15...Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. 16 However, do this with gentleness and respect...
1 Peter 3
One of the oldest books since its earliest manuscript dating back to the first half of the 2nd century, the Bible is the world’s best-selling and most scrutinized book in history. There are several questions and contentions that believers and skeptics alike have about this book, and I will answer these questions with the care and thoughtfulness they deserve.
To make my position clear, I am a Bible-believing Christian who was indeed a skeptic when I first read the Bible for myself. Even as a skeptic and reading other religious books, I noticed the Bible makes claims for itself that no other sacred text has come close to accomplishing. I aim to present the skeptic’s position truly and honestly and not build a case against a strawman while also arguing from a place of thoughtful and careful studies of the Scripture.
Someone Just Made Up the Bible a Long Time Ago
All skeptic claims boil down to this particular point. Now I know the skeptic has several claims that led them to this point. However, I want to tackle this idea first then work towards more specific claims. I understand this point especially with the rise of other Christian spin-off sects such as Mormonism and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, better known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their particular position with the Scriptures.
The Christian claims that the Bible is the Word of God and written by people who were divinely inspired. Obviously, making that claim does not make it real. Joseph Smith and The Watchtower both claim God inspired them, and Christians do not believe their respective writings to be from God. How then can we determine whether any writing is from God? Allow me to use the Bible to set the standard, that even the most hardened skeptic would agree, and we should use.
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“If the prophet speaks in the Lord’s name but his prediction does not happen or come true, you will know that the Lord did not give that message. That prophet has spoken without my authority and need not be feared” (Deuteronomy 18:22, HCSB). The idea stemming from this verse is that if God has indeed spoken, then the writings would say something that only God could know. The standard is if even one prophecy is untrue, then the person speaking it is not from God.
Prophecy is history foretold before it happened. There are no shortages of predictions made by religious leaders. “And thus saith the Lord your God, if you will receive wisdom here is wisdom. Behold, the place which is now called Independence is the center place; and a spot for the temple is lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the courthouse” (D&C 57:3). The revelation is Joseph Smith predicted a Mormon temple would be built on the lot in Independence, Missouri, before the generation of people living at that time in 1832 had all died.
The Mormons, however, were never able to build this temple because they were driven out of Missouri by state authorities. Joseph Smith then delivered another revelation where he explained the Mormons were excused from building the temple in Missouri because their “enemies” had made it impossible (D&C 124:49-53). Another example of failed religious prophecy also comes from the Watchtower Society. Their most infamous prediction was the world ending in 1975.
In March 1968, the Watchtower Society claimed Armageddon would begin in 90 months. Witnesses sold their homes, quit their jobs, and some even sold their businesses. Interestingly enough, in 1975 the Watchtower bought a hotel in New York for $2 million which it recently agreed to sell for roughly $700 million. Finally, 1975, especially October, came and went, and nothing happened.
I am pointing out the false claims by other religious cults to emphasize what it looks like when people make false prophecies, and also when someone makes something up. How do we know that Joseph Smith made up his revelations? Because they did not happen, the same reason we see the Watchtower makes things up. Another reason I am mentioning these false prophecies is to show how much significance should be put on real prophecies and that no one can make up. Allow me to demonstrate how prophecy is evidence of God’s word and why the Bible is reliable.
The Destruction of Tyre
Tyre was an ancient Phoenician port city which was founded in 2750 BC and was later known as “The Queen of the Seas.” Tyre was the capital of Phoenicia and its most prominent city with its desirable trade ports. Having fortified walls, Tyre was able to withstand much opposition and stood for nearly 2000 years before its eventual demise.
The prophet Ezekiel foretells the destruction of one of the most prominent cities in the world, “‘therefore this is what the Lord God says: See, I am against you, Tyre! I will raise up many nations against you, just as the sea raises its waves. They will destroy the walls of Tyre and demolish her towers. I will scrape the soil from her and turn her into a bare rock. She will become a place in the sea to spread nets, for I have spoken.’ This is the declaration of the Lord God. ‘She will become plunder for the nations, and her villages on the mainland will be slaughtered by the sword. Then they will know that I am Yahweh’” (Ezekiel 26:3-6). Here we see the prophecy of a city over 2000 years old being destroyed. Ezekiel prophesies that the King of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar would lay siege of Tyre, destroying its mainland villages and eventually tearing down its walls and breaching its city.
In 585 BC, Nebuchadnezzar besieged Tyre for 13 years. During the siege, Tyre was able to ship goods and evacuate its citizens from and between Old Tyre, its mainland city, and New Tyre, which was the island city about 1km offshore. At the end of the 13 years, Nebuchadnezzar was able to breach the walls of Tyre, plunder the town, and parade himself back to Babylon claiming to be a victor when the siege was a failure. Skeptics of Ezekiel claim that the prophecy was written during Nebuchadnezzar’s siege, this does, however, leave out the rest of the prophecy.
Even if we grant the skeptic that Ezekiel was written during the siege, the prophecy moves on from Nebuchadnezzar and speaks about what the nations foretold would do to Tyre. The prophecy, which if written during Nebuchadnezzar’s siege, was fulfilled 240 years later.
Alexander the Great
“They will take your wealth as spoil and plunder your merchandise. They will also demolish your walls and tear down your beautiful homes. Then they will throw your stones, timber, and soil into the water. I will put an end to the noise of your songs, and the sound of your lyres will no longer be heard. I will turn you into a bare rock, and you will be a place to spread nets. You will never be rebuilt, for I, Yahweh, have spoken.’ This is the declaration of the Lord God” (Ezekiel 26:12-14).
In 332 BC, Alexander the Great arrived at Tyre after haven conquered Sidon and wanting Tyre to surrender. Tyre seemed to have surrendered to Alexander, but when Alexander asked to make a sacrifice in Tyre’s temple to Tyre’s gods, they refused. Alexander then sent envoys to express his displeasure, and the Tyrian’s response was to murder the envoys and throw them off their walls. Alexander then ordered the siege of Tyre.
The main island city of Tyre was just offshore of the old mainland city. So Alexander planned to make a causeway using fallen debris and rock from the mainland and throw it in the water. Alexander was not interested in a 13-year siege that Nebuchadnezzar suffered so in seven months he used his causeway to batter down the walls of Tyre and destroy the city. The 30,000 inhabitants of Tyre were either murdered or sold into slavery, and the rest of the city was destroyed. Today, Tyre has a well-established fishing harbor, and all its Phoenician remains lie underwater. Skeptics can hold on to the claim that Tyre has been rebuilt, but Lebanon’s Tyre is not Phoenicia’s Tyre. It is not the “Queen of the Seas” it once was with its armada. It is not a prominent trading port, nor does it hold any Phoenician remains. Everything that existed before Alexander arrived is underwater and can never be rebuilt.
Ezekiel’s prophecy of the destruction of Tyre is just one of many prophecies in the Bible that have been fulfilled. Biblical prophecy fulfilled in well-known secular history. With such detail and specificity, no one could have predicted what would happen to a powerful city, how it was going to happen, and how it was going to remain. We have seen what man-made prophecy looks like when we read Joseph Smith or the Watchtower.
Is what we have now what was originally written down, and is it true?
There are over 5,800 Greek manuscript copies that make up the New Testament, with the oldest complete version dating back to the 4th century. Compare this to ancient Grecko-Roman authors whose work may contain about 15 manuscript copies and date nearly 1000 years apart between copies. As opposed to the New Testament, which is only decades apart.
No Central Control
In around 650 AD, the third Muslim Caliph, Uthman, ordered the collection of all the different copies of the Quran and them burned apart from Abu Bakr’s copy, which reinvented Islam. When the Christian apostle’s writings were made and then copied over and over, there was no central control of the copies. The Quran was copied with Caliph oversight and all other versions of the Quran before 650 are lost to history.
The fact there was no central control over the copies of the New Testament manuscripts is essential because there could not have been the destruction of different Christologies. For example, imagine if an apostle wrote of a different Christ than the one commonly written. The fact there was no central control of the copying, that manuscript would have been copied over and spread around like the other ones were and never destroyed. This reason proves there was only one true narrative of Christ and other versions were never created because they would not have been destroyed. As opposed to Islam that had different Qurans and destroyed them to organize their view.
What about the textual variants?
There are over 500,000 textual variants spread across the 5,800 manuscript copies of the New Testament. However, the vast majority of the textual variants are not significant because they stem from either misspelling, rearrangement, or repetition. For example, a sentence using “he said” could have been changed to “Jesus said,” which then becomes a variant, but does not alter any doctrinal text. So if we account for these minor variants and only consider significant text that exists in one manuscript and not another that difference accounts for less than 1% of the New Testament. What this proves is we can go back and reconstruct, with a high degree of likelihood, what a writer initially wrote. All the manuscripts were copied with no central oversight and are doctrinally consistent.
Let’s say we have copies of the originals, is what is written true?
Here is where the rubber meets the road, where the basis of over 2,000 years of Christianity comes from, did what the authors write happen? The Bible makes several claims, but I’m going to address its most significant and central claims that undergird Christianity. Did Jesus actually live, did He die, and did He indeed come back to life?
Flavius Josephus was a first-century AD Jewish historian who was not a follower of Christ or Christianity. He became a Pharisee and was an eyewitness to Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD. In his “Antiquities of the Jews” written around 93 AD he writes, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day” (J. AJ 18.63). This passage is highly contested amongst scholars as to its authenticity or Christian interpolation. However, Josephus continues in his Antiquities to public acknowledgment in its authenticity, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” (J. AJ 20.9).
Josephus is an example of a secular historian who has a similar account of Christ’s life that is written in the New Testament. So why aren’t there just a bunch of historical documents written about Jesus since He is such a central figure? No one, arguably not even His followers, knew that He was going to change the world the way He did. First-century historians focused on the political leaders of their day, the rulers and emperors. Not a Jewish son of a carpenter whose followers consisted of mostly poor people, fishermen, whores, and tax collectors.
At its infancy, Christianity spread through zealous evangelism led by the apostles who saw Christ. Less than five years after Christ’s death, we have the first Christian martyr in Stephen, who was killed in 36 AD. Every apostle, except for John, who was exiled, was martyred including Paul, who was a witness to Stephen’s stoning as a prosecutor, who was then himself executed by Nero. Contrast this with how Islam spread at its infancy, by conquering lands and forcing their subjects to convert.
This matters because for the apostles to die the way they did, for a lie and not a belief. They all claimed to have seen the risen Christ, and for them to die and not one of them apostatize goes beyond the pale. We’ve heard stories of people dying for their beliefs from all different faiths even in modern times. This does not compare to the apostles because they did not claim that they believed Christ had resurrected, they claimed they saw Christ resurrected. The first martyr Stephen, who wasn’t an apostle but merely a Christian deacon, was executed while professing he saw the risen Christ.
We have covered several reasons how the Bible sets itself apart from other religious text, and how we prove that it is the Word of God. We covered what a divinely inspired text would look like if it indeed came from God in the form of fulfilled prophecy. How the documents have been preserved over several millennia when other writings from the same period have a difficult time being recovered. Finally, how we know the text that has been preserved is correct and an accurate account of history. There is more to be discussed and covered about the Bible, but here we see how the most critical questions are addressed using Scripture and secular historical accounts.
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