Is the Bible Reliable – Part III

Answering the Critics:  The Final of a 3-Part Series

Critics level countless charges against the Bible to question its credibility.  We’ve addressed many of these claims before.  The charges often center on the following:  1.) We don’t have the original texts, 2.) Books were arbitrarily selected while others were rejected, 3.) The texts are full of contradictions, and 4.) The descriptions of miracles show a mythological influence.

As mentioned in Part I of this series, a recent Newsweek cover story by Kurt Eichenwald (The Bible:  So Misunderstood It’s a Sin, Dec. 2014) makes most of these claims.  It’s a perfect example of the new breed of aggressive and grossly misleading attacks on the Bible.  While Logic & Light linked to a response to this article and has addressed many of its claims in other posts, we felt it was important to more fully address it and refute some specific charges.

Unfortunately, even the list below does not cover each of Mr. Eichenwald’s misleading and inaccurate statements.  Primarily, we have limited our responses to those charges seeking to discredit the Bible’s accuracy.  For time’s sake, we have chosen not to address most of Mr. Eichewald’s equally inaccurate theological interpretations, since some of them are already planned for future articles.    Below, we’ll share Eichenwald’s claims in bold, and then our refutations following.

 “About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament.”

As we’ve discussed before in multiple articles, a solid majority of New Testament books were broadly accepted and used as scripture by the church relatively quickly.  The primary reason a few books did not enjoy immediate acceptance was because of the geographic dispersion of the early church.  In any event, the canon of all 27 books was effectively set by the early to mid-200’s AD.  The Synod of Carthage in 397 AD merely recognized the canon already in use.

“At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.”

This statement is so inaccurate and misleading it is hard to believe that Mr. Eichewald actually did any research for his article.  As we have covered before, the documentary evidence we have for the New Testament far exceeds that of any other book in history.  We can be confident that the writings we have today are substantially as they were originally written.

“There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament”

Also covered before, this claim is intentionally misleading.  The reason for the high number of variants is the unprecedented number of copies (well over 5,000) we have.  By comparing these copies we can easily determine where changes to the texts were made and recover the originals.  Regardless, the vast majority of these variations are grammatical and represent differences in spelling, uses of synonyms, etc.  None impact doctrine.

“Scribes added whole sections of the New Testament, and removed words and sentences that contradicted emerging orthodox beliefs.”  (Examples provided include John 7:53, after Mark 16:8, 1 John 5:7, Luke 24:51, Luke 22:20)

Mr. Eichenwald basically makes the claim that large portions of scripture were simply “made up” and added to the texts for various political or theological purposes.  However, this claim is completely unsupported.  It is true there are some verses found in later copies and not in earlier ones, but it is not nearly as common as he states.  Further, the apparent later addition of these verses does not mean they were made up or untrue.  They were potentially part of the verbal tradition that paralleled written accounts and were added later to complete the stories.

Furthermore, the existence of these “disputed” verses is hardly a secret.  Many Bibles call them out in footnotes so the reader is aware.  Scholars are well aware which verses may have been added because we have thousands of biblical texts that can be used for cross referencing.  So contrary to Mr. Eichenwald’s assertion, we can very accurately reconstruct the original texts.  Finally, read his examples of supposedly disputed texts.  Most of them deal with minor or incidental issues or details.  No doctrine is based on them and no doctrine is changed if they are removed.  Do they really seem like additions made for nefarious political or theological purposes?

“The gold standard of English Bibles is the King James Version, completed in 1611.”

This is a laughable claim.  The King James Version might be the best known translation, but it was made primarily from manuscripts written in the 1,100’s AD.  We now have texts that pre-date those by approximately 900 to 1,000 years!  While the King James Version contains some of the most beautifully written passages in English, today we actually have far better and more accurate translations.

“…there were no universally accepted manuscripts that set out what it meant to be a Christian, so most sects had their own gospels.” (He then cites examples such as the Gospels of Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, Philip, and Barnabas)

These additional gospels were clear forgeries and never accepted by the church.  Acceptance by later, 2nd century, fringe cultic groups does make a “gospel” valid!

“Many theologians and Christian historians believe that it was at this moment, to satisfy Constantine and his commitment to his empire’s many sun worshippers, that the Holy Sabbath was moved by one day, contradicting the clear words of what ultimately became the Bible.”

This claim is shocking in its ignorance.  Constantine did decree Sunday as a day of rest in 321 AD, but he likely did this because Christians were already observing it as their day of worship.  The letters of Paul and the book of Acts, some of the earliest Christian writings, were completed over 250 years before Constantine’s decree and provide ample evidence that early Christians worshipped on Sunday.  Examples are Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:2.  Sunday was held in such high regard because it was the day on which Christ was resurrected and when the first Christians received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:1).

“By the fifth century, the political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels in circulation were to make up the New Testament. With the power of Rome behind them, the practitioners of this proclaimed orthodoxy wiped out other sects and tried to destroy every copy of their Gospels and other writings”

Again, Mr. Eichenwald shows either a profound ignorance of church history or an intentional attempt to misrepresent it.  As we have previously written here and here, the canon was not established by a church council in the fifth century.  Nor did later church leaders, backed by the power of Rome, decide which books were canonical and suppress the others.  They simply recognized the canon that had been in wide use for over 200 years.

Mr. Eichenwald claims that “contradictions abound” in the Bible, including differences in the gospel narratives regarding Jesus’ genealogy, birth, and resurrection.

Logic & Light has published an article about the supposed contradictions in the Bible and principles for how they can be resolved.  The instances that Mr. Eichenwald points out are “divergent” reports told from different perspectives and including different details, but they are not contradictory.  For instance, the genealogy in Matthew is commonly thought to trace Jesus’ ancestry through his adoptive father Joseph while Luke traces it through his biological mother, Mary.  There are differences in the birth narratives because different instances are being described.  The wise men in Matthew, for example, are actually not part of the birth narrative as is commonly thought.  Rather, they are clearly part of a later visit since they come to a house (versus a stable) to see a child (literally, a toddler) instead of a newborn.  Similarly, the distinctions in the resurrection accounts are potentially due to describing different visits to the tomb.

Mr. Eichenwald even has the nerve to quote Jesus out of context so he can “prove” Jesus opposed family values:  “But to Jesus, family was an impediment to reaching God.”

Jesus’ teachings clashed with the traditions of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  He well understood that Jews who chose to follow him may well be disowned by their families for doing so.  Within context, Jesus is absolutely not denigrating family.  But He is saying that some will be forced to choose between following God or following their (mistaken) families and traditions.

In discussing Noah’s flood, Mr. Eichenwald shows his total lack of objectivity when he begins to make truly bizarre claims to “prove” the Bible is wrong.  A perfect example is when he talks of how the Bible, within a few verses, can’t agree if the flood lasted 40 days, 150 days, or a year.

Such claims make it hard to take him seriously and one has to wonder if he has even read the biblical account of Noah’s flood.  The text is clear that the flood waters increased for 40 days.  Then, the water began to recede after 150 days and the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.  But it was one year before the earth dried enough for Noah to leave the ark.

“…the Bible can’t stop debunking itself. In fact, the Bible has three creation models”

Mr. Eichenwald claims that Genesis 1 and 2 provide contradictory accounts of creation.  This is a very common misunderstanding.  Such “twofold” accounts sometimes appear in ancient literature.  Genesis 1 focuses on a general description of creation, while Genesis 2 goes specifically into the creation of mankind and God’s interaction with it.  Genesis 2 is not intended to be a full creation account.

The supposed contradictions within the creation order can be readily explained.  Genesis 1 describes that plants were created before animals while Genesis 2 seems to say the reverse.  However, Genesis 2 focuses on mankind, and refers specifically to plants “of the field.”  Clearly this refers to the cultivation of plants, not their creation.  Genesis 1 describes the creation of animals before that of mankind while Genesis 2 seems to indicate the opposite.  Again however, Genesis 2 is focused specifically on mankind and talks about Adam’s naming of the animals, not their creation.  In fact, Genesis 2:19 can accurately be translated “God had formed” the animals, which indicates their previous creation and eliminates the apparent contradiction.  With a proper understanding of context and ancient literature, the “contradictions” disappear.

It is the supposed third creation account where Mr. Eichenwald shows his pure lack of objectivity and credibility.  He claims that Job, Isaiah, and Psalms describe how the world was created out of a battle between God and a dragon named Rahab.  Really?  There is absolutely no mention of this story anywhere in the Bible.  There are, however, brief references to “Rahab” in these books.  He takes these references and claims that they are an endorsement of ancient Babylonian mythology that describes creation as the result of a battle between the god Marduk and a dragon Tiamat.  This claim is a stretch of epic, and totally dishonest, proportions.

The Hebrew name Rahab means “blusterer” and indicates severe pride.  It is used throughout the Old Testament, and in some of the references cited by Mr. Eichenwald, as a metaphor for Egypt.  In fairness, Rahab is also found in Jewish folklore as the name of a mythical sea monster and it is from this fact that Mr. Eichenwald makes his very far-fetched claim for a third creation story.  However, the biblical instances that seem to refer to this mythical Rahab are clearly metaphors.  It is akin to saying “God is stronger than Superman.”  Such a statement is intended to illustrate God’s power, not indicate a belief in Superman.  Further, it is misleading and disingenuous to claim that the prophet Isaiah and Ethan the Ezrahite (writer of Psalm 89 and an assumed member of David’s court) would have subscribed to Babylonian mythology when they were clearly Jews who accepted the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament).

“Unicorns appear in the King James Bible”

Mr. Eichenwald seeks to impugn the Bible’s credibility by citing its supposed mentioning of unicorns.  However, in the next sentence he admits the term is mistranslated.  The King James Bible was translated from Greek texts that had no actual equivalent to the Hebrew word “re’em,” so it was mistakenly translated as “unicorn.”  Newer translations correctly identify this animal as an ox.  Regardless, if he admits the mistranslation, why even mention the issue unless he is simply trying to create doubt about the Bible?

 “Most biblical scholars agree that Paul did not write 1 Timothy”

Really?  1 Timothy was accepted as a work of Paul by the early church from the beginning.  Mr. Eichenwald cites theories from a German scholar in 1807 to support his claim.  So we should believe the textual criticism of someone almost 1,800 years later than the original audience that accepted the book?

Incredibly, after spewing all this venom and blatant misinformation, Mr. Eichenwald has the gall to say “This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity!”  He makes this statement literally one word after erroneously claiming that the Bible is “loaded with contradictions and translation errors and wasn’t written by witnesses and includes words added by unknown scribes to inject Church orthodoxy.” Rather, he makes all these claims because he is motivated by an altruistic desire to “save the Bible from the ignorance, hatred and bias that has been heaped upon it.”  Unbelievable.  One could go on recounting other examples of his blatant errors, misinterpretations, and misapplications of scripture, but you likely get the point by now.

The one argument sometimes made against the Bible that Mr. Eichenwald does not use, is the fact that it describes “impossible” miracles.  Those that make this charge should realize it is a straw man that presumes its own conclusion.  It is only impossible if there is no God.  If there is a God, who created everything including the laws of nature, He can easily intervene in his creation and not be bound by those laws.  So miracles do not in any way impugn the credibility of the Bible.

Looking at all of the charges of the critics, we are left with two facts.  First, there are areas that people can use to call the Bible’s credibility into question.  It is not surprising that there may be questions and apparent inconsistencies regarding a collection of 66 books by 40+ authors who transcended multiple continents and cultures while writing over 1,500 years.  However, the second fact is that these questions can be answered.  So we are left with the logical conclusion that most, if not all, of these issues are not errors or contradictions at all.

Conclusion

Based on the evidence, we cannot dismiss the Bible as just another work of literature or Hebrew mythology.  Its proven historicity, reliable transmission, internal consistency, and stunning prophetic accuracy argue strongly for its divine inspiration.

While it is impossible to prove every statement in the Bible is inerrant or free from human opinion, we can definitively say that the Bible has been shown to be an extremely trustworthy book, despite countless attempts over many centuries to discredit it.  Practically speaking, this is a very powerful point.  Because even if someone is not willing to accept the Bible as entirely “God breathed” and inerrant, they cannot simply dismiss it.  At a minimum, one must admit that the case for inerrancy is strong, even if they can’t accept it as certain.  However, the burden of proof is on that individual to definitively prove an error versus simply stating they exist because they may not understand a particular verse or because they dislike a certain teaching.

Further, most of the questioned verses where human error is alleged to have crept in deal primarily with minor, peripheral information (e.g. how did Judas die?), so doctrine and moral teachings are unaffected.  Even if one rejects full inerrancy and only accepts teachings that are repeated multiple times by multiple authors, I am unaware of a single core doctrine or Christian moral value that can be discarded.

The Bible’s proven reliability, for all the reasons we have covered, combined with simple pragmatism, dictate that we should view it through the lens of inerrancy.  To apply any other standard risks putting each of us in the position of “playing God” and deciding which biblical principles and doctrines are true.  Given that each of us makes mistakes every day and our own decisions can’t come close to withstanding the level of scrutiny the Bible has, it is probably best to take it at its word.

 

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