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How Reliable Is the Bible?
By Judson Poling
ZondervanCopyright © 2003 Zondervn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDISCUSSION ONE
Where Did the Bible Come From?
When you go to the bookstore and head over to the religion section, you will undoubtedly find Bibles-lots of Bibles. The assortment of translations and sheer volume of choices may overwhelm you.
Believers claim that the Bible is God's book-or at a minimum, an important book about God. In light of such an audacious claim, one of the first questions raised is, "Where did the Bible come from?" We know it didn't drop down from heaven complete with leather cover and gilded pages. In fact, it didn't drop down from heaven at all, even as a rough draft. People wrote it. Human beings like you and me. Who were these people? Why did they write? When did they write it? And how do we know they were right about what they wrote?
Sometimes people will buy a Bible for a friend, and that person, out of curiosity, starts reading. Imagine you are someone who knows almost nothing about the Bible. What would be your first reaction as you perused its pages? Would you be able to make heads or tails out of it? What features would surprise you-or baffle you?
One of the first things that would stand out is the human quality of the writings. If you were expecting the Bible to be the Word of God, you would probably be expecting the words of God-maybe something like a transcription of God's sermons. There should be commandments, pronouncements, even judgments-all with quotation marks as something God said to someone.
Yet the first words of the Bible are, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." God is spoken of in the third person. These are the words of a man saying what God did, not God saying what he did. This is true for most of the Bible; the writers seem to record their own words and commentary mixed in with direct quotes from God.
There are many more questions you might have. Are we supposed to believe that the people who wrote the Bible should be taken literally? And when they do quote God, did he say something out loud that they could hear? If so, how did they know it was God talking and not a demon? If it wasn't an audible voice but only an impression in their minds, how did they know it was God and not their subconscious? Why should we believe their inner impressions of what God supposedly said any more than our own?
Then we must ask, how did these writings come together in one volume? Who did the picking and choosing? What if they overlooked some book that God wanted included? What if they included something with errors? What if this whole business of a book from God is just presumption-a mere human asserting he knows for sure what God said? The origin of this supposed book from God raises many tough questions. Get ready for some lively discussion!
OPEN FOR DISCUSSION
1. What do you remember hearing or believing about the Bible as you were growing up? Were you an "easy sell" or did you tend to be skeptical about its contents?
2. What nagging doubts about the Bible do you have now? If the sessions in this guide could answer one question for you, what would that be?
Imagine for a minute that you were God and you wanted to communicate with humankind through a book. Wouldn't the simplest thing be to get someone to take down your words-a prophet or scribe of some kind-and then have that person publish your collected sayings? To many people, that seems to make the most sense. When those folks open the Bible for the first time, that's what they expect to find.
Yet the Bible is surprisingly not like that at all. It is full of history, told from the point of view of those who experienced it. It contains, of all things, genealogies-lists of names of who begat whom-and various other seemingly irrelevant details. True, there are places where a prophet speaks for God, and those words are recorded with the characteristic "Thus says the Lord," but particulars of the prophet's life and experiences are also written down.
When we come to the part of the Bible that's about Jesus, we have not only a record of his words but also a record of the words of those he talked to (even his enemies), as well as accounts of his deeds. Clearly, the Gospels are more than just quotes from Jesus. The letters that make up a third of the New Testament are the words of men such as the apostle Paul or Peter, leaders who are trying to encourage and teach the people in the churches with which they've worked. So while there are the "sayings of God" in the Bible, there are apparently many "sayings of men," too.
3. Do you think there's any value in having more than just "dictated pronouncements from God" in the Bible? Explain. When the biblical writers include details about themselves or others, how does this enhance what God supposedly said and did in their lives?
Who Wrote the Bible?
The Bible is not just one book-it is a collection of dozens of books. Yet all these writings taken together speak with unity and proclaim unmistakably, "People matter to God!"
It was written over a period of fourteen hundred years.
It was written over a span of forty generations.
It was written by over forty authors from all walks of life (kings, peasants, philosophers, poets, fishermen, statesmen, scholars, doctors, businessmen, etc.).
It was written on three continents (Asia, Africa, Europe), in many different places (dungeons, palaces, while traveling, the wilderness, etc.).
It was written during a variety of moods (sorrow, joy, anger, excitement, tranquillity).
It was written in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek).
4. What might be the disadvantages of having so many authors put together a book? How might this process add value to the end result?
What Makes These Writings So Special?
None of the biblical writers claimed to be anything other than mortal men, yet they insisted they were God's instruments. They believed they wrote accurate history, preserved accurate eyewitness accounts, had accurate revelations from God, and made accurate predictions about the future.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. -Luke 1:1-4
Accurate Eyewitness Accounts
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. -2 Peter 1:16-18
Accurate Revelation from God
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. -2 Peter 1:20-21
Accurate Predictions About the Future
I foretold the former things long ago, my mouth announced them and I made them known; then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass. For I knew how stubborn you were.... Therefore I told you these things long ago; before they happened I announced them to you so that you could not say, "My idols did them; my wooden image and metal god ordained them." You have heard these things; look at them all. Will you not admit them? -Isaiah 48:3-6
5. It's one thing to say God is speaking through you, and another thing to substantiate it. What kind of validation would need to be provided by someone who claims to be giving us ultimate truth?
Who Picked the Books to Be Included and Why?
The Old Testament books were accepted by a group of Jewish scholars in the city of Jamnia in A.D. 90, though the books they ratified were widely circulated before then. The Old Testament, originally written in Hebrew, had been translated into Greek around the third century B.C. because Greek was the more common language spoken. In Jesus' day the Old Testament was referred to as the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (or more commonly just the Law and the Prophets). This designation referred to the same books that are in our Old Testament today.
Jesus repeatedly validated the Old Testament as a whole: "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). He even seemed to indicate the beginning and end points of the Old Testament by referring to an event in Genesis and then another in 2 Chronicles (Matthew 23:35)-the first and last books according to the Hebrew order. He considered these the "bookends" of divine Jewish revelation.
The New Testament books were all written before the end of the first century and were widely circulated as individual books for several centuries. The first list of all the New Testament books together as we find them in our Bibles today was written in A.D. 367 by Athanasius. Other partial lists existed before then, but his list and the Councils of Hippo (A.D. 393) and Carthage (A.D. 397 and 419) formalized the New Testament as it's come down to us today.
6. What safeguards are inherent in a centuries-long process of confirming the books of the Bible?
7. If someone came today and said they had a book of truth that should be included in the Bible, what criteria would you use for evaluating their claim?
Evaluating a Prophet
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were given ways to test a prophet. Any person who claimed he was speaking truth from God had to be evaluated. If the person failed either of the following qualifications, he and his message were to be disregarded.
The first qualification was whether the prophet's message contained absolutely accurate predictions.
You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him. -Deuteronomy 18:21-22
The second qualification was whether the prophet's message contained absolutely accurate theology.
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, "Let us follow other gods" (gods you have not known) "and let us worship them," you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. -Deuteronomy 13:1-4
8. Even if a modern-day psychic had a ninety percent accuracy rate, would he or she pass the first test above? How would this test rate a prophet like Joseph Smith of the Latter-day Saints (Mormons), who made several prophecies that never came true-even though he made some that did?
9. What would the second test, of theological accuracy, do to many who claim prophetic messages today and even appear to have miraculous powers, yet teach unbiblical theology?
HEART OF THE MATTER
10. What is troublesome to you about believing that the Bible is the sole written authority from God and that it is superior to all other religious books?
11. What would it take for you to place complete confidence in the Bible as truth from God and as the supreme written guide for your life?
CHARTING YOUR JOURNEY
With this session you're beginning a journey. Keep in mind that you do not need to feel pressured to "say the right thing" at any point during these discussions. You're taking the time to do this work because you're looking for answers and because you're willing to be honest about your doubts and uncertainties. Others in your group would also benefit from hearing about what you'll be learning. So use these sessions profitably-ask the tough questions, think "outside the box," and learn from what others in your group have to say. But stay authentic about where you are in your journey.
To help you identify your progress more clearly, throughout this guide you will have opportunities to indicate where you are in your spiritual journey. As you gain more spiritual insights, you may find yourself reconsidering your opinions from session to session. The important thing is for you to be completely truthful about what you believe-or don't believe-right now.
12. Pick the statement(s) that best summarizes your view. What reasons do you have for your choice?
____ The Bible has no relevance for me.
____ The Bible is an interesting religious book, but it is a mixture of human truth and error.
____ The Bible is no different from other writings that claim to come from God.
____ The Bible has a lot of wisdom, but that doesn't mean it's God's Word.
____ The Bible contains God's truths, yet not everything in it is from God.
____ The Bible-all of it-is God's Word through the words of men.
____ Other: ________________________________ _______________________________________
Excerpted from How Reliable Is the Bible? by Judson Poling Copyright © 2003 by Zondervn. Excerpted by permission.
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