Thursday, July 29, 2010


My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Canon.

Q:  How did the Bible come to be composed of the books it currently contains?  Is there a verse within the Bible that specifies which writings should be included?

When a person first looks at the table of contents in their Bible, it might initially appear that the Bible is a single book with several sections, but it was actually written by numerous authors over the course of around 1500 years.  Even after the last book of the Bible had been completed, the Bible was not available at first in a single printed volume, as we are accustomed to finding it, but normally on scrolls containing only one of the Bible’s books.  Because of this history, many people find themselves with questions regarding why our Bibles contain the writings they do. 

The Bible began with the first five books written by Moses during the time when the Israelites were freed from Egypt.  These books included the early history of the world, beginning with the flood and ending with the rescue of the Israelites from Egypt and their 40 years traveling to the Promised Land.  These five books were called the “Pentateuch,” the “Torah,” or “The Law.”

During the years between Moses’ death and the birth of Jesus, authors continued to write down the history of Israel.  At the same time, men called prophets began to deliver messages from God to His people.  These messages were written down by the prophet himself, or by another person who heard him speak, and were also included as part of the Old Testament.  Additionally, books such as Proverbs and Psalms, which was the Old Testament hymn book, were recorded and passed down.  Together, these collected writings became known as the “Scriptures” during the time of Jesus, and their content was agreed upon among the Rabbis of Israel at the time.  Hebrew Bibles used by Jewish Rabbis today still include the same books.

During the life of Jesus, He participated in the services held at the synagogues, read from these books, and quoted frequently from them as he preached and debated throughout Israel.  On several occasions recorded in the Gospels, Jesus refers positively to “The Scriptures” without noting reservations as to their content.  On other occasions, He refers to “The Law and the Prophets” and once to “The Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44) which are even more specific endorsements of the Old Testament as a whole. 

When it comes to the New Testament, there is no declaration within the Bible regarding which books it contains.  As a result, misconceptions have been widespread, especially fueled in recent years by novels and movies about the subject.  Many imagine that there must have been a meeting at some point in ancient history where pastors and theologians gathered to vote whether each of the many supposedly Christian books and letters circulating in the ancient world at the time were “in” or “out,” resulting in the New Testament we know today.

The first account on which this imagined scenario is misleading is that, while there was a council during the fifth century after Jesus’ birth regarding the contents of the New Testament, there was not widespread debate regarding the contents of the New Testament leading up to this council.  As early as the middle of the second century following Jesus’ birth, there was widespread consensus regarding which books were suitable as sources for Christian doctrine and for public reading in worship and which were not. 

Secondly, the early church did not make decisions based on majority vote, but by unanimous consensus, therefore they confirmed the contents of the New Testament based on careful study and agreement on two fronts:  whether a given book was actually written by an Apostle of Jesus and whether it had received broad acceptance as authentic among the churches. 

Lastly, this council did not meet for the purpose of ruling on the contents of the New Testament.  Rather, it met to recognize the already existing consensus regarding its contents and to confirm the inauthenticity of a few new forgeries which had arisen during their time. 

This ancient consensus on the books contained in the Bible has consistently been acknowledged by Lutheran, Protestant, and Orthodox churches worldwide until the last few decades when conspiracy theorists have proposed alternative explanations.  In spite of the fact that the Bible itself contains no list of its accepted books, the Bible we know today can be recognized with certainty as the authentic collection of Prophetic and Apostolic writings concerning Jesus.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Evidence for the Bible's Reliability

My Article from Today's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Bible's Reliability:

Q: What evidence is there that the Bible is a trustworthy book? Why should it be believed as factual instead of merely a myth?

The Bible is a collection of books 66 different books written by several different authors over a span of around 1500 years. The first 39 books were written in Hebrew before Jesus was born and are called the Old Testament. The last 27 books were written in Greek after Jesus resurrection and are called the New Testament.

Far too often, preachers have taught the Bible as if it were something that should be believed without examining evidence and trusted without any evaluation of its truthfulness. In fact, it has even been taught at times that the Bible should be believed and trusted regardless of whether it is true or not, and even in spite of evidence against it.

A college professor once asked my class what would make us dismiss the Bible as false. As lifelong Lutherans who had been taught to trust the Bible since our earliest Sunday School class, could not imagine any scenario in which they would do so. The professor then asked us if we would still believe the Bible if we were presented with undeniable evidence that the dead body of Jesus had been found in a tomb in Israel. Many of the students still responded that they would continue to trust the Bible in spite of that evidence.

I have tried this test with a several Christians and groups of Christians in different parts of the country with similar results. This test illustrates one way that Christians have often been misled regarding the Bible. When arguments began to be made against the authenticity of the Bible’s claims during the past two centuries, some Christians capably and reasonably defended the Bible’s truthfulness using evidence. Others simply turned a deaf ear to the criticisms and taught others to do the same out of fear that the opposition would prove more than the evidence could bear.

In reality, the Christianity is unique among all of the other religions of the world, because it not only has the potential to be proven false, but actually invites detractors to attempt to do so. The one piece of evidence that could prove the Bible to be false would be for the positively identifiable body of Jesus to be produced and proven to be dead. If this were to occur, then every preacher should immediately seek a new career and congregations should liquidate their assets and use the proceeds for some other good.

Now, since this piece of evidence has never been produced (and I am confident that it never will be), there is a firm foundation for the Christian faith. If Jesus literally rose from the dead like He predicted He would and like the Bible says that He did, then this is adequate evidence that the teachings of Jesus are undeniably true. Beginning with these teachings, we can then build a case that the rest of the Bible is also reliable and accurate.

It has often been asserted that a person has only three options regarding Jesus and His claims to be God. First, one can believe that He is a liar and did not believe Himself to be God. Second, it could be asserted that He is a lunatic who did believe Himself to be God, but wrongly so. Third, one can accept that He is in fact God as He claimed.

If Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is a factually event, then it is evidence that claim to be God is, in fact, reliable, and that He is neither a liar nor lunatic. Based on the rest of His teachings, we can then make a case that the rest of the Bible is also reliable.

This is the case, because Jesus endorsed the entire Old Testament of the Bible during His ministry. He frequently quoted from it, and often made approving statement about the Old Testament as a unified body of work as He taught throughout the cities of Israel, as recorded in the Gospels.

Since the Gospels present themselves as historical reports of the life and teachings of Jesus can be authenticated as accurate and reliable by applying the same standards applied to other history books of the ancient world. Since there were no printing presses 1900 years ago, the Gospels, and all other written works of the time, were copied by hand for distribution. There are tens of thousands of these ancient hand-written copies of the Bible in its original language available today for examination, and they prove to be both more numerous and more consistent with one another than any other ancient history of the era. Since these other ancient histories are all accepted as reliable, we must therefore conclude that the Gospels are historically reliable as well, including their claims about Jesus resurrection.

Among these tens of thousands of copies, there is also astonishing accuracy in their copying. When compared, over 95% of the text can be conclusively verified as in agreement. The remaining 5% consists primarily of minor clerical errors that are to be expected in hand-copied manuscripts, such as two words being reversed, the addition of subtraction of an insignificant word such as “the” or “an”, or other similarly inconsequential differences. Additionally, none of this 5% of the text impacts verses which are the source of key teachings of Christianity or major events in the life of Jesus.

When the evidence is examined, both the accuracy of the text and the reliability of its claims prove to be trustworthy beyond a reasonable doubt. This is not to say that there is not still an element of faith in trusting Jesus. Instead, this evidence can give the Christian confidence that that faith is not a blind faith, and that their trust is placed on accurate texts and historically reliable events, rather than on something they merely hope to be true without verifiable substantiation that it actually is.