The Bible

As stated in the previous article, the Bible is the basis of how to determine what is true and what is not. But the Bible seems to confuse a lot of people. Some think of it as some ancient mythology whereas others have a mystical view of it like it is some sort of magical spellbook. It is neither.

The Bible is a collection of related ancient books. Some of it is history, some of it is doctrinal, some of it is prophetic, and some of it contains laws for ancient Israel. It contains proverbs, biographies, and songs. It is divided into the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT). The Old Testament, along with other works, comprise the scriptures of Judaism. The New Testament comprises the teachings of Jesus and His disciples. The Christian Bible includes the Old Testament because Jesus was a Jew - and the first several thousand Christians were Jewish. The Old Testament fortells the coming of the Messiah, which is Who Jesus is. Orthodox Jews are still waiting for the Messiah, but Christians believe He has already come. So, the Old Testament provides a backdrop for the New Testament and is considered equal in accuracy and authority to the New Testament.

Each book is organized into chapters and verses, which is useful for referring to specific text. But you have to realize that these were added after it was written - they didn't exist in the original - and sometimes they break things up in the middle of thoughts. It is best to ignore them when reading the Bible. Most modern versions will break things into paragraphs that more closely match our modern conception of such. But the original text didn't have those either.

There are some other ancient writings that did not qualify to be included in the Bible. The protestant church's Bible contains the books which are common to all Christian traditions. The Catholic church's bible includes an additional set of writings called the "Apocrypha" (for example, the four Maccabees books). Some Protestant Bibles also include the apocrypha. I've read the apocryphal books and there is nothing in them that is contrary to the rest of scripture, but neither do they seem to add anything useful. So, I don't bother to read them anywhere near as often as the Protestant "canon" of scripture. There are also some other writings that are generally not included, such as the "Epistle to the Laodiceans" and the "Book of Enoch", however some Christian traditions may include some of these other books as well. This doesn't mean that the Catholics or Greek Orthodox or any of the other traditions use a different "version" of the Bible - just that they include some additional material in theirs.

There are those who question the validity of the Bible, asserting that the prophecies were written after the fact, or that the history is merely stories that have no basis in reality, or that it has become corrupted over time due to copying errors and the like, or that it contradicts itself. First, some of the prophecies came to pass in the modern era, so obviously those prophecies weren't "back dated". Other prophecies are known to have existed before the events they predicted. And for those writings whose dates are unclear, there are reasons to believe they were written before the events they predicted. In fact, the only reason to believe otherwise is because one doesn't want to believe it - there is no actual evidence to the contrary.

It is common for archaeologists to insist that the the Bible is a bunch of made-up stories because they can't find evidence of some of the places or people it mentions. But a lack of evidence is not the same as evidence of a lack. When you're talking about 4,000 year-old history, you can't expect everything to still be around to look at. And many of these critics have had to eat their words when new excavations have provided proof of the places or people mentioned in the Bible.

The discovery of the 2,000-year-old dead sea scrolls in the 1940s and 1950s showed that the hand-copied manuscripts we have today were nearly 100% exact matches to the ancient scrolls from before the first century. And the few minor changes that were found did not change the meaning of the text at all. Given the zealous care given to copying, we can expect that the scrolls themselves are an accurate representation of what was originally written 2,000 years before that. If you want an exhaustive discussion of the accuracy of the Bible, see the books by Josh McDowell: "Evidence that Demands a Verdict," and "More Evidence that Demands a Verdict".

In terms of the Bible contradicting itself, none of the arguments that I've heard hold any water. In fact, many of them are just stupid. I confess that in my study there are some things that I find hard to reconcile, but to even discuss them would require a much deeper understanding of scripture than most people have. And, no, I'm not going to bring any of those issues up - not only because I'm still grappling with them, nor because they are relatively unimportant, but also because it might take dozens of pages to lay out the argument in the first place.

The accuracy of the Bible is a matter of faith with me, but my faith is based on a lot of evidence. It is also based on my trust in God. If He wants to communicate with us humans (and I believe He does), He is going to make sure that His message isn't blurred by the sands of time or the foibles of human beings. Peter says that "men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." (2 Peter 1:21) That is, God spoke His message through humans and protected that message through the centuries. Thus, I believe that the Bible is without errors. What it states is true and accurate. It may not be the source of all truth, but what it says is true. The real problem comes in proper interpretation of it. For example, by not taking things out of context. You cannot let your Bible fall open to a random page, close your eyes, and point to a spot on the page and then take the verse at that point as some sort of supernatural message to you. If you randomly pointed to the verse that told of King David committing adultery, would that mean that you are being told to commit adultery? As ridiculous as that sounds, that is how some people treat the Bible. God may choose to speak to you through it, but it isn't a "Magic 8 Ball".

One of the most inconsistent lines of thought about the Bible is the idea that parts of it are true and parts are not. How do you tell what parts are and which parts are not? How can one say that they believe the words of Jesus but not His disciples? His disciples are the ones that wrote down His words. If you cannot believe what they wrote outside of the gospels, how can you believe what they wrote in the gospels? In the end, deciding that only part of the Bible can be trusted leaves you disregarding what you don't like and keeping what you do, which isn't much better than allegorizing it to mean something other than what it means. If it is untrustworthy, a few correct factoids in it doesn't make it more trustworthy. But if it has its source in a God Who wants us to know Him, the whole thing is trustworthy. For me, it is all or nothing. Not that every ancient Jewish or Christian writing should be accepted as being from God. I'm sure that there are other ancient writings which are also from God, but the canon of scripture is the baseline by which to compare all other claims of spiritual truth.

John Calvin used the term "sola scriptura", meaning "scripture alone". That means that the scriptures (the Bible) are our theological/doctrinal authority. If what we believe contradicts scripture, we believe incorrectly. The Bible is the measure of truth, regardless of how we feel, regardless of the passing fancy of our society, and regardless of our personal experiences. When any of these things clearly contradict the Bible, the Bible must take precedence. Of course, that assumes one is interpreting the Bible correctly.

If the Bible is a message from God, comprising a set of accurate manuscripts which have been copied faithfully over the years, why then are there so many versions of it? The Old Testament is written in ancient Hebrew (and a little Aramaic) while the New Testament is written in Koine Greek. Most people, outside of seminary, don't read either of these languages. So, the Bible has been translated into modern languages, including English. In fact, the Bible is the most translated book in history. Since the translations are done by experts in the original languages, they are pretty good representations of the meaning of the originals. However, as you may guess, something is usually lost in translation, no matter how good it is. I had a friend once tell me that the best way to read the Bible is in the original languages. That may be true, but fortunately, most Bibles contain copious footnotes that help one to navigate the issues with translation. Plus there are other helpful tools, such as commentaries, lexicons, word studies, and so forth. The way I see it, most modern translations are more than adequate, and if you need help with a difficult passage, you can refer to these other tools.

English has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to translations of the Bible. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen modern English translations. So, which one is best? It depends on what you're looking for.

Translations of anything (not just the Bible) can be placed somewhere along a spectrum from word-for-word translations on one end, to paraphrases on the other end. The problem with word-for-word translations is that there isn't always a good single English word that matches each Hebrew or Greek word. Not to mention the rather stilted sound of such translations. The King James Version (KJV), although being a mostly word-for-word translation does sometimes insert additional words to make it readable. For instance, a word-for-word translation of Genesis 47:3 includes "What your occupation?". To make it read better, the KJV translates it as "What is your occupation?". The word "is" is implied by the Hebrew words, but there isn't a separate word in the Hebrew for "is" in the original text.

On the other hand, the problem with a paraphrase is that it involves the interpretation of the translator. In fact, paraphrases are not technically considered translations. Does that mean they aren't any good? No. They often make a passage more understandable. I wouldn't use one for actual study, but as an additional resource to help understand the meaning of a passage, they are good. "The Message" is an example of this type of Bible.

Most translations, however, fall somewhere between these two extremes, using an approach called "dynamic equivalence". They try to use modern phrases to indicate the exact meaning of phrases in the original language. A popular example of this is the New International Version (NIV).

So, depending on where on the spectrum a given translation occurs, and what English words are chosen for original words (which may depend on the decade in which the translation was done), one ends up with a bunch of translations to choose from. People have favorites, but frankly I don't think it matters much which one you choose, with one proviso... In some circles, the KJV is considered as the only authentic translation. There have been two versions of the KJV: one in 1611 and one in 1769. The later one is the most printed book in history. The problem with the KJV is that language changes over time. Modern English has some significant differences from the English spoken in 1611 or 1769. Some words have changed meaning. Some even mean the exact opposite of what they used to! For instance, the word "let" means "to allow". However, over 200 years ago, it could mean "to hinder". If you aren't an English scholar and aware of these changes of meaning over the centuries, you may be getting the wrong meaning from some passages. Does that mean the KJV was a bad translation? Not at all! It was very good translation for the language spoken at the time. For modern readers, not so much. I recommend that people avoid it.

This explains the steady release of new English translations. All other things remaining equal, the latest English translation is probably the best for modern understanding. Personally, I prefer the NIV. However even then, there are some passages I would make minor changes to if it were up to me, given my understanding of the Greek for those verses, because different Greek words are often translated to the same English word. For instance, what is translated as "love" can come from several different Greek words, each with a different meaning. Or there the case of "judge" in English being used for four different Greek words. In one place we are told to judge, and in another we are told not to judge. As you might guess, different Greek words/meanings underlie these apparently contradictory uses of "judge". But a decent commentary or Bible dictionary can serve to clarify these situations. In fact, just being familiar with the rest of the Bible can clear up the meaning without you even having to look into the original language. Sometimes I think the translators could have chosen a better word for the translation, but other times there isn't a single English word to match the Greek, so they have to choose the closest English equivalent (though this illustrates a weakness in the word- for-word translation approach).

One must also be careful of "translations" made by fringe groups, such as the Jehovah Witnesses. Both Christian and non-Christian scholars reject the way that such groups "translate" the Bible. You should be safe with any of the following: ERV, NKJV, NIV, WEB, NAS, NASU, ASV, ESV, CEB, CSB, NLT, Douay-Rheims, NRS, Darby, Amplified, CJB, GNT, GW, NET, Wycliffe, YLT, Websters, Weymouth, and AKJV. There are multiple versions of each of these as well, with some including extra footnotes and other reference material, but the Bible text itself is the same.

By pointing all of this out, I don't want imply that reading the Bible and understanding its meaning is at all difficult. What is most important is very clearly stated. Even in the old KJV. Rather, I wanted to explain why there is some confusion and misinformation when it comes to the Bible. If you are going to treat it superficially and look for contradictions long enough, you will find enough to convince yourself that it has errors and cannot be trusted.

Proper Interpretation
I spent many years figuring out for myself what the most reasonable way of interpreting scripture was. Then I read a book by Dr. Ramm called "Protestant Bible Interpretation" which was written before I was born. It stated almost exactly what I had spent years figuring out on my own. Oh well, at least I know why I agree with Dr. Ramm. Having a set of rules for determining the meaning of the Bible is exceedingly important. Many Christians, especially in the Catholic church, have a tendency to read whatever they want into the Bible by allegorizing it. The problem with this approach is that you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to, even what it is clearly not saying. So, let me briefly state the rules I use in interpreting the Bible.

  • There is only one valid interpretation of a passage - even if it can apply to multiple situations. I figure that if God said something, it was important, and we ought to understand what He meant and not twist it into what we want. An old adage puts it this way: "interpretation is one, application is many".
  • Assume that the passage is literal unless it states that it is representative (an analogy).
  • Consider the audience - who is a given passage directed at? An individual? A group? Everyone? I'll discuss some of these issues in the future, but one example that is a stumbling block to some people are the dietary laws of the Old Testament. Those laws were specific to the Jewish people and unless you are an Orthodox Jew, they don't apply to you.
  • Interpret based on context - cultural, historical, geographical, and the rest of the Bible. One cultural example is that, to the ancient Hebrew mind, exact numbers were unimportant and most numbers you find are rounded to the nearest five or ten. Those of us in the modern age sometimes do the same in informal speech, but to the ancient Hebrews, this was simply the way they communicated. Knowing that fact tells us two things: 1) numbers given are often approximate, and 2) if a number is exact, there is probably some very important reason for it. In some instances, apparent contradictions have to do with cultural practices of the day, which varied depending on your geographical location. Thus, finding any apparent contradiction is a matter of digging deeper into the context of the passage rather than just jumping to a conclusion or relying on one's assumptions (which, themselves, may be invalid). Fortunately, most of these issues are superficial and are resolved with even moderate amounts of consideration. Further, they are not common, so one need not worry about having to constantly dig into the historical/cultural/translation issues.
  • The Bible is a revelation from God, but framed in a way that is comprehensible to the mind of mankind.
  • There is a difference between what the Bible records, and what it approves. Sometimes editorial comments are added about what God approves of or doesn't approve of, but most of the narrative passages of the Bible simply explain what happened in the past.
  • Clear passages override apparent meanings of more obscure passages. Don't take a single verse and build an entire theology out of it.
  • The main point of the Bible, Old and New testament, is Jesus.
  • The Bible has no errors or contradictions.
  • Since the Bible has no errors or contradictions, we can treat it as the best commentary on itself that there is. Apparent contradictions are usually a matter of one passage covering a topic in greater detail than another - the two passages aren't contradictory - they are complementary.

So, my view of the Bible is that it is flawless, though one must be aware of translation issues. It contains a message from God, but there is no mysterious magical power in it. The real power is God Himself and the Bible simply points the way to Him. It is practical and the main points are very clear. Future articles will be based on this understanding.