How Do We Know The Bible Is The Word Of God?
This article is sort of a continuation/addendum to a previous article which was itself derived from comments left on an even different article. The conversation has spawned several tangents that sort of reinforce my point of view, but also allow us the chance to delve into certain topics a little bit deeper. Not everyone will agree with me and that’s okay. I’m perfectly happy to have intelligent discussion and debate on pretty much any topic including religion and politics.
The portion of the original comment that I am replying to is:
The Bible, to me, is essentially like this. “Some guy said that God told him to tell you…”
How do I know that “story” that the person wrote isn’t a personal belief or spin on what God told him to write? How do I know, that the people who have rewritten the bible thus far (apparently 40 individuals, all told) to fit the standards they deem sufficient at the time? If they were merely translating from previous texts, who’s to say that their interpretation is correct? I realize what I’m saying is somewhat blasphemous, but I take the word of the Bible with a grain of salt – it’s authors were human, and humans aren’t perfect. I’d feel a lot more confident in its content if this was God’s own written text. Surely a omnipotent deity is capable of putting things down on paper, and in such a way that it will last for eternity.
Michael brings up an important point and one I feel should be addressed because it is so important to the Christian religion and belief system and is essential for one to understand if they hope to understand where I am (and other Christians, I suppose) are coming from when we say we base our beliefs on the Bible.
I believe that the Bible is the actual word of God. I believe He breathed His word into the hearts of men who faithfully and truthfully recorded those words into the Bible we have today. These “God-breathed” scriptures hold the same authority as if God were to come down and speak to you or I directly. I believe every word recorded in the original documents to be chosen by God. This belief in the Bible being God’s holy word is essential to the Christian faith.
But how do we know the Bible is the word of God?
It is not unusual for people to make the same sort of statement Michael made and raise an objection to a Christian’s belief in the Bible as being the infallible word of God. The most popular claim is that Christians must use the Bible to support the Bible as the word of God which, of course, quickly descends into “circular reasoning.” However, that simply isn’t the case. Michael’s objections, in particular, are that God’s words could have been recorded incorrectly and that God could have found a way to record the words in such a way that they would last for eternity. I will address all of these objections.
The first thing we should take note of is the fact that the Bible can never be “proven” to be the word of God. Since science does not have any objective standard by which to measure “God-ness,” the scientific method cannot be used to make a determination on His existence. Since we cannot make a determination on His existence we also cannot make a scientific determination of whether or not the Bible contains the inspired words of God. However, this does not mean that we cannot examine the evidence and reach a satisfactory conclusion as to the probability of the truthfulness of the Bible based on the evidence before us. In order to honestly debate or discuss the merits of God and the Bible as His word, one must at least be willing to open their mind to the possibility of His existence and the possibility that He did provide a holy scripture of His words for the world to follow. I will assume you, the reader, are willing to do so.
So in this discussion, what we are really interested in, is determining if the words of the Bible are the true words of God given to men or if they are merely the words of men written about God. If it is the latter then we can assume that it would be much like other books written by men about God – it shouldn’t really be any different than any of those books. However, if it is the former then it should be considerably different. It should, in fact, be a unique and one of a kind collection unequaled anywhere in the world.
To determine if this is the case, we must examine what we know about the Bible and see if it aligns with what we’d expect from a message whose source is God. Now, for this discussion, we will accept the premises that God exists and that He created humanity with a desire to know Him. Now, despite the controversy that has often accompanied his book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, author Josh McDowell does do a good job of outlining a way we might know whether or not the Bible is of God. McDowell says that if God created man with a desire to know Him, we would expect His message to have some specific and unique properties:
- It would be widely distributed so man could attain it easily.
- It would be preserved through time without corruption.
- It would be completely accurate historically.
- It would not be prone to scientific error or false beliefs held by the people of that time.
- It would present true, unified answers to the difficult questions of life.
I believe that the Bible meets all five of these criteria without question.
It would be widely distributed so man could attain it easily.
The Bible is the most published book in history. It has the widest distribution of any published work in the history of the world. It has been translated into more languages than any other book. It was the first book ever published with movable type. It is the most sold book in history and is still the #1 best seller of any book.
None of these things prove that the Bible is the word of God. However, they are consistent with what we would expect of God’s message if He wanted us to know about Him and His plan for us. Out of all the books ever written, the Bible undoubtedly comes the closest to meeting the criteria for being God’s word on this point.
It would be preserved through time without corruption.
As you mentioned, surely an omnipotent deity is capable of recording His words in such a way that they will last through time and without corruption. After all, what good is a message from God if it got lost or the message became corrupted over time (which is what you imply could have happened to the Bible). Of course, this doesn’t mean that no one would ever misinterpret or mis-translate the words. But it does mean that we should be able to somehow discern where the errors in the copies are as well as the original intent of the message.
Ancient writing surfaces, as you probably know, were made up of natural elements such as papyrus, clay, and animal skins and decayed easily. Therefore, we do not have the original documents (called autographs, meaning written in the writer’s own hand) of the Biblical texts (nor of any other major ancient work). However, we do have copies of the originals (called manuscripts) and can compare those to one another to determine what was in the originals and what wasn’t. Obviously, the more copies you have from different places and the closer in age they are to the original, the better you will be at determining the original message.
I want to point out that this is the same process used for all ancient documents and not just the Bible. The reliability of all ancient texts is tested in the same manner. Historians look for copies of the text, from where they originated, their age and proximity to the autographs, and if the documents were quoted in other works to help them determine the closest rendering of the text to its original form.
The Bible has an overwhelming amount of manuscript evidence to authenticate its message as it was originally written. In fact, out of all the ancient literary and historical works, none come even remotely close to the huge amount of manuscript evidence that we have for the New Testament. We currently have over 5,300 manuscripts or parts of manuscripts we can examine today. If you add to that number all the copies of translations of the New Testament the number of manuscripts jumps to over 24,000. That’s 43 times as many manuscripts as we have for the second most prevalent writing, The Iliad, with only 643. We should also note that The Iliad and the Bible were both works revered as sacred writings so both fought attempts at additions, changes, and corruptions. Yet, out of 15,600 lines, The Iliad has over 400 lines that are in doubt by historians. The New Testament, on the other hand, only has 40 lines in doubt out of 20,000 lines, none of which substantially change its meaning.
Furthermore, if you look at the time gap between the originals and the earliest copies of both texts, you once again see that the New Testament is far more reliable. The Iliad has a gap of about 500 years before the first manuscripts appear. The Bible, however, has pieces ranging from as close as 35 years after the original composition.
The Old Testament, being much older, doesn’t enjoy quite the same manuscript evidence the New Testament does. However, thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls and other discoveries as well as Hebrew sources that quote from the Old Testament, we do have ample evidence to show that the Old Testament is the same today as it was in Jesus’ day. The Dead Sea Scrolls actually include almost all of the Old Testament canon and they date from 250 B.C. to 100 A.D. Also, the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, which was written about 250 B.C., shows that the text we have today has been nearly perfectly preserved.
It would be completely accurate historically.
If the Bible really is the word of God we would expect it to be completely accurate historically as the facts contained within must be presented unerringly.
There are actually many written sources outside of the Bible that corroborate its documentation. The most famous is probably the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who lived in the first century. The writings of Josephus not only preserve many of the traditions and events from the Old Testament but also corroborate many things in the New Testament such as the existence of John the Baptist, the death of James, the brother of Jesus, by the high priest Annas, and Jesus himself. Despite the fact that Josephus was a Jew and had a vested interest in not helping the Christian cause, he not only characterizes Jesus as being a “wise man,” but also reports the fact that people viewed Him as The Christ and that Jesus appeared to His disciples three days after Pilate had Him put to death.
There are other writings that corroborate the history as outlined in the Bible as well. The Jewish Talmud mentions Jesus and records His death on the eve of Passover. Thallus, a Samaritan historian who wrote in 52 A.D. mentions the crucifixion, as did Phlegon of Tralles, the Roman historian. And these are but a few examples.
Archeology has also borne out the historical accuracy of the Bible. Archaeological finds have continuously bolstered the accuracy of stories in the Bible to the point that archaeologists have, for the last couple of hundred years, used the Bible to help determine the locations of peoples and places they were searching for. One of the more famous examples is the story of the Hittites which were a group of people considered in the last century to be mythical because the only place they were ever mentioned was in the Bible. However, in 1876, A.J. Sayce brought forth archaeological evidence of their existence thus proving the stories in the Bible had been accurate all along while the rest of history had completed wiped the memory of the Hittites from existence. Donald J. Wiseman estimates that over 25,000 sites that are mentioned in the Bible have been found by archaeologists. So far, not a single archaeological find has ever proven anything in the Bible to be false. If the Bible were simply made up writings by 40+ people over thousands of years, the chances that incongruities or inaccuracies would arise are almost astronomical.
The history we know about the people who lived the events of the New Testament, namely Jesus’ disciples, also provide an insight into the accuracy of the writings. Some of the manuscripts are old enough to have been written while the people who lived the events were still alive. This would likely mean that had inaccurate scripture been written about the events there would have been people alive who would have corrected the inaccuracies. It is also unlikely that the disciples themselves were lying about the events either. Each of them suffered for their beliefs to the point where they were all (save John) tortured and executed for preaching the message of Jesus Christ. If they had not believed the message they were sharing surely one or more of them would have recanted or renounced Jesus in order to save his own life. None of them did.
It would not be prone to scientific error or false beliefs held by the people of that time.
Obviously, a book written by God would not be prone to scientific error. In fact, we would expect just the opposite. A book written by the God who created the world would surely be accurate in this regard. And, in fact, we find that the Bible does not contain any of the scientific absurdities that are found in all other ancient religious writings.
When the book of Genesis was written, the Greeks were beginning to tell of Apollos’ flight across the sky in a flaming chariot, the Egyptians were worshiping the sun as a god (Ra), and the Mesopotamians were referring to the sun as “Shamosh” and calling it the god of justice. Genesis, however, calls the sun “a light in the expanse of the heavens” and clearly views it as a thing.
In the Hindu Scriptures it is taught that the earth is set atop the backs of four elephants, who, in turn, stood on a giant sea-turtle that was swimming through a milky sea. In the Bible, however, Job states, “He stretches out the North over empty space, and hangs the earth on nothing. (26:7)” Isaiah mentions that God sits “above the circle of the earth. (40:22)” We should keep in mind that this was at least several hundred years before Aristotle provided observational evidence for a spherical Earth.
Although we take for granted the concept of germs and good hygiene today, and even children today know that one should wash their hands after touching an infectious person or corpse, this hasn’t been the case through most of history. The act of washing has only really been a medical reality for the last 150 years. Yet, the book of Leviticus requires this procedure thousands of years ago during a time when illness was often thought to be a curse and mythical cures often passed for science.
The Bible may not contain a great deal of scientific facts about the creation, but in the places it does mention science it is accurate in its representation – just as you would expect from a book written by the God who created the world.
It would present true, unified answers to the difficult questions of life.
Has there ever been another book that that provided the kind of answers to life’s questions as the Bible? For a couple of thousand years now man has been turning to the Bible for answers to all of life’s most difficult challenges. Thousands of books have been written and even more thousands of sermons have been delivered on the answers that the Bible provides.
I remind you that the Bible is made up of sixty-six books written by about forty authors, from kings and nobles to fishermen and soldiers, in three languages, on three continents, over the course of one and a half millennium. Yet, when taken together, the books of the Bible present a single, unified message of actions and attitudes by which man can live. I find it difficult to believe anyone would be able to accomplish the same thing if they were to put forty writers in a single room and told them exactly what the overall theme of the book would be. The fact that the Bible is a single, unified message shows that it must have been inspired by a power greater than man.