Many people in our culture think it is very strange for educated, seemingly well-adjusted individuals to take the Bible seriously. The spectacular stories, the miracles that suspend natural law, the evil practices and moral compromises, the slightly differing details to historical events, the condemning of behaviors celebrated in modern culture, the exclusivity of a Savior who claims authority over all of life, and the fact that it’s an old book, lead many people to disregard the Bible altogether.
Many of us own a Bible, read the Bible, and attend a church that teaches the Bible. Many of us believe the Bible and try to obey what the Bible says even when it challenges our beliefs and behaviors. Yet in spite of our confidence, many of us struggle to know or explain why we trust the Bible as we do.
Let me ask, “Why do you trust the Bible?” How would you answer if you were asked, “What’s so special about the Bible?” Surely the number of people abandoning their faith, combined with our own occasional doubts, proves that answering, “Just because,” is insufficient for faith to flourish.
Knowing why we trust the Bible is as profitable for our hope as it is for our hearers and our children. For this reason, over the next several weeks I hope to explain what’s so special about the Bible by showing its credibility, its message, its inspiration, its authority, and its sufficiency.
Knowing why we trust the Bible is as profitable for our hope as it is for our hearers and our children.
I believe the Bible is true. The main reason that I believe the Bible is true is because I believe Jesus rose from the dead. If Jesus died for my sins and rose from the grave proving Himself to be the Son of God, then He has all authority and I ought to listen and agree with what He says. One thing we know for certain is that Jesus believed, and taught us to believe, that the Bible is true.
I can hear the critics. “You can’t say you believe in Jesus’ resurrection because the Bible says so, and then say you believe the Bible because Jesus rose from the dead.” Nevertheless, this line of reasoning is part of any historical study. For example, I believe George Washington was our first President due to the number of historically credible sources that attest to the fact, and on the basis of these credible sources I only believe those who affirm he was our first President. In other words, the collective testimony of historically credible sources verifies events in that day and warrants beliefs in our day.
Now what if we were able to verify the historical credibility of each book of the Bible before believing that Jesus rose from the dead? What if we could see that the Bible was not an attempt by the church to authenticate its religion, but a collection of historical books written over 1500 years by more than 40 people who simply told what happened in their day? What if we saw that each book had to pass the cultural standards of credibility in its day? And what beliefs would be warranted in our day if all this credible evidence attested to Jesus’ resurrection and His subsequent affirmation of these Scriptures?
Years ago I watched a documentary tracing the inglorious journey of food from the farm to the market. The clear takeaway was that how we develop food is as essential to our confidence as the final product. The same is true of the Bible. The chain of events that show how the Bible came to be and how the books of the Bible are historically credible is critical to our confidence. Let’s trace this chain of events.
GOD INSPIRED PEOPLE TO WRITE WHAT THEY SAW AND HEARD
At many times and in many ways, God revealed Himself to people and inspired some of them to write down what they saw or heard. In the Old Testament, we find the phrase, “Thus says the Lord,” recorded over 400 times by people such as Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and Isaiah. Page after page we find recorded accounts of conversations, promises, and events as history passed through Creation, the Fall, and the formation of nations while a remnant of God’s people waited for the Promised Christ.
In the New Testament, writers such as John, who followed Jesus for three years, described his letter clearly, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you” (1 John 1:3). God literally inspired the authors to write. This is why Peter writes, “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). The Holy Spirit ‘carried’ these writer within the boundaries of their vocabulary and personality to select the very words He wanted to say. This is why Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God…” (2 Timothy 3:16). We will return to dig deeper into the extent of divine inspiration, but for now let’s press forward.
GOD PROTECTED THE BIBLE’S CREDIBILITY BY PLACING THE WRITERS INSIDE ACCOUNTABLE COMMUNITIES
Can we be confident that the biblical writers were honest? This is a question that the biblical writers address. Luke begins his Gospel, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4).
Luke was a doctor who became a traveling companion and ministry partner of the Apostle Paul. He had a noble friend named Theophilus who had been told stories about Jesus, and was looking to verify what he had been told. As a service to his friend, Luke developed an orderly historical account of Jesus’ life so that Theophilus could distinguish between fact and fiction. You notice that Luke was emphatic about eyewitness testimony. He essentially says, “I talked to eyewitnesses of Jesus and studied other written accounts that already existed that were based on eyewitness testimony. After I did this thorough investigation, I wrote an orderly account so that you may have certainty.”
Luke never set out to write a book of the Bible. He set out to write an account based on the testimony of living eyewitnesses who could confirm his words to anyone inside that community desiring proof. By starting his Gospel this way, Luke corrects two faulty notions; namely, that the accounts of Jesus were embellished legends, and that they were written long after the eyewitnesses were dead.
Were the Gospels, including Luke, just embellished legends?
Luke essentially says, “My account is developed from carefully preserved testimony that came from the mouths of eyewitnesses.” This means that those eyewitnesses were consulted and still alive to verify the events. Eyewitnesses provided testimony and accountability, which is why the names of people were occasionally added. For example, in Mark’s Gospel, Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry Jesus’ cross. Without explanation, Mark tells us that Simon was the father of Rufus and Alexander. Why mention Simon’s sons? The answer is that Rufus and Alexander were alive, known, and could be asked about their dad’s testimony of that day.
Consider the fact that the biblical writers refer to verifiable historical events. Before recording Jesus’ miracle, Mark writes, “As he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside” (Mark 10:46). These details were added for credibility and verification. Luke writes, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1-2). Each of these people and places could be verified.
Other biblical writers also wrote inside communities containing eyewitnesses able to vouge for the credibility of what was written. For example, historians date Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians between AD 53-55. Inside the letter, Paul says that after rising from the dead, Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive” (1 Corinthians 15:6). In other words, some of these eyewitnesses were available to verify what was being written.
Were the Gospels, including Luke, written long after the eyewitnesses were dead?
All the Gospels were written inside the lifetime of living eyewitnesses. Historians agree that John was written last. Archeologists found a papyrus called P52, that includes a portion of John, dated between 100-125AD. Since it took time for the original to be copied and circulated, historians believe that John couldn’t have been written much later than 90AD, which means all the Gospels were written within 60 years of the resurrection, within the lifetime of some eyewitnesses.
This brings me to one last consideration on the biblical writer’s trustworthiness. Why would they lie? Their motive couldn’t have been personal comfort, for most of them were killed for their refusal to recant what they had seen or heard.
Their motive couldn’t have been personal honor, for the apostles kept recording their own sin, unbelief, prejudice, and fear. In every other religion birthed in these cultures, the founder dies in a moment of peace surrounded by his brave followers. But in the Gospels, the disciples desert him and Jesus dies naked, crying out about being forsaken by God. If you are trying to invent a religion in an honor/shame culture, you don’t shame yourself or your Savior for credibility.
Their motive couldn’t have been cultural approval. The Gospels tell us Jesus first appeared to women after His resurrection and told them to testify. In 1st century Jewish culture, women apparently weren’t allowed to testify in a court of law. Not only does this occurrence speak to Jesus’ high view of a women, it also says something about credibility. For if the resurrection was invented and packaged for cultural approval they wouldn’t have led with women bearing the testimony. The only reason to tell the story this way is if it happened this way and if it could be verified by eyewitnesses.
GOD PROTECTED THE CANON OF SCRIPTURES FROM OTHER WRITINGS
Can we be sure the right books made it into the Bible? The ‘canon’ refers to the list of books that are accepted as the authoritative ‘rule’ or ‘standard’ of God’s truth. The Holy Spirit is the internal witness of truth who confirmed in His people which books would form the canon of Scripture.
God led His people in the Old Testament to recognize the writings of people like Moses, David, and the prophets as divinely inspired and organized them into three sections: law, prophets, writings.
Law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel (one book), Kings (one book), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Minor Prophets (one book including Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)
Writings: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (one book), Chronicles (one book)
The Hebrew canon begins with Genesis and ends with Chronicles. It has 24 books, but the content is identical to the 39 books in our Old Testament. The order of our modern English Bible’s follows the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, used for much of church history.
What about the Apocrypha?
There are 15 Jewish books, called the Apocrypha, written between the Old and New Testaments. The modern Catholic Bible includes these books because some of the popes and church fathers quoted from them. The Protestant Bible excludes these books in order to mirror the Hebrew canon.
Why are these books denied entrance into the Old Testament?
The Jews, including Jesus, did not recognize the Apocrypha as authoritative. Jesus affirmed the three-part division of the Old Testament. “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms [Writings] must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Jesus even affirmed the scope of the Old Testament by saying, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill…from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Luke 11:49-51). Abel is the first person killed in Genesis, and Zechariah is the last person killed in Chronicles. By affirming the first and last martyr in the Hebrew canon, Jesus was authenticating the scope of Old Testament Scripture.
Furthermore, the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament as authoritative nearly 300 times, but not once does it attribute authority to the Apocrypha. Jude quotes from 1 Enoch, and Paul quotes pagans, but these aren’t said to be Scripture. They were simply popular writings used as sources.
The people in the New Testament assumed the canon of Scripture was complete. For the church to begin to govern its doctrine by more than the Old Testament, something supernatural and invasive had to happen. That something was Jesus! “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” (John 1:14). Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection led to an expansion of the canon. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). After His resurrection, Jesus declared authority over heaven and earth. With that authority, Jesus authorized His apostles to write what they saw and heard. That which the apostles and their assistants wrote became New Testament Scripture.
What remained for the early church to do was to discern which writings were the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to add to the canon of Scripture through His apostles. By what criteria did the church do that?
A document had to be written by an apostle of Jesus or by a close companion of an apostle. This is evidenced by the fact that many would-be Scripture authors in the 2nd-6th centuries tried to pass the test by signing off as one of the apostles. Each of the New Testament books passes this test.
Gospel of Matthew (written by the Apostle Matthew)
Gospel of Mark (written by Mark, an assistant of the Apostle Peter)
Gospel of Luke, Acts (written by Luke, an assistant of the Apostle Paul)
Gospel of John, 1, 2, 3 John, Revelation (written by the Apostle John)
Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (written by the Apostle Paul)
Hebrews (written by the Apostle Paul or someone near Paul)
James, Jude (written by two of Jesus’ brothers)
1 & 2 Peter (written by the Apostle Peter)
Each book had to agree with the teachings of Jesus. They had to be internally consistent, meaning they couldn’t contradict the rest of Scripture. (In a few weeks we will discuss differences in the accounts such as the size of armies and the number of angels at Jesus’ tomb.) They also had to be externally consistent, meaning they couldn’t contradict reliable non-biblical sources. This is why the New Testament record agrees with what we know of history elsewhere. The names of emperors, governors, places and events do not disagree with other historical sources that we have.
GOD PRESERVED THE SCRIPTURES OVER TIME
Can we be sure that the original text of the Bible was transmitted accurately through the centuries? It is very clear that God’s people wanted to reproduce and share the Scriptures. Before the invention of the printing press in the 1400’s, the Bible had to be copied by hand. Today none of the original manuscripts are known to exist, but the staggering number of ancient copies that we do possess allow us to reconstruct with a huge degree of confidence what the originals said. For the sake of comparison, let’s consider a few other non-biblical ancient works that modern historians consider to be credible.
Today we have 10 known copied manuscripts of Julius Caesar’s, Gallic Wars, originally composed around 50 B.C. We have 20 known copied manuscripts of Livy’s, Roman History, originally written during the time of Jesus. We have just 2 known copied manuscripts of Tacitus’s, Histories and Annals, originally composed around A.D. 100. Yet in spite of the small number of known copies, we trust these ancient works and even form conclusions about the Roman Empire based on what they say.
Compare those numbers with the 5801 ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that have been preserved, along with 15,000 other ancient manuscripts in other languages. Compare the fact that our earliest preserved copy of Gallic Wars is dated 900 years after the original was written, whereas the earliest preserved copies of the New Testament are dated less than 75 years after the originals were written. Furthermore, the Scripture quoted in the writings of the early church (AD 95-150) is so extensive that with the exception of about eleven verses, the entire New Testament can be constructed from quotations alone. No other ancient book comes close to this kind of wealth of preservation.
This wealth of preservation creates problems and solutions. The more hand-written copies we have, the more ‘variants’ (scribal errors) we find, but also the more control we have to know which words mirror the original. For example, if we had only two ancient copies of Luke and one included his four-verse introduction, and the other didn’t, it would be hard to tell which mirrored the original. But if you have 5800 Greek copies for comparison, there is more to compare to know what Luke originally wrote.
Keep in mind that the vast majority of the ‘variants’ are copying mistakes such as spellings, accidental duplications, adding plural instead of singular, and inverting word order. Remarkably, about 98-99% of the original manuscripts can be reconstructed today beyond reasonable doubt, and not one Christian doctrine is built on a disputed passage. To be above reproach, every “variant” is marked in our modern translations either by adding brackets around the text or by placing a footnote in the margins. This kind of honesty and transparency is designed to build credibility.
GOD PROTECTS THE TRANSLATION OF SCRIPTURE INTO OTHER LANGUAGES
Can we be sure that our English Bible means the same as the Bible’s original languages? Yes, we can. We can trust our English Bibles because scholars have been studying the original languages of the Bible (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic) and English for centuries. The fact that there are many linguistic scholars from all around the world examining each another’s work adds accountability and credibility.
There are difficulties that arise. Certain words and phrases can be so difficult to translate that scholars disagree, but this shouldn’t shake our confidence for a number of reasons. First, disagreement exists with only a small number of words or phrases. Second, when there is disagreement, most Bibles will acknowledge alternate meanings of a word in a footnote. Third, there is not a single major doctrine of Christianity that rests on a disputed translation.
Every couple decades, translation teams develop a new ‘version’ in an attempt to adjust to changes in modern vocabulary and grammar. These ‘versions’ typically fit into one of these categories:
Word for word (i.e. NASB, ESV, KJV): These versions attempt to translate the original biblical languages word for word, even if the translation is a little less readable.
Thought for thought (i.e. NIV, NET, NLT): These versions, called ‘dynamic equivalents’, also translate from the original languages. But instead of thinking about word for word the intent is ‘thought for thought’. They are still very accurate, but they aim for more readability.
Paraphrase (i.e. GNT, TLB, Message): These versions are more of a devotion than a translation. These consider an accurate translation, but then write the most readable version they can imagine.
Devotional Editions (i.e. Soldiers Bible, Athletes Bible): These include an unaltered version of the Bible (i.e. NIV, ESV), and then add personal devotions at the bottom of the page for people in a particular stage of life. The devotions may be good, but they are not Scripture.
The Bible contains sixty-six credible books, written over 1500 years, that tell one coherent story of redemption that culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Old Testament anticipates to this event. The Gospels describe this event. The rest of the New Testament heralds this event. The resurrection of Jesus means God the Father fully accepted His sacrifice for sins. It means that all of Jesus’ claims about being the Son of God are confirmed. It means that Jesus has all authority, and with that authority He calls us to trust the Bible.
The Bible contains sixty-six credible books, written over 1500 years, that tell one coherent story of redemption that culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
I am indebted to those who have written much more extensively on these subjects and with much greater clarity. For those interested in studying more, I found these to be particularly helpful for my own heart and for this sermon.
 Matthew 28:1-15; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-53; John 20:1-29
 Matthew 4:4, 7, 10; 5:17-19; 12:40; Luke 24:26-27; John 10:35
 Exodus 5:1; Joshua 7:13; 1 Samuel 2:27, Isaiah 44:6
 Mark 15:21
 Acts 12:2
 Matthew 16:23; 26:8-10, 69-74; John 20:25
 Matthew 26-27
 John 20:11-18
 1 John 5:6
 Genesis 4:8; 2 Chronicles 24:20-21
 Jude 14-15; Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12
 John 5:39; Acts 17:2
 Matthew 28:18
 Ephesians 2:19-20
 Hebrews 13:23-24
 Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11