You cant take the Bible literally, can you?!


“I’d like to believe, but I’m a rational person and I can’t rationally accept that the bible is trustworthy”

Have you ever spoken to someone with this view? I have. In fact that person was me a long time ago.  The truth however is that I had been lied to. It’s a really old lie and it goes like this “did God really say?” See, at the center of all the arguments against the reliability of the Scripture as a trustworthy theological historic document is this lie: the Bible was written long after the events it speaks about. The aim of this lie is to breed distrust in the God of the Bible, namely Jesus Christ.  All the arguments against the trustworthiness of Scripture hinge on this false theory that the Bible was written a long time after the events it speaks about.

The theory goes like this: the gospels and most of the Bible originated as oral traditions of various church communities in the Middle East. The stories about Jesus contained elements of fact but where shaped by these communities to answer the questions that the churches were asking. Leaders made sure that the Jesus in their stories was a Jesus that affirmed the beliefs and policies of their churches. The gospels where then passed on through the years, evolving as additional legendary information was added to them. After many generations had passed the gospels were written down. By this point the original person and work of Jesus had grown into a tall tale, reflecting the imagination of people rather than the actual historic account of Jesus. And eventually in 3 AD the Emperor Constantine decided which books of the bible to include in the Canon of Scripture so that the state could leverage power. So, you may believe very little of the Biblical accounts of Jesus, his conception through the Holy Spirit, his miracles, his sinless life, his crucifixion, his claim to be God and his resurrection is legend information. They were added to the original story much later by church leaders and politicians who wanted a compelling Christ figure so that they could control people.  That’s basically how the critics both Christian and non-Christian will tell the story.

It’s time to dispel, debunk, deconstruct and clear up this outlandish and untrue theory. The Bible was not written long after the events it describes by church leaders with a political agenda and it does not contain legend information.

Is the Bible trustworthy?

Anne Rice, became famous for her novel and movie Interview with a Vampire. Growing up she attended a Catholic church but lost her faith at university. She became a Novelist, married and atheist and became rich writing about Lestat a Vampire Rock Star, who is much stronger than that wimp of a vampire Edward Cullen. So, it shocked the media and literary world when Rice announced that she was a Christian again.

Why did she do it? Well, she was writing a book titled “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt” when she started reading about Jesus quite extensively. As she read the counter evidence for Jesus being the divine Christ, she was brought to faith.

Some books were no more than assumptions piled on assumptions… Conclusions were reached on the basis of little or no data at all… The whole case for the non-divine Jesus who stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified… that whole picture which had floated around the liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for thirty years – that case was not made. Not only was it not made, I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I’d ever read.

So I have three questions to answer:

  1. How did the New Testament get to us?
  2. How did the original autographs get written?
  3. How can we be sure legend material was not added?

And the answers to these questions will prove:

  1. We have more reliable texts for the gospels than for almost any other ancient writing.
  1. No substantial challenge was posed for the accurate reconstruction of the events of the Gospels.
  1. The Gospel events were written down when they happened on account of eye witnesses.

1. How did it get to us?

The New Testament that we have has been translated from the Greek version of the Bible. The Greek text was constructed by comparing thousands of ancient copies with each other. It is estimated that we are in possession of as many as 24000 copies. These copies of the original autographs were made from approximately 120 AD which are a few years after some of the Apostles died. To put this into perspective there is an ancient writing called “The Jewish War”. There are only 9 remaining copies of this book, and there is a 400 year gap between the oldest copy and the original. But historians and textual critics are confident that “The Jewish War” is a sound document. In contrast there are thousands of copies of the New Testament that date to only 50 years before the original autographs. The truth is that we have more reliable texts of the gospels than almost any other ancient work.

The quality of the New Testament document that we have is measured by how much Textual Variants occur. The copies are compared to each other and when there is a difference between the same Bible passage they mark it as a textual variant. But the difference in the copies that we have of the New Testament is so minute that they are insignificant. Textual Critic Daniel Wallace puts it this way:

“the great majority of these variants are inconsequential—involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like—and that only a very small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, only about 1% of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable.”

For example, see Matthew 6:33:

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you”

However, earlier copies of this passage don’t have the two words “of God”. This doesn’t however change the meaning of the sentence, since the context and sentence still implies that Jesus was referring to the Kingdom of God.

Sum Up: How did it get to us? 24 000 copies, only written only 50 years after the events it describes, where synthesized to produce the New Testament, the quality is 99% accuracy with 1% textual variants which don’t change the meaning of any Scriptures or effect Christian doctrine. We have more reliable texts for the gospels than for almost any other ancient writing.

2. How did the original autographs get written?

They were written very early in the 1st century and were written in a culture that practiced the oral tradition. I have just returned from Mozambique. South African tar roads end at the Ponta Dora Border Post in Mozambique and all that you are left with is lush coastal forest. It wasn’t even five km’s into this 4×4 road and I had no idea where we were, were we were headed, and were we had come from. I was amazed at how anyone could find their way in this jungle. But people who live their skillfully commit massive terrains to memory. In fact it’s psychologically proven that there is a much higher incident of people with photographic memories in rural settings than there are in cities. The point is that the Jewish culture has a rich tradition of memorizing stories and retelling them with great accuracy which most of us do not posses. Only 15 to 20% of people were literate in the 1st Century. This meant that commerce, business, trade, health care and all sorts of important communication happened via story telling.

Not only did they live in a culture that was highly proficient at passing on Biblical stories, but the gospels were first written down within the life times of many eye-witnesses. Theologians and Textual critics are in agreement that Mark was written no later than AD 60-70. Jesus died in AD 33, so there is no more than 27 – 30 years between the event and the written record of the event. In a culture where people make a profession of remembering stories, a people that remembered the Old Testament stories over hundreds of generations without variants, which is now proven by the Dead Sea Scrolls, in this culture 28 years and hundreds of eye witnesses pose no challenge in reconstructing an accurate account of the events. And if you would like detailed scientific textual evidence that proves the gospels were written down as early as AD 70 then please read Richard Bauckham Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

Sum Up: How did the original autographs get written? They were written 27 – 30 years after the original events happened, that’s during the lifetime of the original eyewitnesses, in a culture that practiced the oral tradition for thousands of years. No substantial challenge was posed for the accurate reconstruction of the events of the gospels.

3. How can we be sure legend material was not added?

3.1 The timing is too far early

The gospels were written 30 to 60 years after Jesus had died. Textual critics place Paul’s letters at only 15 years after Jesus had died. This means that the eye witnesses to Jesus where still around when Paul wrote his public letters to churches and when the gospels were written. In Luke 1:1-4, Luke says that he got his information from… eye witnesses!

Now consider this:

a.      Paul and the gospel writers use the names of eye witnesses deliberately to assure readers that what they are writing is authentic. Consider this. Let’s say you belong to a church or group where everyone knows everyone, like my small church. If I write a public letter about my friend Amy (who goes to my church), and I tell you that Lizzie (who also goes to my church) was around, Davi (also at our church) saw it happen and a policeman named Jan from Bergvleit police station (our church is in Bergvleit) was present when the event occurred. Then you can verify whether I am lying or not. The Gospel of Mark for example says; the man who helped Jesus carry his cross to Calvary “was the father of Alexandre and Rufus” (Mark 15:21). There is no point in the author telling us about Rufus unless we physically know who Rufus is and have access to him. Mark is saying; if you don’t believe me ask Alexandre and Rufus what happened.  Paul does the same in 1 Corinthians 15:1-6. Paul even goes as far to say that there were 500 eyewitnesses who saw the risen Jesus Christ at once. That gives license to his original audience to verify what was saying, ‘if you don’t believe me go and ask so and so or so and so”.

b.      Furthermore, it was not only Christians who where eyewitnesses. There where opponents, public figures, officials and the orthodox Jewish leaders who heard Jesus teach, seen his actions and watched him die. For a legend to captivate the public’s imagination the opponents of the legend and the eyewitnesses and their children and their great grandchildren should be dead. Otherwise they will simply debunk the myth and say it’s not true. Instead what we find, is exactly what we expect to find. The officials, the opponents and the non-Christian Jewish leaders simply write about Jesus rather than deny he ever existed.

a.      Greco-Roman references to Jesus

i.      Julius Africanus, a third century writer, refers in his work History of the World to a first-century Greek historian named Thallus who, he says, discusses the darkness that occurred at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion (see Mark 15:33).

ii.      Shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, a man named Mara bar Serapion, in a letter to his son, refers to the Jews executing their “wise king”. Most scholars regard this as a reference to Jesus, although it is not some scholars debate its clarity.

iii.      Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor in Bithynia, wrote in early the second century AD that Christians met regularly and sang hymns to Christ “as if to god” (Letters 10.96.7).

iv.      At a similar time, the Roman historian and friend of Pliny the Younger, speaks of a riot between Christians and Jews that broke out in Rome because of someone named “Chrestus” (Life of Claudius 25.4). This is almost certainly a reference Christ as the contexts indicates.

v.      Lucian of Samosata (AD 115-200), a famous Greek writer, speaks of “the one whom [Christians] still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine…” (Death of Peregrinus 11)

vi.      Around AD 175, another Greek writer called Celsus says that Jesus’ mother had an affair with a Roman soldier, and that Jesus’ miracles were actually Egyptian magic.

The point is clear. If the resurrection and divinity of Jesus was legend material added much later then the aforementioned guys should have no knowledge of people worshiping him, miracles that match the New Testament account or any claim to his divinity.

b.      Non-Christian Jewish  references to Jesus

i.      Jewish Antiquities, first-century Jewish (note not a Christian)historian name Josephus wrote. (in brackets I’ve placed the dubious sections questioned by scholars):

Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, [if it be lawful to call him a man], for he was a doer of surprising deeds – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the gentiles. [He was the Christ;] and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, [for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him;] and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day. (Antiquities 18.13-64)

ii.      A section of the Talmud (a compendium of rabbinic teaching) that dates from between AD 100 and AD 200 says that someone called Jesus was “hanged” on the eve of Passover, and that he “practiced sorcery and led Israel astray: (b. Sanhedrin 43a-b)

iii.      A later section of the Talmud (probably written after AD 200) claims, like Celsus that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier (b. Shabbat 104b).

c.       Excavations also prove that the geographical locations described in the bible are indeed accurate, and are not fuzzy logic projected back by later Christian writers. For example the 1888 discovery of the pool of Bethesda (John 15:2) was found and matched the biblical description of five porticoes.

All of these facts indicate that the timing of these stories was too early for the gospel accounts to be legend. These people are not followers of Jesus and were simply recording and interpreting what was happening around them.

3.2 The content is far too counterproductive

The popular view, the Dan Brown view, is that the church wrote the Bible much later on and shaped its content so as to promote their policies, consolidate their power, and build a movement. This doesn’t make sense for several reasons:

a.      If this view was correct we would expect to see Jesus taking a side in debates related to the early church, like whether gentile Christians should be circumcised or not. But we don’t because the authors of the bible did not feel at liberty to add to God’s Word.

b.      Why would the early church make up a crucifixion story? In both Greek and Jewish culture crucifixion was associated with crime, weakness and shame. Such a story would be treated with contempt and suspicion as indeed it was.

c.       Why make up a story where the first witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus are woman. In the first century a woman wasn’t even allowed to be a witness in a court of law. The society had a very low view of woman, so why include this in your story? Because it actually happened that way.

d.      Why do the gospels constantly portray the churches chief leaders, that is the 12 disciples, as dim witted, slow, petty, jealous, self – righteous, cowards? The great apostle Peter even cursed Jesus his Master (Mark 14:71). That’s no way to win the trust of the public and potential church members. And in a shame based culture, where you have to save face, no Christian would have wrote that part of the story down, unless Peter himself was actually the one to recount and give his permission.

e.      And lastly, it’s the Gnostic gospels of Judas and Thomas that assimilate the policies and beliefs of the Roman Empire, not those included in our Canon of Scripture. Since they were written much later, earliest date 175 AD and they reflect Greek Gnosticism.

The content of the gospels does not favor the powerful, nor does it help the church leaders, and it simply was not legend.

Sum Up: How can we be sure legend was not added? The timing of the gospels are far too early for legend to develop. All sorts, not only Christian people know about and refer to Jesus. And secondly the story is far too counterproductive to legend. The gospel events were written down when they happened and not long after by church leaders with political agendas.

The New Testament is a trustworthy historic account. The real reason why the world will continue to rage against the Bible has very little to do with its historical accuracy and everything to do with but its demand for faith in the true hero Jesus!

A call to faith

Now, the Bible says that the Holy Scriptures are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). The purpose of the Scripture’s is to lead us to believe and trust in Jesus Christ, to bow the knee to him as Lord and Savior. Jesus is the climax of the Bible narrative, he is the beautiful crescendo that the symphony of Scripture declares, he is the champion of this drama of redemption.

  • Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them – Matthew 5:17
  • These are the Scriptures that testify about me – John 5:39
  • And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself – Luke 24:27
  • “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures – Luke 24:44-45

The main thrust of the Scriptures is to call you and me to repentance and belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This is what the Bible is all about. The Father of lies, that serpent called the Devil has been working hard at his smear campaign against the true hero of the Scripture; Jesus. Jesus is the embodiment of the Scripture and is called the “Living Word”. John says that the world was made through Jesus, so in the beginning Jesus spoke the world into existence. Do you have trouble with relationships? Well Jesus made your first parents in the Garden of Eden? He can bring you love, joy and peace. Do you struggle with fear about the direction of South Africa? Luke tells us that Jesus is the great King of kings that the book of Daniel spoke about. Do you feel tired, anxious and weak? Peter says that Jesus is the great Sheppard of Psalm 23 who leads you by quiet waters and restores your soul. The Bible is an extension of Jesus, that’s why its words carry power. Jesus is the hero of Scripture and he wants to be the hero of our lives. It’s also the reason why there will always be criticism leveled at the Bible. May you find renewed trust in the true God of the Holy Bible, may you reject the doubts of the evil one and turn to Jesus. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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