July 16, 2022 - Why This Book & No Others?

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Last time we talked about Biblical authority. We talked about why many of us see the Bible as essentially free from error (as long as we carefully define what we mean by error). We believe the Bible to be a book that is superior to all others in its reliability and trustworthiness. Yes, we may find places where the Bible is not precise, or places where the details don’t match up perfectly, but nowhere are we in a position to declare the Bible guilty of falsehood. Words such as falsehood and error do not fit our reverence for the Bible as God’s unique, authoritative word. We mentioned the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy as a document that does a good job explaining what we mean when we say that the Bible is without error.

 

We also admitted that yes, if we define error this way, almost any book could be said to be without error. And yes, some religions do treat their holy book or books the same way we treat the Bible, as innocent of error until proven guilty. I try to cut other people’s holy books the same slack as I do with my own book that I believe to be God’s word.

 

So why do we in the historic Christian Church treat the Bible this way, and no other books? Why does the Bible alone deserve to be put on a pedestal like this? And how do we decide which ancient writings belong in this holy book?

 

How do we verify a claim that a book is from God? Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16 that the writings of the apostles and prophets are “inspired by God” (literally “God-breathed”). But other religions also claim that their holy book is true. How do we settle that debate?

 

A lot of people would say that only the testimony of the Holy Ghost in their hearts can lead us to the truth about the Bible or any other book. I’ve written about this in my book, The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith. Many people in the KUTR listening area have another book they claim to be God’s word. They argue that if we ask God whether their book is true, God will show us it is true, “by the power of the Holy Ghost.” Likewise, the Protestant Westminster Confession of Faith says that “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority [of the Bible] is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” Both of these traditions teach that the testimony of the Spirit is the ultimate confirmation of God’s truth.

 

So, what good is historical evidence for the Bible, or Christian belief, or any belief? The answer is: evidence and Spirit must go hand in hand. God’s Spirit cannot authenticate a falsehood. Wherever we can tell that obvious lies are being told, we must question whether this is the Holy Spirit speaking in our hearts or a deceiving spirit.

 

For me, it ultimately boils down to evidence. Some books don’t make claims that can be tested. But the more that a book makes claims about facts or events that we can verify, the more we can trust that book’s reliability in other areas, if those claims prove true.

 

The role of God’s Spirit is to open our eyes to see the truth for what it is. The role of evidence is to give us reasons why we should trust a testimony to our faith, and not the testimony of countless Muslims or Hindus or other religions to their very different claims of truth.

 

When any book that claims to be from God makes statements that cannot be verified, we can either take its claims on faith, or we can base our trust on the book’s track record of verified claims on other subjects. I refuse to believe that a book comes from God simply because it says so. Any book can make that claim. We need reasons to support that claim, hopefully reasons that can be tested in verifiable reality, reasons which anyone can see for themselves.

 

Some might think that I am demanding proof from God, rather than accepting the Bible’s word on faith. What I am saying is that we fallible humans need a little help from God to show us why we should believe the claims of the Bible, and not the claims of other books as well. God understands that need. And what we need is more than simply the testimony of the Spirit. The testimony of the Spirit can easily be misidentified. What we think is God speaking to us can easily turn out to be our own wishful thinking. When 2 books are both making claims to be from God, we need reasons why we should trust one book more than the other.

 

John writes in 1 John 4:1, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Spirit must be checked by facts, as best as we can determine those facts, lest we be misled by the wrong spirit. John gives his readers one specific example: anyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not from God. The big deception in John’s day was coming from the Gnostics, who believed that the material world was evil, and that Jesus was therefore just a ghost, that he did not truly come in the flesh. John is just giving one example of the spirit of error. There are more. What a faith teaches about Jesus is of crucial importance as we sort out which spirits are from God.

 

But why Jesus? Why is he the test of truth? It’s hard for us to see the issue through the eyes of the ancient world where Jesus first appeared on the scene. The Greeks and Romans had their gods. The Jews had their God and their Hebrew Bible. Why should either of them believe this newcomer named Jesus to be the truth, let alone the measure of all other truth? As Paul says to the church at Corinth, the Jews demanded signs from God, and the Greeks wanted wisdom. Yes, only the Holy Ghost can open our eyes to recognize Jesus for who he is, but how do we know it’s the Holy Ghost, and not some deceiving spirit, like the kind John warns his readers about later on?

 

The example of the Bereans in Acts 17 sets a wonderful example for us on how to proceed. The Jews in the synagogue at Berea (west of Thessalonika) had the word of God. They had the Hebrew Bible. Paul brings them a new word from God. He announces that the Messiah predicted in that Bible has come. It sounds good to them, but to be sure they weren’t buying into baloney, we are told that the Jews at Berea “searched the scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Wherever we know that God has spoken, we need to check and make sure that any new word that claims to be from God is consistent with the word that God has already given us. If it’s not, then we have reason to question whether that new word truly comes from God.

 

Ultimately, if an authoritative text has proven itself reliable to us at points where we can verify its truth, we will trust it at points where the truth of that text gets challenged, whether it be the existence of Solomon’s empire, or the existence of an historical Adam and Eve. And in any situation where the authoritative texts of different religions happen to fundamentally disagree, we must decide which book we trust more.

 

A few moments ago, I said that we need at least some undeniable, verifiable truth to help us tell the difference between a book we can trust and a book we cannot trust. As we seek to verify the claims of different books that claim to be from God, some of them make claims that appear to be impossible. Does that disqualify them from being true? Not necessarily.

 

We have to rely on claims that we can verify, to help us decide whom we can trust when it comes to claims that we can’t verify. Because I am persuaded by a strong case that Jesus truly rose from the dead, I find it much easier to believe that Jesus was conceived without human father, that he was God in human flesh, and that he walked on water, all of which would be much harder if not impossible to believe if not for my conviction that Jesus rose from the dead.

 

The Bible does not require me to believe logical impossibilities. It does call me to believe in wonders that are rare but break no laws of nature, and to believe in wonders that break the laws of nature but not the laws of logic. I believe in these wonders, because I find the rest of the Bible’s testimony to be compelling. But I try to be charitable in assessing the supernatural claims of other religions. Other books make numerous claims that I do not personally accept, but as I said last time, I respect the willingness of those who believe in those books to suspend judgment on those claims, for reasons similar to why I am willing to trust the Bible at points where I find my faith stretched to the limit.

 

Only God can open our eyes to see the evidence for what it is. I’m just glad God has been merciful enough to give us a lot more than unreliable feelings to lead us to the truth. God has given us evidence. God has given us reasons why we should believe the claims of the Bible over any other book, why the Bible deserves our trust more than any other book. (We talked about this in our broadcast on “Evidence” on March 7 of last year.) Only the Holy Ghost can convince us that God’s word is true, but God gives us evidence to help us make that judgment call.

 

The Bible is full of time-tested, practical wisdom. It has truckloads of fact to back it up. No other book that claims to be God’s word has survived the avalanche of acid criticism to which the Bible has been subjected. In a book that makes so many hundreds of statements of fact, the Bible has an amazing track record of getting the facts right. I know dozens of thorny problems in Scripture, but most of them are easily resolved, and for the rest, we can give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. And so when the Bible makes some hard-to-believe claims, I refuse to blow them off as unhistorical or as legend.

 

But which books belong in this book which we treat with such authority? Who chose the books of the Bible? And what got left out, and why? Contrary to the claims of The Da Vinci Code, there was no top-down decree or official vote on the books of either the OT or NT. Deciding which books were God’s word was a grassroots effort, a process that took place over time, a process where we can see the hand of God at work, the Holy Ghost. You’ll find more details about this process in my book, The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith.

 

For the OT, Christians accepted the Jewish canon (the books Jesus had in his Bible), and the Jews were in pretty solid agreement on which books they believed to be God’s word. The Pharisees and the Dead Sea Scroll writers used to yell and scream at each other, but they never disagreed about which books belonged in the Bible. The Pharisees themselves were not quite sure about Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, but they agreed on all the others. The Greek OT adds the books which we call the Apocrypha, but you don’t hear Jews back then quoting these other books as Scripture. In 90 AD, the Jewish historian Josephus expresses the opinion that the canon was closed after the Persian period (400 BC), because after that there were no more prophets. Josephus is also the first guy to give us a list of OT books, which is identical to our list; he says these are the books that were kept in the official collection in the Temple (before the Temple was destroyed).

 

The consensus around 180 AD about the NT canon (as we see in a list called the Muratorian Canon) was very close to what appears on our lists from the late 300’s (the NT lists in the late 300’s are where we get the list we have today). If anything, the early church before 300 AD leaned toward leaving out books that we have included. A lot of early writers never quote James or 2 Peter. The list from 180 AD leaves out Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, and 3 John, plus (surprisingly enough) it includes the Apocalypse of Peter (although the writer says some will not allow that book to be read in church).

 

So, how did the early church decide what books could be trusted? For instance, how did they narrow it down to our 4 Gospels and no others? We owe a tremendous debt to Christians who lived around 70-100 AD. They were the ones who could still remember what Jesus said and did, so they were in the position to know which books told the truth about Jesus.

 

The early church used 4 criteria to determine what belonged in their Bible: 1. Is the book apostolic – did it come from an apostle or someone close to the apostles who preached the same message? 2. Antiquity (is it old enough to really go back to the apostles?). 3. Orthodoxy (does it fit with what we already know is true about Jesus?). 4. Usage (is everybody quoting it?). How do we know if what was popular was true? We only know through the decisions of believers who were in a position to know. (Luke was probably a major player in collecting these books.) Early believers like Luke looked for books that gave us the best access to Jesus. They did that while the memory of the apostolic age was still alive.

 

So if we had locked in the NT canon around 200 AD, not all the books we have today would have made the cut. But early believers were unanimous in rejecting almost all of the books that never made it into our Bibles. This was not a top-down decree from some ruler or council. It was a grassroots effort, a process over time in which the whole church participated.

 

So who got cut out of the NT by the earliest believers, and why? There are 2 categories of books that did not make the cut. The first category is the books that were considered to be false or heretical teaching, which includes the so-called Gnostic writings. Grassroots believers decided that the Gnostic books were bogus as a source of truth about Jesus. The other books that didn’t make the cut were good books that just came along too late to meet the publication deadline. These books show us what the early church really believed. There is nothing off-base or bizarre in them, but there is also nothing essential in them that is not already found in the Bible, and the authors are not apostles who lived in Jesus’ day.

 

What about books the Bible quotes that we no longer have, such as the Book of the Wars of the Lord, or the book of Jashar, or the many sources quoted in Kings and Chronicles? Are we missing out on some lost volumes of inspired Scripture? I would say, God has already given us the gold nuggets we needed from those books. If we needed more, God would have given us more. The Bible gives us quotes from Enoch and Epimenides (the guy who said “Cretans are always liars”). We have those books. See for yourself: they are not inspired.

 

We’ve talked about whether there are any missing books that belong in God’s word. But are there any missing words of Jesus out there that did not make it into book form? There may be a few. If not for Paul’s quote from Jesus found only in the book of Acts, we might never have heard Jesus’ famous words, “It is more blessed to give than to received.” But as we look at the handful of unwritten sayings that claim to be from Jesus that we do have from outside the Bible, none of them adds any information that we really needed to know about Jesus that we don’t already have. God has already given us all we need to know in the books of today’s Biblical canon. Nothing plain or precious has been left out. If you’d like to know more about these unwritten sayings that claim to be from Jesus, you’ll find many of them in my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith.

 

The Bible gives us better answers to our questions than anyone else in the world. The Bible gives us the best ways to handle and minimize life’s heartaches. It gives us wisdom we can trust. It gives us timeless truth. It gives us much more than “love God and love our neighbor,” it spells out specifically how to do so. The Bible goes deeper than any other piece of literature, deeper than we can explore in a lifetime. All the good found in other books can be found here, and is often borrowed from here. The Bible is the only anchor I can trust to keep me from drifting off course. There is no better starting point, and there is no better bottom line than God’s word, the Bible, as we seek answers to the questions of what to believe and how to live.

 

How do we know that the text of today’s Bible is reliable? How do we know it hasn’t been changed drastically over centuries of recopying? The Bible has better evidence for the reliability of its text than any other document of its time. We talked about this evidence in our broadcast on “Copies” on February 28 of last year. So when early manuscripts give us slight or major disagreements in the text, how do we decide which reading is correct? And how can the average reader find this information? We’ll take a closer look at how we do all that next time on Biblical Words and World.

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