This is fact: the bible is, without question, the best documentary record of life and history in the ancient middle east.
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Understanding the Bible #2 . How We Got the Bible & Can we trust it? (Old Testament)
Last week we considered the Bible from a non-spiritual standpoint, evaluating it as if it were merely a system that was developed to guide human behavior (that is, a “moral” system). We found that objectively, the Bible offers a superior guide to human behavior than other “holy books” and one that is much superior to any “individual morality” that individuals choose for themselves. The next few weeks I want to dig more deeply into the origins of the Bible. This will help us to evaluate spurious claims like those of the “DaVinci Code” and the “Judas gospels” and other part-truth/mostly lies stories that have been floated about the bible for years. For now, we’ll just consider the Old Testament. We will tackle the New Testament later in the series.
Several early portions of the Old Testament were originally recited orally and passed down from generation to generation through memorization and repetition. Most of Genesis, as well as probably Ruth and Judges were all originally spoken, rather than written. How do we know this? Well, the first portions of Genesis, if accurate at all, took place before reading and writing was widespread. But even more than that, examining the Bible texts in Hebrew (which was the original language) shows several easily recognized mnemonic devices (that is, verbal cues used to help people memorize a recitation). One way to picture it this: those texts which were originally recited orally, look (at least in Hebrew) more like a play than a novel. Usually, these little memory points are lost in translation to English, but one passage in which the NIV has preserved them fairly well is Genesis 5:1-31. There are seven small sections in these verses. Each section begins with “When [somebody’s name] had lived [a number] of years…” and then some details about that person and his descendants. The section closes with “and then he died.”
If this is the first time you have heard of that, this may make you a bit uncertain about how reliable those portions of scripture could be. This is because our culture has mostly lost the art and practice of memorization. But the fact is, there used to be professional oral historians. These were people who were responsible to memorize the oral histories, word for word and teach them to the next generation. Not only that, but in the case of the Hebrew people and the Old Testament, every father had a duty to teach the spiritual history to his children. People are capable of remembering a great deal. The philosopher Socrates, who lived almost a thousand years after the time of Moses, lamented the fact that during his lifetime the Greeks started writing things down in books. He felt that if books came into widespread use, people would stop remembering things, because they would be able to simply look them up in a book. He felt memorization was a much superior way to preserve knowledge for future generations.
Even in the twentieth century, Michail Gorbachev memorized the entire text of all four gospels when he was a child. We remember more, and better, than we realize. If you have seen the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” I bet you can fill in this blank. Patsy, the trusty squire is shot by an arrow. He says: “I’m not quite ______ yet.” If you have seen the movie “The Princess Bride” I bet you know the word that the Sicilian kidnapper, Vicini, says all the time. These are things we memorize – word for word – without even trying. How much more are people capable of in a culture where oral history is valued and practiced!
Aside from the oral histories, other parts of the Old Testament were written down, more or less at the time the events occurred or the words were spoken. The first five books of the Old Testament are called the Pentateuch; they are also known by Jews as the “Torah,” or “Law.” Over time the Torah, and the writings of the scribes and prophets were compiled into what today we call the Old Testament. We don’t know the exact date at which the Old Testament was considered to be “closed,” but it is probably around 250 B.C., which is the approximate date most scholars agree that the Old Testament was first translated into Greek (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint). We don’t have any original copies of the Old Testament. Professional scribes carefully copied the originals when they became worn, and then destroyed the originals. When the copies became worn, new copies were made and the older copies destroyed. For many years, the oldest copy that had been found was made in the 800s A.D. — much newer, in fact, than many New Testament manuscripts. Because of this, many scholars assumed that if the Old Testament manuscript copies were compared to the originals, there would be many errors. However, it should be noted that later manuscripts agree very closely with these earliest texts, which shows that the scribes took great care when making copies. In 1947, the “Dead Sea Scrolls” were discovered. These are not all Biblical writings, but among them are parts of the Old Testament. The Dead Sea Scrolls date back to 1000 years before those previous Old Testament manuscripts. As it turns out, at least in the texts that are available for comparison, during those thousand years very few copying errors were made, and none were significant. Again it is an example of how carefully the Old Testament was preserved by the scribes. I have personally seen a scroll of Isaiah that was made in about 1400 AD and used in a synagogue in Germany for 400 years — until the mid-1800s, when it was taken out of use because it was “worn.” It looked cleaner, clearer and more pristine than these sermon notes. In other words, new copies were long before manuscripts became difficult to read. Taken all in all, it has been demonstrated thoroughly that the contents of the Old Testament have been preserved, largely unchanged, from when they originated.
Now, in spite of these well-preserved texts, there is a prevalent and long-standing tendency to discount the Old Testament as “religious writing” and therefore inaccurate. For many decades the trendy thing was to doubt everything the Bible said – even the “normal, historical” parts of it – unless it could be confirmed by some sort of archaeological discovery. For instance, until very recently, Skeptical scholars claimed that king David of Israel was a mythical figure who had been made up by the writers of the Bible. Unfortunately for them, archaeologists discovered a reference to David in the writings of another culture in the middle east. The reference to David matched the approximate time period that the Bible puts him in. Since that time, architecture with inscriptions referring to David has also been found.
In the Old Testament, Isaiah writes about the invasion of the Assyrian army. He describes how they laid siege to the town of Lacish, and then how they came and surrounded Jerusalem. He mentioned Sennacherib, the Assyrian emperor at the time. Over where Assyria used to be, they have uncovered some of the records and court-commissioned art from the time of Sennacherib. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Assyrians recorded some of the same events, and even mentioned the name of Hezekiah, King of Judah at the time, according to the Bible.
According to the Old Testament, the Israelites destroyed the town of Jericho in about 1400 BC. According to archaeologists, Jericho was indeed destroyed about 1400 BC. There is not enough time and space to describe all of the archaeological discoveries which have, over and over, proven that the Bible is a reliable historical source. The people it talks about were real people; the situations it describes were real. The history it records really happened. The texts were truly written or memorized when the events they record were actually happening.
Millar Burrows, a PhD graduate of Yale University, and one of the leading authorities on the Dead Sea Scrolls, said this:
The Bible is supported by archaeological evidence again and again. On the whole, there can be no question that the results of excavation have increased the respect of scholars for the Bible as a collection of historical documents. The confirmation is both general and specific. The fact that the record can be soften explained or illustrated by archaeological data shows that it fits into the framework of history as only a genuine product of ancient life could do. In addition to this general authentication, however, we find the record verified repeatedly as specific points. Name of places and persons turn up at the right places and in the right periods.
What is strange is that some people persist in doubting the Bible until is proven by some non-Biblical source. The truth is, there is no non-biblical source that has been so thoroughly verified as the Bible itself. It is, without question, the best documentary record of life and history in the ancient middle east.
But the bible isn’t just a history book. There are many kinds of literature in the bible: family histories, genealogies, laws, national histories, biographies, poetry, prophecy, letters and songs. All those different books, written in different times and places by people in widely varied life situations, carry message. The message is easier to understand in some places; in other parts, it takes time and patience to hear it. But it is there throughout the entire bible.
Imagine the song “Silent Night.” Like many Christmas songs it has been arranged in many different ways, and played by many different groups and performing artists. Think of it being played instrumentally, by an orchestra. You’ve probably heard it that way. Now, imagine how it sounds sung by a full choir, with no instruments at all. It’s the same song. The same music is being conveyed, and yet, it sounds very different. Now, picture Willie Nelson (a country-western singer) singing Silent Night. Now, try to imagine Barbara Streisand singing the same song. Picture it done to swing-rhythm, crooned by Harry Connick Jr. Now imagine it as “muzak” or “elevator music,” played at the mall. Think of a rendition of the song by Frank Sinatra. Hear it done by Reggae artists.
All of these are the same song, conveying the same “musical message.” And yet each style and performance conveys that same “musical message” in a very different way. We can appreciate some of those ways better than others, but it all goes back to the same composer, the same basic set of notes, the same lyrics.
This is kind of how the bible is. Sometimes, God conveyed his message through the life of an old man, or a young princess. Sometimes, he sent it through laws that helped people at that time understand him better. At other times, God’s message came through prophets, or teachers, or letter writers, kings or musicians. Sometimes, it is hard to recognize as the same message, because three-thousand year-old laws require more work to understand than clearly written letters from more than a thousand years later. But the messages about God, human beings and relationships are consistent throughout the bible. Like with Silent Night, though the “performances” are widely varied, the basic underlying message is the same. Different musicians may play the music, different instruments may create it, but at the same time, the music is, and always was, the product of the original composer.
Paul puts it this way:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17, ESV2011)
The bible comes to us through various human writers and poets and kings. But it is all the work of the Holy Spirit. Another way to look at it, is like an amazing building, say a cathedral. One architect designs the cathedral. He plans it. Many builders of different types are involved in actually building the cathedral, but it all comes together under the plan and direction of the one architect. If someone asks, “who built this cathedral?” we would probably say the name of the architect, not the many and various laborers who put it together. So, many people contributed to the bible, but it was God who planned it and put it together.
The best way that I know to start understanding the bible is to start reading it. It is very difficult to understand in little bits and pieces, especially if you get those bits and pieces from other people, or the internet. I would recommend, if you have never done this, to start reading one of the books of the New Testament, say, Matthew. Read a chapter a day (or more, if you are so inclined), until you’ve read the whole book of Matthew. Then find another New Testament book (any one of them, except Revelation. Leave that until you have more understanding), and read it the same way. After you’ve read the New Testament, go back, and pick an Old Testament book, and try a few of those. I would return and read a book in the New Testament after every second or third Old Testament book. Some people, in addition to this kind of reading, also read one of the psalms every day. That’s a great reading plan. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!
Psalm 119 talks about “the law.” It really means “the scripture” in general. Verses 97-103 says this:
97 Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
98 Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
for they are ever with me.
99 I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
100 I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.
101 I have kept my feet from every evil path
so that I might obey your word.
102 I have not departed from your laws,
for you yourself have taught me.
103 How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Have you tasted the “sweetness” of God’s message to you through the Bible? I encourage you to start reading it, and experience that for yourself!
I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.
In contrast, about 430 people subscribe to this blog, and an additional 300 or so each week come and visit the site. In other words, by far, most of the people who benefit from this ministry are not part of our little church.
I’m asking you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. I value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.
But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.
Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.
If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.
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Thank for your prayers, and your support!