Topic 2: Scripture
Session 1: Reliability and Authority of Scripture
Q1: We talked about the Gospels and how they are true. Do we know the same for the rest of the New Testament?
S1A1: Revelation is apocalyptic literature, meaning it’s a prophetic vision about the end times. Although Galatians, 1–2 Corinthians, and Philippians contain some autobiographical material from Paul, the 13 Pauline epistles and the eight general epistles are primarily full of theological content, not historical content. We know these books are “true” because they were recognized by the early church as inspired—apostolic, orthodox, and catholic. However, unlike the four Gospels and Acts, we cannot evaluate the “historical reliability” of these 22 books because they’re not written in a historical genre. In other words, they’re not purporting to tell us history.
Q2: Regarding the Old Testament, why do Catholics include certain second temple literature like Maccabees but Protestants do not? Is it a question of reliability?
S1A2: No, it’s a question of inspiration. The Old Testament Apocrypha consists of 15 books: the Wisdom of Solomon (or Book of Wisdom), Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach), Tobit, Judith, 1–2 Esdras, 1–2 Maccabees, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, additions to Esther, the Prayer of Azariah, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, and the Prayer of Manasseh. Of these 15 books, 12 are accepted by the Roman Catholic Church. Neither 1–2 Esdras nor the Prayer of Manasseh was accepted by the Council of Trent in 1546 (the first official proclamation of the Roman Catholic Church on the Apocrypha). Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah were combined into one book, having six chapters (the Letter of Jeremiah is the final chapter); the additions to Esther were added at the end of the book of Esther as Esther 10:4–16:24; the Prayer of Azariah was inserted between the Hebrew Daniel 3:23 and 24, making it Daniel 3:24–90; Susanna was placed at the end of Daniel as chapter 13; and Bel and the Dragon was attached as chapter 14 of Daniel. The result is an Old Testament (for Roman Catholics) consisting of 46 books, compared to the 39 books for Protestants.
The confusion can be accounted for as follows. The Palestinian Canon contains 22 books in Hebrew (39 in English), and the so-called “Alexandrian Canon” contains an additional 15 books in its collection. The Palestinian Canon is the Hebrew canon that arose in Palestine and was recognized by the Jews. The Alexandrian collection is the Greek listing of Old Testament books, and it allegedly arose in Alexandria in Egypt where the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into the Greek Septuagint around 250 b.c. and following.
Although some individuals in the early church had a high esteem for the Apocrypha, no council of the entire church during the first four centuries favored them, and there were many individuals who vehemently opposed them, including Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Origen, and Jerome (Augustine is the single significant voice of antiquity that recognized the Apocrypha although he also recognized that the Jews rejected these books). More importantly:
- Josephus (d. 30–100), a Jewish historian, explicitly excludes the Apocrypha, numbering the books of the Old Testament as 22.
- Jesus and the New Testament writers never once quote the Apocrypha, although there are hundreds of quotes and references to almost all of the canonical books of the Old Testament.
- Jerome even refused to translate the apocryphal books into Latin, but later he made a hurried translation of a few of them. After his death, the apocryphal books were brought into his Latin Vulgate directly from the Old Latin Version.
Q3: How do variants work, and why do they matter?
S1A3: As New Testament expert Dan Wallace explains, “A textual variant is simply any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text.”1 Roughly 75% of all New Testament variants are clear spelling or nonsense errors.
Ultimately, variants have not prevented scholars from recovering the original wording of the New Testament. As Douglas Stewart writes: “99 percent of the original words in the New Testament are recoverable with a very high degree of certainty. . . . When the words that are recoverable with a fairly high degree of certainty are added, we may be confident that we are able to read, reflect upon, and act upon what is practically equivalent to the original itself. There is no area of Christian faith or practice that actually stands or falls on textual studies.” 2
1 Daniel B. Wallace, “The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation” (blog post), September 9, 2013, https://danielbwallace.com/2013/09/09/the-number-of-textual-variants-an-evangelical-miscalculation/.
2 Douglas Stuart, “Inerrancy and Textual Criticism,” in Inerrancy and Common Sense, ed. Roger R. Nicole and J. Ramsey Michaels (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), 115–16.
Q4: Is there an unhealthy bias in the Bible?
S1A4: The term “bias” is often understood negatively as meaning something akin to “unfair prejudice.” However, it would be a mistake to equate writing with purpose as “bias.” In fact, even if an author is biased, reliability isn’t necessarily compromised.
For example, historian Michael Grant asserts that Caesar’s Gallic War ”is among the most potent works of propaganda ever written.” Yet, he adds, “it is extremely hard to fault him on the facts.” 1 Likewise, New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg writes, “Partisan proponents of a given point of view are sometimes even more accurate than detached observers; consider, for example, the first impassioned accounts from Jewish sources of the Nazi holocaust that turned out to be more accurate than the reports of ‘objective’ news media.” 2
The author of the Gospel of John was transparent that he wrote with a purpose: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). However, this is not “bias,” as the author wrote a historically reliable account that has been faithfully preserved over time.
1 Michael Grant, The Ancient Historians (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), 188, 190.
2 Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007), 73.
Q5: Is there a difference in reliability between the Old and New Testament?
S1A5: The New Testament is more recent and therefore has more available evidence supporting its reliability. However, the Old and New Testaments are each reliable, both in terms of manuscript transmission and historicity.
For example, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 at Qumran, approximately 800 scrolls, containing fragments from every book of the Old Testament except Esther, were discovered dating from 250 b.c. to a.d. 50. The most significant find was an entire manuscript of Isaiah dating to 75 b.c. which could be compared to the Masoretic text dating to a.d. 1008–1009. Despite being separated by 1,100 years, the copying accuracy was 95%, and the 5% of variations “consisted of nothing more significant than omitted letters or misspelled words—slips of the pen.” 1 The Old Testament is also supported by a significant amount of archaeological evidence. 2
1 Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2014), 102.
2 See Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017), 414–528.
Q6: Do the same methods for defending the reliability of the New Testament apply to the Old Testament as well?
S1A6: Yes, to an extent. Both the Old and New Testaments fare extremely well in terms of manuscript preservation and transmission, and the historicity of each Testament has been bolstered by archaeological evidence. However, an additional argument is available for the reliability of the Old Testament, namely that Jesus regarded the Old Testament as inspired Scripture. According to Matthew Barrett, there are five ways in which Jesus affirmed the inspiration of the Old Testament:
- Jesus attributed the Old Testament writings to the Holy Spirit (Mark 12:36–37; cf. Acts 2:29–31).
- Jesus referred to Old Testament books as “Scripture(s)” from God (Matt. 11:10; 12:3; 19:4; 21:13, 16, 42; 22:31; 26:24, 31, 54; Mark 2:25; 9:12–13; 11:17; 12:10, 26; 14:21, 27; Luke 4:16–21; 6:3; 7:27; 19:46; John 5:39; 7:37–38).
- Jesus used “Scripture” and “God” interchangeably (Matt. 1:22; 4:4; 19:4–5; 22:29–32; Mark 7:9–13; Luke 1:70; 24:25; John 5:45–47).
- Jesus believed the Old Testament was fulfilled because it had God as its author (Matt. 5:17–18; Mark 10:45; Luke 4:18–21; 24:25–27; John 19:28–30).
- Jesus submitted himself to the authority of the Old Testament (Matt. 3:15; 4:1–11; 12:3–5; 21:42; 22:31; 26:54; Mark 2:24–28; 3:1–4; 10:3; Luke 10:26; 13:14–17; 18:31–33; 20:17; 22:37; 24:44; John 5:39; 7:21–24; 8:17; 10:34).1
1 Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 246–47.
Q7: Did Luke or other disciples ever collaborate with other eyewitnesses to write the Gospels?
S1A7: This seems almost certain. For example, Luke provides a detailed account of events surrounding Jesus’ birth, including supernatural angelic appearances to Zechariah (i.e., the father of John the Baptist) and his wife’s relative Mary (i.e., Jesus’ mother). It’s quite likely that Luke had an opportunity to interview Mary or spoke with someone else who did, for she was still present in the early church (Acts 1:14). Likewise, it’s plausible that Luke spoke with Cleopas but not the other unnamed individual mentioned in Luke’s Emmaus Road account (Luke 24:13–35), which would explain why Luke only named one of the two men (i.e., Cleopas) who traveled with Jesus.
Q8: What is the simplest way to explain to non-believers that the Bible is not contradictory (without giving them a lecture)?
S1A8: If a non-believer claims “the Bible is contradictory,” and challenges you to argue otherwise, don’t take the bait. Remember, the person who makes the claim bears the burden of proof. This is true in debate, philosophy, and law. Instead, if a non-believer asserts that the Bible is full of contradictions, ask them how much of the Bible they have read in the past and politely insist that they provide some examples of contradictions. Then, wait and see what follows.
Q9: Who is Yahweh?
S1A9: Yahweh is the covenant name of God, especially in the Old Testament. It’s the personal name that God revealed to Moses in the desert: “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation” (Ex. 3:15b).
Q10: Has anyone memorized the Bible?
S1A10: As New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg notes, in Jesus’ time “Rabbis became famous for having the entire Old Testament committed to memory. . . . [T]his was an oral culture, in which there was great emphasis placed on memorization.”1 Similar feats have been reported in modern times as well for the entire Bible.
1 Craig Blomberg, interviewed in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 43.
Q11-A: Original copies of Mark end with the women who saw Jesus rise from the dead going away scared and not telling anybody. Why do other Gospels say otherwise?
Q11-B: The Gospels say that the women who saw that Jesus rose from the dead told the disciples. Why do the original manuscripts of Mark say they told no one?
S1A11: New Testament scholar Michael Licona notes how the concept of saying “nothing to no one” appears in both Mark 1:44 and Mark 16:8. Moreover, the Greek word translated “fear” in Mark 16:8 often refers to amazement or a type of fear that accompanies an encounter with divinity. Based on these considerations, Licona understands Mark 16:8 as saying the following:
And the women left fleeing from the tomb. For as a result of seeing the angel and hearing the news of the risen Lord, the motivation to be on their best behavior and amazement had gripped them, and they said nothing to anyone on their way to tell the disciples the news. For they had a reverential fear as a result of the revelation that kept them laser-focused on their assigned task.1
1 Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 346–47.
Session 2: Reliability and Authority of Scripture
Q1: Suppose the early church fathers concluded something about Jesus to be false and excluded a book from the Bible on that basis, but it was in fact true. What impact would that have on the Bible?
S2A1: While there is no evidence that such an error occurred, the church would still have a complete and robust understanding of Jesus, the gospel, the nature of God, etc. The beauty of the Bible is that essential truths and key doctrines have multiply attestations throughout Scripture.
Q2: Why is The Da Vinci Code so significant in this conversation when it is just a book?
S2A2: The book is significant because many uninformed non-believers regard its central claims (or the claims in the film adaptation starring Tom Hanks) as historically accurate. In other words, naïve readers come away with the false conclusion that Dan Brown has written a reliable historical account of the early church, when in fact he wrote fiction and an account that is unsupported by historical evidence. For Christians concerned with knowing and sharing truth, this is no small matter, as demonstrated by the numerous Christian resources that one finds just with a simple Google search.
Q3: Who was Constantine, and what was his significance with the political agendas you mentioned?
S2A3: Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great, was a Roman emperor who reigned from approximately a.d. 306 to a.d. 337. He was also the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Some have claimed (such as Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code) that it was really Constantine who shaped the canon as a political power grab. However, this is historically inaccurate.
After Constantine established his new capital at Constantinople (a.d. 330), he wrote to Eusebius (a church leader and incredible church historian with the library of Caesarea at his disposal) and asked Eusebius to have 50 copies of the Christian scriptures (both Testaments in Greek) prepared for the use of the churches in the city. We don’t know which New Testament books were selected by Eusebius, but New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce believed that Eusebius very likely included all 27 books of the New Testament. If so, this would have provided a considerable impetus towards the acceptance of the now familiar New Testament canon. This is really the extent of Constantine’s involvement, and it was merely indirect.
Q4: Who decided what was put into the Bible, and how did they decide that?
S2A4: Christianity has Jewish roots, and therefore the church—East and West alike—received the books of the Old Testament from Judaism. The books of the New Testament were discerned by the church through a process known as canonization that involved identifying inspired books through their apostolic, orthodox, and catholic qualities.
The explanation of New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger is worth quoting at length: “As Arthur Darby Nock used to say to his students at Harvard with reference to the canon, ‘The most travelled roads in Europe are the best roads; that is why they are so heavily travelled.’ William Barclay put the matter still more pointedly: ‘It is the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them doing so.’ . . . During the second and succeeding centuries, this authoritative word [of God] was found, not in the utterances of contemporary leaders and teachers, but in the apostolic testimony contained within certain early Christian writings. From this point of view the Church did not create the canon, but came to recognize, accept, affirm, and confirm the self-authenticating quality of certain documents that imposed themselves as such upon the Church. If this fact is obscured, one comes into serious conflict not with dogma but with history.”1
1 Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 286–87.
Q5: What relevance do the Roman Catholic books have in the Christian faith?
S2A5: I assume “the Roman Catholic books” refers to the apocryphal books that are included in the Old Testament used by Roman Catholics. These apocryphal books have no relevance for Protestants, as they are not regarded as inspired Scripture. For Roman Catholics, these books are regarded as inspired Scripture and are read and studied accordingly. Additionally, appeals are made to 1–2 Maccabees in support of the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory.
Q6: What is the most important part of orthodoxy?
S2A6: In the early church, a teaching was orthodox if it was consistent with the written text of the Old Testament or apostolic teaching. In terms of discerning the limits of the New Testament canon, the most important part of orthodoxy was apostolicity. Orthodox teaching about Jesus came from the apostles and was entrusted to the church fathers who came after them (2 Tim. 2:2). Thus, any doctrine or teaching that contradicted apostolic instruction was necessarily not orthodox.
Q7: How many books do you think were filtered from being in the Bible?
S2A7: In the 9th century Photius listed approximately 280 non-canonical books. There are more than 50 pseudepigraphal Gospels as well as numerous epistles, apocalypses, and accounts of the apostles’ lives. If we include the New Testament Apocrypha, well over 300 books were excluded from the New Testament canon, just as dozens of books were excluded from the Old Testament canon. However, these books were excluded for valid reasons, as they did not bear the hallmarks of divine authority and inspiration. Norman Geisler has provided a useful list of excluded books for interested readers.1
1See Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 257–75, 297–317.
Q8: In John 21:25 it states that if all the works of Jesus were written there would be a ton more. So how were the decisions made as to which stories to include in the Bible?
S2A8: John 21:25 is no exaggeration: “The Jesus to whom [John] bears witness is not only the obedient Son and the risen Lord, he is the incarnate Word, the one through whom the universe was created. If all his deeds were described, the world would be a very small and inadequate library indeed.”1
The 39 books of the Old Testament were received by the church from Judaism. The 27 books of the New Testament were recognized as inspired by the church—East and West alike—because of their apostolic, orthodox, and catholic qualities.
1 Don A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 686.
Q9: What was going on during the 400 years between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
S2A9: Most of the Old Testament Apocrypha was written in Judaism’s post-biblical, intertestamental period. With the possible exception of 2 Esdras, all of the apocryphal books are postbiblical for Judaism because they were written after the time that the prophetic spirit had departed from Israel but before the New Testament era.
From the 4th century b.c. onward, the Jews were convinced that the voice of God had ceased to speak directly. No word from God meant no new Word of God. They concluded that “the prophets ceased to appear” (1 Macc. 14:41) and the “prophets have fallen asleep” (2 Baruch 85:3).