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Christianity 101

On The Scriptures

You might have noticed that we pay a lot of attention to the Bible—the Scriptures, as they are also known. The word “Bible” starts with a capital “B” in the English language. This is a reflection of the place of esteem this book has held for centuries.

But lately it seems that “everyone knows” the Bible is untrustworthy. In this lesson we will examine the evidence for the Bible, see what its proper use truly is, and suggest some habits you should form in reading it.

Authenticity

The myth goes something like this: “well, the Bible was never written down until several centuries after the time of Christ. He probably did some cool things—but how can we know which parts are authentic and which aren’t?”

Great sounding statement; only one problem—it’s false. Let’s take this problem in three easy steps:

·         How do I know the original documents of the Bible are trustworthy? In particular, how do I know they’re old enough that the eyewitnesses to Jesus read them?

·         Given that I have a good original, how do I know that all those monks didn’t mess up the copies?

·         And given those two, how do I know I have a good translation?

Let’s consider the original documents first. If the original documents date from the time of the Apostles, you know that they’re likely to be correct. If they don’t, then who knows what errors might have crept in, right? So what about those documents? A few facts:

·         The time we are concerned about runs up to about AD 70—when Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans. St. Paul died in AD 64, so we would be looking for indications that the originals existed in Jerusalem before AD 70. Is there any such indication?

·         The myth says there’s nothing there. But—by way of example—there is an almost complete copy of the Gospel of John (one of the later books—which has been carbon dated to AD 120. It was found in a monastery in Egypt. That means that it’s not the original, and that the original must have been copied several times before this copy was made.

·         There is also the internal evidence of the book itself. Look at the book of Acts, for example. There are dozens of place names and ruler names—minor rulers whose names would have been forgotten after a few years (can you tell me who was mayor of Los Angeles in 1933?). That book ends with Paul still living. We know from history that he died in AD 64. Acts is either an extremely well researched hoax—or it’s genuine.

·         There are other witnesses, too. The enemies of Christianity—mostly Roman—quoted the Gospels extensively during the second century AD. Their quotations track quite nicely with the Gospels. This evidence tells us that the Gospels were well known by about AD 100.

·         Other evidence is found in the fact that complete translations of the New Testament into other languages show up starting about AD 120.

·         Iraneus—a Christian writer—gives us a summary of the Gospels. The undisputed date for this is AD 170.

With all this evidence, why is there such a myth? Simple. Until the 4th century AD, the New Testament was available only in pieces—book by book. When Constantine—the first Roman emperor who was a Christian—took over, he commissioned an Imperial set of copies of the New Testament. This was about AD 325. One of those copies is still in existence. But making official copies is very different from writing down the legends.

Now, let’s take up the “Xerox problem” - how do we know we have good copies? There are two answers to that:

·         First, there are something like 15,000 manuscripts of the New Testament (or parts thereof) which date before AD 1000. Just in sheer numbers alone this dwarfs the copies of any other ancient book. (The Odyssey of Homer is second—with less than two hundred).

·         More to the point, have you every considered how people know there are thousands of mistakes in the Bible? It’s because scholars have been able to trace the origins of these mistakes from copier to copier. If you know how many mistakes there are, you must have a pretty good idea of the correct answer.

One other thing: most of the earliest copies were not made by monks, but by professional copiers. You went down to the local scriptorum and asked for a copy to be made. The slaves who did it checked their work by adding all the letters in the rows, and in the columns—and checking those totals against the originals. Some of those tallies can still be seen in manuscripts today.

One last: how do I know I have a good translation? Since the time of the King James we’ve known how to do that. James (the king, not the apostle) had a problem—all the existing English translations were riddled with someone’s bias. He had a kingdom to unite. So he commissioned two groups of scholars to work on the translation. A scholar would translate the work to start with; his work would be reviewed by a small group; their work would be reviewed by the entire company. When finished, the two companies got together to hash out the differences.

The result was the King James Bible—the standard of the English speaking peoples for almost 300 years. The method was so successful that it is still used for modern translations today.

Inspiration

Now that we’ve disposed of the question of authenticity, we need to know what to do with the Bible. All Christians agree that the Bible is “inspired.” What they don’t agree on is what “inspired” means.

·         Liberal Christians hold that much of the Old Testament is composed of Jewish myths (particularly in Genesis), and that only the later parts of the Bible are accurate. The later parts certainly have more manuscript evidence, but is this sufficient to draw such a conclusion?

·         At the other end of the spectrum we have conservative Christians who claim that every word is literally, infallibly correct. But only when read from the King James—the 1611 version of the King James.

Maybe we ought to take a look at what the Bible says about the Bible.

Most hammers are not very good at driving screws; they’re even worse at mending broken pottery. So if you want to know how to interpret the Bible, perhaps you should start with the purpose of the Bible. That’s found here:

The Holy Bible, New International Version

16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

 

So now it’s clear: whatever your view of the Bible’s inspiration, it’s God’s book which is intended to

·         Teach us what to do right

·         Rebuke us when we do wrong

·         Educate us in righteousness

·         Equip us for good works.

Use of the Bible

If you want to do this the wrong way, go out and get a massive looking copy of the Bible. One with plenty of pictures and sections added on. Put it on your coffee table—and never read it.

But if you want that Bible to do what God intended it to do, here are some ideas:

·         Buy a translation that you can read. The King James is magnificent, but not very readable today.

·         Use a program of daily Bible reading. Make it a habit—at the same time each day, read the Scripture reading for the day. You should be able to read through it all in a year.

·         Memorize. In times of trouble the key verses you memorize will come back to comfort you.

·         Attend a regular Bible study—once a week—either on Sunday morning or during the week (both, if you can arrange it).

Does it sound like too much work? There are actually Bibles arranged in a daily reading format. It will take most readers about 15 minutes a day to read enough of the Bible to get through it in a year. There are also helps like daily devotionals to encourage your reading.

“But what if I don’t understand part of it?” Nobody, but nobody, understands all of God’s mind. If it bothers you, ask. (You’ll give your Bible teacher something to worry about.)

“I get bored with genealogies!” So do the rest of us. For the most part, you can skim over them—just remember they are there to tell you that you’re reading about real people who had ancestors and descendants. That’s not the stuff that myths are made of.

Mining the good stuff

The Bible is a collection of writings. Sometimes it helps to know where to look. So here are some high spots:

·         Feeling like you have something to say, and don’t know how to say it? Go to Psalms—there is a Psalm for almost any mood.

·         Want to know Jesus better? Read his life story in the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

·         Everyone can use a little wisdom now and then—so read Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and James.

Beginners should stay away from...

...Prophecy. Particularly the book of Revelation. Why? There are a lot of opinions out there, some of them very much half-baked. If you want to know about prophecy (and you will, eventually) then get into a Bible study that takes it step by step. And take each step with a grain of salt. Your first trip into prophecy should be with an experienced guide.

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