he would also get the most important part of the narrative right.

Matthew 8:14-16 starts with Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. Then in the evening, it says many people were brought to Jesus. He proceeded to cast demons out of those who were possessed and heal all who were sick. The fact that this happened in the evening may seem like an insignificant detail, but have you ever asked yourself why that is when these people were brought to Jesus?

Mark 1:21-34 provides an important piece of the puzzle. Sometimes it can be hard to identify which day it was that Jesus healed any particular person, but we can safely assume that Peter only had 1 mother-in-law. So, knowing that we have the same day, we will also discover from Mark’s account that this all happened after Jesus was teaching on the Sabbath. The Jewish day ended at evening, so the people who were brought to be healed were brought at the time when the Sabbath ended, “at sundown” (ESV) as Mark correctly puts it. This allowed the people to avoid making Jesus heal on a Sabbath, which is a point of contention in other parts of the Gospels. In this way, Mark explains Matthew.

Mark 6:31-44 gives an account of the feeding of the 5,000, one of the events mentioned in all 4 Gospels. Mark tells us that it happens in a desolate place and that there were many people coming and going, but an interesting detail is that during the miracle of feeding this crowd with just 5 loaves and 2 fish, Jesus instructs them to sit down on the green grass. Why would there be green grass in a desolate place? Right51John 6:4-13 gives us the timing of this event, putting it near the time of the Passover. According to Alfred Edersheim, there would be no green grass soon after the Passover, but there would be in the time leading up it (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p.1051). So, the timing of the miracle in John coincides with the detail give in Mark, for the event happened during the rainy season, so there would be green grass, even in that desolate place. The timing, around one of the great Jewish feasts, would also explain why there were many people coming and going. In this way, John explains Mark.

Right52Wait a minute, though. How do we know where the event took place? This we know from yet a third Gospel, and as it happens, it explains an additional detail of John’s account in the process. In John 6:5, right before Jesus is about to do the miracle, He asked Philip where they could buy bread to feed the people. Now, Jesus only asked this to test Philip, knowing that He was about to do a miracle (John 6:6), but still, of all the disciples, why would Jesus ask Philip? Well, before going to another Gospel, we can learn a little more about Philip in a totally unrelated context. In John 12:21, we are told that Philip is from Bethsaida. This might seem of little consequence if it were not for what we find in Luke 9:10-17. As it turns out, the feeding of the 5,000 happens around Bethsaida, so Jesus asked someone who was from that region where they could buy something for the crowd to eat. To sum up, only Mark tells us that there was green grass in the desolate place and that there were many coming and going. Only John tells us that it happened around the time of the Passover and that Jesus asked Philip, who was from Bethsaida, where they could buy food. Finally, only Luke tells us that the event took place around Bethsaida. In this way, Luke explains John, and indirectly, Mark.

Setting the Record Straight

Ironically, some undesigned coincidences even occur in passages that have been charged with contradiction. What I mean is that on the surface, the Gospel accounts may seem to diverge, but if we take a closer look, I believe details arise that show the Gospel writers to be writing different parts of the same event. As I mentioned above, I plan to address the objection of contradictions in the Gospels in the accompanying article. However, I would first want to point out that an apparent contradiction is not the same as an actual contradiction, for sometimes details that seem to disagree have simply not been given adequate examination.

One alleged contradiction revolves around who went to Jesus’ tomb on the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Textual critic Bart Ehrman (Jesus Interrupted, p.48) says that he uses the resurrection narratives to illustrate contradictions among the Gospels and often asks which women were at the tomb. Was it Mary Magdalene alone or was it one other Mary with her, or were there in fact more women that went? Right53Let’s start with Mary alone, from John 20:1-2. The first thing that should be noted is that it does not say that Mary was alone, but it is granted that no other women are mentioned directly. I say directly, because when Mary says that the body of the Lord was gone, she proceeds to say “we do not know where they have laid him” (ESV). Why would she say “we” if she was alone during the discovery? This is where Luke 24:1-10 comes in, especially verse 10. Luke lists 2 women named Mary, a woman named Joanna, and then simply describes the rest as other women. So, if Luke knew there were more and neglects to name them, it certainly stands to reason that John could just be focusing in on Mary Magdalene, as the pronoun “we” also indicates. That would be enough of a connection, but if we add in a third Gospel, there is more. John 20:17 shows Jesus saying not to cling to Him. Why would Jesus tell Mary this? In Matthew 28:9, the women take hold of Jesus feet, which is another indication that this is the same encounter. John omits the fact that there were other women present, but he also makes no claim that Mary Magdalene was alone. There are assumptions being forced between the lines, but they do not stand up to closer examination. In this way, Matthew and Luke explain John.

A less obvious contradiction involves the calling of the first disciples. Though some will not see an apparent contradiction here, I have heard it used as an example. In Mark 1:16-20, Jesus simply calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow Him, and then they do. End of story. In Luke 5:1-11, Jesus uses one of their boats to teach the crowd a little off the shore and then He tells them to let their nets down.  Right54aThey do it and catch a large number of fish. After bringing their boats to land, Jesus has some new disciples that leave everything to follow Him. I think these accounts are easily reconcilable, with the one in Mark focusing on what happened after Jesus taught like He did in Luke. However, another assumption forced between the lines would be that the disciples followed immediately, just at Jesus’ word, and not after He had taught and shown them a miracle. Let’s look closer, then. What were the soon-to-be disciples doing in Mark just before they were called? They were mending their nets. Why would they need to mend their nets? Well, if my chronology is correct, Luke 5:6 happened not too long before this, when they had so many fish that their nets were breaking. When the fishing nets break, they need to be mended. So, if you get past an overly rigid reading, these passages go together quite naturally. In this way, Luke explains Mark.

Right55

The examples I have provided are enough to show that each Gospel confirms aspects of the other 3, and even more could be given. These kinds of coincidences are not what you would expect to find in stories that have been made up or in narratives simply copied from one another. However, they are just what you would expect to find in narratives recording the same history accurately, telling it from their unique perspective.

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Conclusion

In this article, I have shown that the Gospel writers not only had the ability and opportunity to record accurate history, but also that they gave different indications that this is exactly what they did. They were close to the events, they would have preserved the oral history, and they showed attention to detail in their recording of the events. As I mentioned above, historians who are found trustworthy where they can be tested, should be given the benefit of the doubt in areas where they cannot be tested. With this in mind, a lot of confidence can be placed in the Gospels, and this is significant, because of the subject matter of the Gospels. The skeptic will no doubt have other questions, but that is a matter for the accompanying article. However, if you have no further questions about the reliability of the Gospels, feel free to continue on to the next article to consider how God’s words have been preserved over time (to be continued).

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By Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the series on the reliability of the Bible. Please see the introduction and Part 1a if you have not read them yet.

Introduction

WordObj1b“In a religious context, a revelatory claim makes great sense, assuming one is confident one is looking at a revelation from God.  But in a secular context and in a world where many writings make such claims of being in contact with the divine, it is important that some standard of assessment exist—not to prove beyond a doubt the character of the writing, for no humanly devised judgment can do that, but to set a direction that indicates the plausibility and general credibility of the text.” (Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace, Dethroning Jesus, p.32).

This quote essentially summarizes what I was trying to do in the previous article.  For the religious, the question is simply how we can see which book(s) constitutes revelation from God, while for the non-religious, the question is if we can realistically recognize revelation from God, leaning toward the negative, as there is no basis of belief in God to create an expectation that God might reveal Himself.  For the former group, the evidence I have already presented might be sufficient, at least to get them to seriously consider that the Bible might be truly the word of God.  However, for the latter group, being more skeptical to even the idea presented, irrespective of the particulars, there will no doubt be some lingering questions.  I do not pretend to be addressing every possible objection, but I do intend to deal with some common objections, especially related to the evidence I have already presented.

Addressing Objections

Darrell Bock

Darrell Bock

Daniel Wallace

Daniel Wallace

As the quote from Bock and Wallace above suggests, the objective is not to use human standards to prove beyond a doubt that a given book is from God, because naturally, if something is from God, it just will not conform to human standards at every turn.  However, though we might not be able to track down proof for every word, by presenting a general reliability, we can point the finger at fundamental skepticism and ask whether that is the best approach.  Having said that, the following objections do not all come from atheists, but also from scholars who at least claim to be Christians (that they actually are genuine Christians is highly doubtful in the case of some).  So, some of these objections do not necessarily undermine the idea that God has spoken, but the question is more concerned with how much He has spoken.  Whatever the case may be, there is nothing wrong with having questions, as long as they really are honest questions and not simply an excuse to believe whatever we want to believe, regardless of which way the evidence points.

If you are only interested in one particular objection, feel free to read it on its own, as the arguments are largely independent.

Objection #1: The Bible Is a Human Book

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Objection #2: The Bible Contains Unscientific Ideas

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Objection #3: The Bible Contains False Prophecy

WordObj-figure 3-1

Conclusion

As I stated in the introduction, I have not dealt with every possible objection, but a selection of objections that are commonly raised, especially in response WordObj54bto the evidence I presented in the previous article.  However, I do believe these objections are representative of the fundamental presuppositions behind doubting the Bible as the word of God.  Norman Geisler quotes Stephen Davis as he sums this up well.

“What leads them to liberalism, apart from cultural and personal issues, is their acceptance of certain philosophical or scientific assumptions that are inimical to evangelical theology—e.g., assumptions about what is ‘believable to modern people,’ ‘consistent with modern science,’ ‘acceptable by twentieth-century canons of scholarship,’ and the like.” (Quoted in Inerrancy, p.307).

Scholars read some other human books and find some similarities in the Bible, so then they question how it could be a divine book.  They see the Bible as inconsistent with modern science, so they dismiss its claims.  They see miraculous detail in the predictions and do not believe in miracles, so they conclude that there must be some other explanation.  However, as I have shown in this article, these objections do not hold up and I submit that their failure should lead to a reexamination of those cherished presuppositions that have such a great influence over the view of the Bible.  I have contended that the Bible claims to be the word of God and shows it in different ways, and I have also proceeded to answer objections to that contention.  Next it will be time to continue and see if God’s word, even if spoken in the past, can actually be said to have been preserved accurately.

Part 2 of the series

Part 1a

Part 1b

Objection #1

Objection #2

Objection #3: The Bible Contains False Prophecy

This particular objection is not referring to what I explained in the first objection about the Bible reporting falsehood, without endorsing it, for the Bible clearly does report that there were some false prophets who prophesied falsely (Jeremiah 28:15; Ezekiel 13:9; Mark 13:22).  This objection charges the Bible with claiming true prophecy in cases where the prophecy is not true.

Clark Pinnock

WordObj21What discussion of an area of Christian controversy would be complete without good old Clark adding his input?  Honestly, I am not intending to pick on Pinnock, but since he does represent a fringe position within Christianity well, I find his opinions worth discussing.  In his book Most Moved Mover, he claims of the Bible that “There are imprecise prophetic forecasts based on present situations, as when Jesus predicts the fall of Jerusalem” (p.50).  Pinnock expands on this in a note on the next page, saying “despite Jesus, in the destruction of the temple, some stones were left one on the other’ (Mt. 24:2)”.  This is at least partially due to his belief that God does not know the future (a topic worth taking up at another time), but regardless of the reasons, the concern is that Pinnock is content to say that “prophecies often go unfulfilled.” (Most Moved Mover, p.51 note 66).

Thom Stark

WordObj22Stark would agree that Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem was an imprecise forecast that is not so impressive (The Human Faces of God, p.190), and he would also say that Jesus “got a few things wrong.” (The Human Faces of God, p.225).  In addition to this, Stark would go so far as to claim that the Bible includes pseudo-prophecy or prophecy after the fact.  When this is the case, the so-called “prophet” is really writing history or contemporary events that have already happened, but writes it like it is prophecy by putting the words in the mouth of a past prophet.  To give an example of this claim for the Bible, Stark mentions in passing, accompanied by a footnote, that Isaiah 40-66 was not written by Isaiah, but that chapters 40-55 and then 56-66 by two successive disciples of Isaiah, one near the end of the Babylonian exile (40-55) and one after (56-66) (The Human Faces of God, p.83 note 22).  In fairness to Stark, he is basing his arguments on previous scholarship (The Human Faces of God, p.xvii) and is not intending in the book to argue for things like the dividing of Isaiah into three parts, so I am not faulting him for that.  However, what I do take issue with is the often unchallenged assumptions on which these kinds of casual assertions lie, of which Stark merely stands as a representative.  Knowing that scholars generally claim a certain thing does not impress me.  I am more concerned with why they do so and if acceptable reasons present themselves.

Pseudo-prophecy?

In the previous article, I made use of the book of Isaiah and his prophecies in support of the Bible being the word of God, so the integrity of the book is certainly worth defending.  After all, if what I claimed was predictive prophecy, showing that God revealed His word to Isaiah, turned out to be some anonymous poet writing history and tacking it on the book of Isaiah, it would negate the point.  It is WordObj23worth mentioning that the idea of a book of the Bible having multiple authors is not the issue, for the book of Proverbs very openly declares to include contributions by Solomon (1:1), the wise (24:23), Hezekiah’s men copying Solomon’s proverbs (25:1), Agur (30:1), and Lemuel (31:1) as a collection of wise sayings.  The issue is whether the words of Isaiah are predictions of the future which imply God’s hand in them being spoken (Isaiah 48:3-5) or the reminiscence of the past (Isaiah 64:10-11) and descriptions of the present (Isaiah 45:1).  The question is if God has truly declared the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) or if a clever writer has declared the middle from the end as if it were from the beginning (Isaiah 42:22).

The Division of Isaiah

WordObj24Though I pointed out above that Stark mentions three different authors of Isaiah, there are some who opt for two authors, and still others that consider the book to be the work of more than three.  Since I will be defending the unity of Isaiah below, I will only look here at the idea that there are two authors, or a “First” and a “Second” Isaiah, so to speak.  This is just for the sake of simplicity, for I will be attempting to refute that Isaiah should be divided into different books at all, so naturally, the number of books will be of less consequence if the argument for unity is strong.  In fact, the idea that there might be a “Third” Isaiah built upon the same principles that declared that there was a “Second” Isaiah in the first place, so if there was not adequate reasoning for breaking the book at chapter 40, serious doubt is cast on breaking the book at chapter 56 as well.  I will first present some of the challenges to the unity of Isaiah (summarized by Daniel Lewis in The Book of Isaiah, p.51) and then proceed to respond to such challenges.  The terms “First Isaiah” and “Second Isaiah” will be used for simplicity in discussing the two parts.

WordObj25aOne challenge is that of historical situation, for while chapters 1-39 (First Isaiah) are largely concerned with the threat of the Assyrians in the 8th century BC, chapter 40 and onward (Second Isaiah) are concerned with Babylon in the 6th century BC.  These latter chapters also deal with the Babylonian exile of the Jews and subsequent rise of Persia as yet a third world power after Assyria and Babylon.  Cyrus the Great is even mentioned by name a couple times (44:28, 45:1).  “Furthermore, it is not simply that Second Isaiah envisions a different historical circumstance than First Isaiah, but more important, that it views the exile and the destruction of Judah as a past event (40:2; 42:22-25).”

Another issue is the literary difference between First and Second Isaiah.  In the former, the tone is one of condemnation, while in the latter, it is one of consolation, with the change of attitude suggesting a change of author.  In addition, First Isaiah has biographical material about Isaiah the prophet, but Second Isaiah has none.

Old NewsA final point has to do with the fact that the writings in Second Isaiah are said to be “new” and previously unknown (48:6-8).  However, if this concerns the exiles in the 6th century BC, how could they not know about it if it was written in the 8th century BC?  How could something around 150 years old be considered new?

The Unity of Isaiah in Historical Perspective

In response to the difference of historical situation, it must first be said that the subject matter of these latter chapters is not in dispute, for they do deal largely with Babylon.  WordObj27The issue is whether these chapters are history written as pseudo-prophecy (as would be the case if chapter 40 and onward represented a much later work than chapters 1-39) or represent authentic predictive prophecy (as would be the case if the Isaiah of the 8th century was the author of both halves of the book).  So what can be said in support of both halves of the book coming from the same prophet in light of this dilemma?  First, even if there is a significant change in subject matter and time period, this does not necessarily negate the possibility of common authorship.  Some of the smaller prophets mix prophecies of the imminent judgement, physical restoration of Israel, messianic restoration, and final judgement and restoration all together, and yet escape suggestions of segmentation.  Perhaps their small size makes the variety of time periods prophesied about less obvious, but the point remains that prophets are free to prophesy about more than their own period.  Of course, whether this is true prophecy or not depends on personal presuppositions, as we will see below, but at least in principle, Isaiah can write about Babylon if he so chooses, even if Assyria was formerly the main threat.

Second, though it is true that Assyria was the main enemy in chapters 1-39, should we expect that this continue after chapter 39, if indeed Isaiah is really the author?  When I look at the end of First Isaiah, I am convinced that the answer is a resounding “No!”  WordObj28Chapters 36-39 narrate the events surrounding the 701BC invasion of Judah by King Sennacherib of Assyria (John Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary OT, p.584).  This invasion, and the others they had made against surrounding nations previously, certainly makes them a threat at the time, but the fact that they subsequently withdrew from Judah for the next few decades changes things.  Though some might question the historicity of the withdrawal, in his prism, Sennacherib himself mentions Hezekiah the Jew, that he had him “like a bird in a cage”, but there is no mention of a conquest of Jerusalem, which would be expected if the city had been taken (Daniel Lewis, Archaeology and the Old Testament, p.33).  Whatever happened there, Assyria was no longer a threat for the time being.

Third, though the question of why Babylon would replace Assyria as the enemy of Judah might surface, this is also described in this same section in chapter 39, forming what I find to be a natural transition from Assyria to Babylon.  After chapters 36-38 narrate how Assyria came, but was unable to conquer Jerusalem, chapter 39 reveals Hezekiah showing off to the representatives from Babylon.  It is at this point, and not starting at chapter 40, that Isaiah prophesies the following words.WordObj25

Isaiah 39:6-7 “Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the LORD.  And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

So the change from Assyria to Babylon is explained within the text itself and we need not resort to conjecture about the implications of such a change; at least if we are at all interested in what the book itself says.

WordObj30Fourth, for those who might then be tempted to suggest that the break should not be at chapter 40, but 39, or maybe even 36, what is said about Babylon even earlier in the book will likely be even more frustrating.  Isaiah 21:1-10 contains an initially puzzling oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.  It is not clear what this is referring to until verse 9, where “Fallen, fallen is Babylon” is found.  In this light, it is interesting to go back to verse 2, which states “A stern vision is told to me; the traitor betrays, and the destroyer destroys. Go up, O Elam; lay siege, O Media; all the sighing she has caused I bring to an end.”  As it happens, Babylon was conquered by the Medo-Persian Empire in 539BC led by Cyrus the Great, who represented the area of Elam and Media, which would explain the reference to them in this prophecy.  In addition, the Medes had formerly been allies with Babylon when they were both fighting against Assyria, but after Babylon became the world power, betrayal and destruction came when Babylon was conquered by their former allies (Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History, p.316).  So this is a passage which envisions something quite similar to that of Second Isaiah, but strangely enough, it is found in First Isaiah.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

Fifth, though this objection might seem for many to have an aura of objectivity about it, it is based upon the anti-supernatural presuppositions that these kinds of prophecies could not have been predictive prophecies.  EJ Young objects to this kind of thinking when he suggests, “It is time that we cease to call such a method scientific.  It is not scientific, for it does not take into consideration all the facts, and the basic fact it overlooks is that of God and His relation to the world which He created.” (Quoted by JB Payne, in Inerrancy, p.93).  Why is it that Isaiah can prophesy about what Cyrus did in conquering Babylon without suspicion in chapter 21 and yet be denied authorship of chapters 44 and 45 because he uses Cyrus’ name?  If God really does know what is going to happen and reveals it to His prophets, then denying that possibility from the start is not going to lead to correct evaluations of the prophetic literature.

The Unity of Isaiah in Literary Perspective

WordObj32aIn response to the literary objection, it must also first be said that there is a general recognition of the difference of tone between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah.  In fact, in the Bible study school I am leading, we divide the book between “Judgement” (1-39) and “Restoration” (40-66).  However, does this necessitate a change of authorship?  Well first, I can say that this judgement to restoration pattern is common to other prophets (Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Zephaniah), but this does not mean that these books were also written by different authors.  In one prophet after another, the idea is that God presents the bad news that judgement and cursing are coming because of the disobedience of the people, but also the good news that if they turn to God and repent of their disobedience, He will bring restoration and blessing.  This is a fundamental feature of the prophets and is to be expected, even sometimes in different halves of a book.

WordObj32Second, though First and Second Isaiah can roughly be split between mostly judgement and mostly restoration, it is not entirely clear cut.  There are many promises of restoration in the first 39 chapters and many descriptions of judgement of disobedience in the last 27 chapters.  This is also true of the other prophets that are divided according to judgement and restoration, as it is rarely black and white.  To give a couple examples of restoration from Isaiah, in First Isaiah there is 4:2-6, depicting the glory of the Lord among the survivors of Israel, or 12:1-6, which describes how God’s anger turned to comfort and how Zion could sing for joy and proclaim in all the earth what the Lord had done.  Interestingly, these same passages have parallels in Second Isaiah.  4:2-6 describes the glory of the Lord, the survivors of Israel, and how they will be cleansed, while Isaiah 60:19-21 speaks of the Lord being their glory and them all being righteous, and 56:8 speaks of God gathering the outcasts of Israel.  As for 12:1-6, we see the idea of God being angry with Israel, but then gathering them in compassion and love in Isaiah 54:7-8, as well as declaring in joy to all the earth that the Lord redeemed and comforted His people in 48:20 and 49:13.  These are just select examples, but other instances could be multiplied.

In terms of judgement, the story is the same.  While Second Isaiah might contain a higher proportion of restoration compared with judgement, it is not without its wrath against the wicked who rebel against God.

Isaiah 59:17-18 “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.  According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render repayment.”

Isaiah 63:10 “But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.”

Isaiah 65:6-7 “Behold, it is written before me: ‘I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their bosom both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together, says the LORD; because they made offerings on the mountains and insulted me on the hills, I will measure into their bosom payment for their former deeds.’”

WordObj33aOther examples could be given, such as the repetition of “There is no peace…for the wicked” and the shaming of those who trust in idols, but the point is that there is plenty of judgement in the latter chapters of Isaiah.  Though there is a shift in emphasis, it is not night and day, as it might look at first glance.  In addition, one could expect a shift in emphasis in a book that speaks a lot about judgement of sin, for there must be something to look forward to and strive for, and the end of Isaiah shows that even if the people of God fail and are judged, God has not given up on them.  “But Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’  ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:14-15).

WordObj34aAs far as Second Isaiah lacking biographical details about Isaiah, I feel this severely overestimates how much of First Isaiah is actually biographical material and underestimates how selective the material is.  It is not as if Isaiah’s life story is in First Isaiah.  1:1 is a verse that explains when Isaiah is seeing his visions concerning Judah and Jerusalem: during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.  2:1 basically repeats this without naming the kings.  Chapters 6-8 describe Isaiah seeing God’s glory at the end of the reign of Uzziah and confronting Ahaz, which would have happened while Jotham was still alive and co-reigning with his son Ahaz.  Chapter 20, during the reign of Hezekiah, is the sign against Egypt and Cush, as Isaiah walked naked for three years and the same would happen to them.  Chapters 37-39 tell of Isaiah’s interactions with Hezekiah concerning the king of Assyria, Hezekiah’s sickness, and the Babylonian envoys.  In all, there are about 94 verses in Isaiah that could be considered biographical.  There are 1292 verses in Isaiah, so the biographical detail makes up about 7% of the book, and it is not even as if it is evenly distributed.  Three chapters close to the beginning, one chapter after 11 chapters with no biographical detail, and three chapters after 16 chapters with no biographical detail.  To compare a couple of other prophets, Amos contains 13% biographical material in 3 of 9 chapters, though after 1:1 there are 6 chapters without any narrative.  Hosea contains 7% biographical material in 2 of 14 chapters, but nothing after the third chapter.  Also consider prophets like Malachi, Nahum, Obadiah, Joel, and Zephaniah who reveal little more than their name.  I am not saying that there are no other prophets who have more biographical detail, but I am simply pointing out that Isaiah’s percentage and distribution is nothing out of the ordinary.  There are 57 chapters in Isaiah that contain no biographical detail, and while it is true that 27 of those belong to Second Isaiah, the other 30 belong to First Isaiah.  If an author has the freedom to organize his material as he wants, he should not be denied authorship of his book based on how he distributes his narrative.

It is also worth noticing that the blocks of narrative seem to be from the reigns of each king mentioned in 1:1: Uzziah (chapter 6), Jotham and Ahaz (co-reigning when chapters 7 and 8 were taking place), and Hezekiah (chapters 20 and 37-39).  It seems as though Isaiah has organized a selection from each of their reigns.  Though Hezekiah is the king at the time of chapter 20, he is not mentioned in the text.  If Isaiah is so selective in First Isaiah and he has already narrated a significant event from the reign of each king, is it really so strange that he does not add anything more to the events of Hezekiah’s reign in Second Isaiah?  Is it really such a glaring omission in Second Isaiah if First Isaiah does not say a whole lot during any particular reign in the first place?

The Unity of Isaiah in Chronological Perspective

WordObj35So what about the apparent “newness” of the prophecies of Second Isaiah, if they were supposedly spoken at least 150 years before their fulfillment in the fall of Babylon?  Well, first of all, even if we say that there is some pseudo-prophet writing history and contemporary events as if they are predictive prophecy, this question is still not answered.  After all, by joining Second Isaiah to First Isaiah, this pseudo-prophet is trying to gain some credibility for the prophecies by claiming that they were spoken in the time of First Isaiah.  So the interpretation that the “newness” of the prophecies refers to the fact that the exiles in Babylon have never heard of them seems incorrect, no matter when I say they were written.

Second, as always in Bible study, I do not think words should be taken out of context.  To take a key passage for this objection, let us look at Isaiah 48.

WordObj35aIsaiah 48:1-8 “Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and who came from the waters of Judah, who swear by the name of the LORD and confess the God of Israel, but not in truth or right.  For they call themselves after the holy city, and stay themselves on the God of Israel; the LORD of hosts is his name.  ‘The former things I declared of old; they went out from my mouth, and I announced them; then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass.  Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass, I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, “My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them.”  ‘You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it? From this time forth I announce to you new things, hidden things that you have not known.  They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them, lest you should say, “Behold, I knew them.”  You have never heard, you have never known, from of old your ear has not been opened. For I knew that you would surely deal treacherously, and that from before birth you were called a rebel.’”

WordObj36The ending is where the “new” and “hidden” things are described, but a question I have is whether this is being spoken to the exiles in Babylon or not.  Even if it is, the issue is not merely knowledge about the prophecies, but true understanding.  The last verse says “your ear has not been opened”, which reminds me of Isaiah 6:9-10 where it says to keep hearing but not understand, and the hearts of the people would be made dull to not hear with their ears and understand with their hearts.  If this message is to the exiles, God is simply saying that they would never understand what this prophecy meant until they were right in the middle of God’s judgement of their rebellion.  This also goes along with the second part of that verse, where God knew that they would deal treacherously and be rebels.  In other words, God knew that they would not understand what He was doing with them until after.

WordObj38However, I am not totally convinced that this is a message to the exiles, even if it would definitely be a message applicable to them.  The first verse depicts swearing by the name of the Lord, but not in truth as an identification of Judah.  This idea of false allegiance is repeated in the book of Isaiah, of which 29:13 is a good example: “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me”.  I find this idea of false allegiance to be right at home in the time of Isaiah, and thus, it could be Isaiah challenging Judah to truly trust the Lord, having seen former prophecies come true (48:3-5) and having confidence that current prophecies will be fulfilled in the future.  In fact, 48:3-5 is integral in understanding 48:6-8, for it is precisely God’s ability to predict long ago what His people have seen happen in recent times that allows Him to pronounce, with authority, new events in the distant future, from Judah’s perspective at the time, that is.  Because He has shown Himself to be superior to idols in declaring what is to come, He can announce new things to the people of Isaiah’s time, creating the expectation that they will be fulfilled in the future.  It is a call to trust God in the present because of how He has been trustworthy in the past and because He declares hope for the future.  In this case, the newness would be from the time that the prophecies are spoken, in the time of Isaiah, and not the time of fulfillment.  If the author really expects his readers to believe that God declares things long before they happen (48:3-5) and the end from the beginning (46:10), he should continue with predictions of the future, as I believe he does.

Other Considerations Supporting the Unity of Isaiah

It is also significant to note how later authors treated the book of Isaiah.  Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach, is a work from the 2nd century BC that makes reference to Isaiah (Esay) in Ecclesiasticus 48:22.  Then, 48:23 goes on to state “In his time the sun went backward, and he lengthened the king’s life”, which is narrated in Isaiah 38:4-8.  Going further in 48:24, Sirach also says “He saw by an excellent spirit what should come to pass at the last, and he comforted them that mourned in Sion.”  This last phrase is especially important, because it would appear to attribute a writing of Second Isaiah to the same Isaiah just described from First Isaiah.  The passage I am referring to comes from Isaiah 61:2-3, where we find “to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion”, so it seems that Sirach considered the Isaiah of the First and Second parts of the book to be one and the same.  Along the same lines, some of the authors of the New Testament made reference to the writing of the prophet Isaiah.  Though there are as many quotes of Isaiah as there are chapters in his book, not all of these New Testament quotations mention his name.  However, the twenty that do mention his name are listed in the table below, along with where they are taken from.

New Testament                                                  Isaiah 1-39

 

Matthew 4:14-16                                                        9:1-2

Matthew 13:14-15                                                      6:9-10

Matthew 15:7-9                                                          29:13

Mark 7:6-7                                                                  29:13

John 12:39-40                                                           6:10

Acts 28:25-27                                                            6:9-10

Romans 9:27-28                                                       10:22-23

Romans 9:29                                                             1:9

Romans 15:12                                                            11:10

                                                                        Isaiah 40-66

 

Matthew 3:3                                                  40:3

Matthew 8:17                                                 53:4

Matthew 12:17-21                                          42:1-4

Mark 1:2-3                                                      40:3

Luke 3:4-6                                                       40:3-5

Luke 4:17-19                                                    61:1-2

John 1:23                                                          40:3

John 12:38                                                        53:1

Acts 8:28, 32-33                                              53:7-8

Romans 10:16                                                   53:1

Romans 10:20-21                                             65:1-2

Of the twenty quotations of Isaiah by name, nine are from First Isaiah and eleven are from Second Isaiah.  This means that the New Testament attestation for Second Isaiah belonging to Isaiah the prophet is on the same level (technically even a little better) as that for First Isaiah.  Perhaps the best example of this is found in John 12:38-41.

WordObj39WordObj40John 12:38-41 “so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’  Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’  Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.”

John first quotes from Second Isaiah (53:1), attributing it to the prophet Isaiah, and then he proceeds to quote Isaiah “again”, this time from First Isaiah (6:10).  John wraps it up by explaining that Isaiah said these things because he saw His glory and spoke of Him.  Thus, these references are inextricably connected to the historical prophet Isaiah.

WordObj41Furthermore, in terms of manuscript evidence, those who would split up Isaiah do not have a manuscript copy of only Isaiah 1-39 (or only 40-66 for that matter) to bolster their case.  If they did, they would certainly make no secret of the fact that one or the other or both have been preserved in separated form.  However, as it turns out, the earliest known copy of any complete book of the Bible (2nd century BC) just happens to be of the prophet Isaiah, including all 66 chapters (Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p.78-79).  So as far back as we can see, Isaiah stands complete in its undivided form.

WordObj42Finally, as I pointed out in the previous article, Isaiah makes other predictions of the future, some of them referring to the time of Jesus as messianic prophecies.  While it may be conventional for scholars to suggest that the prophecies in Second Isaiah concerning the exile were actually written around that time, no one has suggested that the messianic prophecies were written around the time of Jesus.  Of course, the above mentioned complete copy of Isaiah from before the time of Jesus prohibits such suggestions, but the principle is the same.  Isaiah’s messianic prophecies are on the same level as his exilic prophecies, for he presents compelling knowledge of what would happen in the life of Jesus.  Norman Geisler points out twelve aspects of Jesus’ passion that were foretold in the twelve verses of Isaiah 53.  He would be rejected, be a man of sorrow, live a life of suffering, be despised, carry our sorrows, be afflicted by God, be pierced for our transgressions, be wounded for our sins, suffer like a lamb, die with the wicked, be sinless, and pray for transgressors (Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, p.611).  If Isaiah could predict that and not have those portions of his book assigned to the 1st century AD, he could certainly have spoken about the Babylonian exile without those portions of his book being assigned to the 6th century BC.  If predictive prophecy is not ruled out of the equation from the beginning, I do not see any reason to consider the prophecies of the book of Isaiah to be any later than the life of the prophet himself.

WordObj-figure 3-2

Unfulfilled Prophecy?

WordObj43In considering Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem, and particularly the temple located there, objections range from claiming that Jesus was a little off to saying that He was completely wrong.  The former focuses on the specific claims of what Jesus said would happen in the events surrounding Jerusalem’s fall, which we know from the history of the event in 70AD.  The latter dispenses with the details and suggests that Jesus said a lot more would happen than what actually did happen.  Both of these views are compatible with seeing Jesus’ prediction as imprecise and foreseeable by natural common sense.  However, I believe that neither is compatible with what Jesus actually meant, so these claims are worth taking a closer look at below.

Jesus Thought the Final Judgment Would Occur along with the Fall of Jerusalem

This is where people like Thom Stark (The Human Faces of God)  and Bart Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium) would claim that Jesus was wrong.  A couple of quotes from Stark in reference to the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) sum up the contention.

WordObj44“The simplest reading of this discourse, and the reading that best fits with the Jewish apocalyptic context out of which Jesus and his disciples emerged, is also the only reading that makes sense of Jesus’ claims.” (The Human Faces of God, p.173).

“Jesus could not have been clearer if he had said, ‘I predict that the final judgement will occur within the next forty or fifty years.’” (The Human Faces of God, p.174).

The basis for such confidence in such an interpretation rests largely on the weight of the evidence of Jewish apocalyptic literature from around the time of Jesus and His disciples, coupled together with textual evidence of what Jesus said in light of historical evidence of what did and did not happen at the fall of Jerusalem.  The case certainly sounds convincing when such evidence is presented, but it is not the evidence that I take issue with; it is the interpretation of this evidence.  So let us examine the Jewish apocalyptic context and the textual evidence.

The Jewish Apocalyptic Context

WordObj45In Stark’s summary of the different chapters of his book, in reference to the chapter on Jesus, he states that “honest appraisals of the text force us to acknowledge that because of the apocalyptic worldview that Jesus inherited, he necessarily got a few things wrong.” (The Human Faces of God, p.225).  Why is this so?  Well, for Stark, Jesus (and His disciples with Him) is merely a child of His own generation, hopelessly locked within the framework with which He is presented.  So naturally, if Jesus were to make a prediction of the coming kingdom, Stark would say that it would, of necessity, fit into the Jewish apocalyptic context.  Though I do not dispute his general depiction of the Jewish apocalyptic environment, I ask: is this a valid way to interpret the situation?

I would emphatically answer this question in the negative for a few reasons.  First, this is precisely what I have been contesting in the previous article; namely, that the Bible is just a book like any other.  If you deny Jesus the possibility of being able to think differently about the coming of the kingdom of God than the other Jews of His time, of course you would have to admit that Jesus got a few things wrong.  After all, I do not know of anyone who thinks the Jews fighting to deliver their land from the oppression of the Romans prior to the destruction of Jerusalem got things right.  However, if God is permitted to provide correct ideas about the nature of the kingdom of God, Jesus is not bound to think as others before Him have thought.  With a starting point that limits God from speaking into a situation, it is no wonder that many who take such positions fail to recognize the voice of God in the words of Jesus.  If God’s ability to speak is not ruled out from the beginning, the rules of the game change considerably.

WordObj45aSecond, there is much evidence that Jesus did think of the kingdom differently than the other Jews of His time.  In one of my articles on the historical evidence for Jesus resurrection (The Argument from Jesus’ Resurrection (Part 4)), I explained how the particular portrait of Jesus as Messiah did not fit any of the messianic paradigms around at the time.  There was no belief in a dying, much less, rising Messiah, and there was no belief that anyone, not even the Messiah, would rise in advance of the general resurrection at the end of time.  Yet, as evidenced by the birth of Christianity in the first place, Jesus surprised everyone, including His disciples, by showing the true nature of the kingdom to be different than anticipated.  A great example of this same iconoclastic thinking, even before Jesus’ death, would be the events surrounding Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah.  Matthew 16:16-23 describes how Peter calls Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, but then as soon as Jesus tells His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed, Peter rebukes Jesus.  Jesus then proceeds to rebuke the satanic nature of Peter thinking according to the things of man, but not of God.  Peter was merely acting according to what he believed about the nature of the kingdom, but Jesus was trying to illustrate the earthly nature of those actions.  Another good example would be Jesus’ confession before Pilate, where Jesus is not merely putting off the timing of His kingdom, but the very nature of it.

WordObj46John 18:36 “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’”

Third, even within an apocalyptic framework, different interpretations are plausible.  Though I have my own particular view of how to interpret apocalyptic literature, there are others, and some can even be made to complement each other.  I have reasons for why I prefer my particular apocalyptic view, but I would not be so arrogant as to suggest that my view is the only possible view.  I see some views as more plausible than others, but the point is that if I can recognize the plausibility of other views, even if I am not compelled to adopt them, the field of interpretation may not be as narrow as some would like it to seem.

The Textual Evidence

As Stark puts it, “Although Jesus spoke of an imminent final judgment frequently, in two of his discourses in particular Jesus predicts that the final judgment will occur within the lifetime of his disciples.” (The Human Faces of God, p.168-169).  The passages he is referring to are both found in all three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but for the sake of simplicity, I will focus mostly on Matthew.

WordObj47After the passage in Matthew 16 that I mentioned above, Matthew 16:28 (Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27) says, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  The claim is that Jesus is saying here that He will come back and judge the earth within the lifetime of some of the disciples.  This is based on the notion that His kingdom is only to be identified with the final judgement, but as we have seen above, Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world.  The kingdom of God is not restricted to one meaning, so we need to look at the context.  Stark is very much aware of this and correctly points out that the preceding context contains reference to the Son of Man coming with His angels in the glory of His Father and repaying everyone for what has been done (Matthew 16:27) (The Human Faces of God, p.172).  However, I feel he brushes over the proceeding context, which narrates the transfiguration of Jesus in all three instances (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36).  Stark explains why he thinks the transfiguration is not a good explanation of what Jesus means in Matthew 16:28.  He points to the fact that there is no mention of angels in the transfiguration and that there is no mention of judgement, both of which can be found in the preceding context (16:27).  However, he is assuming that Matthew 16:27 and 16:28 are talking about the same event, and I think the context reveals this.  If we go back a little further, Matthew 16:24-26 talks about the paradox of losing life and yet saving it and vice versa, and then about a person gaining the whole world but forfeiting their WordObj48soul.  How can someone lose their life and yet save it?  How can someone try to save their life and yet lose it?  Well, Jesus is not speaking of life in this world, and this is where Matthew 16:27 comes in.  If someone gives their life for Jesus’ sake in this world, they will find it in the afterlife, for the judgement will be favourable when the final judgement comes.  Conversely, if someone seeks to save their life away from Jesus, they too will die eventually, but the judgement will not be favourable when the final judgement comes.  This clearly speaks of the final judgement in my opinion.  However, I feel that Matthew 16:28 speaks of this life and I believe the proceeding context supports that.

To review, Jesus has been proclaimed as the Messiah by Peter.  He then reveals that He would be killed in Jerusalem and would rise again on the third day.  Peter rebukes Him, but is in turn rebuked for being mindful of the things of man and not God.  Jesus tells His disciples that they would need to be willing to suffer like Him and it could even cost them their lives, but they could be assured of their souls being preserved unto the final judgement.  Now, it is at this point that Jesus proclaims something that would be for this life and would only be to some.  WordObj49The final judgement was going to be for every person, but the next part was for a select few.  The final judgement was not dependent on physical survival, but this next part was.  In Matthew 17:1-13 Jesus takes only Peter, James, and John up a mountain with Him and is transfigured before them, shining like the sun and becoming white as light.  He proceeds to talk with Moses and Elijah, and this is capped off with a voice from the clouds saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  On the way down from the mountain, Jesus commands them to tell no one until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  Jesus thus had shown these three disciples a secret of the kingdom that was not to be revealed until after His resurrection from the dead, and indeed would only make sense after that.  Jesus is not predicting the final judgement within forty or fifty years, but is simply showing a revelation of His kingdom to His closest followers, who would spread the message of His kingdom after His resurrection.

WordObj47aMoving to the next passage in Matthew 24 (Mark 13, Luke 21), the claim is again that only one event is in mind: the fall of Jerusalem and the final judgement together.  However, to properly understand Jesus’ answer to His disciples, we need to know the question.  The question is initially prompted by Jesus’ statement about the temple, for He pronounces of the temple that, “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2).  WordObj53In reaction to this, His disciples ask “when will these things be” and “what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matthew 24:3).  There are actually two questions here: one concerning the destruction of the temple and the other concerning Christ’s coming and the end of the age.

Jesus describes that they should not be led astray as false christs are leading people astray, as well as wars, famines, and earthquakes, but interestingly, He says the end is not yet, but these are just the beginning of birth pains (Matthew 24:4-8).  As I described in the previous article, these kinds of things happened leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, but Jesus says that this is not the end.  If Jesus was intending to say that the final judgement was drawing near when the events of the fall of Jerusalem started happening, this would be a confusing passage indeed.  However, I do not believe that is what He is doing, and I see more evidence of that as the passage goes on.

Matthew 24:14 says that the “gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”  Though the disciples were certainly prolific in their preaching, they did not travel significantly outside the Roman Empire.  In fact, after nearly two thousand years, this gospel has not yet been proclaimed to all nations, so it was certainly not the case by 70AD.  No, the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem are separated significantly from the coming of Jesus for final judgement.

WordObj50Matthew 24:36-51 provides a fitting end to the passage and yet further indication of the distinction between the timing of the fall of Jerusalem and the final judgement.  To give a little context, Matthew 24:32-34 says to learn a lesson from the fig tree, seeing leaves and tender branches, and knowing that summer is near.  This is paralleled with seeing “these” things and knowing that “he” is near.  It also says that this generation would not pass away until all “these” things took place.  It is tempting to suggest that “these things” refers to both the fall of Jerusalem and the coming of Jesus, but the final passage of the chapter suggests otherwise.  It starts out by saying that no one knows the day or the hour of the coming of the Son of Man.  A comparison is then made with the days of Noah, for as they were unaware when the flood swept them away, no one knows when the Lord is coming.  It goes on to encourage readiness, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.  A comparison is also made with a faithful servant and a wicked servant, again emphasizing the unexpected nature of the Lord’s return.

WordObj51aSo, the question naturally presents itself: can we consistently claim that the coming of Jesus is both expected and unexpected?  Stark seems to think so, as he suggests that “Jesus knows it will happen soon, has promised that it will happen before the last of his disciples tastes death, but he does not know the precise date or hour that it will occur within those boundaries.” (The Human Faces of God, p.187).  I find this hard to believe.  On the one hand, Jesus gives detailed descriptions of what would happen leading up to the fall of Jerusalem (as explained in more depth in the previous article), so much so that people in Judea were supposed to be able to see the signs clear enough to know exactly when to flee (Matthew 24:15-16).  Then, on the other hand, the coming of the Son of Man, which is allegedly inextricably linked with the fall of Jerusalem, is supposed to remain ambiguous.  If I am one of the people like in Noah’s day or like the wicked servant, I do not need to stay awake, I just need to wait for the signs before I get my act together.  No, I see the events as separate, even if that is not immediately obvious.

WordObj52That is another question worth answering, though; namely, why are these ideas linked if they are indeed separate?  Well, as I explained in the previous article, prophets in the Bible sometimes used telescoping in their prophecy.  The idea was to give a short-term prophecy that would be fulfilled relatively soon and then a long-term prophecy at the same time.  When the short-term prophecy came to pass, it would give credibility to the long-term prophecy.  Having been almost two thousand years since Jesus gave the prediction of His coming, it can be easy to doubt that it will ever be fulfilled, as some people certainly think.  However, what Jesus has done in predicting telescopically is ensuring the fulfillment long-term prediction through the fulfillment of the short-term prophecy.  When that generation saw the fulfillment of Jesus’ first prediction, they would be encouraged to spread the gospel of the kingdom, which is part of the second prediction coming to pass (Matthew 24:14).

As for the claim that Jesus’ prediction was imprecise and not that impressive, I think the detail presented here and in the previous article suggests otherwise.  Furthermore, the timeframe for the fall of Jerusalem was quite accurate and should not be overlooked based on assumptions that Jesus intended for a lot more to happen around 70AD than actually did.  It is strange, because in complaining of the fact that some stones of the temple were left on another, Pinnock ignores the fact that, even if there were a few stones left on each other (an overly literalistic interpretation), this is still a fairly precise prediction.  There had been many wars involving Jerusalem over the preceding thousand years, but the temple had only been destroyed once.  However, this is a case of “even if”, because as Norman Geisler points out, “archaeologists have discovered the stones to which Jesus referred, and there was literally not one left upon another.  I (Norm) saw them on a recent trip to Jerusalem.” (Norman Geisler and William Roach, Defending Inerrancy, p.54).

WordObj-figure 3-3

Summary

WordObj54cWith all this talk of what the Bible does and does not do with reference to prophecy, it is significant to point out that these accusations often rest upon unproven assumptions.  While the skeptical and liberal views may appeal to the so-called “assured results of modern criticism” (JB Payne, in Inerrancy, p.103), they provide considerably less assurance when examined critically themselves.  The claim is often that the text demands that we understand predictive prophecy in the Bible to be the product of various historical and cultural factors, even if Bible-believing Christians find that hard to stomach.  However, I cannot help but think that the prophecies are often straightforward and it is rather the scholar who finds it difficult to stomach the fact that the prophecies seem to be the product of God speaking.  Since I have offered good reasons for thinking that this objection fails, we are left with reason to honestly consider the positive evidence for God having spoken through the prophecies of the Bible.

Part 1a

Part 1b

Objection #1

Objection #3

Objection #2: The Bible Contains Unscientific Ideas

 

Clark Pinnock

 

Clark Pinnock

Clark Pinnock

Clark Pinnock, while maintaining that God has spoken in Scripture, limits how much of the Bible that actually entails.  “The authority of the Bible in faith and practice does not rule out the possibility of…a prescientific description of the world…” (Scripture Principle, p.104).  Furthermore, Pinnock sees the Bible recording legends in certain places, rather than facts, though he does submit that the Bible is not radically mythical (Scripture Principle, p.122-123).  For Pinnock, the Bible can still contain the word of God, while at the same time containing unscientific ideas.  The human authors, just by nature of living when they did, believed what others believed in regard to the world around them, and this should not be considered strange.  I believe Pinnock would be happy to concede that the examples of prescience I have given in the previous article might point to the word of God, but he would add that there are other parts of the Bible that are not scientific, and thus, point to the word of man.

 

Science versus Christianity?

 

WordObj11aThe view that science and Christianity are at war is a view held by many people, sadly including some Christians.  Propaganda in the last couple of centuries has led to what I believe to be a false dichotomy between science and Christian faith.  Thinking of Galileo and Copernicus, who began to suggest that the Earth was not the center of the universe, people think of the Church opposing science, even in the face of evidence, but the facts are distorted.  I do not intend to go into great detail, but it is worth mentioning with regard to science and Christianity in general, “Historians of science now recognize the indispensable role played by the Christian faith in the rise and development of modern science.” (William Lane Craig, in Who Made God?, p.50). 

Guillermo Gonzalez (right) and Jay Richards (left)

Guillermo Gonzalez (right) and Jay Richards (left)

In particular, what Galileo and Copernicus were disputing was not a clear biblical teaching on the nature of the Earth, but “an integration of the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmology with Christian theology.” (Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, The Privileged Planet, p.230).  The question was whether biblical interpretations supported by Aristotelian assumptions were actually correct interpretations of the natural world, to which history and modern science clearly affirm the negative.  However, the question of whether biblical interpretations can be consistent with the scientific discoveries of the natural world remains open. 

WordObj12aIt is a question to which some of the early non-Aristotelian scientists would affirm the positive, for “the key figures who proposed the new cosmology were religious.” (Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, The Privileged Planet, p.231).  So, before we get too caught up in controversies that take us away from the Bible, let us see what the Bible itself has to say.

 

WordObj-figure 2-2

Alleged Unscientific Ideas

 

WordObj11I can quite neutrally title this section “alleged” unscientific ideas, because it is not as if the biblical teaching in these areas is as clear as day, one way or the other.  The Bible simply was not written to satisfy our curiosity.  Even within conservative Christianity, there are differing views about what the Bible actually claims in regard to certain scientific questions, so it would be a mistake to assume that any given person could easily take “the biblical view” and compare it to the findings of modern science.  My intention is simply to suggest that the teachings of the Bible, if correctly interpreted, do not have to be inconsistent with modern science.  I have presented positive evidence of scientific understanding in advance of scientific discovery in the previous article, but this section will focus more on explaining the charges against the Bible of the lack of scientific understanding in certain areas.

 

The Sun Revolves around the Earth

 

WordObj13aSo what was the controversy mentioned above based on, besides a certain Greek cosmology?  Well, it comes down to a handful of passages that seem to contradict the modern understanding that the Earth in fact revolves around the Sun.  To begin with, it is worth stating up front that the question is not whether or not the Sun moves, for the movement of the Sun is not in contradiction with modern science.  The question is specifically whether the Sun is said to move around the Earth or not.  A few examples will suffice.

 

Psalm 113:3 “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised!”

 

Isaiah 45:6 “that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.”

 

Isaiah 59:19 “So they shall fear the name of the LORD from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun; for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the LORD drives.”

 

WordObj14Now, to speak of the Sun rising and setting sounds to me like the Sun is being depicted in motion.  In addition, the implications of these verses would actually be that the Sun appears to be rotating around the Earth.  The “rising of the sun” is put in the context of “the west”, so the way I see it, it is just another way of saying the East, for the sun rises there and it sets in the West.  Thus, if the Sun rises in the East, sets in the West, and then rises in the East again the next day, it seems to indicate that it went all the way around the Earth.  Wait a minute, though.  Why is it in this modern day and age, I do not have to change my language about what I see in the sky to accurately describe what is happening?  Why is that when I talk about the “rising of the sun”, everybody, scientists, teachers, and students alike, knows what I am referring to; namely, the rotation of the Earth on its axis, revealing the solar light of the star we are in orbit around?  The reason is that we still use the “rising of the sun” to describe what we see on a daily basis.  It is what we call a figure of speech, and thus, is not literally describing what is happening, but is a figurative description of it.  If you were to look at your watch, surprised at the time, saying “Wow, time flies” would not commit you to proposing a new theory of temporal aviation.

 

WordObj15Turning back to the Bible, there are many figures of speech that are used in the Bible, so we need to be careful about how we interpret the message.  In the case of the passages in Isaiah, as I already mentioned, because the “rising of the sun” is placed alongside “the west” it seems to be a figure of speech for the East.  What is being expressed here is not cosmology, but in a way, figurative geography.  It is trying to say that there is no one like God…well, anywhere that you might look.  The same might be said of the passage in Psalms, though it is possible that time, rather than geography, is the intended reference point for the praise of the Lord.  On the one hand, it could be saying that the Lord is to be praised everywhere, and on the other hand, it could be saying that the Lord is to be praised all day.  Even if we may not be able to say for sure which meaning is intended, I think we can at least agree that “from the optical perception of light based on the Earth’s rotation to the disappearance of this light from view, the name of the Lord is to be praised” would be a horrible attempt at poetry.  The point of this kind of description was to point to the greatness of God, not the technical details of the movement of celestial bodies.  The Bible is not to be faulted for such figurative descriptions of what would be an identifiable reference point for any observer any more than the words of parents telling their kids to go out and play, because the “sun is coming out” should be censored.

 

The Earth Is Fixed in Place

 

In addition to understanding that the Bible contains figurative language, it is also interesting to consider that there is also literal language.  What is even more interesting is when the literal language gives an accurate description of the world, even if the figurative language does not.  As I explained above, we should not expect figurative language to give us a technical and literal description, but if I left it at that, it could give the impression the Bible is easy to write off as if it gives us no real knowledge about the world around us.  In the previous article, I already described examples of scientific knowledge within the Bible that are hard to explain without factoring in divine revelation of knowledge about features of the universe before humans ever discovered them.  However, I wish to accentuate the point by bringing attention to how figurative descriptions are too often considered exemplary of biblical knowledge, while literal descriptions relevant to the same area are ignored.  I believe the idea that the Bible teaches that the Earth is fixed in place to be one of these.

 

WordObj16b1 Samuel 2:8 “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.”

 

Job 9:6 “who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble;”

 

Now the idea of pillars certainly suggests that the Earth rests on some sort of foundation, and as I mentioned in the previous article, this was the common ancient belief.  So is the Bible just following along with the crowd and even common sense, for the Earth certainly does not feel like it is moving or not firmly founded, does it?  It is a possibility, but then we should also consider what else Job has to tell us.

 

Job 26:7 “He stretches out the north over the void and hangs the earth on nothing.”

 

Job 26:11 “The pillars of heaven tremble and are astounded at his rebuke.”

 

WordObj16I have mentioned the first verse before, but it is worth mentioning again in light of the present discussion.  On the one hand, there are verses claiming that the Earth is founded on pillars, and on the other hand, we see here in Job 26:7 that the claim is that the Earth is set on nothing at all.  What are we to make of this?  Well, it could be said that the verses are both literal and simply disagree, or that they are both figures of speech, or perhaps that one is literal and one is figurative.  To consider the first option, it might be fine to think of ancient people literally thinking that the Earth was set on pillars, that could be seen if it were possible to go down under the Earth and look, but then Job 26:11 describes heaven having pillars also, in almost identical language.  If literal pillars were in mind in one, they would most likely be in mind in the other.  What about both being figurative?  The pillars would make sense as a figure of speech, but “hangs the earth on nothing” is not as clearly so.  This could lead us into the last option, where I could suggest that the pillars are figurative of the foundation of the earth, including God’s sovereignty over it, and hanging the Earth on nothing would actually fit as a literal description of the position of the Earth.  Of the different options, I do not consider the last option to be far and away the best, but I do think it makes more sense than the other two in interpretation.  However, add the fact that science tells us that the Earth does find itself over a void and hanging in empty space, while at the same time not aimlessly drifting through it and floating away, but following a prescribed orbit due to gravitational force.  Then, the last option starts to look a lot more convincing, and even if some do not find it convincing enough to show that the Bible teaches the correct view, I believe it is more than enough to show that the Bible does not present the clear teaching of a wrong view.

 

The Earth Is Flat

 

WordObj17aThough no one has believed this in recent centuries, I have still recently heard non-Christian scientists use “Flat-Earthers” as a derogatory term for Christians.  It is intended to refer to people who are trying to impede scientific advancement in general, but it derives from resistance to the idea of the Earth being round in particular.  As with the two topics above, the Bible does not say the Earth is flat in so many words, but inference is made through a few passages that describe the “four corners of the earth”.  The idea is that if something has four corners, it is a square, and though this does not exactly translate into claiming that the Earth is flat, it seems closer to flatness than roundness.  Here are examples of biblical passages describing the four corners of the Earth.

 

Isaiah 11:12 “He will raise a signal for the nations and will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”

 

Revelation 7:1 “After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.”

 

Revelation 20:8 “and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.”

 

WordObj18With these verses, as with the others above, we must ask what the best interpretation is.  It should be said first that Revelation is of the type of literature known as apocalyptic literature, and is thus highly visionary, so it may not be claiming anything about the nature of the Earth at all.  However, I include them because they might give insight into how the phrase “four corners of the earth” is being used.  To take 7:1, it is more than just the four corners, but there are also four angels and four winds.  Why would there be four?  Are there literally four intended or could it be a figurative description?  As Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe suggest, this could be “a succinct way of referring to the four directions, ‘north, south, east, and west.’” (The Big Book of Bible Difficulties, p.553).  WordObj17This makes sense if we consider that there are four points on a compass and to refer to all four of them would be to refer to all over.  I believe this is also consistent as 20:8 is thought through.  The end of this verse is undeniably figurative, as it describes the number of the nations as comparable to “the sand of the sea”, but are we to think that these nations are literally distributed in the corners of the Earth?  Are we to imagine these armies positioning themselves as far as they can on the Earth without falling off?  Or are we again simply told that these nations are from all over the Earth, or in other words, from different parts of the Earth?

 

WordObj19aIt is hard to say for sure, because we cannot definitely place these nations geographically, but what if we did have a geographically definable area that was also referred to as the “four corners of the earth”?  I would say that would help us to see if it literally meant that or if it was just a figurative description to refer to different parts of the Earth.  Well, as it turns out, we have that for the reference in Isaiah.  Isaiah 11:12 is included above, describing how the Lord would “assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”  However, just one verse before, this same recovering of those left of God’s people is described, and yet, in place of the four corners, names of places are given, such as Egypt, Assyria, and Elam (11:11).  These countries were not the farthest known places at the time, and even if they were, they could not be literally described as corners.  The claim here is simply that God would gather His people from everywhere they had been dispersed, not that they were literally at the corners of the Earth.

 

So if these verses do not refer to the Earth being square, is there any indication of what Earth is like?  Isaiah 40:22 springs to mind, speaking of God and saying “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth”.  Circular does not necessarily mean spherical, but in any case, it is not clearly teaching that the Earth is flat, and may very possibly be a reference to the Earth being round as we would understand it today.

 

WordObj-figure 2-3

Summary

 

WordObj20In spite of the false scientific beliefs some people might wish to attach to the Bible, examination of the actual passages in question reveals a lot less than a solid theory could hope for.  In addition to the fact that conflict between science and Christianity is more apparent than real, a spectrum of modern beliefs in regard to science and the Bible exists within Christianity, so differing approaches cannot be all lumped together.  It is not acceptable to dismiss Christians as “Flat-Earthers” when no one now believes that and even those who once did lacked sound biblical evidence for it.  In maintaining that the Bible is God’s word, I do not feel the need to prove that God revealed everything He possibly could about the natural world, but I do feel the need to contradict the claim that the Bible is unscientific.  Even if the point remains open concerning to what extent God revealed what is relevant to science in Scripture, I would at least hope I have shown that the Bible is not to be understood as a hopelessly outdated science textbook.

Part 1a

Part 1b

Objection #2

Objection #3

Objection #1: The Bible Is a Human Book

This objection takes on different forms, ranging from agnostics like Bart Ehrman to Christians like Clark Pinnock.  The question is how or even if we can really refer to the Bible as the word of God, and to varying degrees, different scholars have different opinions.  I hope to draw as clear of a line as I can, but there will remain peripheral issues that are more matters of interpretation than solid facts that need to be clearly decided on one way or the other.

Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman

Though he is a self-professed agnostic, I would say that he leans toward atheism rather than theism.  However, at least in principle, his agnostic position does not rule out the possibility that, if there is a God, He could have inspired the text of the Bible.  His problem, though, is that if God did inspire them, surely He would have preserved the words of Scripture (Misquoting Jesus, p.11).  I will address this particular concern when we come to the question of the preservation of the original words, but for our purposes here, Ehrman emphasizes the human element of the Bible and asks , “What if the book you take as giving you God’s words instead contains human words?” (Misquoting Jesus, p.14).  Again, I am not saying that Ehrman acknowledges any of the words of the Bible to be from God, and in fact, sees the Bible as “a human book from beginning to end” (Misquoting Jesus, p.11).  However, in principle, the objection is that even if God did speak some words some time (as I have pointed to in the previous article), what we now call the word of God is riddled with human words, to the point that we can no longer refer to the Bible as God’s word.  This does not necessarily rule out that God might have spoken, but it emphasizes human words to the maximum and God’s words, if any, are minimized.

Clark Pinnock

Clark Pinnock

Clark Pinnock

Clark Pinnock’s position is not as skeptical, but still would not go so far as to say that the Bible could be referred to as the word of God.  Pinnock speaks of scholar Karl Barth when he states, “Barth was right to speak about a distance between the Word of God and the text of the Bible” (Scripture Principle, p.99).  On the next page, we find that it appears Pinnock would agree with Ehrman that the Bible remains a human text (Scripture Principle, p.100), though they would likely disagree on the extent, for in the same sentence, Pinnock claims that God aims to stir up faith in the gospel through inspiration.  In my opinion, Pinnock represents the outer fringe of Christianity in this regard (as he also does in several other controversies not to be dealt with here), for he does not reject that God has spoken and that it can lead us to salvation in Jesus Christ, though he does raise controversial opinions in other important areas.  I mention Pinnock, because I do not wish to argue the peripheral details with those whose views are not too far from mine, but rather to show the bigger picture of the Bible as the word of God, and hopefully, the inadequacy of radically alternate views in the process.

 

The Human Authorship of Scripture

Divine Authorship through Humans

WordObj5The claim of “What Scripture says, God says” is that the designation “word of God” is not limited to passages that explicitly state that “God said” or “Thus says the LORD”, but actually could be used to refer to any part of the Bible, and by implication, the Bible as a whole.  Pinnock rejects this view in so many words (Scripture Principle, p.264) and Ehrman would certainly agree, as he claims “The Bible, at the end of the day, is a very human book.” (Misquoting Jesus, p.12).  What can be said to both parties is that I am not denying that the Bible is a human book.  In fact, that is one of the great aspects of the Bible, for God used human authors to convey His truth to other humans.  What I am denying is that the Bible is merely a human book.  I have included some evidence for the claim that “What Scripture says, God says” in the previous article in this series, but here I will focus on how God might be said to speak through humans.

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Pinnock would say that God can speak through imperfect human authors (Scripture Principle, p.103, 105), but he would take it further to say that God even speaks through “a human text beset by normal weaknesses” (Scripture Principle, p.100).  Pinnock also claims that “The prime theological issue which became evident in our survey of options on biblical authority is the need to maintain with equal force both the humanity and divinity of the word of Scripture.” (In Biblical Authority, p.71).  This is where I believe subtle, yet important distinctions need to be made.  One difference is between the Bible containing its own error and the Bible reporting error.  Another difference is between common human characteristics and essential human characteristics.

Claiming Error versus Reporting Error

To suggest the Bible contains error is to say that the Bible claims some things that are not in fact true, like the objection that the Bible claims that the earth WordObj6is flat (I will address scientific issues under objection #2).  However, to suggest that the Bible reports error is merely to say that the Bible shows how some people failed or sinned, without endorsing that error.  In other words, the Bible can still be truth from God in that some things are meant to be understood as false.  For example, in 1 Kings 13:15-18, a man of God is invited to eat at another man’s home, but the man of God refused, because he had been told by God not to eat or drink in that place.  The man then said an angel spoke to him to bring the man of God to his house to eat and drink, but the text clearly says that he was lying to the man of God.  Examples like this do not mean that the Bible is making an error, but simply that the Bible is truthfully reporting what really happened, and in this case, it was a lie.  We can say about the passages that claim truth that God wanted such truth to be communicated and understood, but we can also say about the passages that report falsehood and failure that God wanted us to learn from the bad examples.  The New Testament indicates that what was written before (the Old Testament) was written for instruction, for the purpose of hope and encouragement (Romans 15:4), but also for the purpose of providing bad examples to avoid imitating (1 Corinthians 10:6-11).  So contrary to the human authorship limiting God’s ability to preserve His word, it actually gives Him quite a lot to work with in showing different aspects and expressions of the truth of His word.

Common Characteristics versus Essential Characteristics

WordObj7bHowever, a concept often smuggled in with this objection is “Errare humanum est” or “To err is human”.  The idea is that to do justice to the humanity of the biblical authors, we must admit that they committed error, just like humans very naturally do.  The idea that God would always make His word come through these human authors without error by some miracle seems to some to be robbery of their humanity.  However, just because humans do in fact commit error does not mean they always do so.  Though it can be agreed that humans do generally err, it is not an essential characteristic, but could be described as a common characteristic.  Certainly, when I go to the bank and correctly identify my account number and PIN code, I am still human.  When I go to the immigration office and correctly give the details of my residence in Sweden and that of my family in Canada, I am still human.  Granted, this is a whole lot simpler than recording a whole book of the Bible, or even several, but the principle is the same.  So, if the possibility exists that humans can record written documents accurately, despite their occasional tendency to err, the potential to record God’s word accurately is magnified when we consider the divine element.  Professor Gordon Lewis sums up the view of the human authorship of inspired Scripture very well.

“The human writers were not autonomous, but lived and moved and had their being in the all-wise Lord of all.  Created with a capacity for self-transcendence in the image of God, they could receive changeless truths by revelation.  Providentially prepared by God in their unique personalities, they also had characteristics common to all other human beings in all times and cultures.  Their teaching originated, however, not with their own wills, but God’s and came to them through a variety of means.  In all the human writing processes, they were supernaturally overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, not in a way analogous to mechanical or unworthy human relationships, but as one loving person effectually influences another.  What stands written, therefore, in human language is not merely human but also divine.” (In Inerrancy, p.228).

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WordObj8In other words, God can communicate what He wants accurately through humans, even though these humans are not perfect.  God can prepare personalities, abilities, circumstances, encounters, and other means by which to bring about the desired result in the Scripture.  Many people think that the only way God could speak through humans would be to dictate to them word for word what to write, what would be called “mechanical” by Lewis above.  However, I believe this limits God in an unnecessary way, for I see God preparing the human authors to convey His truth.  After all, if God is who the Bible says He is, He can do more than just speak directly, for He can also prepare the authors of Scripture with His purpose in mind.  If He could declare the end from the beginning and that He will accomplish His purpose through a man He calls (Isaiah 46:10-11), certainly He could foresee what He will accomplish through the biblical authors that He would call to write Scripture.  If He could determine the times and dwelling places of every nation that they WordObj8amight seek God (Acts 17:26-27), certainly He could orchestrate the circumstances of the authors of Scripture that they would bear witness to Him as He desired.  If He could set apart at least two authors of Scripture for their special calling before they were even born (Jeremiah 1:5; Galatians 1:15-16), certainly He could do so for the other authors of the Bible.  So understanding the claim in this light makes it all the more likely that God could make His word come through by His divine providence, even though the human authors remain human authors.

Is There a Mixture of God’s Words and the Author’s Words?

A good example of God speaking through humans is found in 1 Corinthians 7, though on the surface, it initially appears to contradict that idea.  1 Corinthians 7:10 says, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband”, but oddly enough, 1 Corinthians 7:12 says, “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.”  So one command seems to come from the Lord and the next seems to come from Paul himself.  Is this not the word of God mixed together with the word of Paul?  Well, crucial to understanding this passage is in understanding what Paul means when he says “Lord”.  In the New Testament, “Lord” most often refers to Jesus Christ, as is evident elsewhere in 1 Corinthians (1:2-3, 7-10, 2:8, 4:5, 5:4, 9:1, 5, 11:23, 26-27, 12:3, 15:31, 57, 16:23) and even in the chapter before (6:11, 14) and the chapter after (8:6).  WordObj9So Paul is not distinguishing between God’s word and his own word, but between Jesus’ commands and his own commands.  How is that different, if Jesus is God?  Well, Jesus issued commands during His earthly ministry, some of which we can find in the Gospels, and Paul is referring to this material in 1 Corinthians 7:10.  If we look at Mark 10:2-9, we see Jesus being tested with the question of divorce and answering that what God has joined together (the married couple) should not be separated by man.  However, if we jump to 1 Corinthians 7:12, and then proceed to look for a Gospel parallel where Jesus addresses a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever, we will come up empty.  This is not surprising, because Jesus was primarily addressing Jews and thus it would be strange for Him to teach about unbelieving relationships, for Jews were supposed to believe in God.  So Paul was not distinguishing between his words and the words of God here, but his teaching and the teaching of Jesus, and this is supported by other references in 1 Corinthians.  Later on in the same chapter, Paul reminds the Corinthians that he has the Spirit of God (7:40), and even in similar language regarding not having a command from the teaching of Jesus, he describes himself as “one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (7:25).  Furthermore, in 14:37 he writes, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.”

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Summary

I mentioned in the previous article that Paul teaches words taught by the Spirit and not human wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:13), and that even though Scripture does come through humans, it is not by human will or interpretation, but by speaking from God as they are carried by the Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21).  To claim that the Bible is the word of God, we do not have to deny that the authors were human, but we do need to understand the variety of ways God could speak through them.  He can speak directly from the sky, He can speak through the humans by His Spirit, and He can providentially prepare the human authors to convey His word.  The fact of the Bible being written by human authors does not rule out its divine authorship.

By Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the series on the reliability of the Bible. Please see the introduction if you have not read it yet.

Introduction

Word1Have you ever been sold something that was not what it purported to be?  I distinctly remember one time when I was attempting to purchase a DVD wallet to put some DVDs in.  This case purported to be able to hold 40 DVDs, and having bought this kind of thing before without incident, I did not question that it could actually hold that amount.  However, while inserting the DVDs, the material began to rip after about 30 DVDs, and upon squeezing in the 40th DVD, I was extremely disappointed to discover that I was unable to even close the zipper.  It was clear then to me that I had paid for a 40 DVD wallet that could maybe hold 30.  To make matters worse, when I went to return the faulty case, the manager tried to convince me that I had somehow put too many DVDs in, and even upon understanding that I had inserted no more than the label indicated, he tried to convince me that I really should have only put about half as many as it said on the label!  Apparently, he was not an advocate of the “customer is always right” motto.  Even after he reluctantly gave me a refund, I felt like he still thought he was right and that it was outrageous for me to ask for my money back based on my dissatisfaction with his product.

Of course, this is a very trivial matter and I would not have been so upset even if he refused to give me my money back.  However, if the stakes were higher (say, in regard to the claim that a given book is actually the word of God), how would a person to evaluate such a claim?  In the introduction to this series, I Word2brought attention to the fact that believers call the Bible the word of God and that non-believers (by this I mean non-religious) have heard that claim for more than just the Bible.  The latter group might doubt even the possibility of being able to evaluate evidence to vindicate any one given claim over another, or at least, not know how to start.  However, I would also say that the former group needs to hear what I have to present, for even though they already acknowledge the Bible as the word of God, they do not always know why.  Whether speaking with the above mentioned non-believers, who do not acknowledge any holy book, or with proponents of other religions, who claim that they have the word of God too or instead, it is important to have intelligible reasons for personal belief.  Otherwise, it will just be one word against another, with only presuppositions (often unchallenged ones) to be the arbitrator.  Conversations, or perhaps more like confrontations, like this can sometimes be more about who has the loudest or most confident voice than about where the evidence points.  In my adventure with the DVD wallet, even though I think many would agree that I was in the right, the manager succeeded in making me feel as if I was wrong.  These kinds of altercations can leave a bad taste in one’s mouth; sometimes even for both parties.  I am not suggesting that the same cannot be true of more reasonable conversations, but I do think these at least encourage a person to discover more, instead of just cementing their own opinion without rational consideration.  On that note, I hope to offer reasons for believing that the Bible is in fact the word of God.  I do not intend to directly address the scriptures of other religions, but I would hope that if my reasons are weighty in favour of the Bible, evaluation could also be made in regard to other books to see how they measure up.

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The books of the Bible claim to be the word of God in various ways
As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, it is important to first assess whether the Bible itself makes the claim to be the word of God.  If it does not, the investigation of whether it actually is should take a different direction than the one I am taking.  However, if it does, I can move on to questions of literature, preservation, and canon, as I intend to do in subsequent articles in this series, confident that I am not wasting my time.  In discussing the different ways in which the Bible shows itself to be the word of God, I do not claim that any one individual feature is conclusive, but I do think that the various features add up to make the Bible’s claim about itself hard to refute.  That being said, there are certainly many who know these things and reject them as conclusive based on objections, so I intend to address these, but only after presenting positive evidence for the Bible being the word of God.

In So Many Words

Now, it would be a lot easier if we could open up the Bible and read in Genesis 1:1 “This is the word of God”, but that is just not what the verse says.  Word3However, this does not mean that the claim is not made throughout the Bible.  Jump down to Genesis 1:3 and you find the claim that the words of God were spoken and that they are recorded in this book; namely, “Let there be light.”  Of course, claiming that the Bible has some words of God is not the same as claiming that the whole of the Bible is the word of God, and this is part of a particular objection that I will address later.  However, even just showing that the Bible contains the words of God goes a long way toward showing that what is in the Bible is what God wants to be there, though certainly not proving anything.  After all, if the Bible includes sayings like “God spoke to…” and “Thus says the LORD…” hundreds of times, which it does, I would consider it a small step from thinking that this author occasionally writes the very words of God to thinking that this author is actually a prophet, speaking to the people on behalf of God, even in passages where that is not made explicit.  Some examples will suffice, though instances could easily be multiplied.

Old Testament Prophets

In Deuteronomy 1:3 it says that Moses spoke to the people of Israel, but even though it was him speaking, it is also described as “all that the LORD had given him in commandment to them”.  It was not just a general sense that this might be the word of God, but a specific year, month, and day is given forWord4 when this happened, coming from a man who is described as having talked to God face to face (Numbers 7:89; Deuteronomy 34:10).

Right after Moses, his assistant Joshua is also said to have the LORD speaking to him (Joshua 1:1-9) and through him (Joshua 4:1-5).

In 1 Samuel 3:10-18 the LORD spoke through Samuel to Eli, and even though it was bad news for Eli, he still acknowledged that it was indeed the word of God.  Immediately following this, it says that the LORD was with Samuel and He let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground (go unfulfilled), and that he was a prophet, for the LORD revealed His word to Samuel (1 Samuel 3:19-21).

David claimed that the Spirit of the LORD spoke by him and God said things to him (2 Samuel 23:1-4) and he is also described as the sweet psalmist in this passage, having written a large number of the psalms.  Looking particularly at the prophets (Isaiah to Malachi), all of them claim that God spoke to the prophet to bring a specific message to a specific people.

Jesus

OXYGEN VOLUME 13In the New Testament, Jesus Christ, the Son of God according to Matthew 16:16-20, says later in the same book that His words will not pass away (Matthew 24:35).  He also spoke the words of life from the Spirit of God, by His own description and that of His disciples (John 6:63, 68-69).  Jesus also claimed that all He had heard from His Father (God), He had made known to His disciples (John 15:15) and that God’s word is truth (John 17:17).

In addition to claiming to speak the word of God Himself, Jesus asserted this for the Old Testament Scripture as well.  He said something similar to His own designation mentioned above when He said He would fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Old Testament) and that they would remain as the heavens and the earth (Matthew 5:17-18).

He also took issue with those who were not following the commandment of God in the Old Testament, thus supporting the authority of three passages of Scripture (Exodus 20:12, 21:17; Isaiah 29:13) as clearly binding and from God (Matthew 15:1-9).  Indeed, in His confrontations with religious leaders and others alike, the authority of Old Testament Scripture as the word of God was assumed, not defended (Matthew 22:29-32; Mark 10:5-9; Luke 18:20; John 10:34-36).  All this is quite significant, because if Jesus really is God’s Son, to which His predictions (which will be seen below) and His resurrection (more information here) testify, then we have reason to believe that what He says about the Bible is true.  John Ankerberg and Dillon Burroughs said it best in stating, “if Jesus is who He says He is then the Bible is what he says it is.” (How Do We Know the Bible Is True?, p.72).

Jesus’ Disciples

Word6That Old Testament Scripture was treated as the word of God is reinforced by the disciples of Jesus.  The early believers in Jesus considered the events transpiring among them to be in fulfillment of what God had spoken through the mouths of the prophets, like Moses, Samuel, and others (Acts 3:18-26).  They also recognized parts of Scripture that did not explicitly include a reference to being the word of the Lord to also have been spoken by God through the human author, like in the example of David (Acts 4:24-26).

In their own writings, the authors of the New Testament not only quote extensively and authoritatively from the Old Testament as Scripture, they also make some statements about Scripture as a whole.  In 2 Timothy 3:15-16 Paul tells Timothy about how he has been acquainted with the sacred writings from childhood and how all Scripture is God-breathed (θεόπνευστος, theopneustos).  Edwin Blum, after referencing a fifty-page article by B.B. Warfield on the meaning of this term, concludes,

“Warfield, therefore, stressed that the meaning of the term is ‘God-breathed’ rather than ‘inspired’ or ‘breathed into’ by God.” (In Inerrancy, p.47).

So, according to Paul’s understanding, it is not just that God added some points in the Scriptures, but that they could be rightly said to originate with Him.

Word7Paul is not alone in this, as Peter makes very clear that “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21).  In other words, even though Scripture comes by the pen of men, it comes from the mouth of God.

Adding to this is how these same men generally felt about the writings of the New Testament.  Staying with Peter for the moment, he mentioned the letters of Paul and the “other” Scriptures being distorted by the ignorant (2 Peter 3:16).  The way he puts it places Paul’s letters under the title of Scripture.  Paul did the same in 1 Timothy 5:18 when he noted that “The Scripture says” and then quoted from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 25:4) and another part of the New Testament (Luke 10:7).  As significant as these references are in viewing the New Testament, it is reinforced by what the writers said within their own writings themselves.

The Corinthian correspondence contains several references to the word of the Lord through Paul, of which one is found in 1 Corinthians 14:37, where Paul demands that it be acknowledged that the things he is writing are a command of the Lord.  In 2 Corinthians 13:3 Paul offers what would be proof of Christ speaking in him through a warning of discipline.

John has no hesitation in saying directly that the Revelation is of Jesus Christ and that it is the word of God (Revelation 1:1-3).  From these and many other references, it can be shown that biblical authors recognized God speaking through them.

What Scripture Says, God Says

 

Divine Intervention

Word25In addition to the claim that God’s word was being communicated through the authors of Scripture, I believe the Bible also reveals that God would even intervene to prevent unwanted words from being communicated. There are examples in the Bible where it seems to me that, apart from the intervention of God, there would have been parts of the Bible that could be described as “merely human” (which is one of the objections I will address later). In other words, if God had not been watching over the writing of Scripture, it might be right to describe the Bible as merely containing the word of God. However, I do see evidence of God preserving His word in the writing of the very words of the Bible.

Word26One of my favourite examples is found in 2 Samuel 7, as King David wants to build a house for the ark of God and Nathan the prophet told him to do all that was in his heart, because the Lord was with him (2 Samuel 7:2-3). It is true that the Lord was with David (2 Samuel 5:10) and that Nathan was a true prophet of God (2 Samuel 12:1), so if nothing else happened, David would have built the house for the Lord. However, even though this probably seemed like a good thing to do and something that would please God, it was not actually what God wanted, so the will of God was clearly revealed to be different from the will of men in this case, even though they were godly men. 2 Samuel 7:4-17 goes on to describe what God’s words actually were, distinguishing from what some might have liked them to be. Some people have a view of the Bible as a bunch of books being written according to human wisdom and desires, but passages like this suggest otherwise. David is one of the authors of Scripture and if God corrected him here, it would stand to reason that He would guide him in recording other words that claim to be from God, as I believe they are.

Turning to the New Testament, Acts 10 describes Peter doing something that initially got him into trouble with his fellow Jews in Acts 11. The reason Peter was initially criticized (Acts 11:2-3) was because he went to minister to the Gentiles, and he actually preached the word of God to them, but it was scandalous to some Jews that he would even eat with the Gentiles. What would cause Peter, a Word27Jew, to act so uncharacteristically? Well, according to Acts 10, it was the word of God to Peter (Acts 10:10-20). God was taking Peter from a mindset of thinking that salvation was restricted to the Jews to realizing that the scope was wider in God’s mind. God shows this unequivocally by giving His Spirit to the Gentile believers as Peter was preaching (Acts 10:44-45), just as He had given it to the Jewish believers previously (Acts 2:4). Therefore, when Peter was opposed, he makes mention of this clear indication that God was in it, when he says “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17). Peter is admitting here that, had it been up to him, he would have been standing in God’s way, but fortunately for the Gentiles then and now, God did not leave it up to him. So the truth that God wanted to communicate, though involving man, was not dependent upon man. Though Peter, and presumably the majority of the Jews, stood in the way, God made His word clear and it was preserved in Scripture. Peter, also one of the authors of Scripture, was led by God to see the truth in this situation, even against his own inclinations, so it makes sense that he would also be led in his writing about God and on behalf of God.

Word28I certainly see that God was at work preventing humans from getting things wrong, but it does not even have to be something wrong that God wants to prevent from getting in His word. In this next example, it is simply just something God does not wish to reveal. In Revelation 1:11, John is told to “Write what you see in a book” and we can presume that he does precisely that with the book that we call Revelation (Revelation 22:10, 18-19). We see clearly that John is writing as he is seeing and hearing, because in Revelation 10:4 he has to be stopped in the act, for it says “And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.’” I can just imagine John getting ready to put the pen to the paper after hearing the seven thunders, and then he immediately receives instruction to not write it down. It is not that John was going to inaccurately write down what the seven thunders said, but simply that God did not want that to be revealed for some reason. Here we see the author of Scripture in mid-paragraph, but because it was something that God did not want communicated in His book, John was stopped and given specific direction about what to leave out. This sense that the words of the book were what God wanted is supported by Revelation 22:18-19, where anyone adding or taking away words would have to answer to God Himself.

Interchangeable Terms

Word29I suggested above that the designation “word of God” is not limited to passages that explicitly state that “God said”, and this becomes clearer when we take a look at how people in the New Testament referred to the Old Testament. There are several examples in which one of two interchanges occurs: either the Old Testament says God said something and the New Testament says Scripture said it, or the Old Testament simply says something and the New Testament says God said it. In other words, these examples reveal that Scripture saying something and God saying something can be used as interchangeable expressions, or “What Scripture says, God says”. This need not mean that God literally said everything out loud and then it was copied down, but simply that if it is written in Scripture, God wanted it there. This also need not mean that God wanted every particular event to happen, like sins or failures, but that He did want it recorded in Scripture. If you are not sure what I mean by interchangeable terms, the following examples illustrate this.

Word30To start with words being attributed to Scripture in the New Testament that were spoken by God in the Old Testament, Romans 9:17 is a good example. In Exodus 9:13-16, the Lord is speaking through Moses to Pharaoh, saying that He raised Pharaoh up for the purpose of showing His power and that His name might be proclaimed. Fast forward to Romans 9:17 and these same words are said to be spoken by Scripture to Pharaoh. This is connected with the previous verse (Romans 9:16), where Paul expresses that this depends on God’s mercy. So God is clearly the subject, but Paul feels free to insert “Scripture”, suggesting that what God says is what the Scripture says.

Word31Paul does this again in Galatians 3:8 when he writes that “the Scripture…preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’” Now, in the time of Moses, which is when the above example from Exodus takes place, we do not know how long it took for the words to be written down, but in the case of Abraham, we know that the words of Genesis 12:3 were not written yet. Still, Genesis 12:3 is where we find what Paul is quoting, attributing the words to Scripture, and if we just glance back a couple verses, Genesis 12:1 tells us that the Lord is saying this to Abraham. Again, it is clearly spoken by God in the Old Testament, but as it is quoted in the New Testament, Scripture is an adequate substitute, for what God says is what Scripture says.

Word32Switching the formula around, the New Testament also indicates that what Scripture says, God says. In Genesis 2:24, it talks about a man leaving his parents and becoming one flesh with his wife, but there is no reason to put quotation marks around it and it is not attributed to the voice of God. In fact, the last person to speak was actually the man, in Genesis 2:23. However, jumping over to the New Testament, Jesus quotes this verse in Matthew 19:4-5, but before the citation is given, He says “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said…” He who created them male and female is undeniably God, as a previous passage in Genesis clearly indicates (Genesis 1:27), but then Jesus states that God said the words of Genesis 2:24, showing that this part of Scripture is from God. Even though it was not directly spoken by God, His voice came through in the writing of the human author.

Word33This is even more clearly evident in Psalm 2:1 and the New Testament quotation of it. Psalm 2:1 says “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” Then, in Acts 4:24-25, the disciples are addressing God and state that He spoke through the mouth of David and said it by the Holy Spirit, at which point they proceed to quote Psalm 2:1. This is significant; recognizing both the human authorship of the psalm, which is true, but also that God was speaking through the human author by His Spirit, or in other words, recognizing the divine authorship of the psalm, which I also believe to be true. Psalm 2:1 is treated as much as the voice of God as Psalm 2:7, which does include attribution to God and is also quoted in Acts as the voice of God (Acts 13:32-33).

Word34Continuing on with the Psalms, 16:10 is again the voice of David, but as it is picked up in the New Testament, it is acknowledged as the voice of God. Acts 13:32-35 includes the reference to Psalm 2 mentioned above, as well as a reference to Isaiah 55:3, where God’s voice is implied, though not explicit, but it continues on to mention that He (God) “says also in another psalm, ‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’” In this, the New Testament quote reveals what is to be understood of the Old Testament Scripture; namely, that God is speaking through it.

Word35One final example from three psalms will suffice. Psalm 104:4 describes the Lord’s dealings with His messengers in the third person, from the perspective of the psalmist blessing and praising the Lord (Psalm 104:1). This is quoted in Hebrews 1:7 in the context of God describing His angels. The author of Hebrews continues, though, as he proceeds in the next five verses (Hebrews 1:8-12) to quote from Psalm 45:6-7 and 102:25-27, both of which are not attributed directly to God in the Old Testament, but certainly are attributed to God here in the New Testament. So again, words of Scripture found in the Old Testament can be rightly termed the word of God, even if the context does not expressly say that.

Word36With all this talk about the New Testament referring to the Old Testament in a different way, it may seem like the New Testament might have made the Old Testament something that it was not originally. However, remember that the Old Testament refers to the word of God hundreds of times and that there are even passages that sound quite similar to the evidence we have just examined, like 2 Samuel 23:2-3 “The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me; his word is on my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me…” So, all that to say that if the internal evidence suggests no distinction between Scripture and the word of God, making such a distinction seems to me to be artificially imposed. If Jesus and His disciples could talk about Scripture as effectively the word of God, I believe we can too.

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More than just words

Another reference from Paul is 1 Corinthians 2:13, where he says, “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”  Of course these are just words to unbelievers and it would not matter if the Bible claimed to be the Word8aword of God thousands of times more.  However, there is something to be said for the claim that the Bible is not merely human words but the words of the God of the universe, because if true, it might be expected that the Bible would present wisdom and knowledge beyond the time of the human authors.

One area of interest is science.  I believe there are misconceptions about the Bible in terms of the questions of science and there is a lot of rhetoric surrounding the views of Scripture on the nature of the world.  Though I do not intend to address all the scientific issues involved along with the interpretation of the Bible, I would like to bring what I think to be some helpful perspectives.  First of all, it must be stated that the Bible is not a science textbook.  What I mean by this is that it must not be read as if it was trying to teach people what you might learn in a chemistry or biology class.  The Bible is not about science, but I do believe it includes some interesting aspects of science that are hard to explain without considering that God must have had something to do with the acquisition of the knowledge.  This is sometimes called prescience, and it is explained well by William Cairney: “By prescience we mean the occurrence, in Scripture, of accurate statements reflecting an in-depth knowledge of scientific concepts far before mankind had laid the technological base for such things to be known.” (In Evidence for Faith, p.128).

Prescience

 

The Universe

Word9To begin again with the beginning, if we look at Genesis 1:1 it will be nothing new or surprising to those who have grown up with at least some contact with the Bible.  However, think about what it actually indicates; namely, that God created the universe in the beginning.  The significance of this is revealed when consideration is given to the fact that in ancient times, the universe was believed to be eternal and unchanging.  It was not until the 20th century that science began to concede that the universe had a beginning, and very reluctantly at that (Kenny Barfield, Why the Bible Is Number One, p.103-106; Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.76-84).

Word10Jumping down to Genesis 1:14, we see that God created an expanse in the heavens.  Though there has been controversy about the meaning of the word “expanse”, other passages in the Bible indicate a belief not in a solid heaven, but space as we would understand it today.  These other passages would include Job 26:7, Isaiah 40:22, and Zechariah 12:1.  Again, the significance is made clearer when comparing the most common ancient view of the universe, that it was enclosed and limited by some solid barrier, and the modern view, which indicates that the universe is expanding (Why the Bible Is Number One, p.102-103; I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.79).

The Earth

Word11To take two of the aforementioned verses further, Isaiah 40:22 indicates that the earth is circular and Job 26:7 indicates that God hung the earth on nothing.  Of course, it was not until the famous voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 that the earth was shown to be round.  In regard to the Job reference, ancient authors thought the earth to rest on various foundations, including the backs of animals or a primal ocean, but Job 26:7 indicates that the earth is actually suspended in empty space (Why the Bible Is Number One, p.107).

Word12Another feature of the earth is that the ocean floor has unique geographical features, which the Bible describes as channels or valleys of the sea (2 Samuel 22:16) and recesses of the deep (Job 38:16).  However, the ocean floor was thought to be smooth and sandy in ancient times and it was not until the voyage of the H.M.S. Challenger (1873) that underwater canyons were documented (Why the Bible Is Number One, p.169-170).

Word13Continuing on from Job 38:16, it also speaks of springs of the sea, while Genesis 7:11 and Proverbs 8:28 mention fountains of the deep.  However, as far as the great civilizations of the ancient world were concerned, only rain and rivers filled the ocean (Why the Bible Is Number One, p.171-172).  This knowledge seems to me to indicate that the words are beyond what would have been spoken by man, and even further, that this knowledge was given by God.

Predictive Prophecy

Another area of interest is, oddly enough, the future.  It is one thing to declare things as they are, as in the case of science, but it is quite another to declare things that are still to come.  If it could be shown that the Bible contains predictive prophecy, then that would lend credence to the claim that it is actually

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

the word of God.

Bertrand Russell was asked under what condition he would believe in God, to which he answered,

“Well, if I heard a voice from heaven and it predicted a series of things and they came to pass, then I guess I’d have to believe there’s some kind of supernatural being.” (Quoted in Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, p.455-456).

The Bible states something similar as it’s criteria for the word of the Lord, though in reverse.  In Deuteronomy 18:21-22, after introducing the idea of both true and false prophets, the anticipated question of how the people would know a word that the LORD had not spoken is addressed.  The very simple answer is that if the word does not come true, the LORD has not spoken it.  This is a very heavy self-imposed burden that the Bible then has, for if one of the prophecies fails, then it was clearly not the word of the Lord, by the Bible’s own standard.  Well, to flip that around to something more positive, ironically enough like Russell’s formulation, if it could be shown that a series of predictions were made in the Bible and they all came to pass, then it would make sense to concede that this really was a voice from heaven and the words of God.

Old Testament Predictive Prophecy

Word15The Bible contains quite a lot of predictions with varying lengths of time between prediction and fulfillment.  A good example of a short-term prophecy and also a long-term prophecy is found in 1 Kings 13.  A prophet of God predicted that a son of David named Josiah would defile the altar (1 Kings 13:2), but this did not happen until around 300 years later (2 Kings 23:15-18).  However, the prophet also gave another prediction as a sign from God, that the altar would be torn down and ashes would be poured out of it (1 Kings 13:3), and this happened pretty much right there, right then (1 Kings 13:5).

Now, since these prophecies with their fulfillments are written in the same book, it may be thoroughly unimpressive to someone who does not already believe in the truth of the Bible.  After all, if the author is writing both the prediction and the fulfillment, he could conceivably have made up one or the Word16other, or both.  However, it does reveal something that is valuable in assessing prophecies and that is the principle called telescoping.  The prophet gave a long range prediction, but also a short range one.  It makes sense to speak both of the contemporary situation and the distant future, because the principle given in Deuteronomy is easier to evaluate if all the recipients of the prophecy are alive when the fulfillment comes, but there would still be words that God would want to speak to subsequent generations, for the purposes of correction or encouragement.  However, having these short-term prophecies come to pass was no guarantee that the people would receive the prophet, because prophecies, especially in the Old Testament, were often of judgement due to how rebellious the people consistently were, and thus not usually welcomed.  So all that to say that it was in the best interest of the prophet to both write down how God was speaking to them in their present and what He was saying about the future.  That being said, it is clearly more impressive to predict something in the distant future than something that is just about to happen.

A shining example of this is the prophet Isaiah, whose 66 chapter book is packed with prophecies of varying time frames.  In chapter 1 Isaiah predicted that Zion would be left alone like a besieged city, with a few survivors, which happened in 701BC (John Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary OT, Word17bp.604).  In chapter 7 he predicted the destruction of Syria and Israel, which happened in 732BC and 722BC respectively (The IVP Bible Background Commentary OT, p.593).  Now, in the midst of pronouncing all this judgement, Isaiah steps back and proclaims that a child would be born, and that this son would be called God and would rule on the throne of David forever (Isaiah 9:6-7).  Well, what we can say for sure is that Isaiah lived to see 732BC, 722BC, 701BC, but as for God being born as a child and having the throne of David, that had to wait some 700 years for the divine Son of God, of the line of David to come (Luke 1:31-32)!  Space does not allow me to do a detailed analysis of the prophecies of Isaiah, but a couple more examples should make the point.

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Cyrus the Great

Even though the main enemy during the time of Isaiah is the nation of Assyria, Isaiah prophesies about the destruction of Babylon, after they have already taken Judah captive.  In Isaiah 44:24-28 God says that He is the LORD and He confirms the word of His servant.  He would raise up the ruins of Judah and fulfill His purpose by Cyrus.  Cyrus was the king of Persia who conquered Babylon in 539BC (The IVP Bible Background Commentary OT, p.632), and the Lord called Him by name to do it.  This may seem incredible for God to call someone by name 150 years before they finally do His purpose, but that is just the point.  Speaking again of the humiliation of Babylon, and likely Cyrus also, God ridicules the gods of Babylon for being able to do nothing.  In contrast, God declares, “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” (Isaiah 46:8-11).  God did the incredible to show that He is God and there is no other, and that He is the One who can confirm the words of His servant, because His words are true and come to pass.

Furthermore, Isaiah predicted events that are still in our future, such as the new heaven and the new earth (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22), so in terms of the time frame, Isaiah passed the test of a true prophet in his own time, in the time 150 years after him, in the time of Jesus 700 years after him, and in a time that is God-only-knows how long after him!

New Testament References to Old Testament Predictive Prophecy

Other Old Testament examples are numerous, but I feel it is also worth spending some time in the New Testament, both looking at Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in the New Testament and the fact that the New Testament has fulfilled prophecies of its own.  To consider the Old Testament, there are dozens of prophecies that refer to Jesus, and they are of varying degrees of specificity.  I mentioned briefly above that Isaiah passed the test of a true prophet in regard to his predictions of the time of Jesus, 700 years after him.  Though I was thinking generally of many different references to Jesus, as I Word19said, some are more specific than others.  Isaiah 9:1-7 concerns the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, and how it was formerly brought into contempt (which happened during Isaiah’s lifetime), but it was not all bad news, for there would be a great light for these people and that they would be freed from oppression.  Now that sounds fairly general and like it could have various fulfillment options, but as we look at the details, the fulfillment becomes crystal clear.

First, the region in question is also called “the way of the sea…Galilee of the nations”, and anyone familiar with the Gospels would know that Jesus was raised in Galilee and spent a significant portion of His ministry there, and Isaiah 9:1-2 is even quoted in Matthew 4:12-16 as fulfilled when Jesus lives and begins His ministry in Galilee.

Word20Second, the description of how this freedom from oppression would come involves a male child being born and having the government on his shoulders, but it is not just any child.  The name of this child would be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”, so this was claiming that God would actually be born.  This would not make sense according to the understanding of God as eternal, declaring the end from the beginning as mentioned above, so how would this work?  Well, it is not so strange to find that the one through whom this was to happen had the same question.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, was told that she would bear a son who would be called the Son of God (Luke 1:31-32).  In response, she asked how that could happen, since she was a virgin, and the angel speaking with her said that the child would be given by the power of God and could thus be called the Son of God (Luke 1:34-35).  So, the child would be born, but God had existed long before this, as other verses confirm (John 1:1, 14, 18, 17:5).

Third, the end of the passage in Isaiah contains this prophecy: “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom”.  Returning to the same passage in Luke, this is what was also told to Mary before Jesus was born, that the Lord would give Him the throne of His father David and that there would be no end to His kingdom (Luke 1:32-33).  This predicted Jesus’ lineage as descended from David, which He was (Matthew 1:1; Luke 3:23-31) and His inheritance in the kingdom, which He proclaimed continuing on from the passage in Matthew 4 mentioned above (Matthew 4:17).  So, to sum up, these few verses in Isaiah predicted Jesus’ place of residence, place of ministry, identity, lineage, and destiny, around 700 years before His birth!

New Testament Predictive Prophecy

Word21In addition, Jesus Himself was not without ability to prophesy future events and that would make sense, being the Son of God.  A good example of this would be His prediction of the destruction of the temple during the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD.  Mark 13 and parallels in Matthew and Luke contain Jesus’ describing the events that would lead up to the destruction of the temple, and though several different details are given, a handful will suffice.

First, Mark 13:1-2 records the disciples admiring the temple and Jesus replying that the stones would be thrown down.  As it turned out, even though the temple complex was admirable, being one of the most magnificent structures in the ancient world, most of the temple was completely obliterated in 70AD (Craig Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary NT, p.170).

Second, in Mark 13:3-6, the disciples ask when and for the sign that these things are about to be accomplished.  Jesus said that many would claim to be Him and lead many astray.  This happened at various points in the time leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, as Jewish men claimed to be the Christ and had significant followings, especially after 44AD.  That is, at least until they were killed (Acts 5:36-37) (FF Bruce, New Testament History, p.338-339).

Word22Third, Mark 13:9 records Jesus’ prediction of His disciples being delivered to councils, being beaten in synagogues, and standing before governors and kings to bear witness of Jesus.  This is evident throughout the book of Acts, which ends prior to the fall of Jerusalem (Acts 4:1-6, 5:17-18, 27-28, 40, 18:12-17, 22:19, 25:12, 26:2).

Word23Fourth, Jesus issues a warning to those who are in Judea when the fall of Jerusalem is about to happen and tells them to flee to the mountains (Mark 13:14).  Interestingly, those who presumably heeded Jesus’ warning were the Christians of Jerusalem, for in the mid-sixties, these Christians fled Jerusalem to a place called Pella, hewn from the foothills (IVP Bible Background Commentary NT, p.171, New Testament History, p.375).  It is also interesting to consider even the time at which Jesus says would be inconvenient to flee, for He says to pray that it would not be in winter (Mark 13:18).  The Jewish historian Josephus wrote about some Jewish refugees who were delayed by the flooding of the Jordan in 68AD and were killed by the Romans who invaded Jerusalem (IVP Bible Background Commentary NT, p.171).

Fifth, Jesus tells His disciples in Mark 13:28-29 that when they would see these signs, they would know that “he is near, at the very gates.”  This “he” could be Titus, the general who destroyed Jerusalem.  This would also make sense because of what Jesus says in the next verse, for Mark 13:30 says that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”  A generation in the Old Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls was at times represented by 40 years, like the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, for example (Numbers 14:33), so if Jesus was prophesying this in 30AD, which He most likely was, that would be right on track with the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD (IVP Bible Background Commentary NT, p.173).  Even if the exact 40 year generation is seen as a stretch, the fact that the same generation would still be alive after 40 years is not.  So Jesus not only knew what would eventually happen, but He also knew when, how, and under what circumstances.

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Conclusion

Word24I believe I have given good reasons for taking the Bible’s claim to be the word of God seriously.  Again, I think this is important to start with, because if the Bible did not claim to be the word of God, our search would need to take an entirely different direction.  I am well aware that I have not addressed everything, but I do believe I have given a good basis for moving on to the next question.  As the Bible claims to be the word of God, we can now evaluate how far that designation extends and what we can say about what we have today.  If you are satisfied with the evidence that I have provided, perhaps you would like to move on to the next article in the series.  If you are thinking of some possible objections, perhaps you should read the second portion of this article in which I address some common objections.  It might be that I address your objection there, or at least expand on some issues that make the claims of the Bible clearer.  After that, perhaps you would be in a better position to continue with the next article and evaluate if the path of God’s word to us is reliable.

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By Matt Lefebvre

Introduction

In thinking about the question of biblical reliability, I am reminded of a joke I heard from a fellow apologist, Stefan Gustavsson.  I Intro1prefer it in Swedish, but I have heard him tell it in English too.  “I feel like a mosquito at a nudist colony.  ‘Where should I begin?’”  As the mosquito and his little bug brain have a hard time comprehending how to attack the multitude of skin surface area, I find a multitude of avenues laid before me in discussing the trustworthiness of what I believe to be God’s word.  Because the history of the Bible is such a vast topic, it is not only hard to find a satisfactory starting point, but there will also inevitably be parts that I will leave out.  However, I do feel that it is so important that a case is made for the Bible, so I will do my best to bring attention to key points along the road.  Though my treatment will not be all-inclusive, I would hope that it would be sufficient to demonstrate confidence that the Bible is not only reliable in a general historical sense, but also that it is the word of God, and thus, cannot be ignored.

In order to do this, I will be asking a series of questions that shed light on an overarching question; namely, why should anyone trust the Bible?  As I have mentioned, I will not attempt to cover every question of biblical reliability, but I do intend to follow some successive steps through the ancient world and try to answer questions as they naturally arise.  Hopefully, this will allow us to see how the words of God, which were supposed to have been spoken and written so long ago, could possibly show up right in front of our eyes today.  Intro2As I present what I regard as positive evidence for the reliability of the Bible, I will also attempt to respond to criticisms of it through the lens of the different questions, because there is opposition at every step.  It is my intention to do more than simply point out all that the Bible has going for it, for it is quite often the difficult questions that leave skeptics unconvinced. In answering these questions, I will mostly focus on the New Testament.  It is not that the Old Testament is not interesting to me, because it really is.  It is just that we know more about the New Testament and the New Testament itself bears witness to the Old Testament, so if we can positively answer some questions in regard to New Testament reliability, it will raise the credibility of the Old Testament as well.

Does the Bible claim to be the word of God?

Intro3This first question may seem redundant to some and a waste of time to others, but I consider it to be an important question to ask.  For those who already believe, “the Bible” and “the word of God” are synonymous, so it might seem superfluous to ask such a question.  For those who do not believe, they might be able to name a few other books that make similar claims and say that such claims are just that: claims, and most likely unsubstantiated at that.  I feel this is an important question, however, because it can give us that aforementioned starting point.  If the Bible does claim to be the word of God, we can go about examining that claim by looking at the book itself.  If it does not, examining the book will not lead anywhere, because the designation “word of God” must have arisen from some external source, such as a person or a group of people.  In the latter case, we would have to consider the reasoning behind the designation “word of God” for a book that makes no such claim on its own.  In the former case, we have cause to take a closer look at the words themselves.  I see the Bible claiming to be the word of God in various ways, but more than that, I also consider them to be substantiated claims.

Does the Bible Claim to Be the Word of God?

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But do we know that the right words were written?

Intro4cBuilding on the first question, the second question asks how we could know that what was written was the word of God, even if we conceded that God had spoken to some people at some points.  After all, they did not have You-Talk-It-Types back in the time of the Bible, or even computers, for that matter.  How could something like the Bible be recorded in a way that would preserve the words that God had spoken?  Well, I think that by showing how the Bible measures up to the standards of secular history, it will illuminate how reliable we should consider the Bible to be.  There is a lot of rhetoric surrounding biblical history, so it might surprise many to find out what we can say with confidence regarding it.

But Do We Know that the Right Words Were Written?

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But do we know what the originals said?

Intro5A third question is related very closely with the second question, for the moment we acknowledge that the words of God were written down, we would naturally inquire as to where these words are.  Unfortunately, we do not have the original documents to examine, but this is true of all ancient documents.  However, in the same way that some other ancient documents are not lost to historians, by using copies regulated by historical criteria, we can recover the original wording to a high degree of accuracy.  Again, many might be surprised to find out how the Bible measures up according to the standards of secular history.

But do we have the correct books?

Intro6aThe final question in this series deals not so much with the words themselves, but the books in which they are contained.  The Bible is indeed one book, but it is also a collection of smaller books.  The question of whether the Bible contains the right books is a matter explained in the first two questions, for if claim is made for them being the words of God and they were written by people in the right position to record such words, I believe they should be included.  Though this still merits further comment, and will receive as much, a common question today revolves around books that were not included in the Bible, and I will certainly address that.  If the books of the Bible distinguish themselves from other proposed candidates, we can say confidently that we have the right books of the word of God.

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The articles in this series can be read in isolation, if a particular area is of interest to the reader, but I would suggest reading them in the order laid out above.  As much as I think each question has a satisfactory answer and stands on its own as significant evidence for biblical reliability, understanding the evidence at these different stages reinforces how much confidence we can really have in the Bible.

Does the Bible Claim to Be God’s Word?

But Do We Know that the Right Words Were Written?