Questions are so important in life! They are one of the primary ways that we as people learn. Questions are especially important when it comes to matters of God, Jesus, the Bible, and prayer, because the answers to these things can completely change a person's life. Below is a (growing) list of commonly asked questions, by churched and unchurched people alike. The responses to each of these questions are only meant to offer an initial reply, but where possible further resources will be recommended (such as video clips, video sermons, short articles, and even whole books) for those who want to pursue these topics further.
Before diving into these questions however, an introductory word is in order. Theologian Lesslie Newbigin reminds us that the Bible does not ever answer "our questions exactly in the form in which we put them. The Bible always requires of us a shift in standpoint, for which time and patience are needed." This insight entails a few things.
First, it means that sometimes the way we ask questions reveals a particular line of thinking – and sometimes that line of thinking goes in the wrong direction. So, often, it is not really possible to answer a question in the terms in which it was asked. Second, it is possible we are simply asking the wrong question! Third, time and patience are needed because askingquestions is far easier and quicker than attempting to answer them.
Asking a critical question, such as 'Why does God allow so much suffering in the world?' is akin to attempting to tear something down, in this case the Christian conviction that God is good. It is quick and easy to ask such a question. But attempting to answer such a question is like building something, and construction is much more time-consuming than deconstruction. A builder once said it took him three years to build a house, but with a digger he could tear a house down in under three days.
Questions are very important. But time and patience are required to satisfactorily address them. With this in mind, let's proceed!
Dr. Adam Dodds
Frequently Asked Questions
Click the question for some answers
HOW DO I READ THE BIBLE?
Regularly (daily), prayerfully, slowly, with expectation, and with a teachable heart. It is also good to read the Bible in community with others, such as a Lifegroup.
Two common approaches to reading the Bible are 'water skiing' and 'scuba diving'. 'Water skiing' is reading the Bible as you would a novel – you can read a lot in a short space of time, and it gives you a good broad perspective. 'Scuba diving' is digging into the Bible in much more detail, spending time on particular verses or passages. A mixture of both is recommended.
For more on how to read your Bible, check out our SOAP page.
For a great video check out 'Why and How Should I Read the Bible?'
For more tools on reading your Bible, check out these useful websites:
If you want to go deeper still, here is a list of some excellent books. The ones at the top are the most accessible, while the ones at the bottom are the most academic.
The Essential Jesus by Whitney T Kuniholm
The Essential Bible by Whitney T Kuniholm
How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth by G. Fee & D. Stuart
Scripture & the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today by N. T. Wright
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Klein, Blomberg & Hubbard Jr
SHOULD I INTERPRET THE BIBLE 100% LITERALLY OR NOT?
Recently a member of my congregation came to me with a good question about how to interpret the Bible. Her question was simply this, "Should we interpret the Bible 100% literally or not?"
Here was my response, in seven parts:
It's important to define what we mean by the word 'literal'. "Interpreting the Bible literally" often means, "interpreting a biblical passage the way it should be interpreted". It's essential to let the Bible speak for itself, rather than the reader imposing their own ideas onto it. For this, some understanding of the original context of the passage, and some understanding on the culture out of which it came, are extremely helpful. With this proviso: yes, we should interpret the Bible literally. This also means that while the Bible contains historical and scientific facts, we shouldn't treat it like a science or history textbook. Let me explain a little more.
The Bible is literally a library of 66 books (the word Bible means "library"). Like most libraries, this library contains works of different genres: history, poetry, wisdom sayings, letters, gospel texts, apocalyptic writings, and so on. All students of literature know that you interpret different genres differently. We don't interpret a Women's Weekly magazine the same way we would a newspaper, a poem, or a study textbook! The same rule applies to movies: we interpret a documentary film differently than we would a historical movie, a superhero flick, a sci-fi adventure, or a romantic comedy.
One commonly misunderstood notion is that literal means true, so, it is believed, "real Christians" always interpret the entire Bible literally. Literal does not always mean true, and true does not always mean literal. For example, the parables and psalms are true, but not literal in meaning.
It depends on the intent of each particular biblical author. If one biblical author intended what he wrote to be taken literally, then we should take it literally. If another biblical author meant his words to be taken symbolically, then that's how we should take it. Although this principle is easy to state, it isn't always easy to apply.
This gets even more complicated when you have a single author (e.g. Matthew, Mark, Luke or John) whose work contain a combination of statements, some of which are meant to be taken literally, and some of which are not. Literal statements include, for example, "Follow me." "Repent and believe." "Love the Lord your God with all your... [etc.]". But the gospels also contain parables that convey truth, but are not meant to be literal descriptions of reality. They also contain hyperbolic speech, such as in Matthew 5:29-30 – a common way of speaking in the Middle East, where a speaker deliberately exaggerates to make a point.
So the answer to the question is: There is no one-size fits all approach! It depends on the intent of the biblical author. This is one reason among many why Scripture should be read in community – where we can get the input of other Christians. And we can also consult godly men and women who have devoted their lives to studying the Bible, and produced commentaries to serve the church.
How to interpret the Bible is crucial when it comes to areas of Christian theology. For example, what Christians believe about specific issues, such as the nature of hell and conditional mortality. In such instances, it is essential to distinguish between dogma (core Christian beliefs agreed upon by the entire church worldwide), doctrine (important beliefs that have some amount of agreement between believers but also some disagreement), beliefs (more peripheral beliefs that Christians have varying views on), and opinions.
Picture concentric circles, with dogma in the middle, the circle of doctrine surrounding dogma, the circle of beliefs surrounding doctrine, and finally the circle of opinions surrounding beliefs. The closer to the middle one goes, the more important it is to reach agreement between Christians. Dogma includes things like the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Jesus, His incarnation, His resurrection, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, salvation by grace, and so on. These are things are absolute non-negotiable s. But on other more peripheral issues (such as the tribulation, or whether hell is conceived of as eternal in duration or eternal in consequence), unanimous agreement among Jesus-followers on such matters is less crucial.
Recommended Reading: How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth by Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart
IS THE BIBLE TRUSTWORTHY? by Andy Bannister
The Bible’s Power and Influence
In some countries today, the Bible is forbidden. Bringing a Bible into Saudi Arabia, for example, or North Korea, or China, or Libya, or Burma — along with many other countries — can result in expulsion for the westerner or arrest and torture if you’re native to the country. It wasn’t that long ago that the Bible was banned in communist Eastern Europe, too; a good friend of mine was involved in Bible smuggling into places like Romania and Hungary during the 1970's and 80's and can tell hair-raising stories of near arrests and fortunate escapes.
Banned in many countries, yet desperately sought by persecuted Christians. The best-selling, most widely studied piece of literature, whose influence is unquestionable, whatever you think of the book. Much of our art, law, philosophy, music and literature have drawn upon the Bible.
Yet this potency and influence aside, many people today want to ignore, rubbish, or reject the Bible. “How can you trust the Bible?” skeptics often ask. “New Atheist” writers like Richard Dawkins regularly attack the Bible, calling those who believe in it, “died in the wool faith-heads”.
Three Initial Thoughts
So how might we answer the skeptic? How can Christians show that it is rational and reasonable to trust the Bible and take seriously what it says? There are numerous ways one might approach this question, but I want to focus on a historical approach, as that’s my own academic background. But before that, let me start by making three general comments.
First, when somebody says “why trust the Bible?” I sometimes respond “why not trust the Bible?” One can only really doubt something if one has something more solid to believe in. Unless you merely want to be a skeptic. Whilst that’s very fashionable, it’s hard to be a consistent skeptic. Why not be skeptical about your skepticism?
Second, lots of people have bought into popular assumptions and myths about the Bible. So if somebody suggests the Bible is unreliable, ask them to be specific. How exactly? If they claim it’s full of myths, ask them which one they had in mind? Encourage them to read the Bible for themselves before passing judgement on it.
Third, there’s a lot of chronological snobbery about these days. Just because something is old or ancient, doesn’t make it false. Indeed, ancient-icity doesn’t tell us anything about whether something is true or false. Something can be ancient and true. Likewise something can be bang up to date and false.
The Historian and the Bible
Those comments aside, why trust the Bible? Well, first, many people are not aware that most historians take the Bible, especially the New Testament, very seriously indeed. The Bible has been subjected to extremely vigorous literary and historical criticism, probably more than any other ancient work, and it’s emerged unscathed. Hans Kung put it nicely:
Lay people are usually unaware that the scrupulous scholarly work achieved by modern biblical criticism … represented by scrupulous academic work over about 300 years, belongs among the greatest intellectual achievements of the human race. Has any of the great world religions outside of the Jewish-Christian tradition investigated its own foundations and its own history so thoroughly and impartially? None of them has remotely approached this. The Bible is far and away the most studied book in world literature.
In other words, the Bible doesn’t need defending or protecting from historical criticism — Christians haven’t shut themselves off from academic questions — far from it. Indeed, as the 19th century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once quipped: “Defend the Bible? I’d sooner defend a lion!”
When one approaches the Bible from a historical perspective, one can approach it much as one would any other ancient work. Broadly speaking, there are three tests a historian can utilise to determine the veracity of an ancient document. The bibliographic test, the internal test, and the external test. Let’s briefly look at each of these and how they apply to the Bible.
The Bibliographic Test
The bibliographic test looks at the ancient manuscripts of the Bible and asks whether the text of the Bible we have today is the same as the original? The simple answer is “yes”. There are thousands upon thousands of ancient manuscripts of the Bible, dating from the early second century down to the middle ages. When you compare what we have for the Bible with, say, what we have in terms of manuscripts for other important works of antiquity — Plato or Thucydides — it’s striking. For the Bible, we have 5,000 Greek manuscripts, hundreds of papyri, almost 350 Syriac copies (most dating to the 400's). On top of this, virtually the entire New Testament could be reproduced from quotations in the early church fathers; 32,000 such quotations exist before the Council of Nicaea in AD325, for example.
Many of these manuscripts are staggeringly early. For example, the John Ryland's fragment (P52) dates to around AD120. Codex Sinaiticus dates to about 350AD and contains virtually all of the New Testament — I remember visiting the British Library a few years ago and staring at this beautiful object, just a few centimeters away from me behind a pane of glass. One felt that one was in touch with history.
Why are these manuscripts important? Because they enable us to be confident that the text of the Bible we have today is extremely accurate and close to the original. Historian and textual critic Ben Witherington has remarked that critical scholarship is about 99% certain of all of the New Testament text now — indeed, that we’re closer to the original text of the New Testament now than anytime since the first couple of centuries, so good is the scholarship.
The Internal Test
What about the historian’s second test, the internal test? This test asks whether we can determine whether the document we have before us was written by eyewitnesses. When it comes to the Bible, especially to the New Testament, things get very interesting.
First, we have multiple witnesses. Many people who are unfamiliar with the Bible tend to think of it as one book — but, of course, the Bible contains multiple books — it’s more like a library than a book. So, when we come to the New Testament, for example, we have multiple authors writing about the life of Jesus. Critical scholars would count at least six — Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and probably also “Q”, a collection of sayings of Jesus that Matthew and Luke referred to.
Furthermore, these sources are all very early. Most scholars date the Gospels to the 60's, 70's and 80's AD, although some argue that Mark, especially, is much earlier. British New Testament scholar James Crossley — who, I’d note, is not a Christian — believes Mark was written in the late 30's or early 40's — that’s within a decade of Jesus. Another very early witness is Paul, who is writing his letters between AD48 and AD65, well within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. Why is this important?
Because one thing historians get very excited about is multiple attestation and early dating. To return to the Gospels, though, for a moment. Not merely are they very early, but it’s now fairly universally accepted in critical scholarship that the Gospel writers were trying to write history; in terms of genre, the Gospels are biographies. The seminal work that demonstrated this was a book called What Are the Gospels? by Richard Burridge. Interestingly, Burridge set out to disprove that the gospels are biographies but the evidence caused him to change his mind. Historian David Aune sums up the implications of this:
[Bios, ancient biography] was firmly rooted in historical fact rather than literary fiction. Thus while the Evangelists clearly had an important theological agenda, the very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to tell the story of Jesus indicated that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they really thought happened.”
There’s a further point here, too. If one wants to reject the Gospels as history, then one is still left with the problem of explaining the early church. It had to come from somewhere and if Jesus’ life and career didn’t play out as the Gospels claim, one has to explain where. As German historian Martin Dibelius put it: you have to posit an X big enough to explain the Y of the early church. The best explanation remains that given in the Gospels: that Jesus existed and something very remarkable happened to him.
The External Test
Finally, there’s the external evidence for the Bible, in particular archaeology. Time and time again, archaeology has confirmed that the writers of the biblical texts knew what they were talking about. Along with the writings of non-Christian historians from the first century, men like the Jewish historian, Josephus, archaeology endorses the biblical text at many points. As Millar Burrows, former professor of archaeology at Yale wrote: On the whole… archaeological work has unquestionably strengthened confidence in the reliability of the Scriptural record. More than one archaeologist has found his respect for the Bible increased by the experience of excavation in Palestine. Archaeology has in many cases refuted the views of modern critics.
Let me give you a few fascinating examples. First, two examples from Luke. In Acts 17:6-8, Luke uses the Greek word politarchs to describe the city officials in Thessalonica. That word doesn’t appear in classical Greek literature so for many years, critics accused Luke of making a mistake. Then archaeologists discovered a first-century arch in the town that used this very term — showing that the term was in use for government officials at the very time Luke was writing. It was a similar phenomena with Acts 18:12, where Luke uses the term “proconsul” to describe a gentleman called Gallio. That word didn’t appear either in classical literature so, again, scholars questioned Luke’s accuracy. Then an inscription was found at Delphi, dating to AD51, using the same term — and amazingly, to describe the very same official, Gallio. Once again Luke was proven to be a very accurate historian.
It’s a similar story with the other Gospel writers. For example, in John 5:1-2, the fourth Gospel writer speaks of “a pool in Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate, called in Hebrew ‘Bethesda’, which has five porticoes”. Until the 20th century, there was no evidence outside of John’s Gospel for such a place and, again, critics questioned John’s reliability. Then in the 1930s, the pool was uncovered by archaeologists — complete with four colonnades around the edges and one across the middle.
One more example will suffice and it’s perhaps the most intriguing — the so-called “James Ossuary”. According to the Gospels — and to the Jewish historian, Josephus, James was the brother of Jesus and was killed in AD62. In 2002, a mid-first century bone box or ossuary was discovered in Jerusalem, bearing the Aramaic inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. There is very strong evidence that the box and its inscription are authentic. Ed Keall, of the Royal Ontario Museum here in Toronto, has said “we stand by our opinion that the James Ossuary is not a forgery”. As New Testament historian Ben Witherington put it:
If, as seems probable, the ossuary found in the vicinity of Jerusalem and dated to about AD 63 is indeed the burial box of James, the brother of Jesus, this inscription is the most important extra-biblical evidence of its kind.
If we had more time, numerous other examples could be listed. The key point is this: archaeology doesn’t prove the New Testament is true. But what it does do is endorse the narratives. It shows that the biblical writings are historical and geographical in character — and thus deserve to be weighed and treated as seriously as any other texts from antiquity.
In the short time available to us, we’ve only been able to scratch the surface of what is a fascinating and rich area of study. But I hope in this brief survey I’ve been able to show that there are very good reasons to trust the Bible. And thus very good reasons to approach it with an open mind, willing to take what it says seriously and weigh its claims seriously.
So why read the Bible? Because from a historian’s perspective, we have good reason to trust it. Why read the Bible? Because only by reading it can you draw your own conclusions, rather than uncritically swallow somebody else’s second-hand-skepticism. Why read the Bible? Because through the pages of the four biographies in the New Testament, the gospels, one encounters a historical figure — Jesus of Nazareth — whose powerful personality continues to resonate and impact lives two thousand years on.
4 April, 2012
Andy Bannister, Canadian Director and Lead Apologist for RZIM Canada
An excellent short video entitled Is the Bible Reliable?
The New Testament Documents – Are They Reliable? by F. F. Bruce (New Testament scholar) – available for free
A medium length article by one of the world’s leading Bible scholars: Is the Bible Reliable?
Here are links to a series of short to medium length articles by a Gregory Boyd, a published scholar in this subject: