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The Case For

The Case For Scripture

Ok, we've made a case against Scripture. Whether you believe in Jesus or not, hopefully you're feeling the weight of that argument - if you're not, maybe you haven't read it carefully enough. At the very least, it should give us empathy and respect for people who don't believe in Scripture - they have some pretty good reasons for feeling dubious.

Now here's the good news (if you're looking for the historical Jesus). The objections raised are not nearly as damning as they might seem at first blush. The purpose of this post is to flesh out a Christian response, to make a case for Scripture.

We'll do that by taking a closer look at each of the 4 basic arguments (working in reverse order). The counter argument runs something like this:

  1. Lack of consensus? - We're actually masters of communication (and skepticism)!

  2. Too many copies and variations? - It makes the text more accurate, not less!

  3. Magnitude of Scripture's claims? - We can't prove the claims, but all the evidence indicates that Jesus' immediate followers actually made them!

  4. But you still can't prove it's the Word of God, can you? - of course not! But that doesn't mean it's not hard data that deserves serious consideration!

Let's take a look at each of these in turn (in reverse order)...

4. Masters of Communication (and Skepticism)

The basic thrust of that final argument is that even if we had a single text we all agreed upon, we still couldn't agree on it's meaning. There are too many interpretations. Communication (especially about religious issues) is simply too hard.

Many people probably feel this way, but it doesn't take much reflection to realize the situation is not as dire as it might seem. Sure every statement is subject to interpretations, but that's true of all speech and writing, not just Scripture.

For instance, when I tell the woman checking ID's at the Kettlehouse, "Hey, you look hot today," I might be making a casual remark about the temperature (eg. "Hmm, you're sweating more than usual. Must be hot in here!") -OR- I might be making a pass (eg. "Hey, you look HOT!” - *wink, grin*).

Both interpretations are possible. But context and tone make my intended meaning obvious (and if you've been to the KHole in July, you'd know instantly which it was).

As humans, we are remarkably attuned to making such distinctions. We are not only capable of communication, we are good at it. We know how to send messages, and we know how to receive them. That's true for regular speech, and it's true for the written word as well (after all, why do students spend so much time reading books? Because they're a great medium for communication!). If we're good at unraveling what others mean when they speak, there's a good chance we can unravel what Scripture means when it speaks.

Now, we are not denying that some passages of Scripture are hard to understand. Nor are we minimizing the importance of listening carefully when interacting with someone from another culture (and Scripture is most definitely not coming from a modern, 21st c. American culture!).

The point, however, is that for much of Scripture, the meaning is surprisingly clear - that's why even small children can get the gist most of the time. Even passages which seem difficult often make much more sense when we read them sympathetically in the context of the rest of Scripture.

There was a key word in that previous sentence: sympathetically. A bigger problem with interpretation, of course, is not that we don't understand what Scripture says - it's that we don't particularly like what it means.

For example, when Jesus speaks of adultery as going well beyond the physical act to include even lustful gazing, his meaning is clear: most normal males are adulterers in their hearts. This is not a popular position (who wants to think of themselves as sexually deviant?). The easiest solution, of course, is to assume that it must actually mean something else, something that doesn't implicate me.

Want proof? Start paying attention to when this card gets used - we typically don't start saying, "well there's lots of interpretations..." until someone else makes an assertion we don't like (usually because it would implicate us).

And that brings us to another point - not only are we master communicators, but we are also master skeptics.

Think about that for a moment: we are remarkably skeptical when it comes to Scripture, and we are remarkably un-skeptical when it comes to ourselves. It's like trying to convince a girl that the guy she is dating is no good - no amount of reasoning will change her mind if she doesn't want to believe it. Why? Because she has a stake in the argument. She has something to lose if you're right.

What's the point here? We like to think of ourselves as neutral observers. In reality, however, we all have a dog in the fight when it comes to Scripture, because Scripture makes claims on our lives. Of course this doesn't prove that it's the word of God - it just means that we ought to be as suspicious of ourselves as we are of Scripture. And most of us (even Christians) aren't.

3. Copies and variations: More = Better

This may seem counter-intuitive at first blush, so let me see if I can explain. Any time you copy something by hand, you inevitably make mistakes and introduce variations. You might misspell a word, drop part of a sentence, maybe even re-work a sentence without thinking about it. Copy the copies, and the same thing happens over and over again. The greater number of copies, the great number of variations and errors, right?

Yes and no. You might indeed have more variations. But you also have a greater number of sources to check a particular copy against. If you only have one or two documents, you'll have a hard time knowing where the errors are. But if you had dozens, or hundreds, or thousands, your odds of identifying the errors increase significantly.

Knowledge based websites like Wikipedia actually rely on this same principle. Since anyone in the world (not just experts) can 'correct' a document, you might think the quality of the content would go down (more 'errors', since no editor has perfect knowledge, and if you make everyone an editor, well who knows what they'll write!). Surprisingly, however, accuracy actually improves with this approach! Why? Because more eyes make make it easier to spot and correct errors.

The same is true for any ancient document. Over the past several centuries, the scientific field of textual criticism has blossomed. Some of you geeky types might actually want to know a little bit about the details about textual criticism.

For the rest of you, here's a summary of the key implications:

  • modern translations of the NT text are extremely close to the original autographs

  • most of the textual variations are minor, obvious, identifiable, and correctable (we can explain the cause and identify the original)

  • in most Bibles, any significant textual variations are clearly marked and the variant readings are given (ask me how to spot them!)

  • even if you substituted the worst possible readings for all variations, the NT would be intelligible and the message would be the same (in fact, the average reader probably wouldn't notice the differences; it's that close!)

All this means that the Bible sitting in front of you is trustworthy. It's a pretty darn accurate representation of what was originally written down some 2000 years ago. Of course, that still doesn't mean that it's God's word. But it does mean that it's a piece of significant historical data that deserves serious consideration.

It is very likely Jesus said the things Scripture has him saying (well, in Aramaic, not English, of course). So we need to deal with that data, not dance around it by asserting "Oh, well I'm sure he didn't say that!" If someone wants to construct a Jesus other than the one we read about in the Bible, they need to present historical evidence to support it.

2. The claims of Scripture

There's a gaping hole in our defense thus far - have you noticed it? Someone could say,

"Look, all you've done is demonstrate that the Bible is an accurate representation of what the original authors wrote. But none of the texts claim Jesus as their author! So how do we know that his followers didn't just make things up?

How can we be sure they didn't co-opt the historical Jesus (a great teacher, surely), to create a religious movement of their own making (w/ a sexier, more dramatic, agenda driven Jesus). And how do we know that the later church didn't just suppress alternative accounts of Jesus, picking which books were part of the canon (the 'approved list') and which ones weren't?"

These are great questions. Several considerations may help frame an answer:

  1. Extrabiblical evidence - First, it's worth pointing out that we don't just know about Jesus from the Bible - there are secular, non-Christian historians who mention him as well. Now granted, there are only six short references to him outside of the Christian Scriptures, but the fact that there are any at all is actually significant - that an unknown Jewish carpenter in a remote part of the empire could attract the attention (and scorn) of elite Roman historians is nothing less than remarkable.

    In a book called Simply Christianity, John Dickson summarizes what we can glean from them (p18):

    • when Jesus lived
    • where he lived
    • that he was an influential teacher
    • that he engaged in activities thought to be supernatural
    • that he was executed; when and by whom
    • that he had a brother called James who was also executed
    • that people claimed to have seen him raised from the dead
    • that he was widely known by the prestigious title 'the Christ'

    That may not seem like much, but it's worth noting how much basic correlation there is with the Biblical account. Again, it doesn't prove the Christian version is true, but the extra-biblical evidence certainly doesn't suggest a remarkably different view of Jesus.
  2. Early autographs = harder to fib - Second, it's also worth noting that the early dates of the manuscript evidence (above) actually make the Biblical evidence much harder to fabricate. The NT texts claim to be written by eyewitnesses or were based on first hand accounts of eyewitnesses. Scholars of all stripes agree that the original documents were penned within 20-70 years of the events they describe. That means any false claims would have been easily refutable by those who had been there.

  3. Motive and cost - Third, such deception would require collusion of the grandest scale - one of Jesus' closest friends (Peter), his own half-brother (James) and a high profile enemy of the early church (Paul) all got together to fabricate an incredible scam. Why? To create a movement that would exert power and control? The earliest followers of Jesus had very little influence (most of them were poor or slaves). And at what price? For many believers, their faith cost them their lives. We might expect that of those who came later (eg. they just didn't know it was true), but what founders would be willing to die for something they knew to be false?

  4. Which books are in? - You'll often hear that the Bible didn't assume it's present form until the middle of the 4th century, when a council of Bishops got together and "picked" which books where in and which were out. That's not quite true.

    The earliest definitive lists that we have date from this period, and there was debate about some books prior to this, but almost all biblical scholars (even those who don't believe in Jesus) agree that for most early Christians, their canon was pretty much the same as our by AD 200. And even here, this was not so much a matter of "decision" as it was of "recognition".

    This is an important point. How many of us would believe a certain list of books came directly from the mouth of God simply because a certain group of officials said so? None of us would! So what makes us think that people two thousand years again were any more credulous than us? Such a position is actually quite arrogant (eg. we're smart, they were obviously dumb), and dare I say it, American.

    Ultimately, most Christians both then and now embrace a concept of "authoritative books" not because someone tells them too, but because they encounter something real in them. The best evidence against "alternative gospels" is to go read them - you encounter a completely different Jesus, and he's much less compelling.

Ok, so that's how we think about the claims of Scripture - we haven't resolved them per se, but we have suggested that we have good evidence to think they are very early. It's certainly not irrational or foolish to think that the people who hung out with the real historical Jesus personally believed he said and did exactly what they wrote.

It actually takes a lot of faith to think that the historical Jesus was dramatically different from what we see in the pages of the NT - those who argue this way do so on the basis of conjecture, not historical evidence.

1. So does this prove the Bible is the Word of God?

Of course not! We can never prove that the Bible is God's Word to us - it really is a matter of faith, after all - but we can make a pretty compelling case that it's a huge chunk of substantial evidence.

Evidence like this needs to be weighed, considered, and evaluated. Regardless of your conclusions, any intelligent person owes it to themselves to actually consider the evidence, to develop an informed, thoughtful opinion.

Conclusions

So where does this leave us? The fact we can't know it for sure shouldn't really surprise us. The people who wrote Scripture actually seem well aware of it - they always assert that truth is something God himself has to reveal to us, cf. 1 Cor 2:14). It's actually quite easy not to believe.

Most of us have actually experienced this firsthand - anyone who doesn't want to believe something can always give reasons why they don't buy it. Think of your favorite conspiracy theorist - you can never convince them that their theory is wrong. It's not so much an issue with the data as it is with them: you can never convince anyone of something they don't want to believe.

So the real challenge is not just how to evaluate Scripture, but how to evaluate ourselves. How can we be certain that we're not just buying a gigantic conspiracy theory, one that desperately says Scripture is a hoax. Sure we'll be skeptical of some of the things it says. But we also need to be skeptical of ourselves. We need to be skeptical of our skepticism, we need to ask why we find it difficult to believe. Is the problem with Scripture, or is the problem with me?

At the end of the day, we have two Jesus' to choose from - the Jesus of Scripture, or the Jesus of our imagination. Only one of those has any historical basis.