Can we trust the Bible?

As part of my English Lit degree, I’m doing a free-choice philosophy module this semester. Each week we learn about the views of a different ‘big thinker’, starting with Plato and ending up with people like Foucault and Freud, focusing in particular on how their teachings affected what people know and how they know it. I was quite excited to learn that one week we’d focus on Jesus, and as our lecturer is a fervent atheist I was really intrigued about how the lecture would go. The set reading was some extracts from Matthew’s Gospel in the King James Version, which, despite having a great name, is quite hard to read. Feeling a bit rebellious, I decided to read from the NIV version instead. After all, I don’t think Jesus would have used the Aramaic equivalents of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ when He spoke: I’m sure He spoke in the everyday language of the people He was speaking to, so why shouldn’t I read His words in my everyday language too?

Anyway, I had the lecture last week and it didn’t disappoint. The lecturer began with a disclaimer, stating that we were only studying Jesus because His teaching had had such a massive impact on the world we live in, and that we could make our own minds up whether He was a ‘sacred figure’ or not (at which point my friend turned to me, smiled, and whispered ‘Yeah I will!’). It was really interesting stuff, particularly about the translation and transmission of the Bible, but when the focus moved on to Jesus’s teachings the lecture began to get controversial. Fair enough, he pointed out how revolutionary Jesus was, and that his teaching upset the social order (i.e. God loves the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy just as much as those at the top). He went on to make some preeeety crazy claims, though, like that Jesus promoted violence rather than love (despite ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ and ‘love thy neighbour’ being in the set reading – hmmmm…), and that the Bible has loads of contradictions rather than conveying any sort of overall message. Still, it gave me plenty of food for thought. It’s good to be challenged sometimes about what you believe, a) to stop you ever becoming complacent, thinking you have all the answers, and b) to give you a chance to re-evaluate and clarify what you actually believe. Anyway, here’s the end product of my thinking…

Firstly, what about apparent contradictions in the Bible? I think that the problem is with us rather than the Bible itself: discrepancies often arise when we take a verse out of context, in which case it is very easy to misinterpret the message behind what’s being said. Some people point to the slight differences in the four accounts of Jesus’ life as examples of contradictions, but I think they make it more reliable. Imagine four witnesses are asked to give an account of a crime and they all give exactly the same account of what they’ve seen, identical to each other’s down to the minutest detail. You’d be a bit suspicious, right? It would seem like they’ve got together and got their stories straight, anxious that someone might find a weakness in their argument. The Bible’s not like that, though. Each of the writers of the gospels brings their own unique perspective, emphasising the bits they thought were most noteworthy rather than tweaking their stories to make them exact replicas of each other. If this analogy seems too simplistic, the article ‘Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?‘ answers this question more thoroughly.

So is the Bible accurate, seeing as it was written by so many different people? Well, I believe that one thing all the books have in common is that somehow God wrote them all. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that ‘all scripture is God-breathed’ (NIV), or, more explicitly, ‘inspired by God’ (NCV). I believe it’s accurate too: I don’t have any nuanced theological arguments to support this, simply my faith, but I recently stumbled across an article called ‘The Historical Reliability of the New Testament‘ which is definitely worth a glance if you’re even the slightest bit intrigued.

But hasn’t the original meaning been distorted by translation? No, I don’t think so. In one sense it’s like evolution: if that theory were true (and I’m not saying it is, by the way!) then that wouldn’t minimise God’s role as Creator: I’d still believe God was the one who started it all off, and, to take this illustration a step further, is overseeing and shaping the creative process as time progresses, or, in the case of the Bible, in each translation. Even if, for argument’s sake, a particular passage of scripture has been altered a little bit from what the original writer said, the underlying message of God’s love, grace and forgiveness conveyed by the Bible will undoubtedly still shine through.

So did Jesus actually exist? Historical evidence, if it could talk, would reply with a resounding ‘yes’. But the big question is, is Jesus who He says He is? Luke had a similar conundrum. He begins his gospel by saying he’s heard loads of different accounts of Jesus and the storm of controversy around Him, but instead of basing his beliefs on what others have said, he says:

“With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:3-4)

The only way to answer this question, then, is to investigate for yourself like Luke did. Intellectual credibility is at stake here: if you defiantly insist that Jesus isn’t who He says He is but haven’t properly looked into it for yourself, then all you’re doing is making unsubstantiated claims based on what everyone else thinks, right? In a real world situation this approach generally isn’t a good idea: if someone didn’t back up their opinions with evidence in an academic essay, for example, they probably wouldn’t get a great mark. This applies to Christians too, by the way. Too often we think we have things sussed (myself included!), but we can never reach a point where we know it all; we’re always learning, and even when reading a really familiar passage, God can reveal something completely fresh and astonishing. Wherever you’re at, then, reading the Bible can help you discover a God more amazing than you can comprehend.

One thing I’ve not emphasised enough is that I believe the Bible really is the divine word of God. My mate reminded me the other day how amazing it is that God wants to speak to us through it: to tell us how much He loves us, to reveal how great He is, and to teach us how to become the people He wants us to be. Isn’t it awesome that the God who created the universe wants to talk to us, let alone have a relationship with us?

So what have I learned after my post-lecture reflection? Firstly, I’m so blessed to have God’s Word at my fingertips in a language I can easily understand. I wonder what Christians before the Reformation would have given for such easy access to the Bible, or what they’d have thought of our lack of appreciation for it. Secondly, God’s word still remains pure, even when it’s translated. We’ve just been learning in one module that all translation is interpretation, but the big difference here is that God’s involved. Whereas translations of texts often adapt and rework them for the age or culture they’re being translated for, translations of the Bible make its truths accessible to people of that age and culture, enabling them to realise just how amazing God is. And finally, when I’m on the daily bus journey to or from Uni, I should definitely open my Bible app a bit more often and my Facebook app a bit less.

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13 thoughts on “Can we trust the Bible?

  1. I loved reading your blog! I always find it interesting to see whether lecturers make allusions to christianity (that happens quite often, I think), but a whole lecture about christianity – or Jesus – must be quite interesting, challenging and refreshing!
    I’m not sure whether I agree with you about the translation of the Bible. I often find it useful to compare different translations to come to new insights – which might mean that different translators made different interpretations, right? What do you think about that? Though of course I agree that ” the underlying message of God’s love, grace and forgiveness conveyed by the Bible will undoubtedly still shine through” it’s just that by comparing translations I have a better understanding of God’s love, grace and forgiveness than when I just read one version!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the lecture, and definitely keep writing! 🙂

    Suzanne

    • Thanks for your comments Suzanne! I definitely see what you mean, I suppose to some extent a translator does interpret what’s gone before them, but rather than deliberately changing the meaning to fit the ideologies of the present moment like the translators of Dante did (you were in that lecture, right?) I think they’re just doing it to make it accessible to a different audience. You can see that in The Message translation, for example: it’s written in a modern, perhaps over-simplified way, but that’s to make it accessible to people who wouldn’t normally read the Bible, and people can always look at other translations for a more accurate account. Comparing different versions is a great idea like you said (although I have to admit I don’t really do that much, I guess I should though!) and I suppose if we do that then we’ll get a clearer picture of what God’s trying to say to us.

      Thanks for the encouragement too! I will do, please keep reading!

  2. I never understand why Christians are so happy about the bible being so totally up for interpenetration; surely the one, ‘true’ holy book should be really easy to understand, with no ambiguities so everyone can easily lead their lives just as god ‘wants them to’ and also so as not to cause any conflict, because why would god want that.

    • Good point mate! I wouldn’t say I’m happy about the Bible being up for interpretation though, I guess in an ideal world we’d all speak the same language and translation wouldn’t be an issue but unfortunately that’s not the case. To me, being able to compare different versions makes it more likely that you’re getting the original meaning – i.e. the more versions of a particular verse you read, the less chance there is that a slighty inaccurate translation will affect what you believe. Hope that helps!

  3. Thanks James. Sterling work above in many ways. Very clear that you’re at this undergrad stage of your journey but many older than your good self could learn from what you’ve said.

    Very interested in Suzanne’s point above – I’m a musician who now studies philosophical theology and is preparing to become a theologian – but I have just hit a whole new level of frustration at being unable to read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. All translations are NOT equal, but if all we have is English, then a serious comparison of multiple versions (defintely including the KJV/NKJV, which come from a very well-regared set of manuscripts, the same of which cannot be said of the NIV which is why the ESV is so good). You make an excellent point about the Message, couldn’t agree more. Had no idea Dante was thus tortured by his translators, so thanks for sharing that!

    Some comments on bits of what you’ve said:

    “Firstly, what about apparent contradictions in the Bible? I think that the problem is with us rather than the Bible itself: discrepancies often arise when we take a verse out of context, in which case it is very easy to misinterpret the message behind what’s being said.”

    Hear, hear! A text without a context is a pretext – for whatever one chooses. There is more to say on this, of course; as an English student you will know more than most about literary forms in both conceptual and practical dimensions. Between both Testaments an astonishingly wide array of writing styles is employed: the poetry of Job and Psalms, the unbelieveable prose/prophecy in Isaiah, the parables of Jesus, the epistles of Paul and the apologetic defences therein… All this plays a part in establishing what a text is supposed to be saying (and for the record, I come from the Reformation school of ‘sola scriptura’).

    “But hasn’t the original meaning been distorted by translation? No, I don’t think so. In one sense it’s like evolution: if that theory were true (and I’m not saying it is, by the way!) then that wouldn’t minimise God’s role as Creator: I’d still believe God was the one who started it all off, and, to take this illustration a step further, is overseeing and shaping the creative process as time progresses, or, in the case of the Bible, in each translation.”

    I take the actual point of principle you make here – 100%. But I’d like to highlight the argument you employ – I am not unsympathetic to the argument that holds that theistic evolution still puts God at the beginning of the process as the Author of life (by virtue of being the Creator). And yes, you make it clear that you are not necessarily endorsing evolution. Noted.

    But even if you were, this is a somewhat vexed argument. An analogy has to fit as neatly as possible for the point being made by its use to really be understood unambiguously. If one argues that even if evolution is true, it would not change the fact that God was creator, one could quite right be accused of having made a self-destructing circular argument. While it is true that Darwin did not deny God, the ideology behind evolution as propagated by both Lamarck and Darwin is predicated on presuppositions that have opened the door for people to say that God is not necessary to explain any of the phenomena in human thought, feeling and experience. So how does one allow for ‘God the Creator’ and Darwinian evolution which fundamentally denies any idea of a ‘plan’ in the same epistemic (knowledge) framework? This is well-intentioned but not coherent!

    In addition, the Bible canon is less a product that has ‘evolved’ over time than one that has been ‘assembled’ over time. Over 1500/1600 years, involving 35-40 authors working in 2/3 languages, this canon was put together piece by piece. Can you see why one might prefer an alternative analogical framework to make the very good point that you make about the veracity of the original meanings being retained despite multiple and ongoing translations even today?

    “Whereas translations of texts often adapt and rework them for the age or culture they’re being translated for, translations of the Bible make its truths accessible to people of that age and culture, enabling them to realise just how amazing God is. And finally, when I’m on the daily bus journey to or from Uni, I should definitely open my Bible app a bit more often and my Facebook app a bit less.”

    Hear hear!

    God bless!

    • Hello! First things first, thanks very much for taking the time to read my blog post and write such a detailed reply. I really appreciate your feedback, and you’ve definitely given me a bit to think about!

      Life would be a lot easier if we could understand the Hebrew and Greek translations wouldn’t it! As I discussed with someone who commented above, at least we have a range of English translation to compare though, especially when you consider people in pre-Reformation times only had the Bible in Latin which the majority couldn’t understand.

      I see your point about my evolution analogy too. I was conscious when I was writing this that it probably wasn’t the best way of explaining what I wanted to say, but I wanted something fairly simple and easily understandable that illustrated the point I was trying to make. Just out of interest, does the notion of so many authors putting the Bible together in the way you explained challenge your belief of it being the pure Word of God?

      Thanks again for your comments, both the encouragement and the constructive criticism. All the best with the theology, God bless!

  4. Great to be in dialogue with you…and the answer to your question: absolutely not! 🙂

    The framework of ‘assembly’ would by definition point to the question of who exactly is the one doing the assembling – and so in simple rational terms, if humanity is created by divinity, then it follows that humanity can never know divinity unless divinity reveals itself. The Bible is the single most important means by which God has revealed Himself to humankind, which is why the apostle John, writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit, wrote, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

    Now, when Paul tells us that ALL of Scripture is given by inspiration of God, that Greek word ‘theopneustos’ literally means, “God-breathed.” This is a phenomenal claim. Could it be true? How does it follow? How could God possibly ensure that what He wanted to say was accurately portrayed by the human beings whom He chose as His agents to write the Bible canon?

    These are supremely important questions for everyone (including your atheist lecturer!). And given our inability to prove or disprove the existence of God empirically (i.e. scientifically, as it were), we are ALL forced to make a choice about what we believe and how we believe it. Now, while the so-called ‘cosmological argument for the existence of God’ (something to google if you’ve not already come across it) has been robustly attacked in all directions, one element of it really has something – Anselm’s definition of God as ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived.’ If God really is that, it would necessarily follow that He really could inspire human beings to write under His authority over 1600 years in more than one language and STILL we can see an incredible line of thought from Genesis to Revelation. Yes, it may not follow an archetypal narrative as lit specialists might have it, but narratives need not follow surface-level protocols – and the Biblical narrative predicates itself on itself and invites scrutiny.

    Only a truly divine entity could have arranged such a canon whilst working within the limitations of time and space. Is the Bible the pure Word of God? Anything less, and God is less than God! And given that our salvation depends on Him being God, I’ll take my chances that the Bible is the only tangible thing on which I can depend – and it leads me into knowledge of God which is more mystical and experiential – we might use the word ‘spiritual!’

    • Thanks again for your extensive reply! I’ve had a look through your blog too, and, as I expected, it expressed a lot of interesting, thought-provoking points like the ones you’ve raised above. You’re clearly very knowledgable about theology, and well done for being able to tackle some of the big, complex questions that my mind boggles at! I think whilst it’s great to try and understand these things, though, it’s important not to lose sight of the fundamental truths our faith is built on (I think there’s a post brewing on this topic by the way!). The prime example is our salvation, i.e. even though we’re completely unworthy of God’s love and grace, Jesus died an unimaginably painful death and rose again for us so we can have a direct relationship with God, defeating sin, death and all other limitations in the process. This is something we often take for granted, but when you really think about it it’s amazing!

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, and for re-blogging my post. God bless!

  5. Reblogged this on Theomusicology Blog and commented:
    I am delighted to have had the chance to read this blog post from a fellow WordPress blogger. I really hope that you enjoy hearing from another voice for a change here at the theomusicology blog. Please also note that I have responded in some detail to this post in the comments below (or replies as they appear to be called here) and so do read all the comments as well as the post to get the clearest possible picture! Feel free to post any further comments wherever you like, we’ll both be up for them… As always, God bless!

  6. Hey, just want to say thank you for your writing. It was really interesting and clearly presented – I happened to have read that extract for Luke yesterday and it made me respond in the same way. Yet one thing I noticed, also being an English Uni student, is how pervasive and important Christianity and our relationship with God is in Literature! I’ve just finished studying Medieval and last term Renaissance, and it is unbelievable how much the faith shaped writers, and how literature was used as a medium to spread the Word and more over, to become another vessel of expressing our relationship with God like the psalms were for David and are for us today. If you haven’t studied those topics or writers (The Gawain-Poet, Langland: Piers Plowman, or poets like Herbert, Donne, etc etc) then get seriously excited. You’ll also find you have more insightful things to say because you know your bible, so defo get stuck into it more than the Facebook app, as i must do to! But mainly thank you, and thank you for being another English student with a heart for Jesus who is open to Him and to the difficulties of our faith and those that don’t believe. If everything we say and do,even the questions we ask in lectures and the essays we write, are done as an act of worship, we will make an influence and a difference that in itself shows God’s truth, love and overall Presence. Peace x

    • Aww cheers, thanks for reading it! Yep yep yep that’s so true! We did a Medieval module last semester and one of our two central texts was Sir Gawain, and it’s fascinating to see how Christianity is so prevalent in it, although quite a bit of it is him piously performing his ‘religious’ duties if I remember rightly. Ahh yes, definitely agree! When I’m swamped with work I sometimes wonder why on earth I chose English Lit (something I wrote a blog post about not tooo long ago…), but like you said we’re so blessed and priveleged to be able to use our writing skills to express our relationship with God in a similar way David and others like him did, which should definitely give us a dose of extra perseverance when essay deadlines are looming and our reading’s piling up! Thank you too, it’s encouraging to see a fellow English Litter so passionate about Jesus! Keep up the blog, I’m looking forward to reading more of your stuff! I love the name too, is it influenced by Roland Barthes by any chance? 😉 x

      • You guessed right on the Barthes essay – but Death of the Author was already claimed and suppose i’m not an author, just someone trying to write something every day. But the idea i guess is to get to a place (which is already ache vied through the medium of anonymous blogging) where the text speaks for itself to others. We’ll see if that’s achieved though 🙂

      • That’s a great idea, nice one! Well played for writing something every day by the way, it’s a massive commitment and I’d have probably run out of things to say by now, haha you seem to be doing really well though so keep it up!

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