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All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true. 2 Timothy 3:16
THE BREATH OF GOD
The Bible explains the mystery of its own existence by claiming to be "inspired" by God himself. In the original language of the New Testament the phrase "inspired by God" means "God-breathed." In other words, God "breathed" into the various writers of the books of the Bible his truth, so that although the Bible was written by an astonishing variety of human authors over several centuries, it presents a clear picture of both the reality of human life and the nature and work of God, who supervised the writing and editing process.
Perhaps it is helpful to use an analogy that our twenty-first-century minds can understand. This morning I sent an e-mail message to a list of ninety-five people, some of whom are traveling to far-flung parts of the United States and around the world. The message began in my mind, but with the help of modern technology it traveled to those ninety-five people in just minutes. People would have considered such communication impossible-even preposterous -just a generation ago. If there is a God, and if God possesses infinitely more power,creativity, and knowledge than human beings do, then this God is not limited by the need for technology! I used e-mail to send my thoughts and words around the world in "the blink of an eye"; the Bible says that God sent his thoughts and words to human beings, not with technology but in a manner that remains mysterious to us. Before we talk about how God communicated his thoughts and words to the Bible's writers, and why we should believe what the Bible says, let's take a quick look at what we know about the human authors.
Suppose a teacher assigns his elementary school students the task of writing a report on killer whales. A reasonable place to begin would be an encyclopedia, either the old-fashioned kind, hardcover with pages, or the CD-ROM variety. When the students locate the article on killer whales, they begin reading and learning about the subject without giving a thought to the reliability of the information presented. Why do they do that? The reason is that we have come to trust that the information provided has been thoroughly researched by an expert on killer whales and then carefully reviewed by a general editor before being put into print. So it is with the Bible. The general author and editor of the Bible is God himself, who, through the Holy Spirit, guided the whole process. But there is also a host of contributing writers who were essentially experts on or eyewitnesses to the events they recorded.
While many of the books of the Old Testament are technically anonymous; that is, they make no explicit claims as to the identity of their author, tradition holds that the author, or at least the primary source, of the first five books of the Bible was Moses: "According to tradition, the prophet Moses, having received a revelation from God on Mount Sinai, wrote the first five books (Genesis through Deuteronomy), a sequence known as the Pentateuch-or the Torah, in Judaism."
Scholarly debate has produced a number of theories about the authorship of these five books. Many suggest that while Moses may or may not have been the actual author of all this material, he must certainly be considered the core source for the story that was passed along orally and then later recorded in written form. If this is so, and there is no reason to believe it is not, then what we have in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy originates from a man who claimed to have spoken directly with God and was an eyewitness to miraculous events, such as the exodus of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.
Scholars have traditionally considered Solomon the author (or at least the primary author) of the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Who was Solomon? A great king of Israel, Solomon was one of the wealthiest and accomplished men of ancient times. The Bible tells us, for example, that "all of King Solomon's drinking cups were solid gold, as were all the utensils in the Palace of the Forest of Lebanon. They were not made of silver because silver was considered of little value in Solomon's day! ... Solomon had four thousand stalls for his chariot horses and twelve thousand horses" (2 Chronicles 9:20, 25). And we think people who have fine china, big-screen TVs, and three-car garages have it made!
It's interesting that someone with such wealth would also write the following words: "I also tried to find meaning by building huge homes for myself and by planting beautiful vineyards.... I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. ... Anything I wanted, I took. I did not restrain myself from any joy.... But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless. It was like chasing the wind" (Ecclesiastes 2:4, 8, 10-11). Although Solomon lived nearly three thousand years ago, his search for meaning makes him a strikingly modern figure.
The Bible goes on to tell us that Solomon was regarded as a man of surpassing wisdom: "King Solomon became richer and wiser than any other king in all the earth. Kings from every nation came to visit him and to hear the wisdom God had given him" (2 Chronicles 9:22-23). If Solomon was a man of education, wealth, and considerable wisdom, it is easy to imagine that he could have written what we find in the book of Proverbs: "My child, listen to me and treasure my instructions. Tune your ears to wisdom, and concentrate on understanding. Cry out for insight and understanding. Search for them as you would for lost money or hidden treasure" (Proverbs 2:1-4).
Interestingly, the Bible also indicates that although Solomon possessed great wisdom, he did have one very foolish blind spot. He had what appears to be an insatiable appetite for beautiful women: "King Solomon loved many foreign women.... The Lord had clearly instructed his people not to intermarry with those nations, because the women they married would lead them to worship their gods. Yet Solomon insisted on loving them anyway. He had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. And sure enough, they led his heart away from the Lord" (1 Kings 11:1-3).
And yet even Solomon's mistakes and weaknesses eventually produced some of the most beautiful descriptions of married love found anywhere in literature. How could Solomon, with his background, pen the kind of romantic imagery we find in the Song of Songs? "How beautiful you are, my beloved, how beautiful! Your eyes behind your veil are like doves. Your hair falls in waves, like a flock of goats frisking down the slopes of Gilead" (Song of Songs 4:1).
Okay, so a flock of goats isn't all that romantic to us now, but it was in Solomon's day! The point is that the Bible isn't a fairy tale or a movie script created by Hollywood; the Bible was written by real people who lived real lives and knew what they were talking about.
While the Old Testament is obviously very old and has come to us through an almost unimaginable process compared with our way of handling information, many scholars believe that there is ample evidence that what we read there has its roots in the personal experience of real, historical men and women.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
In contrast to the Old Testament, many of the New Testament writings make very clear claims as to the identity of their authors. The first four books, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, considered by many Christians to be the most important of the New Testament books because they present the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Christ, each bear the name of the man traditionally believed to be the author.
Matthew was a corrupt tax collector until he responded to Jesus' message and became one of the twelve disciples. The New Testament describes his conversion from a cheat to a follower of Christ in these simple sentences: "Jesus went out to the lakeshore again and taught the crowds that gathered around him. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at his tax-collection booth. 'Come, be my disciple,' Jesus said to him. So Levi got up and followed him" (Mark 2:13-14).
Mark was not among the twelve whom Christ chose as his closest associates, but there is strong evidence that he became a kind of personal secretary to Peter. At the end of 1 Peter, the apostle makes a reference that many scholars believe is to Mark, who was with Peter in Rome. "Your sister church here in Rome sends you greetings, and so does my son Mark" (1 Peter 5:13).
Luke is traditionally regarded as the author of both the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles (the story of the early Christian church). His writing is a fascinating study in the historical reliability of the New Testament. Colossians 4:14 refers to Luke, the only Gentile (non-Jewish) writer in the New Testament, as "the beloved physician," indicating that he was a highly educated man. And the introduction to Luke's Gospel demonstrates the conscientious way he approached the task of recording the details of Jesus' life and teaching:
Most honorable Theophilus: Many people have written accounts about the events that took place among us. They used as their source material the reports circulating among us from the early disciples and other eyewitnesses of what God has done in fulfillment of his promises. Having carefully investigated all of these accounts from the beginning, I have decided to write a careful summary for you, to reassure you of the truth of all you were taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
Luke is mentioned in two other New Testament books, Colossians and 2 Timothy, as a companion of the apostle Paul and would therefore have been describing at least some of the events from firsthand experience.
John, also one of the twelve original disciples of Jesus, was verified by early church father Irenaeus as early as A.D. 180 as the author of the book that bears his name. In his writings John repeatedly emphasizes that he was an eyewitness to the events that he describes: "This is that disciple who saw these events and recorded them here. And we all know that his account of these things is accurate. And I suppose that if all the other things Jesus did were written down, the whole world could not contain the books" (John 21:24-25).
Other than Jesus himself, no single person has had a greater impact on the rise of Christianity than the apostle Paul. (Apostle means "one sent from God" and is traditionally applied to men who saw Christ following his resurrection.) As a Jewish Pharisee with Roman citizenship, he was the right man at the right time. Steeped in the Torah (the traditional Jewish term for the first five books of the Old Testament), he was uniquely prepared to interpret Jesus' life, death, and resurrection in terms of the ancient law and prophets. Following Paul's own dramatic conversion, recorded in Acts 9, his status as a Roman citizen gave him the freedom to travel the Mediterranean world with the good news of salvation by grace; that is, that human beings cannot earn their way into heaven by good works but are forgiven on the basis of faith in the work Christ did for us. And if tradition about their authorship is correct, Paul's letters to young churches make up nearly half of the New Testament.
CHALLENGES TO AUTHORSHIP
Throughout the last century there have been many challenges to the traditional assumption that the books of the Bible really were written by the people whose names they bear. Some scholars have proposed the theory that the books were actually written much later and the names affixed in an attempt to make the books more credible. There are several problems with this view. First, if this were the case, the names of Mark and Luke would never have been chosen because neither of these men was actually a disciple of Jesus. And while Matthew was an apostle, he was certainly not among the most prominent (that distinction belonged to Peter, James, and John), and his former profession, tax collector, was among the most reviled in the ancient world. Second, as Jeffrey Sheler points out, "There is no evidence from the first two Christian centuries that the gospels ever were circulated without the names of the authors attached." This is significant, for if there were at least four Gospels circulating among the churches at the end of the first century, it would have been necessary to distinguish them by name. If the titles had been attached only after decades of anonymity, one would expect to find at least some record of disagreement over authorship. And yet scholars have discovered unanimous agreement even in the very earliest records of the church.
HOW WAS THE BIBLE PRESERVED OVER SO MANY CENTURIES?
Do you remember playing the game of "telephone" when you were a child? You and your friends would sit in a big circle, and one person whispered a sentence into the ear of the next person. That person then attempted to pass the sentence to the next person and so on, until the sentence had traveled all the way around the group. The fun came at the end, when you realized that by the time the sentence had been repeated ten or twelve times, it had taken on all kinds of additions and permutations so as to be almost unrecognizable from the original.
If the words we read in our modern Bibles began as oral tradition passed down through the centuries, if not several millennia, how can we be sure that they bear any resemblance to the words that were originally spoken or the events that happened? There were no photocopiers or computer disks on which to copy or save information, so how were manuscripts duplicated and passed on with any degree of reliability?
The truth is, the game of telephone is nothing like the oral traditions ancient peoples depended on. As people living in the so-called information age, we can't imagine not having access to printed, photocopied, or computer-saved information. But three thousand years ago writing was an extremely expensive luxury for even the most educated and wealthy people. So information was stored in human minds and passed on by means of memory-what is referred to as oral tradition. It was not uncommon, for example, for rabbis and teachers to have the entire text of the Old Testament memorized word for word. Some parts of the Old Testament, particularly books like the Psalms, are written in forms that actually aid their memorization. Other parts, such as the books of Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, etc.,
Excerpted from Quick and Easy Guide by Brian R. Coffey Copyright © 2002 by Brian R. Coffey
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.