Back To The Bible? Part 1
In these days when anything declared authoritative is viewed with great suspicion (and even more so if it’s ancient too!) how can we be sure the Bible we revere as Christians is accurate, relevant, steadfast and worthy of being preached? Can we be sure its perceived moral codes are truly eternal when it evidently toys with themes like polygamy, slavery, war and infanticide? These are tough subjects!
Even at an everyday level, it is easy to declare the Bible boldly when the culture agrees with you. But increasingly many western (and dare I say overly-comfortable) Christians are facing real persecution over the Biblical view of morality, gender, marriage, sexuality and the family.
Is the Bible to be relied upon, simply because it is leather bound? Should we call it authoritative simply because Paul’s letter to Timothy states “all scripture is God breathed”? (You don’t have to be that bright to realise the Bible as we know it wasn’t fully written or compiled by then). Can we trust it when we are told of it’s supposed many discrepancies, contradictions with science and history?
If we are serious about our faith, and the vital role of the scriptures as we chart a course for our role in society today, we must ask the question, “Where doe our Bible come from? Can we trust it?”
Over the course of several blogs, I want to take you on a Whistle-stop tour of Bible History, show its effect on the world, see how Jesus taught us to use scripture, and then answer the very hardest questions the Bible raises, along with the most complex issues our society faces today.
So let’s start!
Where Does The Bible Come From?
We know for certain that the Bible, a library of 66 books, was written by at least 40 different authors, over a span of about 1500 years. It is definitely not the work of a couple of con men, writing the whole work as a work of fantasy. There is simply too much evidence, spanning too many years, to even consider that. There are literally many, many thousands of pieces of evidence backing up the Bible.
Of course, the first 39 books are the Jewish story. A mixture of writings, law, histories, poetry, proverbs, prophecy and hymns that would have started as oral history in its earliest stage.
The story of creation, Noah and Abraham would, of course, have only been by word of mouth, and amazingly other nations have similar stories, a fact that adds weight to the Bible, rather than discredit it. Eventually, by Moses time writing would begin, (though some say it’s doubtful he wrote all first five books). It was probably King David’s reign that saw record keeping and writing as a vital and commonplace.
Finally, books like the prophetic writings were prophesied and then recorded and written. Of course, the reason many of these would end up in the Bible is quite simple. Biblical prophets had a basic, somewhat crude test; if what they prophesied happened they live, if it did not, they were stoned. Wow!
Between 200BC and 200AD the Jewish scriptures were finally given the stamp of authority, after use for centuries. Of course, many books were rejected and did not make it. They were considered good, useful, but not carrying that final authority, through proof over time.
No-one actually knows who compiled and finalised the Old Testament, but by the time the nation was in exile around 586BC, they probably thought it was paramount that a good history of God’s dealing with their nation was kept.
Are There Contradictions?
In some places dual stories for the same event may have arisen, giving us two versions of creation in Genesis for example, and differing reports on the numbers of animals Noah gathered into the ark, according to some. None of this discredits the Bible though, as collators simply put both stories side by side, or intermingled, unashamed of the reality that some facts differed. That was evidently not the point! The writers were telling the story of God, and His relationship to mankind. That is the paramount purpose of the writings. It was more about “the Ark that saved”, rather than “the exact number of animals” that entered.
The Bible to them, was about theology (the study of God), more than history as we would think of it today. Weights, measures, times, dates were usually secondary to the discovering of God’s dealings, his character and nature. This has confused scientists and discredited the Biblical content for some. Sadly, this misses God’s point, as modern attitudes to approaching “truth” differ to near eastern thinking, the culture we are reading about.
Archaeologists struggled too, seeking to either prove or disprove the Bible by their findings. Amazingly, it took until 1993 to prove something as simple as the existence of King David by nonbiblical means! A fragment of stone found in northern Israel mentioned the House of David. Since then other references have been found in Egypt. What other findings are mischievously hiding away, waiting for their moment of fame?
The New Testament
So what about the New Testament, the Gospels, Acts, the epistles (letters) and Revelation? Obviously, we are far more in touch with exactly how the New Testament came to be.
After Jesus died, the disciples assumed Jesus would be coming back very soon, so writing was initially thought of as unnecessary. The Jews who found Jesus would have continued in their Jewish style worship while adding memories of events and sayings of Jesus to their meetings.
But as the years rolled on, and the Church spread its boundaries, more eyewitness accounts of Jesus were needed than there were eyewitnesses, and therefore writing began. Letters began to pass from church to church, or apostle to church, around 20 years after Jesus resurrection, and soon after this, the Gospels were also written, as eyewitnesses realised their mortal years were coming to an end.
One instruction manual written for the church that never made it to scripture tells of the need to read the “memoirs of the apostles” out in meetings. It was through this practice that the New Testament came to be.
There was never a single meeting of great minds when “The Bible” was chosen, as some have assumed. Rather, quality and reliable writings were commonly used in the early church, while less reliable writings fell by the wayside. Good eyewitness accounts, by those who knew Jesus, or were disciples of his disciples, were favoured over other manuscripts by other writers, and by practice, the letters and Gospels we know rose the surface. The closeness of the writers to Jesus was of paramount importance.
In the early 200’s a theologian called Origen decided to take a poll of what writings were most used in Christian Churches. From this he put together three lists:
- 1st: Accepted Books…the four gospels we use today, 13 Pauline letters, Acts, 1 John, Revelation.
- 2nd: Questionable Books… Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude.
- 3rd: Unreliable Books… Gospel of Thomas, the Egyptians, and Matthias.
By AD 200 the Church was using our four Gospels we have today in our Bibles, and no others. The proof of use, time and the closeness of the author to Jesus or his disciples was a great part of the choice.
Over the years Church leaders, again and again, confirmed the 27 books we enjoy today were the correct and most useful ones. In 367AD, 393AD, 397AD and 419 AD. For most Christians, by this point, the 27 books had been decided upon.
There was never any great conspiracy by Constantine. In fact, Constantine enlisted the help of one of Origen’s theological descendants, Eusebious, to compile the Bible he commissioned. Eusebious of course had Origen’s list of 27 books, and though we don’t know exactly what he put in his compilation, his sources were the same as ours.
Of course, there were more books they could have added. The Apocrypha, the Gnostic Gospels, good quality writings by other church fathers, but they did not pass the tests of authorship and use in Christian Church, and as one bishop put it, in talking of the Bible as we know it, he thought “these were adequate for salvation”.
Years on, you hold in your hand the best-selling book of all time, tested by the Jewish nation for centuries, used by the church for centuries, quoted by the original church fathers, written by eyewitnesses of Jesus’ world walking glory. It is authentic and reliable, and we will see even more reasons why later.
Why Did The Bible End At The Book Of Revelation?
It would be quite sensible and reasonable to consider that, if God spoke to people over the course of 1500 years, and had them write Biblical books about it, why wouldn’t he do the same today? Couldn’t any godly man or woman, receive something from heaven and declare it authoritative?
To answer this, we must consider Hebrews 1:1-2. Here the writer tells us:
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.”
Here the writer to the Hebrews tells us how God had been speaking before the New Testament age. He has spoken in various ways, we’re told, through prophets, godly men, kings, priests… But now a change occurs: “But in these last days” it says “he has spoken to us through His Son.”
The arrival of Jesus on the scene was the arrival of a new “way of speaking.” The Old Testament, with all its complexities and horrors, evidently brought us a gradual revelation of the holiness, nature, power and grace of God, through and to fallible men and women. But now He begins to speak with a level of clarity He did not use before. Hebrews 1 goes on to tell us what this “Son” is like:
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
Having spoken through prophets, priests and many others, God has now spoken with crystal clarity through Jesus, because Jesus was, and is, “The exact representation” of God! Colossians tells us Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” – For the first time in history, for 33 ½ years, you could talk with God, smell Him, hear Him with natural ears, see Him, ask Him questions, feel His breath, hold His hand or rest your head on His chest!
God fully and clearly appeared in JESUS!
This is why we have four versions of the Gospels! There was so much to see, and the eyewitnesses wanted us to be able to cross reference, go deeper, take in the nuanced language and compare the glorious perspectives of their different experiences.
After the four Gospel accounts of Jesus, the Bible begins to round off, as nothing will beat the pinnacle of the scriptural writings, of having God in flesh form, exactly representing the image of the invisible God!
The books continue with Acts, showing us how Jesus life impacted the genesis of the Church, and his disciples began to spread, doing the same things Jesus did. Then we have a beautiful compilation of epistles, letters detailing how the early Church interpreted Jesus teachings into their lives. Finally, as if to leave us dumbstruck with awe, John (Jesus ‘favourite’) finds himself ‘in the spirit’ and having mystical and heavenly encounters of the future.
The Bible, therefore ‘peaks’ at the arrival of Christ in the Gospels, explains how Jesus death and resurrection transforms us in the epistles, then points us to an eternal future of divine intimacy and adventure in Revelation.
I always love to say, that God largely did a “mic drop” after Jesus had done His work on the earth! “Enough said!” God bellows – “I spent all the Old Testament unveiling, hinting, slowly revealing, gently clarifying who I Am to unregenerate broken humanity…. then I ARRIVED IN JESUS. It is never going to get any clearer than that! Now live in the Truth that I have shown you!”
As Jesus left His disciples, Matthew’s version of His parting words told them clearly “teach them everything I have taught you” (Matt 28:18) – so they faithfully recorded His words, outworked them in mission and in life, and passed on their divine experience in these sacred writings. What a gift!
Up next time….reasons to trust the Bible….
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