CAN THE BIBLE BE TRUSTED?
Sometimes this question is answered by repeating the familiar words of 2 Timothy 3:16 (KJV): “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” But why should we accept this sweeping claim?
I have friends in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who use a special edition of the King James Version. On the title page it is described as an inspired revision by the prophet Joseph Smith. The preface states that the corrections, many of them clearly supporting Mormon beliefs, were made “by direct revelation from God.”
With all due respect for the beliefs of my friends, how can I know if this claim is true? Some of my Mormon friends reply, “If you have faith, God will show you that our prophet writes the truth.”
The Book of Mormon closes with a similar claim of divine authority: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things…. And God shall shew unto you, that that which I have written is true” (Moroni 10:4, 5, 29).
I have friends who rejoice in their faith in Christ and who pray earnestly that the Holy Spirit will lead them into truth, yet who do not find it in their hearts to accept the claims of the Book of Mormon or the “inspired revision” of the King James Version. Are they therefore rejecting the truth?
Perhaps the most extraordinary Bible in my collection is a copy of the New Testament “As Revised and Corrected by the Spirits.” Published in New York in 1861, it describes itself as a revision of the New Testament made by Jesus and some of the apostles, who returned “personally in the spirit” to make the needed corrections.
The preface explains that “many errors have found their way” into the Scriptures at the hands of “designing men.” The “corrected” version of the Bible teaches that “resurrections means [sic] only the resurrections of the spirits”; that “heaven is a condition of happiness without regard to location”; that “the Holy Spirit from God is the spirit of some holy person which has once been in the flesh.”
The preface concludes with this authoritative invitation: “Dear Reader, trust in God, who made all things after the counsel of his own will. The Holy Spirits feel much interest in this work, and the spirits who corrected it desire that the world will receive this correction as coming from them, directed by God himself, which is true.” The author of the preface is then named— “Jesus, the Christ.”
There is no hesitancy in the wording of this claim. Then should we believe it?
The hazard of hastily accepting claims is dramatically illustrated in the Sears, Roebuck catalog of 1902. The section on drugs offers quick relief for ailments that modern medicine is still struggling to remedy. All come with Sears’ absolute guarantee.
There is Sure Cure for the tobacco habit, the liquor habit, the opium and morphine habit, and obesity. There is Mexican Headache Cure, “positively guaranteed” to relieve splitting headaches within fifteen minutes. There is Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers, “perfectly harmless” and guaranteed to make anyone beautiful, “no matter what your disfigurements may be.”
Then there is Dr. Hammond’s Nerve and Brain Pills, “positively guaranteed” to cure an endless list of ills, even poor memory. “No matter what the cause may be or how severe your trouble is, Dr. Hammond’s Nerve and Brain Pills will cure you.” The hesitant customer is assured that all Sears’ drugs have been prepared from prescriptions furnished by “the world’s highest medical authorities,” and he is warned to “beware of quack doctors who advertise to scare men into paying money for remedies which have no merit.”
Sears, Roebuck would be the first today to urge its customers not to believe these incredible claims!
All around us, in the realm of religion, in the marketplace, on the television screen, we are constantly confronted with competing claims. Obviously, all of them cannot be true. We would do well to follow Paul’s advice to “test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
The Bible is the most thoroughly tested book that has ever been written. By believers and skeptics alike it has been examined from cover to cover, every chapter, every verse, even every word. Thousands of volumes have been written about this Book.
It is an overwhelming experience to stand in the Biblical section of a great university library, the Library of Congress, the British Museum, and realize that a lifetime would not be nearly enough to read all that has been written through the centuries about every aspect of the Scriptures. Just the study of the thousands of Biblical manuscripts and other ancient sources of the text absorbs the continuous attention of generations of cooperating scholars around the world.
All this examination of the Bible has not led all inquirers to the same conclusions. But the research of even the most skeptical of critics has often only served to enlarge the accumulating store of information about the Book. And all this is available to the one who asks today, “Can the Bible be trusted?”
Consider again 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God.” How much is to be included in the “all”?
When I look at the Bible in my New King James, the Good News Translation, the New International, or most other Protestant versions, I find a total of sixty-six books. But when I look in my Rheims-Douay, New American, Knox, or other Catholic versions, I find the same sixty-six plus a number of additional books commonly known as the Apocrypha.
Some of these apocryphal writings, such as the additions to Esther and Daniel, are woven in as integral parts of the sixty-six books. In versions used by Protestants or Jews, there are twelve chapters in the Book of Daniel and thirty verses in chapter 3. But in Catholic Bibles, Daniel has fourteen chapters and one hundred verses in chapter 3. When a devout Roman Catholic has just read for his morning devotions Daniel 14, he can turn in his Bible to 2 Timothy 3:16 and be assured that everything in his version of the Scriptures is inspired of God. Or is that the intention of this famous verse?
Jesus always seemed to express confidence in the Bible that he used. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17). After the Resurrection he reminded his disciples that “everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). In these two statements Jesus endorsed the books of the Old Testament as they were customarily arranged in those days.
Through the years, as the Old Testament writings appeared, they were gradually arranged into three groups or divisions.
The first five books of the Bible made up the division called the Law or the Law of Moses.
Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets (Hosea to Malachi) made up the division called the Prophets. Sometimes, as in Matthew 5:17, the whole Old Testament was designated by the name of these first two divisions, the Law and the Prophets.
The remaining books of the Old Testament formed the third division, known as the Writings, the group referred to by Jesus as “the psalms,” Psalms being the first book in this group.
The thirty-nine books in these three divisions made up the Old Testament canon. Canon means “measure” or “rule.” A canonical book, therefore, is one that measures up to a certain standard.
In the early years of the Christian church, twenty-seven more documents came to be regarded as measuring up to the standard and were eventually arranged into the canon of the New Testament.
But the canonical sixty-six were not the only religious books in circulation that had an appearance of being Biblical. In fact, there were more books that were judged uncanonical than were accepted as authoritative. Many of these were written during the period between the Testaments and bore considerable resemblance to books already in the canon. They carried such titles as The Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, The Letter of Jeremiah, Judith, Tobit, Bel and the Dragon, Susanna, First and Second Maccabees, the Books of Adam and Eve, the Martyrdom of Isaiah, First and Second Enoch.
About a dozen of these came to be regarded by Jews living outside Palestine as of sufficient importance to merit inclusion with the other books of the Old Testament. Eventually they became an integral part of the Greek translation of the Old Testament that had been prepared during the third and second centuries before Christ for the Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt. This version of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, became the widely used Bible of the early Christian church.
Some Catholic scholars who accept these extra books as belonging in the Old Testament like to point out that Timothy was a Greek (Acts 16:1). Naturally, then, he used the Septuagint; and the Septuagint contained the extra books. Consequently, when Paul wrote, “All scripture is inspired by God,” he was including the extra Old Testament books as equally canonical!
It is significant, therefore, to notice that the Greek of 2 Timothy 3:16 may be translated, as in the New English Bible and other versions, “Every inspired Scripture has its use.” This suggests, rather, that the apostle was reminding Timothy that, though there were many scriptures in circulation, only that scripture which is inspired of God is profitable.
Orthodox Jews—particularly those who were involved in the preservation of the Hebrew Old Testament—never accepted the extra books as canonical. They regarded them rather as “apocryphal,” or “hidden,” a disparaging term implying that they deserved to be withdrawn from circulation as spurious or heretical.
When the Catholic scholar Jerome was learning Hebrew in preparation for his revision of the Latin Bible in about a.d. 400, he came to agree with this judgment that the extra Old Testament books did not measure up. He urged that all those books not included in the Hebrew canon should be recognized as apocryphal.
Through the centuries many other Catholic theologians and church leaders have taken the same position as Jerome. Even Cardinal Cajetan, Luther’s opponent at Augsburg in 1518, stated his agreement with the Hebrew canon and urged that the books recognized by Jerome as apocryphal not be relied upon for points of doctrine.
In spite of this, the Apocrypha still retains the same position in the Latin Bible that it occupied in the Greek Septuagint. This is true also of English translations of the Old Testament taken from the Latin rather than the original Hebrew and Aramaic. The 1382 Bible of Protestant John Wycliffe was one of these.
In his 1534 German Bible, Luther gathered the apocryphal books into a section between the Testaments and added this identification: “APOCRYPHA—that is, books which are not held equal to the Holy Scriptures and yet are profitable and good to read.”
In reaction to Protestant criticism, the Catholic Council of Trent, on April 8, 1546, pronounced that with three exceptions the apocryphal books were to be accepted as sacred and fully canonical.
All of the Protestant English Bibles of the sixteenth century contained the Apocrypha where Luther had placed them. On my desk I keep a magnificent facsimile of the original King James Version, an exact twentypound replica of the 1611 first edition. There between the Testaments are the books of the Apocrypha. In fact, these disputed books were regularly included in Protestant English Bibles until an 1827 decision by the British and Foreign Bible Society that the rules of the society forbade its circulation of the uncanonical books. The American Bible Society came to the same conclusion.
How can a man decide for himself which books are worthy of his trust? What about all the other books judged uncanonical by Jews, Protestants, and Catholics alike? By what standard can a book be recognized as “measuring up”?
The history of the origin of the extra books provides some clues. The opinions of centuries of believers should not be overlooked. But in the last analysis nothing is so convincing as the actual reading of the books themselves.
The easiest decision can be made about the apocryphal writings patterned after the books of the New Testament. These include apocryphal gospels, acts, epistles, and revelations.
In the so-called Gospel of Thomas, written as early as the second century a.d., a story is told about the boy Jesus playing by the brook one Sabbath day and forming sparrows out of the moist clay. When his father objected to his doing this on the Sabbath, Jesus cried, “Go!” “And the sparrows took their flight and went away chirping.”
On another occasion, according to this apocryphal book, a boy ran into Jesus and bumped him on the shoulder. Jesus cursed the boy, and he died. “The parents of the dead child came to Joseph and blamed him and said: ‘Since you have such a child, you cannot dwell with us in the village; or else teach him to bless and not to curse. For he is slaying our children.’”
The Acts of Peter tells how Simon the sorcerer amazed the multitudes by flying over the city of Rome! But Peter prayed that he would fall down and break his leg in three places. And so he did!
The Acts of John recounts this extraordinary experience of John and the obedient bedbugs. The translation is taken from the 1965 edition of the New Testament Apocrypha by Edgar Hennecke, Wilhelm Schneemelcher, and R. McL. Wilson:
“And on the first day we arrived at a lonely inn; and while we were trying to find a bed for John we saw a curious thing. There was one bed there lying somewhere not made up; so we spread the cloaks which we were wearing over it, and begged him to lie down on it and take his ease, while all the rest of us slept on the floor. But when he lay down he was troubled by the bugs; and as they became more and more troublesome to him, and it was already midnight, he said to them in the hearing of us all, ‘I tell you, you bugs, to behave yourselves, one and all; you must leave your home for tonight and be quiet in one place and keep your distance from the servants of God.’ And while we laughed and went on talking, John went to sleep; but we talked quietly and thanks to him were not disturbed.
“Now as the day was breaking I got up first, and Verus and Andronicus with me; and we saw by the door of the room which we had taken a mass of bugs collected; and as we were astounded at the great number of them, and all the brethren had woken up because of them, John went on sleeping. And when he woke up we explained to him what we had seen. And he sat up (in) bed and looked at them and said, ‘Since you have behaved yourselves and listened to my correction, go (back) to your own place.’ And when he had said this and got up from the bed, the bugs came running from the door towards the bed and climbed up its legs and disappeared into the joints. Then John said again, ‘This creature listened to a man’s voice and kept to itself and was quiet and obedient; but we who hear the voice of God disobey his commandments and are irresponsible; how long will this go on?’”
A few early Christian groups accepted some of the apocryphal books of the New Testament as authoritative. But it has been the almost unanimous judgment of the entire Christian church that the extra New Testament books simply do not measure up to the dignity and good sense of the ones already adjudged canonical.
The apocryphal books of the Old Testament that have been rejected by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews alike have been called Pseudepigrapha, meaning “falsely entitled.” Many of them contain material that is obviously inferior and unworthy of a place among the writings of the great Hebrew prophets.
When one comes to the apocryphal books admitted to the Catholic canon, the decision requires more careful consideration. Some of the material, such as the stories of Bel and the Dragon, seem no more serious than anecdotes in the New Testament Apocrypha. But the Book of First Maccabees contains valuable history. Ecclesiasticus and The Wisdom of Solomon include many wise and pious sayings.
Luther objected to the Apocrypha on the ground that it taught ideas contrary to the books of the Hebrew canon. Among these were the doctrine of purgatory and the efficacy of prayers for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:43–45). He also noted the considerable emphasis upon the earning of merit by good works (Tobit 12:9; Ecclesiasticus 3:3; 2 Esdras 8:33; and others).
For my own satisfaction I have more than once read the entire available collection of Biblical and apocryphal documents as far as possible at one sitting. It takes only a long weekend, and it is well worth the effort. When I arrive at the last book of the New Testament Apocrypha, I still have fresh recollections of Genesis and Malachi, 1 Esdras and 2 Maccabees, the Book of Jubilees and the Story of Ahikar, Matthew and Revelation, the Gospel of the Hebrews and the Revelations of Peter and Paul.
Within that total setting, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament canons always assume a special place.
It is not that the books of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha are without value. Even the most inferior tells us something of the beliefs and practices of that time. But among the sixty-six there is a measure of coherence and consistency that one would expect of documents purporting to tell the truth about God.
This is the ultimate standard of canonicity. And through the centuries the books that have met this requirement have been recognized as “measuring up.”
As far as the New Testament is concerned, Catholics and Protestants largely agree that the canonical books are the traditional twenty-seven. As for the Old Testament, there would seem to be good reason to follow Catholic Jerome, Protestant Luther, and the interdenominational Bible societies in recognizing the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew canon as the ones most worthy of our trust.
These sixty-six books, some of them not yet written when Paul and Timothy worked together, all give evidence of belonging among those Scriptures described as “inspired by God,” “teaching the truth,” and leading to “faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15, 16, GNT).
But there are other questions one might well raise about the trustworthiness of these ancient books.