Focus on the Family

How Do We Know the Bible Is True?

by Robert Velarde

The best-selling book in history remains one of the most controversial. Revered by Christians as God's holy Word, the Bible spans centuries of history, contains a variety of literary styles and culminates in the person of Jesus Christ. But how do we know the Bible is true? Isn't it just a collection of stories and myths? Even if it contains some history, is there any way we can trust it completely?

What is the Bible?

Answering these questions requires that we understand what the Bible is. It's not a book that arrived in complete form at one point in history. Instead, the Bible was written over a period of some 1,500 years by a number of authors. Although it is viewed as one book, it's actually a collection of many books.

It is called God's Word even though God did not physically write it. Instead, God worked through everyday people, inspired by Him, to record what Christians accept as the Bible. The Old Testament is primarily a record of God's dealings with His chosen people – the Hebrews or Jews. The New Testament continues the record with first century accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus and the struggles faced by new Christians in a hostile culture.

The Bible Today: Miraculous or Not?

Today the Bible is controversial for several reasons. For example, it is filled with miracles. In the Old Testament, God parts the Red Sea, allowing His people to escape a hoard of angry Egyptians. In the book of Joshua, the sun is said to have stood still, while Jonah records a prophet swallowed by a large fish. In the New Testament the blind receive sight, Jesus walks on water and is resurrected after being executed on a cross.

In a largely naturalistic age, meaning belief only in the material world, miracles are often doubted. The supernatural – anything beyond the natural world – is dismissed or relegated to a second-class status. This often results in doubt about the Bible. Can we trust it to be true? Are we really expected to believe the supernatural events it records? This is a bias that defines miracles out of existence rather than reasoning that if God exists, then miracles are possible.

Truth and the Bible

Asking if the Bible is true, means that we need to have some understanding of truth. What is truth? While this question is often presented as a deep philosophical puzzle suitable only for the "brainy" to tackle, the answer is not so complex. Truth is what corresponds to reality. Consequently, what is real is true, what is unreal is false.

The Bible makes some very distinctive truth claims. It claims, for instance, that God exists. It also claims that He has chosen to communicate with us through His creation, our moral conscience, and via the Bible. Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh and that the only way for human beings to be saved is through Him (John 14:6). Moreover, the death and resurrection of Jesus are also key to Christian theology.

These claims the Bible makes either correspond to reality or they do not. Christians believe that they do correspond to reality, meaning that the Bible is true. God really exists, Jesus is not a myth, and the resurrection really happened. But how do we know this?

Knowledge and the Bible

Sometimes Christians quote the Bible to prove the Bible. Most skeptics are rightly cautious of this approach. Quoting the Bible to prove the Bible is viewed as being circular reasoning or illogical. After all, quoting the Bible to prove the Bible assumes the Bible is true, which is really the point of contention or discussion.

But if the Bible can be shown to be a reliable document, accurately recorded and transmitted through history, from God to us, then we can build a strong case that the Bible is indeed true.

Evidence for the Bible

Evidence for the Bible can take many forms. There is, for instance, physical evidence. We have copies of the manuscripts and throughout history these copies show that the Bible has been transmitted accurately. Despite common skeptical claims that the Bible has often been changed through the centuries, the physical evidence tells another story. The New Testament records are incredibly accurate. There are minor differences in manuscripts, called variants, but none of these variants impact or change key Christian beliefs or claims.

Other physical evidence includes archeological finds. The Archaeological Study Bible presents many notes and articles documenting how archeology has again and again proven that the Bible does correspond to historical reality.

There are other kinds of evidence that the Bible is true. These have to do with internal consistency and coherence. Although the Bible was written over many centuries by different writers, the messages it contains are coherent and consistent. The Bible presents a coherent theology and worldview and presents this material consistently. Moreover, the Christian worldview is robust, reasonable and grounded in history.

Jesus and the Bible

Although there are other lines of reasoning to support the claim that the Bible is true, one of the most powerful is found in Jesus. If it can be shown that the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – present an accurate record of the life and ministry of Jesus, then Jesus Himself becomes an argument in support of the truth of the Bible. If the Bible has been shown to be reliable, this line of reasoning is no longer circular, but rational. In other words, what the Bible records about Jesus, including what He says about God, human nature, salvation and the Old Testament record, can then be trusted.

What does Jesus say about God's Word? He says, "the Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35, NIV), thus testifying to the authority of the Bible. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them," meaning that Jesus believed and trusted in the Old Testament "Law" and "Prophets." Jesus also said, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God'" (Matthew 4:4). Space does not allow a thorough investigation of the views of Jesus on the Bible, but it is sufficient here to note that He believed God spoke through the Bible, He overtly upheld belief in several Old Testament stories, and revered the Bible as holy and authoritative.

The cornerstone of Christian belief is the resurrection of Christ. Even Paul the Apostle admitted that if the resurrection did not happen, Christian faith "is futile; you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17). In this sense, making a case for the truth of the resurrection also makes a case for the truth claims of Jesus and, in turn, the reliability and truth of the Bible.

Does Our View of the Bible Matter?

Liberal theologians sometimes point out that our view of the Bible doesn't really matter. So long as we gain strength and insights from it, they say, that is enough. Following this line of reasoning, they remove many miracles of the Bible or simply treat them as myths. This is a mistake, particularly when it comes to the Resurrection of Christ. Our view of the Bible matters immensely, especially if what it claims is indeed true. If it is, as we have argued, then our eternal destiny hinges on how we will respond to Christ and His calling. Will we reject Him or accept Him?

There is much more that could be said on the matter of truth and the Bible. The rest of the articles in this series will address the Bible's reliability, how we got it, how to interpret it, responding to its critics and suggestions for handling seemingly difficult Bible passages.


Is the Bible Reliable?

If, for instance, the Bible is full of historical and factual errors or blatantly contradicts itself, it's hard to trust it or view it as reliable.

"I'm glad your faith works for you, but can you really know whether or not the Bible is reliable? Wasn't it written thousands of years ago? How do you know it hasn't been translated and re-translated so much that it no longer says what it used to say?" These questions or variations of them are often asked about the Bible.

Rather than responding "just believe," the Bible calls us to, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15, NIV). Since Christ is the cornerstone of Christianity, and since what we know about Christ and God's plan of salvation is found in the Bible, it is important that we take questions about the reliability of the Bible seriously. As a result, this article will look at the meaning of "reliability" in both the Old and New Testaments.

What does "reliable" mean?

Let's first consider the meaning of reliable. In short, reliability means something is trustworthy. It can also mean that something is consistently good in its quality. In reference to the Bible, reliability has to do with whether or not what it contains – from ideas to history to geography and more – is trustworthy or not. If, for instance, the Bible is full of historical and factual errors or blatantly contradicts itself, it's hard to trust it or view it as reliable.

While we will address these sorts of questions in other articles in this series,1the question of the reliability of the Bible is addressed in this article primarily in relation to the manuscript and other evidence supporting the Old and New Testaments. Before getting to the Old Testament, however, our line of reasoning supporting the reliability of the Bible is best begun with the New Testament.

Is the New Testament Reliable?

The New Testament contains 27 books, although some are not books per se, but letters. The four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are key in establishing what we know about Jesus including his birth, ministry, teachings, death, resurrection, and more.2

There are several lines of reasoning we can take in demonstrating the reliability of the New Testament and, specifically, the four Gospels. First, we can look at the number of manuscripts or fragments available. Second, we can compare existing manuscripts and fragments to see if they are reliable when it comes to what they report. Here we would look for serious contradictions, omissions, additions, errors, etc. Third, we can compare manuscript copies and fragments with copies we have today and find out if there have been significant changes or if the New Testament we have today is reliable. The approach outlined in these three points highlights some aspects of what takes place in the discipline known as textual criticism.

In the case of the New Testament, we have thousands of complete manuscripts and multiple thousands more fragments available. There are more than 5,000 copies of the entire New Testament or extensive portions of it. In addition, we have several thousand more fragments or smaller portions of the New Testament. If these numbers don't seem like a lot, compared to other works of ancient history, the manuscript evidence and copies for the New Testament far outweigh manuscript evidence for other works. For instance, there are less than 700 copies of Homer's Iliad and only a handful of copies of any one work of Aristotle.3So when it comes to manuscript evidence, the New Testament definitely has numbers on its side.

It's also interesting that within the early centuries of the Christian church a number of scholars quoted the New Testament. Amazingly, they quoted the New Testament so much that every single verse of all 27 books of the New Testament is quoted by these scholars with the exception of only 11 verses, all within a few hundred years of the beginning of the Church.4 We could also add the fact that much of the New Testament was written within just a few decades of the death and resurrection of Christ. First Corinthians, for instance, dates from the 50s – only twenty years or so after the death and resurrection of Christ. This is important because 1 Corinthians 15 contains key elements of the gospel message, emphasizing the importance of Christ's resurrection, and claiming that more than 500 people had seen the risen Christ. People who would still have been alive at the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians would have been around to corroborate or criticize the claims made in the letter.

There are many other features substantiating the reliability of the New Testament documents. 5 But what about the Old Testament?

Is the Old Testament Reliable?

The reason we began with making a brief case for the reliability of the New Testament is because of the claims it makes about the Old Testament. Jesus, for instance, made a number of claims supporting the reliability of the Old Testament documents. Jesus affirmed seven key points in relation to the Old Testament, as explained by Norman Geisler: "Jesus affirmed its divine authority … its imperishability … its unbreakability … its ultimate supremacy … its factual inerrancy … its historical reliability … [and] its scientific accuracy."6 Matthew 5:17-18 sums up the approach Jesus took in confirming the reliability of the Old Testament:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished."

Why is it important that we cite such passages demonstrating that Jesus accepted the Old Testament as reliable? Because, if the New Testament is reliable in its claims, then Jesus is who He claimed to be – God in the flesh, substantiated by His resurrection from the dead. As such, His remarks about the Old Testament are likewise reliable.

But what about manuscript evidence for the Old Testament? Space does not allow a thorough treatment here, but it is likewise incredibly accurate. Manuscripts that are part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, clearly show that our modern copies of the Old Testament are incredibly accurate.7

Is the Bible Reliable? Based on the evidence, it surpasses all expectations for trustworthiness.


1Two articles in this series will further address these and related questions: "How do I respond to Bible critics?" and "How do I handle Bible difficulties?"
2For a thorough defense of the reliability of the Gospels see Craig Blomberg, The Historicity of the Gospels, 2nd edition (InterVarsity Press, 2007). A simpler introduction may be found in F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (InterVarsity Press).
3See, for instance, chapter 5 in J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Baker Books).
4See Norman Geisler, False God of Our Time (Harvest House), chapter 6.
5For a helpful overview of New Testament reliability see chapter 3, "The New Testament Witness to Jesus," in Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Harvest House, 1996).
6 Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume 1, chapter 16: Jesus and the Bible (Bethany House, 2002).
7For more on the reliability of the Old Testament see Walter C. Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? (InterVarsity Press, 2001)

How Did We Get the Bible?

Some people think the Bible was all written down about the same time, copied and distributed. But the Bible is not "instant" Scripture and it wasn't all written down around the same time.

byRobert Velarde

The Bible is the foundation of Christianity. In it we learn about the human condition, our need for salvation, God's plan through Christ, the everlasting joy that awaits those who trust in Jesus, and more. So far in this series we've looked at the question of truth in relation to the Bible, as well as its reliability. Now we'll turn to the important question, "How did we get the Bible?" In doing so we'll look at four key areas regarding the Bible: inspiration, canonization, transmission and translation. Before we do so, let's look at some misconceptions about how we got the Bible.

Misconceptions About the Bible

Some people think the Bible was all written down about the same time, copied and distributed. But the Bible is not "instant" Scripture and it wasn't all written down around the same time. Instead, the books of the Bible were written over a lengthy period of time by different people inspired by God.

Another misconception about the Bible is that it was merely created by a select few in order to consolidate, gain or maintain power and prestige. Given the adversity faced by the Hebrew people and, later, the persecution suffered by Christians, this explanation is far from plausible. For instance, rather than gaining power or prestige, the early Christians were severely oppressed, while many others were killed – martyred for believing the message of the gospel.

Yet another misconception says there are many different "Bibles" so how can one be sure the Christian version is the right one? This misconception can take different forms. One form sets forth many different "gospels" as proof that the New Testament record of Jesus is not necessarily the true version. What about the Gospel of Thomas? Keep in mind that there are dozens of writings claiming to be Christian gospels along the lines of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But very few copies of these rival "gospels" exist.

The Gospel of Thomas, of which there are references to more than one version, has distinctly Gnostic influences. In short, the Gnostics believed that the flesh is bad, but the spirit is good. As a result, they denied that Jesus truly came in the flesh, a position the early church countered by writings such as 1 John. Thomas also presents Jesus doing some things very much out of character. In one passage, for example, Jesus causes a boy to wither (die).

It's also important to keep in mind that these additional "gospels" appear in the historical record long after the New Testament manuscripts, making these "lost" gospels highly suspect not only in reference to their content, but their reliability.

Transmission and Translation

Stories and claims about other "gospels" raise important questions about the transmission and translation of the Bible or any historical record. Since we've covered these topics somewhat in other articles in this series,1 we'll only cover the topic briefly here so we can get to the inspiration and canonization of the Bible.

"Transmission" in relation to the Bible has to do with how the contents of the Bible were transmitted through history. If the record of transmission is poor, then the record we have is highly suspect. But if the record of transmission is rich, having a variety of manuscript copies for instance, then we have cause for trusting the reliability of the record.

In the case of the New Testament,2 the transmission of the documents through history is astounding. Not only do we have thousands of manuscript copies, as well as thousands more fragments or portions of the New Testament, but in comparing the New Testament copies we have today in various languages with those available centuries ago we can see the message remains intact. Errors or changes are slight, known as variants, and do not change any central belief of Christianity. When it comes to transmission and translation, then, we can indeed trust the documents.

God-breathed

But isn't it possible to have an accurately transmitted record that is still just a human invention? That's where inspiration comes in. The word "inspire" comes from the Latin, meaning to breathe on or into. Hence, Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16, "All Scripture is God-breathed."3 As Geisler and Nix write, "… inspiration is the process by which Spirit-moved writers recorded God-breathed writings."4

Inspiration means that human writers were inspired by God and moved by the Holy Spirit to record accurately what God wanted them to preserve. It does not mean God took control of people in the sense of some occult practices known as automatic writing, where the writer is in a trance-like state. It also doesn't mean the writers of the Bible were simply taking dictation. But it does mean that their words were divinely inspired and recorded. The Bible was written by real people, living in real places, recording real historical events, and also communicating God's real truths.

The New Testament Canon

Now the question remains about how the Christian church ultimately put the parts of the Bible together. This really relates to the New Testament, as the Old Testament was already accepted and codified in the books accepted by the Jewish people as divinely inspired. But following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ around 33 A.D., the fledgling Christian church found itself struggling for survival and, in the process, writing inspired documents that would later become the New Testament.

The process of canonization has to do with what writings are deemed inspired and thus included in the New Testament canon. The word canon originated in reference to a measuring reed or standard by which something is measured. In reference to the Bible a canon has to do with genuinely inspired writings.

The Church was very methodical in reference to the New Testament canon. Several criteria were necessary in order for a writing to be accepted,5 but we will mention three here. First, the document in question had to conform to the rule of faith, "conformity between the document and orthodoxy, that is, Christian truth recognized as normative in the churches."6 Second, the document required some sort of apostilicity, "which as a criterion came to include those who were in immediate contact with the apostles."7 Third, "a document's widespread and continuous acceptance and usage by churches everywhere" 8 was taken into consideration.

From God to us, the Bible is true, reliable, and inspired.


1 See, "How Do We Know the Bible is True?" and "Is the Bible Reliable?"
2 For more on the reliability of the Old Testament see Walter C. Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? (InterVarsity Press, 2001).
3 The phrase "God-breathed" is translated from the Greek word, theopneustos, meaning God-breathed and, by extension, inspired by God.
4 Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Moody Press, 1986), p. 36. This book provides an excellent overview of how we got the Bible, covering many topics in great detail.
5 It's also important to note that God guided the process in accordance with His plans. As such, the process of canonization was not left solely in the hands of fallible human beings.
6 D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Zondervan, 1992), p. 494.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., p. 495

How Do I Interpret the Bible?

Unlike some postmodern approaches to written texts that claim there really is no objective meaning to writing throughout the centuries, Christians have interpreted the Bible and continuously drawn out Christianity's essential foundations.

byRobert Velarde

"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." -2 Timothy 2:15 (NIV)

The Bible contains God's messages to us, but if we cannot properly interpret what it says, we're destined to become confused, misinterpret and probably misapply biblical content. As Paul writes to Timothy, we need to "correctly" handle "the word of truth." But how do we go about interpreting the Bible? This article will cover some basic principles of interpretation that will go a long way towards equipping everyone to correctly interpret God's Word.

Understanding the Context

Interpreting the Bible is part of a field of study known as hermeneutics. While this sounds complicated, its underlying principles aren't that difficult to grasp and can be applied to any written form of communication. Trying to understand what the text says is, in short, hermeneutics.

Applied to the Bible, principles of interpretation are meant to help, not hinder, our ability to make sense of what the Bible records. Another article in this series will address how to handle Bible difficulties, but having a basic foundation in hermeneutics will often help in that area, too.

Unlike some postmodern approaches to written texts that claim there really is no objective meaning to writing, throughout the centuries Christians have interpreted the Bible and continuously drawn out Christianity's essential foundations. The Bible, then, does indeed communicate objective truths.

The Importance of Context

Perhaps the greatest principle of biblical interpretation is context. Too often passages or portions of Scripture are quoted, cited or otherwise used to make a point or argue against a point when in reality the entire context of the passage is ignored. Although there are many books in the Bible, it is a cohesive whole wherein God distinctly communicates to us. This means that every passage is part of not only its immediate context, but also a broader context.

The words used are important, as is the context of those words. Whenever seeking to rightly interpret the Bible, make sure you understand the immediate context. What is the passage about? What comes before the passage you are examining? What comes after? Along these lines, not only is immediate context important, but so is the broader context. In other words, given a particular passage that speaks to a certain topic, what does the Bible as a whole say on the subject? Don't overlook the immediate context or the broader context.

It's also wise to avoid citing passages selectively just to try and bolster a particular point without keeping the context in mind. That's why theologians caution against building elaborate doctrines on obscure or isolated passages, or doing so by only referencing passages that appear to agree with our particular pet doctrine, while ignoring other significant passages that tend to argue against our position.

Draw Out or Read Into?

In addition to understanding the context of Bible passages, it's also crucial to keep two other related principles of interpretation in mind. These are known as exegesis and eisogesis. Exegesis has to do with reading and interpreting the text by drawing out from it what it is communication. Eisogesis, on the other hand, is when we attempt to read into the text what really isn't there. Exegesis, then, is the right way to approach a passage, as we seek to determine what the author intended, fairly looking at the text to see what it really says. Eisogesis, however, can lead to many errors, especially if we approach a passage with assumptions or presuppositions that really aren't in the text at all.

The "golden rule" of interpretation applies here: seek to interpret a text as others would seek to interpret what you have written or said. In other words, just as we would not want someone reading ideas into what we have said or written that are not there at all, we should not seek to do this with biblical writings either.

The Clarity of Scripture

Related to biblical interpretation is a concept known as perspicuity. In short, the term means that the Bible is always clear when it comes to communicating truths about the essentials of the faith. There are no great secrets, hidden message or esoteric interpretations that will grant us additional clarity when it comes to the essentials of Christianity. As Jesus said, "I have spoken openly to the world … I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret" (John 18:20).

Biblical clarity on the essentials of the faith brings up a related point. It's important that we do not allow interpretational disagreements on secondary matters to cause division among Christians on essential or primary matters. In interpreting the Bible, then, we should ask ourselves if a particular interpretation of a passage will cause harm to an essential doctrine such as the deity of Christ, the resurrection, the atonement and so forth. If so, we'd do well to study the passage in more detail, keep in mind the broader biblical teaching on the subject and consult resources – including knowledgeable people – to determine if our interpretation is misguided.

A certain degree of humility is in order as well. Human beings are fallible, but our mistakes of interpretation do not mean that the Bible is flawed or lacking in authority. Usually it is our flawed interpretation that is the problem.

Kinds of Biblical Writing

Another point to keep in mind has to do with the kind of biblical literature we are dealing with when seeking to interpret a passage. The Bible contains a variety of genres or styles of writing ranging from the overtly poetic, such as the Psalms, to prophetic writings, wisdom literature, apocalyptic literature and more. Knowing what kind of passage we are dealing with often helps our interpretation of it.

Related to this are questions of interpreting the Bible literally or figuratively. Both are valid approaches so long as they are judiciously employed. For instance, when the biblical writers share evidence of the resurrection of Jesus they do so quite literally. Despite some liberal interpretations arguing that the biblical writers are, for example, merely speaking of Christ's resurrection figuratively or as a symbol of some kind, the biblical text is clear that the resurrection is viewed as literal. Even Paul acknowledged, "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17).

However, there are certain passages clearly intended as figurative. When Christ says he is "the gate" (John 10:7-9), he does not literally mean that he is a physical gate, complete with hinges and handle. Instead, he is using figurative language. When we read in Psalm 91:4 that God will cover us "with his feathers," we are not supposed to literally picture God as having feathers. Again, this is figurative language.

Mistaking figurative language for literal language, or vice versa, is very important when it comes to biblical interpretation. Again, context will often help us understand what is truly meant.

Correctly handling "the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15) is something we are all called to do. Learning some basic principles of hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation, will help us do so consistently.[1]

[1] There are many helpful resources offering introductions to biblical interpretation. These include R.C. Sproul's Knowing Scripture (InterVarsity, 1977) and James Sire's Scripture Twisting (InterVarsity, 1980). A more advanced work on the topic is Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by William Klein, Craig Blomberg, et. al. (Thomas Nelson, 2004).


How Do I Respond to Bible Critics?

Contemporary critics sometimes claim that since the Bible contains so many miracles, it just can't be true. Either these are just made up stories, they argue, or simple people were just tricked.

While the Bible is the bestselling book in history, it's arguably also the most criticized. There are, of course, different kinds of biblical criticism. Some are considered scholarly disciplines and, at their best, seek to bring to light valuable insights about the biblical manuscripts and their meaning. But more often than not, critics of the Bible are not out to praise it, but to put it down.

The next article in this series – "How do I handle Bible difficulties?" – will offer specific tips on dealing with common critical approaches and passages meant to confound Christians. But this article is more about how to go about responding in general to criticisms leveled against the Bible. As such, we'll look at some common criticisms of the Bible and offer an overview of some of the more scholarly objections.

Christians believe the Bible contains God's words to us – words that contain ideas related to the nature of God, the nature of Christ, the nature of human beings, the nature of salvation, and more. All of these topics are of great significance. If the Bible is in error in any one of these areas, then the insights of the critics are of supreme importance. But if the Bible is trustworthy in what it says, then we'd do well to heed what it says. What, then, do the critics claim and how can we respond?

What About Miracles?

The first criticism we will address has to do with miracles. Contemporary critics sometimes claim that since the Bible contains so many miracles, it just can't be true. Either these are just made up stories, they argue, or simple people were just tricked. In reality, just one miracle is too much for the modern mind. Why? Unfortunately, much of Western thinking in particular is grounded in naturalism – a worldview that believes that only the physical or material world exists. Based on this perspective, anything supernatural such as a miracle, is immediately suspect. As a result, this sort of critical approach to the Bible immediately casts doubt on key Christian beliefs such as the bodily resurrection of Christ.

There are many ways to respond to this sort of critic. It will be helpful to point out that it is the presupposition that naturalism is true that rules out miracles. But if God exists, then miracles are possible. Another approach involves turning the tables, so to speak, and casting doubt on naturalism. What are the reasons the critic believes in naturalism? This is also a helpful time to offer positive arguments for the existence of God. It may also be beneficial to take the resurrection of Christ as a historical example of an event that cannot be explained reasonably by any other means other than by calling it what it was – a miracle.

Is the Bible "full of contradictions?"

Another popular approach of Bible critics is to claim that since the Bible is full of so many contradictions, it just can't be trusted. At this juncture it is often helpful to ask for a specific example of a contradiction. Often, causal critics of the Bible will just claim it is "full of contradictions" as a rhetorical method. In other words, they may not have any specific examples in mind, but are just posturing and hoping no one will challenge them. If the critic does not have a specific example of what they consider a contradiction in the Bible, then politely ask them to offer one, otherwise they are making claims without proof.

But what if they do have one or more specific contradictions that they can cite, chapter and verse? This is where it is helpful for the Christian to have a good understanding of what they believe, why they believe it, as well as some general knowledge on interpreting the Bible correctly. 1 If a critic points out a specific apparent contradiction and you are not able to resolve it on the spot, be gracious and admit that you don't have an answer right away, but will look into it and get back to the person.2

Rest assured, Bible scholars have spent years studying alleged contradictions and discrepancies in the Bible and have offered reasonable answers. There are no instances of such alleged contradictions that would negate the foundations of Christianity or its essential beliefs.

What About Academic Criticism?

Academic criticism in and of itself is not hostile to Christianity. It is merely a field that studies the biblical texts and tries to interpret them or make sense of them. Such criticism becomes a problem when it casts doubt on the reliability of the Bible. For instance, scholars who question the authorship of the first five books of the Old Testament hold to what is called the documentary hypothesis. This calls into question the authorship of portions of the Old Testament traditionally attributed to Moses and instead argues that several authors wrote the text.

The end result is usually to weaken the force of what the Bible has to say by claiming that it is not really divinely inspired, but a product of many different people and ideas that don't always agree with one another. Biblically speaking, Christ established the authority of the Old Testament repeatedly not only by often citing specific passages, but by general statements such as Matthew 5:17: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (NIV). 3

New Testament Mythology?

Another academic criticism of the Bible has to do with the New Testament. These critics claim that the New Testament documents can't really be trusted as true history, but are more like legends or myths. Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), for instance, sought to demythologize the New Testament, meaning that since modern people cannot accept the sorts of miracles and supernatural stories contained in the Bible, they must be made relevant. The end result, however, is to cast serious doubt on the biblical record and its claims.

But is the New Testament legendary or mythological? Hardly. The Gospels, for instance, record real places, real people, and real events in historical context. They do not read as myths or legends, but as historical records. The New Testament writers were familiar with contemporary myths and knew the difference between what they believed and the myths of their day, prompting Paul the Apostle to warn against "godless myths," for instance (1 Timothy 4:7, NIV; "worldly fables" in the NASB).

"Always Being Ready"

First Peter 3:15 calls every Christian to always be "ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you." This means that we all need to be equipped to some degree to respond to Bible critics. Not everyone is called to be an expert in this field, but we should all be ready to make a defense of the truth of Christ as recorded in Scripture.


1See the article in this series, "How do I interpret the Bible?"
2The article "How do I handle Bible difficulties?" offers some helpful general tips. Two books that are of great value on the matter of alleged discrepancies in the Bible include Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer (Zondervan) and When Critics Ask by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe (Victor).
3For an introductory response to the documentary hypothesis and other forms of biblical criticism see The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell (Thomas Nelson).

How Do I Handle Bible Difficulties?

Theologically liberal approaches to the Bible often simply accept contradictions as part of a flawed record. But if the Bible is God's Word, and if God is all knowing and all powerful, it stands to reason we should be able to trust the Bible.

byRobert Velarde

What's a Bible difficulty? A Bible difficulty is an apparent problem posed by the biblical record. It might be called an error, a mistake, a difficulty, a challenge, a contradiction, or any number of other terms. Critics of the Bible are sometimes hostile in their claims that the Bible is "full of contradictions" or "difficulties," but these apparent problems are also brought up by committed Christians wanting to make sense of God's Word.

Rather than get into a number of specific examples, it will be more beneficial to learn some key tips for handling Bible difficulties. That way, whenever you encounter a seeming problem in the Bible, you will be able to use these tips as a starting point for resolving the difficulty.

Essentially, handling Bible difficulties is a matter of hermeneutics or interpretation (specifically, biblical interpretation). But other factors also come into play when interpreting, such as looking for a reasonable explanation, carefully making comparisons to other passages when necessary, and in general puzzling through possible answers and satisfactory resolutions to apparent problems.

Theologically liberal approaches to the Bible, on the other hand, often simply accept contradictions as part of a flawed record. But if the Bible is God's Word, and if God is all knowing and all powerful, it stands to reason we should be able to trust the Bible.

Tips from a Bible Scholar

What are some helpful general tips for handling Bible difficulties? Fortunately, a number of Bible scholars have offered their insights. Here are some tips gleaned from the late Gleason Archer's fine book Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties12


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  • "Be fully persuaded in your own mind that an adequate explanation exists, even though you have not found it yet." In other words, Archer is accepting the Bible as an accurate, authoritative collection of documents – God's inspired Word. Once a case has been made for this fact, then it stands to reason that the Bible should not contain any serious discrepancies in the manuscript copies. If you come across a Bible difficulty, there should be one or more reasonable explanations for it.
  • "Carefully study the context and framework of the verse in which the problem arises until you gain some idea of what the verse is intended to mean within its own setting." This is a key point of biblical hermeneutics – the science and art of interpreting the Bible. Context matters significantly. Keep in mind the context of a particular verse in a book, as well as the context given the broader teachings on the subject throughout the entire Bible.
  • "In the case of parallel passages, the only method that can be justified is harmonization." This helpful tip applies more to the four New Testament Gospels than anywhere else, though there certainly are parallel accounts of historical events in the Old Testament as well. There's no doubt that the Gospels contain various accounts from different perspectives, but these accounts should be able to be reconciled. Critics would not be happy if the four Gospels were identical in their reports of certain events, accusing the authors of collusion. Ironically, however, they aren't happy with the differences either. The best approach is to study the passages and find a way to harmonize them without compromising the essence of the text.
  • "Consult the best commentaries available, especially those written by Evangelical scholars who believe in the integrity of Scripture." A good commentary is a valuable resource. Many alleged Bible difficulties are addressed in such books. One helpful series is the Expositor's Bible Commentary(Zondervan). With the rise of Bible software, many commentaries are now included in these packages as well.
  • "Many Bible difficulties result from a minor error on the part of a copyist in the transmission of the text." This is an important point, especially when it comes to apparent numerical discrepancies. While Christians who adhere to inerrancy believe the original Bible manuscripts contained no errors whatsoever, they do grant that copies may contain a small number of errors. These errors or variants, however, do not change any key Christian doctrines.
  • "Whenever historical accounts of the Bible are called in question on the basis of alleged disagreement with the findings of archaeology or the testimony of ancient non-Hebrew documents, always remember that the Bible is itself an archaeological document of the highest caliber." Again and again throughout history, the archaeological evidence has supported the biblical record, not contradicted it. The evidence is clearly on the side of the Bible. Be wary of the latest news story claiming to debunk some key aspect of Christianity on the basis of recent findings that have yet to be studied in detail by qualified scholars. For more on the archeological evidence for the Bible see The Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan).

More Advice (from two Bible scholars)

In addition to Archer's helpful tips for handling Bible difficulties, When Critics Ask also offers its share of useful insights. Here's a selection of the advice:

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  • "Mistake 1: Assuming that the Unexplained Is Not Explainable." This ties into Archer's advice "that an adequate explanation exists." Be confident that if you encounter a Bible difficulty, there is a reasonable explanation.
  • "Mistake 2: Presuming the Bible Guilty Until Proven Innocent." This is not treating the biblical text fairly. As with other historical documents, let's grant it the benefit of the doubt unless clear evidence says otherwise.
  • "Mistake 3: Confusing Our Fallible Interpretations with God's Infallible Revelation." Usually the problem with alleged Bible contradictions and difficulties is with our interpretation, theology, or approach to the text, not with the actual text itself. We make mistakes, but God doesn't.
  • "Mistake 4: Failing to Understand the Context of the Passage." Again, context is supremely important when handling Bible difficulties. In most cases, a careful reading of the passage(s) in question, in their proper contexts, will resolve apparent difficulties.
  • "Mistake 5: Neglecting to Interpret Difficult Passages in the Light of Clear Ones." This is a key concept to keep in mind when approaching Bible difficulties that fall into the category of an obscure or particularly challenging passage. We may not be able to completely understand or explain the isolated passage in question, but given the broader context of the Bible and clear teachings on the subject elsewhere, we should be able to come to a good consensus on the matter at hand. A concept known as the perspicuity of Scripture is relevant in such cases. This means that the Bible is clear in essential matters.<span class="footnote">

Bible Difficulties?

Does the Bible contain some difficult passages? Yes. Are they unresolvable? No. Whenever a critic or sincere believer comes across an alleged Bible difficulty, it has always been answered. "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …" (1 Timothy 3:16, NIV)

 Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan, 1982), pp. 15-17.

 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask (Victor Books, 1992), pp. 15-26.

 Geisler and Howe cover twelve additional "mistakes" in reference to biblical interpretation and handling Bible difficulties. Other helpful resources in addition to Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties and When Critics Ask include Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul (IVP, 1977), Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson (Baker, 1984), Scripture Twisting by James Sire (IVP, 1980), and Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by William Klein, Craig Blomberg, et. al. (Thomas Nelson, 2004).


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