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The Seekers' Guide to the Bible

Contents

Introduction

What is in the New Testament

The manuscripts and transmission of the New Testament

The authors of the New Testament

The historicity and accuracy of the New Testament

What is not in the New Testament

What is in the Old Testament

What is not (always) in the Old Testament

Authorship, transmission and accuracy

Introduction

Seekers

This guide is intended for a particular kind of person at a particular point in their lives. 

That person is someone who is often called a seeker. They have lived with a particular worldview, very often unconsciously, which they have now questioned and found wanting. Whether that worldview was scientific materialism or theism is beside the point. However, the seekers I have in mind will have some sort of sympathy for Christianity whether or not they actually believe it. Perhaps they would rather that it was true or at the very least, preferable to the obvious alternatives.

The two kinds of seekers I particularly have in mind are agnostics who now feel a need for meaning or purpose that perhaps they presently lack and Christians who regret that they can no longer accept their faith in the way they once did. In particular, the latter category might include evangelicals who no longer believe the Bible is literally true and without error. This threatens to undermine their entire Christian faith so they might end up throwing the baby out with the bath water.

I have no intention of trying to offer proof to anyone. Sceptics (who are, of course, welcome to read what follows) will find plenty to disagree with, if that is what they want to do. Instead, I want to survey the Bible and examine its history and composition. My own opinions will become obvious so I might as well state them explicitly up front. I think that much of the New Testament ("NT") deserves to be treated as reliable history and that if it were about anything else other than Jesus no one would doubt this. I think a good but, as yet, incomplete case can be made for much of the Old Testament ("OT") as well.

I do not think the Bible is literally true and inerrant. It contains fiction, myth and downright mistakes aplenty. If people want to devote their lives to finding and refuting these errors then they are welcome to. I enjoy reading the debates between sceptics and evangelicals. But in the end only one question matters for Christianity: did Jesus rise from the dead?

The sceptics' point of view

Many people claim that the resurrection is impossible. Therefore, no matter how good the evidence, we should reject it. Because the Gospels give such prominence to this single event, we can reject the rest of them as well. Victorians published lots of biographies of Jesus which sought to explain the passion narratives in a rational way. They describe Jesus being unconscious and then revived in the tomb. Nowadays this is called the 'swoon theory' and rightly rejected. It is far easier for the sceptic to reject the entirety of the Gospels as a myth.

As we shall see, historians cannot do this. Many accept the empty tomb as a fact that had a profound effect on the follows of Jesus. Wisely, they do not try to explain it but simply state that we will never know what happened. It is on this foundation of historical fact that a Christian apologetic about Jesus can be built. It is worth noting that most of the published sceptics or revisionists who reject the historicity of the Gospels are actually theologians rather than historians. Clearly, we would not expect them to have the same objectivity as a classicist with no religious leanings. Other writers on this subject are little more than enthusiastic amateurs (myself included!).

What is revelation?

Even in Britain where attendances at church are at an all time low and the Government has declared we a now a secular society, 70% of people still say they believe in some sort of higher power. They tend to be rather sheepish about this and cannot find many reasons for their intuition. They can tell us almost nothing about the attributes of this 'power' short of a general bigness and benevolence.

This is hardly surprising. If there were something great enough to have created the universe it would be well beyond the capacity of humans to understand. Claiming that it was male is clearly absurd for a start. Equally, claiming it is female or even some combination of the two is a non-starter. That said, I will refer to God as a 'He' simply because that is the way I have been culturally conditioned. It is also pointless to try and project a set of human motivations and values onto God. Many atheist arguments collapse once this point is grasped as they seem to be saying "If I was God, I'd do it this way and because He hasn't, He isn't much of a god".

Theists believe that God didn't just create the world and leave it, but that He does have some sort of interest in how we are doing. Because it is so hard for us to work anything out about Him for ourselves He has revealed certain things to us. Now, immediately we have a problem because this implied desire by God not to just leave us alone seems to be giving him a human motivation and we have just said that we cannot do that. So our starting point has to come one step back. Instead we should say that if God did want us to have some knowledge about Him, He would have to give it to us Himself. If we further believe it to be possible He might do this then we have to look for likely occasions when this revelation might have taken place.

Revelation therefore is God telling us something about Himself. He could communicate in innumerable ways, through a burning bush, through dreams, through holy books, through a prophet or simply by implanting the knowledge in our brains. The last of these can be quite common. Many people have suddenly become aware of the existence of the divine with complete certainty. It is this that causes them to seek out other kinds of revelation.

The New Testament is about one particular time and place that God revealed Himself. Christians insist it was the most important. We claim that God came down to Earth and talked to us about Himself and about how He wanted us to be. While I do not believe that the Bible is God's direct revelation, I do take it as an accurate enough account of when that revelation took place.

The limits of natural theology

In his massive work, Summa contra Gentiles, Saint Thomas Aquinas tries to find out as much about God as he can from using his reason and knowledge of the world around us. He thinks that he can surmise rather a lot.  Many other theologians would disagree with him. In the last year of his life, Aquinas seems to have realized that he had overstated his case and described all his works as mere chaff.

The trouble with natural theology is that it is bound up with philosophy, epistemology and science. None of these subjects need have very much sympathy for theology. I have discussed this subject in a dialogue and do not wish to run over it again here. However, we should briefly examine the limit that natural theological arguments can take us to.

Although a good case for the existence of God can be found and a case made that this God does have some benevolent interest in us, it is not possible to state that He is anything much like the God who Christians worship.

The cosmological argument postulates that a God exists outside the universe (that is, outside time and space) who is its cause or creator. Such a God would be eternal (as He is outside time) and powerful beyond imagining (as He made the universe).

The teleological or design argument suggests that God created the universe so that we could exist within it. This means God has some sort of interest in us rather than our being unnecessary by products of whatever He is actually up to.

The moral argument states that it is God who has given us the ultimate standard by which we decide what is good. Therefore He should be incomparably good himself.

The argument from desire states that we have a built in wish for a relationship with God and so He must want us to have this relationship or He would not have implanted us with this desire.

Finally, the ontological argument (with which I happen not to agree) states that a perfect God must exist because we can conceive that He does. If He didn't exist then He would be less than perfect and so to be perfect must exist.

All in all, this does not tell us very much. We cannot show that God is personal, loving or a Trinity. We cannot really conclude He is omnipotent or omniscient let alone omnipresent. Quite apart from all that, the various arguments for the existence of God are by no means conclusive and if a particular argument is rejected then we end up knowing even less about Him. Hence natural theology tells us little and we are instead forced to look for knowledge from other sources.

Written versus oral revelation

Various books have been called the Word of God but they do not claim to have been actually written by Him. Instead the author is said to be 'inspired', hence the term 'inspired literature'. Not all of the Bible explicitly claims to be 'inspired' unlike, say, the Koran which is says it is exactly what an angel actually dictated to Mohammed.

The major problem for a book that is supposed to be inspired is that it had better be perfect. Otherwise it might reasonably be asked how it can be that God has made mistakes. Another difficulty is that literature is a product of a particular time and place. This leads to difficulty in interpretation for those who come afterwards. Writing something that can be completely understood by all men at all times might well be logically impossible and hence beyond the ability even of an omnipotent God.

The advantage of revealed literature is that it remains the same (barring errors) rather than being adapted and changed like oral teaching is. There is a strong taboo against changing scripture that has existed for a long time. Certainly, the odd addition is made (such as the end of Mark's Gospel or the woman caught in adultery added to John's) but it would be a mistake to think that the NT is very much different from when it was first written. The OT appears to have reached its final form after the Jews were exiled to Babylon and remained pretty much unchanged since then.  Some people may view this lack of flexibility as a disadvantage which prevents scripture being relevant today.

Oral revelation is where God speaks through someone - usually called a prophet. Books may be written that contain their words but these books will have human authors. As such, we need not expect the books to be perfect although we will hope that they form a reliable record of sayings and deeds. After the prophet has spoken we are free to misinterpret or corrupt their words as much as we like. Human beings have free will, after all.

Believers think that God does communicate with them directly as well as through special mediums. For most of us, it is this and not the Bible that convinces.

Other revelations

This guide is primarily about the Bible. This is because I am a Christian and not a Moslem or Hindu. There are also other Christian books that claim to be revealed. The most famous of these being the Book of Mormon.

It is not my intention to pass judgement on these other holy books in any way. I would instead like to make a claim that many Christians might find unduly liberal.

There are a great many human beings and they are all unique people. There is one God who wants as many of these different people as possible to enter into a relationship with him. In his wisdom he has ensured that there are different paths for different people. My own path, which I believe strongly God has placed me upon, is Christianity through the Roman Catholic Church. I can no more claim that someone else is on the wrong path than I can know what is in his or her heart.

God will reveal Himself to anyone who asks in the proper spirit of humility. The aim of this guide is to examine intellectual questions that the seeker may have about the Bible and not to get in the way of their own journey to faith.

If you are interested in other religions or holy writing then there is a vast amount of relevant (and irrelevant) information on the Internet.

Inerrant or just reliable

A great deal of controversy is generated by arguments between the two least compatible views about the Bible. The sceptics dismiss the whole think as allegorical whereas many evangelicals claim it to be literally true in its entirety.

Unlike many liberals, I think that inerrancy is an honourable position to take. Many people, far more learned in these matters than I, do indeed have that view. My concern is that by taking a position that is hard, to defend evangelicals leave many of their adherents vulnerable to a concerted attack by sceptics. As soon as one tiny crack is opened up the whole edifice can be brought tumbling down. Too often this leads to the total rejection of Christianity. The sceptics can then parade an apostate who declares they were deceived by the forces of religion but can see clearly now.

One kind of reader I would welcome for this guide is the evangelical who is assailed by just these doubts but does not want to lose their faith. I hope to show that it is possible to take a very conservative view of the Bible within the bounds of secular history and archaeology. Just because some of the humans who wrote the Bible made the odd mistake (because unlike Jesus, they were not perfect) it doesn't mean that the Bible as a whole should be rejected.

Just consider the number of different views about God that you can find in the world today. Some of these ideas are reflected in the Bible and so we see many different facets of His greatness. Each one is just the tiniest glimpse of one part of His infinite whole. And that one part is described by another human being who has his own ideas about what he thinks God ought to be like. Today we often look for a God with our own set of 'live and let live' ethics. The ancient Hebrews wanted a God to smite their enemies.

The sceptic would claim we are all inventing our own version of God. But this does not ring true because through out history we have all had to admit that God is not what we would like Him to be. This is precisely why the sceptic rejects God in the first place.

Inerrancy is also bound up with other problems that it does not need to concern itself with. For example, the authors of the Gospels and the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) are not necessarily those who they are traditionally ascribed to be. That Moses wrote the Torah should not be a point of dogma any more than that Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews. The final form of the OT did not materialize until quite late. We should not reject it as history just for that reason.

Which Bible?

The order of the books of the NT is pretty much fixed, unlike the OT where you can find some books scattered all over the place. But the question of which version of the Bible to use remains. Scholars tend to congregate around the Revised Standard Version ("RSV") which keeps Catholics and Protestants pretty happy. American Catholics usually read the New American Bible ("NAB") in church while English ones use the Jerusalem Bible.

The New Jerusalem and New Revised Standard Version both use language that is not gender specific. This annoyed the Vatican because they claimed some of the times the word 'man' is used in the OT, it is pointing to Jesus. Changing this to 'person' loses the point. I just think it is rather inelegant but not very important.

The Authorised or King James Version ("KJV") stands supreme in terms of art. If you are not a Christian but want to admire the Bible as the great piece of literature that it is, make a bee line for the KJV. It was written in the language of Shakespeare on the orders of James I and can reach heights of such sublime beauty you might end up thinking it really was inspired. Even today, many Christians will not use anything else. This is slightly unfortunate because as a translation it leaves a lot to be desired. It is based on 12th century Byzantine manuscripts whereas modern translations use codices going back to the fourth century. There are now corrections of the KJV which have attempted to make good these shortcomings.

If you have a Bible that is not the KJV then it is probably fine to use that. If you don't then I recommend buying a copy of the New International Study Bible. The New International Version ("NIV") is the biggest seller apart from the KJV. The notes that come with the study bible are very useful indeed. Although these notes (and I suppose the NIV itself) are aimed at Protestants I have never had any problem with it. However, anyone who tries to dictate which Bible you should read is not worth listening to.

Now onto the contents of the Bible itself.

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James Hannam 2003.
Last revised: 05 June, 2013 .