The Witness of Scripture: Work of Men or Word of God?
Regis NicollRegis Nicoll's weblog
- 2008 May 22
“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For 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 1:20-21)
WORK OF MEN?
Two generations of postmodern thought has led to growing cynicism about truth claims, institutional authorities, and even history. Among revisionists, the historical record is a product of oppression and coercion written by the ruling class. At best, history is unreliable; at worst, it is propaganda—a story written by the winners in the perpetual struggle for power. That also goes for the biblical record, which many dismiss as myth or legend.
A person who was eminently qualified to answer that charge was C.S. Lewis. As a literary historian and scholar in ancient literature, Lewis wrote, “I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are, they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend (myth) and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing.”
Lewis went on to explain why he came to that conclusion: “They are not artistic enough . . . Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us. . . . and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so.” In other words, they lack the drama, the colorful detail and rich imagination of the ancient story-tellers.
If not legend or myth, what?
THE WRITTEN WORD
A few weeks back I introduced the “Written Word” as a divinely-inspired collection of books penned by dozens of authors over a millennium and a half. Commonly referred to as the Bible, the Written Word is the account of God’s activity in and beyond time. But is it a trustworthy account?
To answer that we need to establish three things: When was it written? Is what we have what the authors wrote? And, is what they wrote the Word of God?
WHEN IT WAS WRITTEN
Paleography is the study of the script and letter style of written records. A competent paleographer can pin the date of writing of an ancient text within a decade and even identify the school of scribes where the author was trained. For many New Testament manuscripts, paleographic analysis supports a first century authorship.
There's also the fact that the Scriptures make no mention of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Jesus predicted that calamity 40 years earlier. Since fulfillment of that prophecy would have bolstered Jesus' messianic claims, its omission in the NT suggests authorship before AD 70.
There can be little doubt that the NT narratives were written within the lifetimes of individuals who were contemporaries of the events described. For example, when Paul wrote about Christ’s resurrection in his first letter to the Corinthians, he appeals to the testimony of over 500 eyewitnesses who were still living that his readers could seek out and question. And that’s important.
An authorship very close in time and location to the events recorded is contraindicative of legends. Legends spring up centuries to millennia after the fact; in lands distant from the place(s) of occurrence. They endure because no one is close enough to the purported stories to challenge their authenticity.
The early church canon included the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint. Written between the third and second centuries BC, the Septuagint contained the scriptures quoted by Jesus and the Apostles. When Luke wrote “Now the Bereans . . . examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true,” (Acts 17:11) he was making reference to this Old Testament canon.
The early church canon also included apostolic testimony. Peter acknowledges Paul’s writings as holy writ when he stated, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures. . . . ” (2 Peter 3:16)
In AD 160, Justin Martyr wrote that reading “the memoirs of the apostles” was a weekly custom for the assembly of believers. Theologian Ben Witherington cites the work of Martin Hengel and Harry Gamble showing that the four gospels and Paul’s writings were circulated together in codex (book) form in the early second century—further evidence that apostolic writings were accepted as Scripture by the early church.
IS WHAT WE HAVE, WHAT THEY WROTE?
Like all works of antiquity, there are no original autographs of the NT documents. That said, the NT enjoys manuscript support (copies of the autographs) far in excess of any other ancient literary work.
Consider that there are about 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the NT and 24,000 copies of portions thereof in existence. Not only is that level of support unparalleled for ancient works, but the time span between the originals and the first manuscripts is exceptionally short; within 100 years versus many centuries to millennia.
Also, the textual variation among the existing copies is extremely small. For all the hoopla over Bible contradictions, errors and inconsistencies, only about one-half of one percent of the Bible is under competent dispute—none of which affects any “material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and doctrine,” according to biblical scholar, F.F. Bruce.
Compare that with Homer’s Iliad, which has the next best manuscript support among ancient literature. For people of antiquity, Homer “was held in the highest esteem and quoted in defense of arguments pertaining to heaven, earth, and Hades,” writes Bruce Metzger. Like the Bible, Homer was memorized, served as school primers, and was allegorized and enhanced.
Yet there are only about 650 surviving copies of the Iliad, written over a thousand years after the original. Among those copies, there are over 100 times as many textual differences as the Bible. Matched up against the writing of the ancients, the transmission of the biblical narrative is in class of its own.
Added to that, the extra-biblical quotations of the early church fathers (second and third century) are so extensive, they could be used to reconstruct the entire NT.
The upshot is that there is high confidence that the Bible we have is what the authors wrote; but is what they wrote the Word of God? Let’s see.
BREAKING NEWS . . . BEFORE IT HAPPENS!
One of the most intriguing features of the Written Word is prophecy. The Bible contains hundreds of prophecies written well in advance of the events they describe. But one prediction that is downright shocking in its precision, deals with the coming of the Messiah:
Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven 'sevens,' and sixty-two 'sevens.' It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two 'sevens,' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. (Daniel 9:25-26)
Time “zero” for this prediction is the decree to rebuild Jerusalem, issued by King Artaxerses in 445 BC. Given the Jewish idiom of “seven” as a week of years, or seven years, the prediction is that the Messiah will come as ruler in 69 (7 plus 62) “weeks,” or 483 years.
Correcting the Jewish year (which was based on 360 days) for a 365.25 day year, the period between the decree to rebuild Jerusalem and the arrival of the Messiah becomes 476 years.
The gospel of Luke states that, in the 15th year of Tiberius, Jesus began his public ministry. Tiberius became emperor when Augustus Caesar died in AD 14. Including the year he was enthroned, the 15th year of his reign occurred in AD 28.
Three years later, in AD 31, Jesus was received as king and ruler on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Note that the interval between 445 BC (the decree to rebuild Jerusalem) and AD 31 (the Messiah’s coming as king) is 476 years—the precise period predicted by Daniel some 300 years earlier! And that is only one of the over 300 prophecies concerning the life and death of Jesus Christ.
The skeptic will be quick to charge that those predictions could have been penned in after the fact. They could, except that the Septuagint was written centuries before the NT account. And since, as already explained, that account was written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses, any fabrication on the part of authors to fudge the facts would have been readily contested by any number of hostile contemporaries.
But perhaps, most importantly, the Written Word accords with what we know to be true about the world and ourselves—knowledge that requires years of education for us to “un-know”: Man is not a fluke product of matter and motion, but a creation endowed with meaning and purpose; there is a standard of “oughtness” that transcends the opinions of focus groups, town hall meetings, and legislatures; the natural inclination of man is against that standard as validated by untold centuries of human history; and the failure of religion, the State, Gaia, the Force, and the sovereign Self to “deliver” mankind indicates that man needs a Savior.
THE VERITABLE WORD OF GOD
After weighing all of the evidence, the late paleographer and classical scholar, Sir Frederick Kenyon, concluded, “We have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God.” He was in good company.
For over 2,000 years, paupers to princes have acknowledged the Divine authorship and transformational power of the Written Word. One of the earliest was Justin Martyr, who challenged early second century unbelievers to:
. . . come and partake of incomparable wisdom, and be instructed by the Divine Word, and acquaint yourselves with the King immortal . . . The Word exercises an influence which does not make poets: it does not equip philosophers who are skilled orators, but by its instruction it makes mortals immortal . . . Come, be taught; become as I am, for I, too, was as ye are . . . (Justin Martyr, Discourse to the Greeks)