Updated: Aug 20, 2018
In this post, we will tackle another common objection to the Bible as a credible witness to truth, whether it be historical or religious truth. Many people have made the case that the Bible was cobbled together over a long period of history and therefore its claims of inspiration are shown by careful historic analysis to be null and void. To examine this objection, we first must set the bounds of the discussion. Some helpful questions here are as follows:
What does the Church's historic claims to inspiration really entail?
How did the Bible come to be in its final form?
How do the answer to these two questions impact a trust and belief in the Bible?
Errors in the Bible?
In his book, Misquoting Jesus, scholar (and Princeton Theological Seminary grad) Bart Ehrmann details his journey from fundamentalism to agnosticism. For Ehrmann, the presence of one “error” in the biblical text means that it cannot possibly be the inspired Word of God, because if there is a perfect God and he wanted to communicate, he would so, well, perfectly. For Ehrmann, he finds one of many "errors" in Mark 2 where Jesus says that Abiathar was the high priest when David entered the house of God but 1 Samuel 21 actually reports that the high priest was Ahimelek. Did Jesus make a mistake?
Many a good skeptic and faithful Christian have shared in Ehrmann's thought process. If God was in some way guiding the whole process of inspiration, would he not ensure that those involved in that process got it exactly right? Does not the presence of these errors perhaps open up the door for all kinds of human input and thus, distortion, or even dishonesty?
A Brief Intro To The Construction of The Bible
Here are some realities behind the the biblical text as we currently have it. First, we do not have the autographed manuscripts of any of the biblical narratives. For instance, there is not a copy of the Gospel of Matthew laying around that was the original from Matthew’s hand. So how did we get the Bible if we do not have the originals? Through the piecing together of thousands of manuscripts. These manuscripts are like the pieces of a literary puzzle. There is an entire scholarly discipline called textual criticism that is devoted to exploring, like a good scientist, what are the best manuscripts—in this case, best meaning most likely to be the original words of the author.
Comparing the number of available manuscripts of the New Testament with other works from antiquity provides an interesting picture. For instance, there are only 8 manuscripts of Thucydides History of the Peloponnessian War (c. 460-400 B.C.), the earliest of which is dated to A.D. 900. This means there are some 1300 years between the events that are being reported and the recording of the events themselves that we have available to us. Meanwhile there are over 5,400 known manuscripts of the New Testament passages (F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable, pp.16-17), the earliest of which is a document called p52 that is a fragment of the Gospel of John dated to the early second century (Paul Wegner, A Student's Guide To Textual Criticism of the Bible). This fragment likely follows the original version of the Gospel of John by a mere 50-60 years. Compare that above to Thucydides.
Mosaic or Monster?
The fact is, and this is not a fact that Christians need to hide from, is that the Bible as we now have it is a patchwork of thousands of manuscripts. But the question for us is the patchwork a mosaic or a monster? Unfortunately, many well-meaning Christians have built their faith upon a robotic means of inspiration where God appeared to biblical authors like Paul, Isaiah, and Moses and said essentially, “Write all of this down, exactly as I tell you.” This leads to all sorts of accompanying denial of evidence on the part of Christians in fields like biblical scholarship, science, archaeology, and anthropology. For instance, did Moses, supposed author of Deuteronomy, really write Deuteronomy 34:5? That passage reads:
Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command
Did Moses supernaturally record his own death? Did he then go on to write at the end of chapter 34 that he (Moses) was the "most humble man who ever lived"— quite a humble thing to say. For Christians it is paramount to our faith that we grant that the notion of robotic inspiration or a tidy process of the formation of the Bible simply does not fit with the evidence. We have seen how the sausage is made. And isn't it possible that the Lord, through the process of inspiration, is doing something quite different, and something far more beautiful, altogether?
Our faith is not built on the perfection of a book, but the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14). Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” We have seen that the method of inspiration is perhaps much murkier than we would have suspected but what about the goal of inspiration? What is God trying to do in inspiring words for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness? And even more pressing, what is God trying to do in inspiring them in the way that he did? Can this mosaic still point us towards ultimate truth? It is to these questions that we will turn our attention in the coming weeks.
(For further reading on this topic, see Ben Witherington III's The Living Word of God)