Three More Questions About the Bible

Title: Three More Questions About the Bible

Text: Matthew 5:17, 2 Peter 3:15-16, John 5:45-47

Date: July 21st, 2009

 

I’ve been talking about the Bible for the last few weeks by asking and then answering a few common questions that people raise about the Bible. Today I’d like to answer a few more common questions that are raised concerning the Bible. The first question I’ll try to answer is this, “Are we supposed to interpret the Bible literally?” I remember when I was a young Christian going to a church conference in Flint, Michigan and attending a workshop of a Christian author who had written a number of well-known books. At the end of his presentation he had a question and answer session, so I raised my hand and asked him the same question, “How are we to interpret the Bible, literally?” I think he gave me a very helpful answer – but more on that in a minute. The second question I’ll answer is, “Are the teachings of Jesus more authoritative than other teachings in the Bible, for example, the Apostle Paul’s?” I often run into people who say something like, “Well, Jesus never taught that,” or “Well, that’s just Paul who said that.” The implication is that the teachings of Jesus – or the red letters, as some Bibles print the words of Jesus – are more important than, say, the words of Moses in the first 5 books of the Old Testament or the writings of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. I’ll explain why we can’t pick and choose from one part to another in the Bible nor can we judge one part more important than the other. Finally, three, I’ll try to answer the question, “I’ve heard the Bible was put together by unknown editors, not the authors whose names appear on the individual books – is that true?” From television documentary specials presented on ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN to scholarly books found in, for example, Barns & Nobles and Borders bookstores, a general message is given to the public that the Bible wasn’t written by the traditional authors whose names appear on the individual biblical books, but rather the Bible was written by unknown editors who compiled materials from many different sources. I’ll explain this “multiple source” theory is unproven and goes against the very claims of the Bible itself. There are many more questions people ask about the Bible today, but many of these same questions have been asked for hundreds if not thousands of years. Remarkably, not many people take the time to get answers to these questions, but the fact is, there are solid answers to these and other frequently asked questions about the Bible. We have every reason to believe the complete and total reliability of the Bible as God’s Word. We find in the historical record that Jesus and the apostles all assumed the absolute trustworthiness of the complete Old Testament. We also find that Jesus promised his apostles that the Holy Spirit would bring to their remembrance all his teachings and lead them into all truth. This promise is the foundation for our confidence in the New Testament writings. We can have total confidence in the truthfulness of the whole Bible. We can base our lives upon the Bible’s teachings and not be disappointed. But let me go into more detail concerning the three questions I mentioned before.

 

First, are we supposed to interpret the Bible literally? Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappears, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” In the Hebrew language, literally, the jot and tittle were the smallest letters and tiniest strokes of the scribe’s pen. Yet according to Jesus, not even these smallest of Hebrew markings would pass away until all things were accomplished in God’s historical plan. That description sounds like a very literal reading of the Bible, down to the smallest markings. The general rule of Bible interpretation is that we read a passage in its natural literal sense unless it doesn’t make sense to do so, then we may look for a different sense in which to read it. The ultimate goal of biblical interpretation is to read a passage in the same sense in which the original author intended it. In other words, we should be looking for the original intent of the author of the passage. This is more common sense than anything else. We do this when we read almost any written document. For example, when we read the contract before we buy a car or home we assume that what we are reading is literally true unless there is some reason to believe otherwise. But when we read poetry, for example, we realize that we are reading a type of literature that is often or almost always symbolic and figurative, so we adjust our expectations accordingly. We must read the Bible in the same way. Most of the Bible is straightforward narrative, or in other words, it’s describing something in a straightforward manner. However, sometimes the Bible uses poetic language or figures of speech to make a point. For example, Jesus refers to himself as “the door” or “the path,” but nobody would ever think that Jesus is trying to teach that he is literally a door or a path; this is figurative language. However, in admitting that some passages are figurative, we want to be careful to not over-spiritualize the Bible in a way that removes its primary meaning. Some medieval theologians overly-spiritualized the Bible by giving it symbolic or allegorical interpretations instead of reading it in its plain sense. This is very dangerous because there are essentially no checks and balances on symbolic meanings that one could find in any biblical passage using this message. It’s better to stick to the plain, common sense meaning of a biblical passage and try to interpret it from the perspective of the author’s original intent as best as we can discover. Also, just because a passage contains a description of a miracle, that alone doesn’t give us the right to consider it figurative or symbolic, because after all, God is a God of miracles and the supernatural. Whatever was the original intent of the biblical author, that is how we should interpret the passage, even if it challenges our way of thinking or is outside our own experience.

 

Second, are the teachings of Jesus more authoritative than other teachings in the Bible? 2 Peter 3:15-16, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Here we see the Apostle Peter, the chief disciple among the twelve chosen by Jesus himself, equating the writings of the Apostle Paul with “the other Scriptures.” The Greek word used here for “Scriptures” is the same word used to describe the Old Testament writings, so we see here early on in the history of the Christian church the apostles’ writings being put on the same level of authority as the Hebrew Scriptures. Now the question that people sometimes ask is whether the words of Jesus recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are more authoritative than the other words of sacred scripture, such as the Old Testament writings or the writings of the Apostle Paul and others? Certainly the words of Jesus are important, even priceless, and certainly authoritative, but the early church didn’t see the other sacred writings as less important but rather saw them as equally the Word of God. That does not mean to say that all of scripture is equally interesting or equally as valuable in content, but it means just as 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” It means what Jesus said in the wilderness during his time of temptation and testing: “Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Matthew 4:4. Because the whole Bible is the Word of God, because it’s all given by inspiration of God, because it’s all authoritative, we can’t pick and choose which parts to believe and which parts not to believe. We can’t say that just because Jesus didn’t teach on something but Paul did, that we can disregard what Paul taught because Jesus didn’t teach it. In other words, we can’t look to the words of Jesus or “red letters” of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the “real” Bible, and then disregard or belittle or downplay the rest of Scripture. Some people try to do that with the teachings of the Apostle Paul. For example, there are the famous verses in the New Testament where Paul states, “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord)” and “Now about virgins; I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” and “In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is – and I think that I too have the Spirit of God,” 1 Corinthians 7:12, 25, 40. All of these verses and in other places in Paul’s writings might lead us to believe that he’s not claiming full authority for himself, but rather simply offering human advice, which may or may not be followed. From time to time I encounter those who basically see all of Paul’s letters as mere human advice: “Well, that was just Paul saying that.” But as I’ve shown in 2 Peter 3:15-16, whatever modesty Paul himself might have given to his own writings, the early church considered them sacred Scripture and the historic church includes them in the canon of Scripture, so we can’t treat them any less important or any less trustworthy, reliable or authoritative as any of Scripture. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” 2 Timothy 3:16.

 

Three, was the Bible put together by unknown editors different from the names that appear on the individual books? John 5:45-47, “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” The key phrase in this passage is “He (Moses) wrote about me.” According to Jesus, Moses wrote about him in a prophetic sense, for example, as in Genesis 3:15. The first 5 books of the Old Testament are known as the Books of Moses or the Law of Moses. The Old and New Testament authors assumed that Moses was the other. The Jews as well as the early Christians all believed in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch – or that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Jesus himself believed that Moses was the author of the five books identified with him. “He (Moses) wrote about me.” So what’s the issue today? The problem today is that many scholars claim and teach that the Bible is the product of many unknown editors, not authored by the individuals traditionally associated with the books. These same scholars claim that instead of Moses compiling the Old Testament Pentateuch, many unknown editors created the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In the New Testament, the same scholars claim that the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were also not written by these authors but probably edited by unknown authors using a number of different sources. And so today, there are many intellectual doubts in the minds of many people about the authenticity and reliability of the Bible based on these so-called “critical theories” of biblical scholarship. These same ideas are repeated in television documentaries by so-called expert scholars being interviewed, especially during the holiday seasons of Christmas and Easter. Almost all of these presentations are negative towards the Bible. They are also found in books on the shelves of bookstores such as Barns & Nobles and Borders Books, as well as in libraries and encyclopedias. What can be said about these modern skeptical theories of the Bible? To begin with, it all comes back to Jesus and his attitude towards Scripture. If Jesus is truly Lord, then he can be trusted in all things, on all issues and topics. In respect to the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible, we must follow Jesus in his absolute and total confidence in all of Scripture. Jesus accepted that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament and we should too. Jesus didn’t view the Bible as a product of many unknown editors who pulled together different sources and fit them together using fictitious names; neither should we. Jesus promised his disciples total remembrance and recall in recounting his teachings after he departed from them; this guarantee forms the basis of the four Gospels. No, we should dismiss any and all intellectual theories about the Bible which contradict and conflict with the plain teachings of Bible itself. We can rely on the Bible, we can read it, trust it, believe it, and live it because it is the very Word of God and not just words of men.

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