Apologetics 101: Part 3 — How do I know the Bible is true?
This is the third in a 10-part series designed to help Christians defend their faith.
Objection 1: No one really knows what the Bible says because the original manuscripts are lost.
The second part of this statement is true: The “autographs,” or original manuscripts, written on a variety of degradable surfaces from parchment to papyrus, no longer exist. But the remarkable number of copies, dating back in some cases to within a generation of their authorship, makes the first half of this objection false. In fact, we have tremendous confidence in the reliability of the Bible because of its manuscript trail. No other book from the ancient world has more, earlier, or better copied manuscripts than the Bible. (The word “manuscript” is used to denote anything written by hand, rather that copies produced from printing presses.)
Do copies count?
New Testament scholar Craig L. Blomberg writes, “In the original Greek alone, over 5,000 manuscripts and manuscript fragments or portions of the NT have been preserved from the early centuries of Christianity. The oldest of these is a scrap of papyrus containing John 18:31-33, 37-38, dating from A.D. 125-130, no more than forty years after John’s Gospel was most probably written” (“The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, pp. 193-94). Andreas J. Kostenberger adds, “The total tally of more than 6,000 Greek mss., more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate mss., and more than 9,300 early versions results in over 25,000 witnesses to the text of the NT” (“Is the Bible Today What Was Originally Written?” found in www.4truth.net).
So how does the Bible stack up against other ancient manuscripts? According to scholar F.F. Bruce, we have nine or 10 good copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars; 20 copies of Livy’s Roman History; two copies of Tacitus’ Annals; and eight manuscripts of Thucydides’ History. The most documented secular work from antiquity is Homer’s Iliad with 643 copies. But the New Testament, with its thousands of Greek manuscripts alone, is the most highly documented book from the ancient world (The New Testament Documents, Are They Reliable?, p. 16).
Is older better?
Generally speaking, the older the manuscripts, the better. The oldest manuscript for Gallic Wars is roughly 900 years after Caesar’s day. The two manuscripts of Tacitus are 800 and 1,000 years later, respectively, than the original. The earliest copies of Homer’s Iliad date from about 1,000 years after the original was authored around 800 B.C. But with the New Testament, we have complete manuscripts from only 300 hundred years later. Most of the New Testament is preserved in manuscripts fewer than 200 years after the original, with some books dating from a little more than 100 years after their composition and one fragment surviving within a generation of its authorship. No other book from the ancient world has as small a time gap between composition and earliest manuscript copies as the New Testament.
How careful were the copy makers?
Scholars of almost every theological stripe attest to the profound care with which the Old and New Testament documents were copied. For the New Testament, the books were copied in Greek and later translated and preserved in Syriac, Coptic, Latin and a variety of other ancient European and Middle Eastern languages.
The New Testament is the most accurately copied book from the ancient world. Textual scholars Westcott and Hort estimate that only one-sixtieth of its variants rise above “trivialities,” which leaves the text 98.33 percent pure. Noted historian Philip Schaff calculates that of the 150,000 variants known in his day, only 400 affected the meaning of a passage; only 50 were of any significance; and not even one affected an article of faith (Companion to the Greek Testament and English Version, p. 177).
Sir Frederick Kenyon, a New Testament authority, writes, “The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, or early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities…. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world” (Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, p. 55).
More will be addressed on the topic of textual variations in “Objection 2: The Bible has been copied so many times, with so many variations, there’s no way to know what was originally scripted.”
How about hostile witnesses?
Eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus wrote the New Testament. For example, Luke probably wrote his gospel around 60 A.D., before he penned Acts. Since Jesus died around 30 A.D., this would place Luke only three decades after the events, while most eyewitnesses – and potentially hostile witnesses – were still alive and could have refuted Luke’s record. The apostle Paul speaks of more than 500 eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ when he wrote 1 Corinthians, which critics date around 55-56 A.D. John and Peter add similar testimonies (1 John 1:1-4; 2 Peter 1:16).
In short, while it’s true we are lacking the “autographs” of Scripture, we have sound reasons to be confident that what we read today has been faithfully preserved through thousands of copies, many of them written in close chronological proximity to the time they were originally penned.
“If we compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we must … declare it to be marvelously correct. Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied – a care which has doubtless grown out of true reverence for its holy words…. The New Testament [is] unrivaled among ancient writings in the purity of its text as actually transmitted and kept in use” (Benjamin B. Warfield, Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament, pp. 12-13, quoted in The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, p. 70).
Objection 2: The Bible has been copied so many times, with so many variations, there’s no way to know what was originally scripted.
Mormons and Muslims allege that the Bible’s documents were substantially corrupted in their transmission, but there is overwhelming evidence that proves these claims false.
Scholars of almost every theological persuasion attest to the profound care with which the Old and New Testament documents were copied and preserved.
To begin, it’s important to know that the texts of the Old and New Testaments were written – under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – by some 40 authors over a period of roughly 1,500 years. With thousands of ancient copies in existence, it is a monumental task to establish the accuracy and truthfulness of these manuscripts. Textual criticism is the science of examining the books of the Bible and their origins. “It has to do with the reliability of the text, that is, how our current text compares with the originals and how accurately the ancient manuscripts were copied,” according to Paul E. Little in Know Why You Believe.
The Old Testament
Let’s begin with the Old Testament, copies of which were written on clay and wooden tablets, papyrus and parchment, even pottery pieces and beaten metal fragments. Scribes, or copyists, were devout Jews with the highest professional standards and the utmost dedication to dealing with the Word of God. Their habits included wiping a pen clean before writing the name of God, copying one letter at a time, and counting the letters of both the original and the copy. If there were discrepancies, the copy was destroyed.
The earliest and most complete copy of the entire Hebrew Old Testament dates from around 900 A.D. and is known as the Masoretic text. All of the present copies of the Hebrew text we have today are in remarkable agreement with this text. But even earlier texts have now been found. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947 resulted in the earliest manuscript copy yet of the complete book of Isaiah. Later discoveries at the Dead Sea unearthed fragments of every book in the Old Testament except Esther. Since these scrolls date from a group of dedicated Jews living at Qumran from about 150 B.C. to 70 A.D., the discoveries closed the gap in the age of manuscripts by about 1,000 years. A careful comparison of the Qumran manuscripts with the Masoretic texts shows remarkable similarity.
Other texts fortify our confidence in the reliability of the Old Testament manuscripts. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament dating from about the third century B.C. For a Hellenized Hebrew culture whose people often knew only Greek, the Septuagint became a bridge for understanding the Hebrew history and theology of the Old Testament. In addition, the Syriac version of the Old Testament, written in the Aramaic language of Syria, followed, as did a Samaritan version. With all of these texts existing in 200 B.C., what does it mean for the accuracy of the Scriptures?
R. Laird Harris writes: “We can now be sure that copyists worked with great care and accuracy on the Old Testament, even back to 225 B.C. Although some differed among themselves, it was so little, we can infer that still earlier copyists had also faithfully and carefully transmitted the Old Testament text. Indeed, it would be rash skepticism that would now deny that we have our Old Testament in a form very close to that used by Ezra when he taught the Law to those who had returned from the Babylonian captivity” (“How Reliable is the Old Testament Text?” in Can I Trust My Bible, p. 124).
The New Testament
For the New Testament, the original documents were written and copied in Greek, and later translated and preserved in Syriac, Coptic, Latin and a variety of other ancient European and Middle Eastern languages. In the Greek alone, more than 5,000 manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the New Testament have been preserved from the early centuries of Christianity.
As William Lane Craig explains, “The oldest of these is a scrap of papyrus containing John 18:31-33, 37-38, dating from A.D. 125-130, no more than forty years after John’s Gospel was most probably written. More than thirty papyri date from the late second through early third centuries, including some which contain good chunks of entire books and two which cover most of the gospels and Acts or the letters of Paul. Four very reliable and nearly complete NTs date from the fourth and fifth centuries” (“The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 194).
While it’s true there are variations among the manuscripts, the vast majority have to do with changes in spelling, grammar, and style, or accidental omissions or duplications of words or phrases. Only about 400 variants have any significant bearing on the meaning of the passage, and most of these are noted in the footnotes or margins of modern translations and editions of Scripture. The only textual variants that affect more than a sentence or two are John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20.
William Lane Craig further writes in Reasonable Faith, “Neither of these passages is very likely to be what John or Mark originally wrote, though the story in John (the woman caught in adultery) still stands a fairly good chance of being true. But overall, 97-99% of the NT can be reconstructed beyond any reasonable doubt, and no Christian doctrine is founded solely or even primarily on textually disputed passages” (p. 194).
Consider these statements from renowned Bible scholars:
- The New Testament is the most accurately copied book from the ancient world. Textual scholars Westcott and Hort estimate that only one-sixtieth of its variants rise above “trivialities,” which leaves the text 98.33 percent pure. Noted historian Philip Schaff calculates that of the 150,000 variants known in his day, only 400 affected the meaning of a passage; only 50 were of any significance; and not even one affected an article of faith (Companion to the Greek Testament and English Version, p. 177).
- Sir Frederick Kenyon, a New Testament authority, writes, “The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, or early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities…. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world” (Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, p. 55).
- Many of the apparent discrepancies in the gospels, Acts and the writings of Paul – minor as they are – disappear once we judge ancient historians by the standards of their day rather than ours. As Craig L. Blomberg writes, “In a world which did not even have a symbol for a quotation mark, no one expected a historian to reproduce a speaker’s words verbatim” (“The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 207).
- “The point is simply that the textual evidence for what the NT authors wrote far outstrips the documentation we have for any other ancient writing, including dozens which we believe have been preserved relatively intact. There is absolutely no support for claims that the standard modern editions of the Greek NT do not very closely approximate what the NT writers actually wrote” (Blomberg, p. 194).
- “If we compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we must … declare it to be marvelously correct. Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied – a care which has doubtless grown out of true reverence for its holy words…. The New Testament [is] unrivaled among ancient writings in the purity of its text as actually transmitted and kept in use” (Benjamin B. Warfield, Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament, pp. 12-13, quoted in The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, p. 70).
To summarize, even though there are some discrepancies in copies of ancient Bible manuscripts, the overwhelming number of variations is trivial, such as transposed letters. No discrepancy threatens any Biblical doctrine. Modern equivalents of these minor variants would be the difference between the English words “honor” and “honour,” or receiving a notice in the mail saying “You may have already w-n a million dollars.” The meaning of these sentences is profoundly clear.
For these and other reasons we have not discussed here – archaeological and other scientific evidence, for example – we can be confident that the English translations we hold in our hands come from reliably consistent Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic documents that have been copied meticulously since the originals were penned. We also may take comfort in the knowledge that the same Holy Spirit who inspired the “autographs” of Scripture has taken care to preserve these texts.
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips
Where we are:
Part 1: Judgment
Part 2: Historical Interlude
Part 3: Salvation
When this takes place:
Isaiah 24-27 forms a single prophecy. While it’s difficult to pinpoint the time in which it is given, it seems best to place it a short time before the attack by Sennacherib, king of Assyria, on Jerusalem in 701 B.C.
Isa. 24:21-22 – On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven above and kings of the earth below. They will be gathered together like prisoners in a pit. They will be confined to a dungeon; after many days they will be punished.
This section of Isaiah begins with an end-times perspective explaining how the Lord will judge the whole world and set up His kingdom on earth (Isa. 24:1-3, 19-23). “These prophecies reveal how God will finally deal with the rebellious nations of chaps. 13-23 so that he can bring an end to the pride and violent sinfulness that has polluted the earth. God will destroy the wicked and establish peace on the earth, and then the holy people who remain will worship God alone and sing songs to exalt him” (Gary V. Smith, The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 405). Because of their description of the Tribulation and Millennium, chapters 24-27 are known as “Isaiah’s apocalypse.”
Notice Isaiah’s description of end-time events that are reinforced in New Testament prophecies. For example, the earth will be stripped completely bare and its inhabitants scattered (vv. 1-3; cf. Rev. 8:6 – 9:21), and the sun and moon will darken in preparation for the full revelation of Messiah’s kingdom (v. 23; cf. Matt. 24:29-30; Rev. 21:23).
The Tribulation (Isa. 24:1-13, 16b-22)
While the immediate context of this chapter may refer to the Assyrian invasion of Judah, or to the Babylonian captivity that will occur more than 100 years later, it seems to have its ultimate fulfillment in the Great Tribulation yet to come. H.L. Willmington offers the following observations:
A. The Great Tribulation–what it is (24:1-4, 6-13, 16b-22)
1. God himself will lay waste to the entire earth (24:1): The earth will become a great wasteland, and the people will be scattered.
2. All people and fallen angels will be judged (24:2-4, 21-22): No one will be spared from God’s wrath, and the fallen angels will be put in prison.
3. Very few will survive (24:6): A curse will consume the earth and its people, who will be destroyed by fire.
4. Happiness will no longer exist (24:7-13): All joy in life will be gone.
5. Evil and treachery will be everywhere (24:16b-18): People possessed by sheer terror will flee from one danger only to be confronted with something even more horrifying.
6. The earth will stagger like a drunkard (24:19-20): It will fall and collapse like a tent, unable to rise again because of the weight of its sins.
B. The Great Tribulation–why it occurs (24:5): Humanity has twisted the laws of God and has broken his holy commands (The Outline Bible, S. Is 24:5).
Isaiah uses the word “earth” 16 times in this chapter to emphasize the global impact of God’s intervention in human affairs, wielding judgment and exalting His glory. No stratum of society is spared and no portion of the earth escapes unscathed. The reason for God’s plundering of the earth is provided in verse 5: “The earth is polluted by its inhabitants, for they have transgressed teachings, overstepped decrees, and broken the everlasting covenant.” That covenant “probably refers not to the Abrahamic or Mosaic Covenants but to the covenant people implicitly had with God to obey His Word. Right from the very beginning mankind refused to live according to God’s Word (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:1-6; cf. Hosea 6:7). And throughout history people have refused to obey God’s revelation” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1072). Robert B. Hughes and Carl J. Laney add, “The ‘everlasting covenant’ must refer to the moral law of God revealed in his word and written in man’s heart (cf. Rom. 2:14-15)” (Tyndale Concise Bible Dictionary, S 263).
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that God is the one wreaking havoc on the earth. While people are responsible for their sinful actions, and these actions often produce great hardship for the perpetrators and for others in the process, the Lord of Hosts clearly is demonstrating His holiness and power in events that otherwise might be interpreted as a scorched-earth policy. After all, if God created the present heavens and earth out of chaos (Gen. 1:2) and judged the earth by water in the great flood (Gen. 6-9), He has every right to judge mankind’s sin in the latter days by reintroducing chaos to the created order. Ultimately, He will purge the heavens and earth of the last vestiges of sin by fire and create new heavens and a new earth (2 Peter 3:5-13; Rev. 21-22). Even the imagery of Isaiah in verse 18 harkens back to the flood: “For the windows are opened from above, and the foundations of the earth are shaken” (cf. Gen. 7:11).
Matthew Henry summarizes well:
The Lord that made the earth, and made it fruitful and beautiful, for the service and comfort of man, now makes it empty and waste (v. 1), for its Creator is and will be its Judge; he has an incontestable right to pass sentence upon it and an irresistible power to execute that sentence. It is the Lord that has spoken this word, and he will do the work (v. 3); it is his curse that has devoured the earth (v. 6), the general curse which sin brought upon the ground for man’s sake (Gen. 3:17), and all the particular curses which families and countries bring upon themselves by their enormous wickedness. See the power of God’s curse, how it makes all empty and lays all waste; those whom he curses are cursed indeed (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 24:1).
One final note should be made before moving on. Isaiah writes that the Lord will punish “the host of heaven above and the kings of the earth below” (v. 21). The “host of heaven” may refer to the spiritual forces opposed to God, specifically Satan and demons. The “kings of the earth below” no doubt are the earthly political forces facing God’s judgment. “Those powers in the heavens and on the earth will become like cattle when the Lord herds them together and places them like prisoners . . . in a dungeon. Their punishment after many days refers to the great white throne judgment after the Millennium when all the unrighteous will have to stand before God and be judged for their evil deeds and lack of faith in Him (Rev. 20:11-15)” (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, S. 1:1072).
The Promised Kingdom (Isa. 24:14-16a, 23)
A few will escape these terrible judgments, just as a few olives or grapes may be gleaned after the harvest (v. 13). The survivors will rejoice, raising their voices in songs of praise that may be heard from “the ends of the earth” (v. 16). This singing seems to come out of the scattered remnant, which in the light of the gospel may be seen as Jews and Gentiles alike (cf. John 11:52). “Out of this terrible devastation … will come the glorious light of Christ in his millennial kingdom (24:23; see 60:19-20; Rev. 21:23; 22:5)” (Willmington’s Bible Handbook, S. 365). If the sun and moon are to lose their luster in comparison with the Messiah, what a surpassing vision of glory awaits all who trust in Him (see Rev. 21:22-27).
It’s important to keep in mind that the concept of a remnant is central to Isaiah’s teaching (see Isa. 1:9; 10:20-22; 11:11, 16; 14:22, 30). The believing remnant will view the earth’s devastation as the righteous act of a holy God; it will not be viewed in the way the people of Isaiah’s day see the Assyrian invasion – as cruel and unjust punishment. Those who receive Christ by faith today may joyfully anticipate His future physical and visible manifestation of power, glory and holiness.
Matthew Henry writes: “Those who through grace can glory in tribulation ought to glorify God in tribulation, and give him thanks for their comforts, which abound as their afflictions do abound. We must in every fire, even the hottest, in every isle, even the remotest, keep up our good thoughts of God. When, though he slay us, yet we trust in him-when, though for his sake we are killed all the day long, yet none of these things move us-then we glorify the Lord in the fires” (S. Is 24:13).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips
This eight-part series answers common objections to the Bible as the Word of God.
Objection 3: The books of the Bible were chosen arbitrarily by councils of men in highly political processes. As a result, they left out some very good books — perhaps some equally inspired writings.
These oft-repeated charges are unfounded. They deny the supernatural inspiration and preservation of Scripture and instead emphasize the efforts of men who, it is argued, wanted only to maintain control over the early church. In truth, the Holy Spirit authored all of Scripture through the pens of human agents and decided which books belong in the canon. Councils of Christian leaders met in the fourth century and made important decisions about the Bible based on evidence supporting the books’ inspiration and authority. Let’s look more closely at how the 66 books we hold in our hands today became known as the Bible.
To begin, let’s define two terms. First, the “canon” of Scripture. The word “canon” comes from the Greek kanon and means measure or rule. Simply put, “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible,” according to Wayne Grudem in Systematic Theology (p. 54). Next, the word “Bible,” which derives from the Greek word biblion (book); the earliest use of la biblia in the sense of “Bible” is found in 2 Clement 2:14 around 150 A.D.
The Old Testament
The earliest collection of written words from God is the Ten Commandments, which establish the beginning of the biblical canon. The Lord Himself wrote on two stone tablets and gave them to Moses to deliver to the people (Ex. 31:18, 32:16). Moses wrote additional words to be placed by the Ark of the Covenant (Deut. 31:24-26), and there is strong evidence that he wrote the first five books of the Bible (see Ex. 17:14, 24:4, 34:27; Num. 33:2; Deut 31:22; Luke 24:27).
After Moses’ death, Joshua added to the collection of God’s written words (Josh. 24:26). Later, other Israelites, usually those who held the office of prophet, wrote as the Lord inspired them. The last books of Old Testament history – Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther – were completed in the fifth century B.C. In fact, after about 435 B.C. there were no further additions to the Old Testament canon. “The subsequent history of the Jewish people was recorded in other writings, such as the books of the Maccabees, but these writings were not thought worthy to be included with the collections of God’s words from earlier years,” writes Grudem (p. 56).
Looking at Jewish literature outside the Old Testament, we see a consistent pattern of belief that the divinely authoritative words of God had ceased after 435 B.C. Rabbinic literature expressed the conviction that after the latter prophets – Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi – died, the Holy Spirit departed Israel. The Qumran community (the Jewish sect that left behind the Dead Sea Scrolls) awaited a prophet whose words had the authority to supersede existing regulations. Josephus, the greatest Jewish historian of the first century A.D., believed no more “words of God” were added to Scripture after 435 B.C. In Against Apion he wrote, “From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets” (1.41).
In the New Testament, there is no dispute between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders over the extent of the canon. Jesus and the New Testament authors quote portions of the Old Testament as divinely authoritative nearly 300 times, but not once do they cite any books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority. The council of Jamnia late in the first century featured discussions about the Old Testament canon, but it’s difficult to determine whether a definitive list was produced. The earliest Christian list of Old Testament books that exists today is by Melito, bishop of Sardis, dating to 170 A.D. None of the books of the Apocrypha is listed.
What about the Apocrypha (the Greek word means “things that are hidden”), a collection of seven books and another seven or eight additions to existing books of Jewish history and tradition written from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D.? The Jews never accepted these books as Scripture, but throughout the early history of the church there was much debate about whether they should be included in the canon. Jerome, in his Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible completed in 404 A.D., included the Apocrypha, although he argued they were not “books of the canon” but merely “books of the church” that were helpful to believers. In fact, it was not until 1546 A.D., at the Council of Trent, that the Roman Catholic Church declared the Apocrypha to be part of the canon (with the exception of 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh). Grudem comments, “It is significant that the Council of Trent was the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the teachings of Martin Luther and the rapidly spreading Protestant Reformation, and the books of the Apocrypha contain support for the Catholic teaching of prayers for the dead and justification by faith plus works, not by faith alone” (p. 59).
The argument against these books includes the following: 1) The Jews never accepted the books as Scripture and did not include them in their Bible; 2) any acceptance the books enjoyed was local and temporary; 3) no major church council included these books in Scripture; 4) many of the books contain errors; 5) some books include teachings that contradict Scripture; 6) neither Jesus nor the New Testament writers quoted from the Apocrypha even though they quoted from the Old Testament hundreds of times; 7) the Christian churches that accepted these books did so many centuries after the canon was closed.
The New Testament
Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, compiled a list of the 27 books we now know as the New Testament in 367 A.D. He also was the first person in the church to use the word “canon.” The councils of Carthage (393 A.D.) and Hippo (397 A.D.) fixed the final list of New Testament books, but it’s important to note that the question of which books were truly “Scripture” was being addressed long before this. Even more important, Christians believe the Holy Spirit, who inspired (“breathed out”) the autographs of all Scripture, also managed its preservation and organization (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21).
Four developments prompted the church to act to “close” the canon: 1) heretics began circulating false writings; 2) counterfeit books, falsely written under the name of apostles, began to appear; 3) Christianity spread to new lands, and missionaries needed to know which books should be translated into the native languages; and 4) the edict of Diocletian (A.D. 303) ordered the destruction of the Christians’ sacred writings and threatened death for those who refused; believers needed to know which books were worth dying for.
The early church used a number of criteria to discern which books belonged in the canon:
- Was there evidence or claims of inspiration?
- Was the book written by an apostle or an associate who preserved the apostle’s teaching – the only exceptions being granted to James and Jude, brothers of Jesus who became followers after His death and resurrection?
- Was the book written while the apostles were still alive?
- Was the book generally accepted and used by the church and in continuous use in worship services?
- Was the book in agreement with accepted and undisputed Scripture?
How do we know, then, that the 66 books in the Bible are the “closed canon” of God’s written word? First, we may be confident in the faithfulness of God, who loves us, revealed Himself to us, and wants us to have His words, which are our life (Deut. 32:47; Matt. 4:4). The punishments God warns will befall those who add to or take away from his word (Rev. 22:18-19) are evidence that the Lord places a high value on the correctness and completeness of His written revelation to mankind. Further, “The preservation and correct assembling of the canon of Scripture should ultimately be seen by believers …not as part of church history subsequent to God’s great central acts of redemption for his people, but as an integral part of the history of redemption itself” (Grudem, p. 65).
E.J. Young writes, “When the Word of God was written, it became Scripture, and as it had been spoken by God, it possessed his absolute authority. Therefore, it was the Word of God and was canonical. That which determines the canonicity of a book, therefore, is the fact that the book is inspired of God” (“The Canon of the Old Testament,” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. C.F. Henry, p. 156).
Finally, there are two factors at work in the process by which the canon was established. First is the activity of the Holy Spirit in inspiring, organizing, and preserving God’s Word, and confirming in our spirits that His Word is true. Second is the historical record of how carefully God’s Word was recorded, copied, preserved and shared. Yes, human beings were involved in the writing of Scripture and in the councils that argued for and against their inclusion in the canon. But ultimately, the God who hangs the stars in space and calls them by name (Isa. 40:26) has no problem guiding the means by which His very words are given to His most precious creation: mankind.
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips
Objection 4: It’s silly to assume that one book – the Bible – contains all of God’s truth and that other great writings, from the Vedas to the Book of Mormon, do not come from God.
In addressing this objection, we must begin with the claims of the documents themselves. The Bible specifically and repeatedly declares itself the written Word of God, while the Vedas do not. Even the Book of Mormon is called “another testament of Jesus Christ.” While many religious writings contain good moral and ethical truths, some of which are consistent with scripture, only the Bible claims to be God’s written and complete revelation to mankind. It answers life’s most important questions: Is there a God? Who is He? How did everything get here? What ‘s my purpose in life? Why is there so much evil in the world? What’s being done about it? Is there life after death? What’s my responsibility to God? And so on. The Bible’s claim to be the Word of God is backed up by unparalleled textual, archaeological, historical and other types of evidence. Most compelling, however, is the testimony of the Holy Spirit, who authored the scriptures and who confirms in our human spirits the truth of God’s Word.
One other note: God’s revelation also has been given to us in creation and in the person of Jesus Christ. All people can observe creation, as the Psalmist did, and conclude that there is a divine designer behind all things (Ps. 8:3-4). And, as Paul wrote, God will hold us responsible for the revelation His has given us of Himself in nature (Rom. 1:18-23). At the same time, God became flesh in Jesus Christ and declared His truth (see John 1:1-3, 14). The testimonies of creation, of Jesus, and of the Bible are in complete harmony in declaring the truth of God’s revelation to us.
Next — Objection 5: The Bible is full of contradictions.
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips