Bible: Are there good answers to common objections about the Bible?
In a research project that culminated in the book Christians Might Be Crazy, I commissioned researchers to discover the primary objections and questions regarding Christianity among the unchurched (people without church history), and the dechurched (people who used to go to church but no longer do). The research included more than nine hundred thousand phone calls, survey interviews with one thousand people, and eight focus groups (male and female) in four major American cities that resulted in over four hundred pages of transcribed conversations about the Bible and Christianity. Regarding the Bible, the following objections appeared most frequently
“The Bible has been edited by too many people.”
People in every focus group said the Bible has undergone so many changes throughout its history that we no longer have access to its original message. One man echoed many saying, “The people that are obeying it to the letter of the words, they might not be following what Jesus really said because it’s been passed down from so many different people, so many different scholars. It’s been edited by too many people. So, do we really know what the word of God in the Bible is? We don’t, there’s no way to know.”
In the days before the printing press and electronic files, trained scribes copied manuscripts letter by letter to preserve and disseminate them. While critics object that we do not possess the original autograph, the ancient age and quantity of copies we do have on hand means we are nevertheless certain of the Bible’s original message.
As far as New Testament documents, Dr. Darrell Bock said in an interview with me, “We have access to literally thousands of manuscripts and fragments that are used in translating the Bible, not a long chain of degraded translations…”And, “We have over 5,800 Greek manuscripts of one sort or another.” (1)
There are another 15,000 copies in other ancient languages. This compares with fewer than a dozen copies of most ancient works. Tragically, opponents of Scripture have attacked its trustworthiness by falsely stating that our current English translations are built upon poorly transmitted copies. However, the bibliographical test of Scripture fatly refutes this argument. This test determines the historicity of an ancient text by analyzing the quantity and quality of copied manuscripts, as well as how far removed they are from the time of the originals, the autographs mentioned earlier. In the next section we will examine this fact in greater detail.
The quantity of New Testament manuscripts is unparalleled in ancient literature. There are about 5,800 Greek manuscripts and about 15,000 manuscripts in other languages.
As the following chart illustrates, both the number of transmitted manuscripts we possess of Scripture and their proximity in date to the autographs are unparalleled when compared to other ancient documents (2).
|c. 400 BC
|3rd C BC
|Early 5th C
|1st half: 850,
|2+31 15th C
|Pliny, the Elder
|5th C fragment:
1; Rem. 14th–15th C
|3rd C BC (AD
|Some fragments from
1 C. BC. (AD 1100)
|AD 130 (or less)
In our interview, Dr. Darrell Bock adds, “If we’re going to discount the text of the New Testament, we should shut down our classics departments in universities around the country. We would have to reject the content of most of the works we use to understand ancient history. The idea that we don’t know the text of the New Testament documents is simply something close to crazy. We’ve got by far more manuscript evidence for the text of the New Testament than any other ancient work. And it’s by miles, it’s not just close. Comparing ancient manuscripts against each other shows where changes have occurred.” (1)
Additionally, we find that “the vast majority of these variations involve mere changes in spelling, grammar, and style, or accidental omissions or duplications of letters, words, or phrases,” according to New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg (3).
“Overall, 97 to 99 percent of the original Greek New Testament can be reconstructed beyond any reasonable doubt. Moreover, no Christian doctrine is founded solely, or even primarily, on any textually disputed passage.”
The Bible is not a collection of fables and legends assembled over long periods of time. The book we hold in our hands faithfully reflects what God spoke through the original authors.
In our interview, Bock highlighted a second faulty assumption about the transmission of Scripture. “Many people think the Bible was written in some ancient language long ago but has since been translated and re-translated over and over into so many different languages that we cannot trust it anymore. The reality is that teams of translators/scholars painstakingly go back to the original Greek and Hebrew to create Bibles in English and other tongues of people around the world. These linguistic experts have as much or more schooling than many rocket scientists, and their work is open to evaluation by anyone who wants to wade into the details.” (1)
“The Bible says…”
People often judge the Bible based on what they think it says. Here is a sample of some of the claims we heard in our focus groups:
“You’re supposed to sell your first daughter into slavery.” The Bible says no such thing.
“Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day, and teach a man to fish and he’ll be fed forever.” Literary types think they can trace back to the story “Mrs. Dymond” by Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie (1837–1919) (4).
“The Old Testament character Job [had sex with] his daughters. Incest is allowed according to the Bible.” Actually, the Bible repeatedly condemns incest and the exceptionally righteous man Job did no such thing. Our participant might have been thinking of Lot’s daughters, who got their dad drunk in an effort to get pregnant (5). That episode is a horrifc story that illustrates the principle that the Bible often describes behaviors it never prescribes. It often records awful events as a warning, not as a recommendation on how to live.
“The Bible teaches Jesus was born on Christmas.” In fact, the Bible makes no attempt to clarify the date Jesus was born. The traditional observance of Jesus’ birth on December 25 started during the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine (AD 306–337).
“The Bible is full of contradictions.”
This is no small complaint. Why should anyone agree with a book that can’t agree with itself? One woman spoke for many when she said the Bible had no shortage of passages that say completely opposite things. She felt it was “mindboggling” that anyone believes the Bible.
People who make these claims are often simply parroting what they have heard. So, when they say “contradictions,” it is more than fair for you to say, “Show me.” But we also have to be honest. While the Bible claims to be true, trustworthy, perfect, and God-breathed, it does not claim to always be easy to understand.
2 Peter 3:15-16 (NLT) says,
And remember, our Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved. This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction.
Peter packs a lot into those words. He declares that the letters Paul wrote as “Scripture” alongside other Bible books, showing that Paul’s writings—13 or 14 (there’s a debate on who wrote Hebrews) of the 27 books in the New Testament—were accepted as sacred as soon as they were written. Peter had to admit that even though Paul wrote with God-given wisdom, his letters contained comments that were tough to understand. Nevertheless, people are not free to interpret this, or any passage of Scripture, however they want. Already some “ignorant and unstable” people were twisting Paul’s writings and other Scriptures, resulting in their destruction.
If it appears that there is a contradiction in Scripture, we should first dig deeply into our Bible to see if what appears to be an error is, in fact, not an error once we have examined it more closely (6). In the end, it is perfectly reasonable to say that we do not have an answer for every question, we are always learning so the answer might come later, or when we get to heaven the answer will be clear. With our three pound fallen brains, humility requires that we begin by assuming we may be wrong, or simply not understand, many things in and out of the Bible.
As Christians, we trust that God makes clear the true essentials of our faith, a principle called the perspicuity of Scripture. We also humbly admit that sometimes the Bible feels challenging because we don’t like what it says. Our problem often is less that we don’t understand what it says and more that we don’t agree or don’t want to obey. This is especially true of sexual sin, as the Bible is a lot clearer than many people had hoped. Thankfully, there are entire books that reason through the toughest points of Scripture (7).
“The New Testament was largely written by people who didn’t even know Jesus.”
A woman in Austin exposed a common attitude toward Bible accounts, claiming the New Testament was written by people who had never met Jesus, “To me Jesus is this guy who lived and then they wanted to create a religion around him and so they changed the end of what they call the Old Testament, the Torah, and built this new religion.”
Earlier in this chapter, we established the fact that the New Testament is testimony from eyewitnesses to Jesus life and ministry. The Bible also says that upward of 500 witnesses saw Jesus risen from death at one time, and most were still alive and willing to testify about it publicly at the time. (8)
These details are intensely relevant. Devout Jews who believed that the act of worshiping a false God would damn them to hell forever started worshiping their friend, brother, and son as God. Many were tortured and died as martyrs without one of them ever recanting that Jesus was God who rose from death. Additionally, many of the historically verifiable early church leaders such as Polycarp, who was martyred for his testimony of Jesus, were disciples of the Apostles.
Some people imagine that a chronological gap between Jesus life and the writing of His story made room for corruption, legends, and myths to develop. In actuality, the time between the New Testament events and their recording is very short, especially compared with other ancient documents. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15:1–8 about Jesus’ resurrection, within about 25 years. Eyewitnesses were alive to object if what Paul wrote and the church taught were historically inaccurate. The earliest surviving manuscript fragment of the New Testament—from the Gospel of John—dates to about AD 130, within decades of when John penned his Gospel in AD 70–100. New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace reports that a fragment of Mark may date to the first century, even earlier than the one from John (9).
“There are some stories that are kept in and some stories that were kicked out.”
Participants across our focus groups believed that many early Christians played fast and loose with the facts about Jesus, including only select details when they compiled the Bible. A woman in Austin said, “They put together the whole New Testament so there’s [sic] some stories that are kept in and some stories that were kicked out. I think some of the real history is in there. I just don’t think we have all of the story.” A San Francisco woman shared, “I’ve heard the Vatican hides sections of the Bible that portray Jesus in a more negative light.” And another Austin woman noted, “In the Bible there’s [sic] 26 original gospels. Only four of them got put in the Bible. I think that maybe there’s [sic] more to that.”
Our focus groups repeatedly mentioned Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, which popularized the idea that there were numerous competing “gospels” and church leaders chose their favorites and rejected others, including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Barnabas, the Gospel of Philip, or even the Gospel of Judas. Whenever these “other gospels” get bursts of media attention, it seems to challenge the credibility of the Bible. There are a couple obvious reasons these “other gospels” are unreliable as genuine history about Jesus.
Dan Brown built much of the storyline of his best-selling book, The Da Vinci Code, on the premisethat the church selected the four canonical Gospels from eighty similar books (10).The others, it is said, were stamped out by “a Church that had subjugated women, banished the Goddess, burned non-believers, and forbidden the pagan reverence for the sacred feminine.” (10, p. 259).
In fact, however, even by the most generous count there are fewer than thirty “gospels.” Only the canonical Gospels date from the first century. The earliest of the others was written more than one hundred years after Jesus lived. Most of them are dated at least two hundred years after Jesus. Contrary to false accusation, not one of these “lost gospels” was hidden by the church. Furthermore, no “lost” gospels have been discovered. All of the discovered books were referred to in the church fathers’ writings because they knew of their existence but simply did not consider them sacred Scripture. Some older or more complete copies of them have been discovered, most significantly in the Egyptian Nag Hammadi site. 2 Peter 1:16 rightly calls these kinds of claims about lost gospels and suppressed teachings about Jesus “cleverly devised myths” with no basis in fact or reality.
There is no reason to be concerned about any lost gospels containing truth that we need about God. Anyone curious about their truthfulness should simply read them. The Gospel of Philip purportedly says that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. In fact, it says, “And the companion of the [ . . . ] Mary Magdalene, [ . . . ] her more than the disciples [ . . . ] kiss her on her [ . . . ]. The rest of [ . . . ]. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’” (The ellipses in brackets indicate where the papyrus is broken and lost.) To say the least, this is extremely slender evidence for Jesus’ marriage that some purport, even if this very late, clearly Gnostic gospel was accepted as authentic, which it is not.
The Gospel of Thomas is one of the earlier and most widely affirmed Gnostic gospels. It is not a gospel in the sense of a narrative that tells the story of Jesus. Rather, it consists of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, some of which clearly parallel sayings in the canonical Gospels.
But that is where the similarity ends. It was written at least a century after the four biblical Gospels, long after the eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ were dead. It clearly reflects Gnostic theology built on a belief system that despised earthly and material realities and exalted the “higher” spiritual plane. The “god” of Thomas is a second-rate angelic being who rebelliously created this physical world. Humans are presented as spiritual beings ensnared in a wretched physical body. The only attention given to the humanity of Jesus was when trying to excuse it. The canonical Gospels, however, provide a very different picture of Jesus: a man who is fully human, in body and spirit, and who had disciples and friends, both male and female.
To make the differences between the real Gospels in the Bible and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas clear, just read its final adage where only men can enter heaven:
Simon Peter said to him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” (114)
Regarding the wrongly termed “lost gospels,” New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg has said:
In no meaningful sense did these writers, church leaders, or councils “suppress” Gnostic or apocryphal material, since there is no evidence of any canon that ever included them, nor that anyone put them forward for canonization, nor that they were known widely enough to have been serious candidates for inclusion had someone put them forward. Indeed, they would have failed all three of the major criteria used by the early church in selecting which books they were, at times very literally, willing to die for—the criteria of apostolicity (that a book was written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle), coherence (not contradicting previously accepted Scripture), and catholicity (widespread acceptance as particularly relevant and normative within all major segments of the early Christian community) (11).
To be fair, there are a handful of other ancient books that have some good content. The Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache were appreciated by the early church and are akin to some popular Christian books today. Helpful like C.S. Lewis? Yes. Bible? No. Only a few individual churches and teachers wanted them included in the canon. Simply, they were not accepted because they were not God’s Word for his whole church.
From the very earliest days, the church knew which books were God’s inspired Word for them in the same way that a child knows who their parent is in a crowd. They read them, studied them, obeyed them, lived them, and passed them on. We should do the same without adding anything to the Scriptures. Proverbs 30:5–6 says, “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.”
“Christianity borrowed from ancient religions.”
“If you look at Egyptian cultures,” said Kirk from the Phoenix focus group, “there’s the story of a virgin birth in there somewhere, and if you look at it even further…” That was one assertion among many, that Christianity stole its best ideas from outside sources.
The easiest way to decide if early believers indeed borrowed key elements like the resurrection from other ancient religions is to read those supposed sources. The story about a corn god died, was buried, and came back to life as new crops is not exactly the Jesus story. Neither is the yarn about Osiris and Isis, Egypt’s ultimate power couple. In the oldest version of the myth, the divine Osiris is killed and dismembered, with his body parts scattered across Egypt. His wife, Isis, retrieved every last piece—save for his phallus, which unfortunately had been gobbled up by fish. Isis made a gold phallus and sang a song to bring Osiris back to life. Osiris then impregnated Isis, and she gave birth to the new king, Horus. And did we mention that Isis was Osiris’ sister?
It is hard to see how we should consider myths like these as inspiration for stories of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is an actual historical event attested to by eyewitnesses. After thoroughly researching ancient beliefs about resurrection, theologian N. T. Wright concludes: “Nobody in the pagan world of Jesus’ day and thereafter actually claimed that somebody had been truly dead and had then come to be truly, and bodily, alive once more.” (12)
Edwin Yamauchi has immersed himself in no less than 22 languages and is an expert in ancient history, including Old Testament history and biblical archaeology, with an emphasis on the interrelationship between ancient near Eastern cultures and the Bible. He is widely regarded as an expert in ancient history, early church history, and Gnosticism. He has published over 80 articles in more than 3 dozen scholarly journals and has been awarded 8 fellowships. His writing includes contributing chapters to multiple books, as well as books on Greece, Babylon, Persia, and ancient Africa. After a lifetime of careful academic study on this issue, Yamauchi has concluded that there is no possibility that the idea of a resurrection was borrowed because there is no definitive evidence for the teaching of a deity resurrection in any of the mystery religions prior to the second century (13).
In fact, it seems that other religions and spiritualities stole the idea of a resurrection from Christians! For example, the resurrection of Adonis is not spoken of until the second to fourth centuries (14). Attis, the consort of Cybele, is not referred to as a resurrected god until after AD 150 (14).
Some have postulated that the taurobolium ritual of Attis and Mithra, the Persian god, is the source of the biblical doctrine of the resurrection. In this ritual, the initiate was put in a pit, and a bull was slaughtered on a grating over him, drenching him with blood. However, the earliest this ritual is mentioned is AD 160, and the belief that it led to rebirth is not mentioned until the fourth century. Princeton scholar Bruce Metzger has argued that the taurobolium was said to have the power to confer eternal life only after it encountered Christianity (15).
In summary, whatever similarities might exist between points of Jesus’
story and ancient religions, it is far more likely that the other faith borrowed
from Christianity than vice-versa.
(1) Driscoll, M (2019). Christians Might Be Crazy: Answering the Top 7 Objections to Christianity. Dunham & Company, 153].
(3) Craig L. Bomber, (2004-03-01), Making Sense of the New Testament: Three Crucial Questions (Kindle Locations 237–238). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. In his note on this point, Blomberg says, “The standard scholarly introduction to New Testament textual criticism, from which these and many other data may be gleaned, is Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989). For a far briefer survey, requiring no technical knowledge of the feld, see David A. Black, New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).”
(5) Gen. 19:30–38
(6) When Critics Ask, by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, is very helpful in doing this (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992).
(7) For further reading, see The Big Book of Bible Difculties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation, by Norman L. Geisler; When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difculties, by Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe; New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difculties, by Gleason L. Archer Jr.; Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, by John Haley.
(8) 1 Cor. 15:1–8
(9) Daniel B. Wallace, “First-Century Fragment of Mark’s Gospel Found!” March 22, 2012, http://danielbwallace.com/2012/03/22/frst-century-fragment-of-marks-gospel-found/.
(10) Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 251
(11) Craig L. Blomberg, “Jesus of Nazareth: How Historians Can Know Him and Why It Matters” (Deerfield, IL: Christ on Campus Initiative, 2008), http://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/cci/Blomberg.pdf, 25–26.
(12) N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 76.
(13) Edwin Yamauchi, “Easter: Myth, Hallucination, or History?” Christianity Today, March 15, 1974 and March 29, 1974, 4–7, 12–16.
(14) Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 174–75; and Bruce M. Metzger, Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1968), 11.
(15) Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 174–75; and Bruce M. Metzger, Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1968), 11.