Can We Trust the Bible?

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

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In recent months publicity surrounding the so-called Gospel of Judas and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code have questioned the credibility of the Bible. David Bast addresses this challenge in two special programs which feature discussion with New Testament scholar Dr. Robert Van Voorst. Can we believe what the Gospels tell us about Jesus Christ? Today’s conversation “Can We Trust the Bible” focuses on the Bible’s authenticity and accuracy.

David Bast: As Christians we really base the whole structure and content of our faith on what we learn from the Bible, and especially as Christians in the Reformed tradition; even the name of our church is “Reformed according to the word of God.” But that means we put a whole lot of weight on the reliability of the Bible. Now as never before perhaps, that’s being brought into question by many different people from many different directions. What’s the bottom line for you as a person who has given his whole professional life to the scholarly study of the Bible? Why do you consider the Bible to be reliable?

Van Voorst: Well, Dave, I think there is a two-part answer to that. The first part is the history angle: the history part says the Bible is a book from the past that talks about history because we believe that God reveals himself in human history. That part is reliable.

Bast: In other words, the things that the Bible says happened actually happened.

Van Voorst: Yes, the major things that the Bible says happened that are important for the faith – the large doctrines of the faith – they happened as stated, and they’re not presented as myth, or fable, or legend. But they happened. Jesus Christ was a real person. He lived. He died. He rose from the dead. We believe he’s coming again.

Bast: But now there are people who would say, “That is a myth. That obviously can’t have happened in history. Dead men don’t rise.” How do you respond to that? Do we just believe in the Bible because it’s the Bible or are there other reasons?

Van Voorst: Well, we believe because the Bible is based upon solid apostolic testimony. It is public and verifiable in certain ways, even the supernatural events that we can’t wrap our minds around and that scholars can’t really understand fully. But we can measure the effects of events like the resurrection.

Bast: So you’re saying, first of all, anything we know about the past is because somebody has testified to it. That’s all we have. That’s what history is.

Van Voorst: That’s right. That’s what history is. Apart from that we don’t have anything. Very few videos have survived from the ancient world!!

Bast: But also you’re saying in addition to the testimony of people who said “we saw this,” you are saying there are certain effects that we see in our own world that we reason our way back to the causes, such as the existence of the church. What made that happen?

Van Voorst: Yes, the continuing existence of the church, the persistence of Christianity despite fierce persecution against it, despite the threat of heresy and persecution in the early church, the church has persisted.

Bast: I remember reading recently the reason there’s a Good Friday is because there was an Easter.

Van Voorst: That’s exactly right.

Bast: In other words, we wouldn’t even have the story of Jesus at all if he hadn’t risen from the dead.

Van Voorst: That’s correct. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, he would be completely forgotten. Today we wouldn’t even know his name. And history would be, I dare say, very much different.

Bast: You said one reason you believe in the Bible is because of that whole historical argument. What’s the other?

Van Voorst: The other one is religious faith. In Christianity faith and history go together. They inform each other. They are two sides of the same coin.

Bast: What about people who say, “Well, you know, there are all kinds of scriptures. Every religion has their “bible,” their book. What is it in your mind that sets the Bible apart, that makes it unique?

Van Voorst: One thing is this historical aspect of the Bible. Many religions teach salvation or religious knowledge that comes outside of history, that just sort of falls down from heaven, or arises in the mind or the spirit of a very inspired person.

Bast: So, in other words, they’re not necessarily about things that actually happened in the real world.

Van Voorst: That’s right. Most religions of the world, especially Eastern religions, do not teach salvation in history or the salvation of this world as it exists now or the people in it.

Bast: Is there anything besides, then, the historical character of the Bible that sets it apart in your mind?

Van Voorst: In my view the essence of the Christian faith is the notion of salvation being the work of God and not our own human work. We Protestants call this “salvation by grace.” Most religions of the world teach basically that you save yourself by knowledge, by works, by special religious experience, by all sorts of things. The Christian faith teaches that God saves us in and through what Jesus Christ did and was and will be. It’s always a challenge, humanly speaking, to keep the message of God’s grace central in our lives and Christian understanding. It’s always a temptation to fall back upon, “save yourself by your own works, your own efforts, your own knowledge, your own whatever.” But there is a challenge. The closer we stay to the centrality of grace, of God’s action in Jesus Christ for us, the better Christians we are.

Bast: The Bible is the book about Jesus, really the book of Jesus. And in that sense, I guess, that’s another factor that makes the Bible unique. It’s the only place we read about Jesus.

Van Voorst: Yes, it’s the only place we encounter him fully and truly. We see echoes of Jesus from the ancient world in other writings. We have modern scholarship about Jesus and all sorts of religious opinions about Jesus throughout human history up to today. But the only place that we meet Jesus decisively and truly is in the book that’s about him, the Bible.

Bast: Let me ask you about the way the Bible, or specifically how the New Testament came to be written, although, I think you were just going to touch on the fact that there are other testimonies outside of the Bible to the existence of Jesus?

Van Voorst: Rising from the second century on, there are writings that purport to be from Jesus or about Jesus. They were circulated somewhat in the church or among opponents of the church or on the edges, the margins, of Christianity. So that is another possible way to look at Jesus, but we don’t meet him there. I think we don’t meet him definitively and fully outside of his own book, the Bible.

Bast: Do any of the Roman historians mention the existence of Jesus outside the Bible?

Van Voorst: Oh, yes, Josephus and several Roman historians who wrote from about the years A.D. 90 to A.D. 150.

Bast: So near the time of the final writing of the New Testament there is independent, historical evidence to the existence of Jesus.

Van Voorst: Yes, the existence of Jesus, Jesus as the founder of a movement, known at that time as the Christian church. Romans and Jews especially at that time were very interested in Jesus as the founder of the church that they knew and had to grapple with.

Bast: One of the reasons I bring this up is because of an article that appeared in our newspaper. A New Testament scholar was in our city giving a lecture. He said, in his opinion, Jesus never really existed. It’s very likely that Jesus was a myth and that the New Testament was simply made up. How do you respond to that?

Van Voorst: I think it was obvious to everyone in the ancient world, in the first, second, and third centuries, that Jesus did in fact exist. Even the opponents of Christianity recognized that there was a Jesus who lived and died and started this movement. And it’s part of the radical fringe, I suppose, of extreme opposition to Christianity to try to discredit the New Testament about Jesus by saying its founder never really existed.

Bast: So that’s not a mainstream view that New Testament scholars or responsible historians would have?

Van Voorst: No, it’s not a mainstream viewpoint, or of historians in general. Historians who have no feeling for the Christian faith would be the first to say that Jesus existed. I would say that there’s more good evidence for the existence of Jesus than evidence of the existence of anybody else in the ancient world including people like Julius Caesar, Augustus, or anybody else.

Bast: So if you’re going to espouse that kind of radical skepticism about the credibility of the New Testament you had better be skeptical about everything!

Van Voorst: That’s right. You better get ready to toss out the whole of the ancient world. Then you’d have a hard time explaining even where we came from!

Bast: What about some of the other writings about Jesus? You touched on that a few moments ago. And, of course, this is in the news today too because of the discovery of the so-called Gospel of Judas. Are these accurate sources about who Jesus was and what he said and did?

Van Voorst: Historically speaking, most historians and biblical scholars would say that they are not in general very accurate. Once in a while they may have a glimmer of truth here and there that does reach back to Jesus, something he said or something he did that is either similar to the New Testament or has something new to add to it. But these insights are very rare, very few and far between. For the most part, these writings, for example, the Gospel of Judas, come from the second, the third or the fourth century. They come from outside the mainstream church, the Gnostic movement, for example, or other groups that have a very different idea of what the Christian faith should be.

Bast: So they were written later than the New Testament books, and often from a non-Christian perspective.

Van Voorst: That’s right. They were written later, and often from a non-Christian perspective. Many of these books are from the Gnostic movement that teaches salvation by human knowledge.

Bast: Gnosticism is very important for Christians to understand because it’s still with us. It’s all around us.

Van Voorst: Yes, especially in groups like the New Age Movement which tends to have very strong gnostic touches. Certain Eastern religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, come to the western world with similar viewpoints.

Bast: And some of the main ideas, maybe the main idea, is this idea of salvation through a kind of inner knowledge or a secret knowledge that often goes just to the select few. The mass of people don’t have this knowledge.

Van Voorst: That’s right. It’s a secret tradition, secret knowledge that gets passed along in a very particular path. It’s almost always knowledge about ourselves and not about God or the world or human history. It’s the knowledge of me, my knowledge of me, that inside I’m really divine. All I have to do is realize that, and in my knowledge of realizing that, I’m saved! Gnosticism typically has a very dim view of human life, human history, human society, the physical aspect of life. It emphasizes the spiritual much too strongly in proportion to the physical, the world that God made.

Bast: Sluffing off the body, escaping the world.

Van Voorst: That’s right, sluffing off, escaping the world, leaving society, becoming a hermit, all of these sorts of things are very strong in Gnosticism.

Bast: Or, in another sense, doing whatever you feel like doing because the body doesn’t matter anyway, and it’s only our souls that are to be of concern. So a lot of the so-called apocryphal books, or non-canonical Gospels, are tinged with Gnosticism. There’s not a whole lot there of historical validity concerning Jesus.

Van Voorst: That’s right. A lot of it originates from the second to the fourth century. “The New Testament Apocrypha” is what this literature is called as a group. It’s hidden books, books written later that are pretended to be by Jesus or the apostles, but examination of their contents shows quite clearly that they are not, and this was known in the ancient church as well. They had a very strong knowledge in the ancient church from Paul’s time on of basically what is true Christianity and what is not. And religious movements, even though they pretend to be Christian, that would deny a doctrine like: God made the world, God made the world good. Groups that came along saying, no, God didn’t make the world or make it good were rejected as Christian people who came along saying, “Jesus just seemed to be human but he really wasn’t like you and me.” That was recognized as being outside the borders of legitimate Christian faith. And rightly so. People who claim that the resurrection did not involve the body of Jesus coming out of the tomb but just spirit rising and going to heaven – that was recognized as not being truly Christian.

Bast: I thank Dr. Robert Van Voorst of Western Theological Seminary. Bob and I will continue this conversation about the historical reliability of the Bible and the authenticity of its portrait of Jesus in our next Words of Hope program.