Can we trust the Bible?
‘Your testimonies, which you have commanded, are righteous and very faithful’ (Psalm 119. 138).
WHAT CAN WE have confidence in these days? In the early 1900’s many Western currencies were based on the gold standard. UK travellers were told, ‘If you go anywhere with sterling you are safe’. The UK abandoned the gold standard in 1931 and the U.S.A, in 1971 during the presidency of Richard Nixon. Nowadays we have to look at the rates of exchange before we book our overseas travel. These rates fluctuate daily according to world events.
At one time you could perhaps trust government officials – ministers of the Crown. People regarded the US President as a symbol of integrity at the head of a mighty, Western nation. In recent years various UK government ministers have become tainted by accusations of ‘sleaze.’ One only has to think of the way that President Nixon’s regime ended, to recognise that David was right when he wrote in the Psalms, ‘Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help’ (Psalm 146.3).
So the question that heads this article is an important one. What do we really mean when we ask the question ‘Can we trust the Bible’? Here are two definitions from the Concise Oxford Dictionary:
When we talk about the Bible in these terms, we are asking whether we can believe firmly and strongly in the honesty and truth of what is written in the Bible, whether we can rely on what it says and be able to depend on it.
WHAT KIND OF EVIDENCE DO WE NEED?
Several years ago the writer was following a van, which was behind a car driving along a busy street in north London. A woman stepped off the kerb on to a pedestrian crossing, the car braked suddenly but only stopped when it actually touched the woman who fell but was not hurt. The van behind swerved to avoid hitting the car but was in turn bumped by a car coming the other way, fortunately not travelling fast. This accident happened right outside a police station.
A police officer took names and addresses of witnesses (including mine) and a couple of months later we were called to give evidence in court. The case was concluded before I was called and an officer on duty that morning said that the way that the witnesses had all agreed was quite remarkable. He said that sometimes the witnesses in accident cases do not even agree on the colour of the vehicles involved, let alone their estimate of the speed they were travelling. The police officer then made a statement that has stuck in my memory: ‘When two or three people tell exactly the same story (and it doesn’t happen often) – it must have happened that way.’
AN EXAMPLE FROM THE BIBLE
Mark records that on one occasion Jesus was followed by a great crowd when he wanted to go away quietly with his disciples. Because he felt they were like ‘sheep without a shepherd’ he began teaching them and continued for some while.
The miracle of the ‘Feeding of the Five Thousand’ is recorded in all four Gospel records. What is fascinating is to see some of the finer details of these four written accounts. Matthew says that the people were made to sit down on the grass (Matthew 14.19). In the passage above Mark writes that the people sat down on the green grass (Mark 6. 39). John says ‘There was much grass in the place’ (John 6.10). It is John also who tells us that it was the time of the Passover. All these statements fit exactly together. In the climate of Israel, for much of the year the grass is sparse, dried and brown. The time of year when grass is plentiful is in Springtime – the time of the Passover – when in the words of the Gospel writers there would be much grass and the grass would be green.
There is another detail that links the Gospel writer’s accounts. Luke says that the miracle took place near Bethsaida (Luke 9.10). John tells us that Philip was the disciple that Jesus asked about buying food (John 6.5). These two apparently unrelated facts become significant when we learn that Philip came from Bethsaida (John 1. 43, 44). This was his home so he was the obvious one to ask about buying food in this locality.
‘When two or three people (or four!) tell the same story – it must have happened that way.’
Here is a pointer to the answer to the question we started with – Can we trust the Bible? There are other examples of detailed corroboration in the Gospels and in many other places in the Bible. The books of Kings and Chronicles contain parallel accounts of much of the history of Israel. The prophet Isaiah was contemporary with King Hezekiah and these accounts confirm each other, sometimes in very small details.
In 1847, J.J. Blunt wrote a book about undesigned scriptural coincidences. The Preface to the 19th edition says:
The author shows how hundreds of Bible passages illustrate coincidences which were undesigned by the writers, which involve the agreement of widely separated authors to the facts which they relate, and which point to the truth of recorded miracles and of prophecies.’ (‘Undesigned Coincidences in the writings of the Old and New Testament’ – 19th edition 1983)
The publishers of ‘Light on a New World’ are not surprised by these examples of detailed textural harmony. As was explained in the second article in this series, the Bible claims to be the Word of God. The apostle Paul wrote that the Scriptures were ‘inspired by God’ – that is, the writers wrote because God ‘breathed into them’ what He wanted them to write. That is the meaning of the word ‘inspired’. In the previous article we referred to the Apostle Peter’s words that Bible prophecy ‘never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1. 21 NIV).
ANOTHER KIND OF HARMONY
Think of what we have learned about the Bible in this series of articles:
These different writers, separated by time and distance, are not only in textural harmony but their teaching on fundamental issues is also in complete harmony. Examples of this harmony are found in every article in every issue of this magazine. The authors of the articles quote from every part of the Bible and the writers of the Bible books all agree whatever the subject of the article. Think about the teaching of the Bible about man and his natural state (in contrast to what many people believe today).
The book of Genesis explains that mankind is mortal – that is ‘dying’ and this is the result of man’s disobedience to God. This disobedience is called ‘sin’. So Paul wrote in New Testament times, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6. 23). ‘Death’ in the Bible refers to complete extinction and unconsciousness at the end of life. David in the Psalms and Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, hundreds of years after the book of Genesis and later the writings of the prophets all teach the same thing:
In spite of the fact that the Egyptians (who held Israel as slaves for a long period) had a strong belief in an after life – as did the Assyrians, and Babylonians later and the Romans in New Testament times – the consistent Bible teaching through the centuries is that man dies because of sin; the dead are unconscious and it is only a hope in the resurrection that can allow us to look beyond the eternal grave.
One of the strongest evidences for the inspiration of the Bible is the consistency of its teaching, despite the long periods during which its books were written and the complete harmony of its records.
THE TESTIMONY OF ARCHAEOLOGY
When the M26 motorway was being constructed, beds of smooth grey clay were uncovered by the mechanical diggers. It had long been thought that there had been a Roman pottery in the area. Now the evidence was being uncovered. Not only was the raw material being revealed, but hundreds of examples of pieces of pottery made from the same clay were being unearthed.
In the same way that fragments of pots and jars confirmed the site of a Roman pottery, so archaeology has confirmed many of the historical records in the Bible.
The cuneiform writing on the Taylor prism which is in the British Museum (see picture on page 14) gives the Assyrian account of the events described in Chronicles and in the writing of the prophet Isaiah. The Assyrian record says: ‘I besieged Hezekiah of Judah who had not submitted to my yoke and I captured forty six of his strong cities and fortresses, innumerable small cities which were round about them, with the battering rams and the assault engines and the attack of foot soldiers...himself (Hezekiah) like a caged bird I shut up within Jerusalem his royal city.’
Many details in this record (and others) confirm the Bible account. However, the Assyrian record does not say how Sennacherib the Assyrian king was defeated after Hezekiah had prayed for God’s help. The Assyrian account simply says that Sennacherib returned to his own royal city Nineveh. Isaiah had recorded, ‘By the way that he came, by the same shall he return; and he shall not come into this city’ (Isaiah 37. 33-36).
The period of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires is rich in tablets and monuments relating to nearly all their kings who are also mentioned in the Bible.
The British Museum’s own publications provide a wealth of fascinating material for the Bible student.
There have been times when the Bible critics have said that something just could not have happened. The Bible gives an account of the way that Hezekiah had a water course constructed through the rock to bring water from the Spring of Gihon – later called the Virgin’s Fountain’ – into Jerusalem to make sure that there was a good water supply for the city when the Assyrians invaded. At the same time access to the springs outside the city was blocked up. ‘This same Hezekiah also stopped the water outlet of Upper Gihon, and brought the water by tunnel to the West Side of the City of David’ (2 Chronicles 32.30) (see parallel account in 2 Kings 20).
The critics said at one time that the science of engineering was not developed sufficiently at the time of Hezekiah to enable this conduit to be constructed. This cannot be said today because the conduit from outside the old city of Jerusalem into the Pool of Siloam has been discovered. In addition, near the entrance was an inscription written in the square Hebrew characters of Hezekiah’s time which tells of the construction of the tunnel. This inscription was removed by the Turkish authorities so that it could be displayed in the Istanbul Museum.
Archaeology does not directly prove the inspiration of the Bible but the confirmation it provides for so many of the Biblical records, gives us confidence that we can trust its history.
THE EVIDENCE OF PROPHECY
This is the line of evidence that the Almighty Himself, in His mercy, has given us to strengthen our faith in His Word. The Bible does not only teach us that God knows how His purpose is to be worked out but that He declares ‘the end from the beginning’ (Isaiah 46.10) and that He reveals what He intends to do through His servants the prophets (Amos 3.7). We can look at the history of Israel for specific examples of prophecy fulfilled and fulfilling – “You are my witnesses,” says the LORD’ (Isaiah 43.10). Two examples from Israel’s history will illustrate the point.
FIRST EXAMPLE OF FULFILLED PROPHECY
Abraham was the father of a nation that had a very chequered history. There were times when they displayed confidence and trust in God and as a nation wanted to gain His approval. “All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient” (Exodus 24.7).
There were other times when the people were faithless and disobedient to God’s commandments. During the period when they were ruled by Judges before the establishment of the kingdom, it was said that ‘everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 17.6).
Abraham’s son was Isaac, and his grandson was Jacob. Jacob had 12 sons and the story of Joseph, sold by his jealous brothers as a slave into Egypt, is recorded in the book of Genesis. Because of famine, eventually the whole family settled in Egypt where they prospered and multiplied. After the death of Joseph there began a period when the Hebrews (the descendants of Jacob) were forced into slavery by the Egyptians who were frightened that in time of war the Hebrews might support the enemy. This period of slavery did not end until the time of Moses and the Exodus, ‘At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the LORD’s divisions left Egypt’ (Exodus 12. 41 NIV). It was 430 years from the time the promise was confirmed to Abraham and 400 years of oppression from Joseph to the Exodus.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
Abraham was given a vision in which he heard the voice of God, ‘I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward’ (Genesis 15.1). Then in response to Abraham’s prayer and as a sign that God’s hand would be seen in the history of Abraham’s descendants, the record in Genesis says:
After the time of Jesus, when the Jewish authorities were persecuting the early Christians, the Apostle Stephen referred to this prophecy and its fulfilment.
Stephen was on trial for his life. He was arguing that God had made promises to Abraham that are the basis of the true Christian hope. His accusers ought to have known their own history. They should have known that in their history was the evidence that God was in control all the way through. Stephen, in his defence speech, went through the main events from the time of Abraham:
Here are the key points of this example:
After the time of Christ, Stephen used this as evidence that God’s hand can be seen at work in the history of the Jews. ‘You are my witnesses’ (Isaiah 43. 10.
SECOND EXAMPLE OF FULFILLED PROPHECY
The first king of the nation of Israel was Saul. He was later followed by David and Solomon. After the death of Solomon the kingdom was divided into a northern kingdom of Israel (which was eventually destroyed by Assyria) and a southern kingdom of Judah which lasted 100 years longer than the kingdom of Israel. The prophet Jeremiah who lived in the closing days of the kingdom of Judah when Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, was invading the land, wrote:
Here is a very specific time period. Not only was the land desolated by the Babylonian armies, but also thousands of captives were taken to Babylon. One of these was a very young man of noble birth – Daniel. He was to become prominent in the Babylonian court and eventually was made ruler of one of the three major provinces of the empire. In spite of the honours he gained, he was a Jew and his heart was always looking for the restoration of Jerusalem.
Babylon eventually fell to the Medes and became part of the Medo-Persian empire. Daniel was now a very old man and there is a wonderful passage in the book that bears his name in the Bible:
Daniel had read the book of Jeremiah and knew his prophecy of the 70 years captivity. He knew he was now living at the end of this time – so he prayed to God.
The rich archaeological evidence from this period enables the dates to be identified fairly accurately. Seventy years after the fall of Jerusalem, Cyrus the new king who followed Darius, made a decree that the Jews should be allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem. Other conquered nations were given similar privileges (again as Jeremiah had foretold).
In these examples we have two specific time periods. Each was foretold in advance and the end of each is also recorded.
These are only two of many examples of prophecies detailed in advance. The history of Israel, with all its ups and downs; its invasions and captivities; its sieges and the long period of almost 2,000 years desolation following the Roman occupation, followed by the restoration of the nation in the 20th century – has been described as an ‘impossible history’. Yet almost every stage was foretold by prophecy.
‘You are my witnesses.’
THIS EVIDENCE SUPPORTS OUR TRUST
We can be confident. The only explanation for the wealth of fulfilled, detailed prophecy relating to nations, cities, individuals and events, is that the Bible is a revelation from God Himself. The writers were inspired. Its claim to be the Word of God is well founded.
The evidence of:
all testify that the Bible was written because the writers were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1. 21). It was written because the writers were inspired. This is the only explanation of its uniqueness.
CAN WE TRUST THE BIBLE?
In the fullest sense of the question – the answer must be ‘Yes’.
If then the Bible is the Word of God, we have a responsibility to read it, to listen to its message and to act upon it!