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Is the Bible unreliable?

1 July 2011 | by Peter J. Williams

Is the Bible unreliable?

A friend of mine who runs a youth group in a rough area told me that he often finds that one of his eight-year-old kids knows absolutely nothing about the Bible … and yet feels quite sure that it’s a pack of lies! This is partly because there has been a long-term publicity campaign against the Bible coming not only from the media and parts of the educational establishment, but sometimes even from within churches. Some of the most common objections to the Bible often run rather like this:

  • We don’t even know what the proper Bible is.
  • Who decided which books should be in?
  • Hasn’t it been changed?
  • Don’t different Bibles contain different things?

It’s important to stress that all Bibles have the same New Testament books, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox, but – amazingly – these books were not decided by some great human authority such as a Roman emperor. Every one of the books can be shown to have been accepted by Christians before they had any political power. We know, for instance, that the four gospels were accepted across the church before there was any central authority: a manuscript coming from southern Egypt and dating to around AD 225 contains the four gospels and Acts; Irenaeus, a church father from France, a disciple of a disciple of John the apostle, said around the year AD 185 that having four gospels was as natural as having four directions of wind.

In other words, it’s easy to show the acceptance of the four gospels over a vast geographical region over a century before the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, before the first major church council, and before the church had any political power base. That fits with the view that the four gospels were not chosen by humans, but had their own authority which a wide range of people were forced to recognise. As for the certainty of the text, even the most sceptical scholars would only argue against the presence of a small number of verses in the New Testament.

For the Old Testament, evangelicals and other Protestants have exactly the same books as you would find if you went to any local synagogue. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have some additional books (Apocrypha), but not the same selection as each other. But some parts of these books make it clear that they are not meant to be taken as the word of God (see 2 Maccabees 15:38).

There’s no evidence that the Bible is true

There is significant external confirmation for many things in the Bible – for political figures in the New Testament or for kings in the Old Testament. Indeed, some of the kings of Assyria were first known to the Western world from the Bible, and only subsequently were their records found by archaeologists and their language deciphered. This is not what you would expect from fairy stories.

On the other hand, there is even more material that you will only find in the Bible. Far from this being a weakness of the Bible, it is in fact a feature of every valuable historical source. A valuable historical source doesn’t simply tell you what the other ones say. The Bible is good history because it tells us lots of important things that have been forgotten by other sources.

What is more, the Bible is unlike other ancient records. Read the records of the ancient kings of Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon and you’ll find that they are all telling you how great they were. If you believed them, you would think that there were no bad kings (except perhaps their predecessors). Then turn to the Bible and you see that the Old Testament is clearly not nationalistic propaganda for Israel, telling you how wonderful Israel was, nor is it propaganda for one of the kings, telling you how wonderful he was. Nor could we say that the gospels or Acts are propaganda telling you how wonderful all the early disciples were. In contrast to other ancient sources, the Bible gives us a true but unflattering picture of what humans are really like.


The Bible is immoral

Whenever someone says that something is immoral, we have to ask what their standpoint is. How do they know what’s right and wrong if they don’t believe in a God who has spoken to us? The most common objection I come across is that the destruction of the Canaanites by the Israelites would have been immoral because it would have been genocide. People now draw parallels between God’s command to Joshua to destroy the Canaanites and the belief of the 9/11 terrorists that God had told them to launch a terror-attack.

This requires a longer answer, but I’ll say just this: normally when people object to what the Old Testament says about the Canaanites, they isolate the destruction of the people from some rather important points in the narrative: (1) the Canaanites were sacrificing their own children and if any of their culture had been allowed to continue an endless cycle of this violence would continue (this in fact happened because the Israelites did not fully carry out the command); (2) the author of the command was the one who has right over all life because he gave it.

It is not merely that Joshua thought God had commanded him like some deluded religious fanatic. The text says that Joshua and the preceding generation had seen the greatest display of public miracles in the whole Old Testament period. Then God spoke to over 600,000 men from Mount Sinai, dried up the River Jordan, and made the sun stop in the sky at Joshua’s command. To claim that the Bible might encourage us now to wipe out other races is simply wrong. According to the Bible the command was given in such a way that neither a Canaanite then nor a sceptic now could have had any doubt that the Israelites were not acting under their own authority, but with the authority of the only person who can give life. This is nothing like any modern or recent conflicts.

The Bible may be a special book from God, but that doesn’t mean I have to trust all of its details, or when its values are out-of-date.

This form of the objection is more likely to be found among professing Christians. They may like the idea that the Bible contains the word of God or that parts of the Bible are inspired and that the Old Testament represents inferior morality, such as when men had multiple wives.

However, Jesus’ own attitude to the Old Testament scriptures of His day was very positive. He taught that not even the smallest stroke of a pen could pass away (Matt. 5:18) and that is why he could quote the Old Testament to solve moral problems. Moreover, Jesus taught us to distinguish between what God tolerated or regulated in the Old Testament, and what the Old Testament actually condoned (Matt. 19:8). Anyone reading the Old Testament and reading of Abraham, Jacob, Elkanah, David, or Solomon having multiple wives should realise that the same passages also show that every time this happened there were disputes and domestic problems. In other words, the Old Testament had it right all along.

Can the Bible be trusted?

Yes, the Bible can be trusted and should be trusted. Not only do the objections against the Bible not stand up, but its own testimony provides quite enough evidence for us to believe it.

Peter J. Williams is the warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge.

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