The Bible: Reliable or Not

Every few years (or minutes) someone claims again that the Bible and especially that the NT is unreliable, not original, doesn’t say what the church says it says, is missing other books that are just as worthy of being in the Bible, isn’t God breathed, is just man’s word about God—and a bunch of other things. Dr Spong seems to write a new book every few years spouting the same basic rubbish that has been repudiated more than once by serious academics. No serious scholar with any training in the Scriptures ascribes to Spong’s views. He’s not the only one by any means – but most of them are the same sensationalised and misrepresented ‘facts’.

One of the questions that we keep coming back to is the reliability of the NT. The Da Vinci Code for example claimed that Constantine put together the NT and left out many books of equal value—extra gospels for example. It’s a recurring theme in Dan Brown’s novels,  attacking the integrity of the Scriptures.

So… how were the NT books chosen?

The books of the NT as we have it today were all written between 45 and 90 AD—James was probably written around 45 AD and Revelation was written about 90 A.D. It’s worth understanding that the New Testament books were written in the lifetimes of those who lived with Jesus. The letters and ‘gospels’ that people like Brown, Spong & Theiring claim should have been included in the Bible, were all written no earlier than the end of the 2nd century AD—no earlier than 190AD—and that date is very generous.

The NT was gathered in various ways.

1. There were attacks on the truth and validity of both OT and NT even in the NT church—Paul speaks of the Gnostics as one example.

2. The NT was gathered by many churches as they shared the writings of the Apostles and early Christians. The content testified to its authenticity.

3. Apostolic writings were used in public worship, so it was important to get it right.

4. Ultimately, the edict by Emperor Diocletian in AD 303, demanding that all sacred books be burned, resulted in the NT collection—it was only worth dying for the truth.

  • Clement of Rome (AD95) mentioned at least eight New Testament books as true Scripture in a letter!
  • Ignatius of Antioch (AD115) referenced 7 books
  • Polycarp, John’s disciple (AD108) referred to 15 letters.
  • Irenaeus (AD185) acknowledged 21 books.
  • Hippolytus (AD170-235) recognized 22 books.
  • The main problem books were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John.
  • The Muratorian Canon (AD170) included everything except Hebrews, James, and one epistle of John.
  • Athanasius (AD 367) cited the 27 books of the New Testament as being the only true books.
  • AD363—Council of Laodicea… only the OT and the 27 books of the NT were to be read in churches.
  • Council of Hippo (AD393) recognized the 27 books
  • Council of Carthage (AD397)… only those canonical books were to be read in the churches.

It’s possible that they were all wrong!

How did the early Church test Scripture

They applied the following test rigorously.

* Inspiration—did the book give internal evidence of inspiration, of being God breathed?

* Character—was it of proper spiritual character?

* Edification—did it edify the church?

* Doctrine—was it doctrinally accurate?

The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (collections of other early Christian and Jewish writings) were rejected as a result of not meeting these tests.

* Holy Spirit—the book should bear evidence of high moral and spiritual values that would reflect a work of the Holy Spirit.

* Apostolic—was the author an apostle or have the endorsement of an apostle? (Mark wrote the gospel of Mark under Peter’s endorsement. Luke wrote under Paul’s authority.)

* Universal Acceptance—was the book accepted by the early church as a whole? The recognition given a particular book by the church was important. By this standard, a number of books were rejected. There were some books that enjoyed an acceptance by a few, but were later dropped for a lack of universal acceptance. Then there were a few books that some questioned because of doubts about the author, not the content, but were later accepted because the majority accepted them.

There will always be those who want to attack the truth of the Gospel and the Scriptures. They will play on our doubts, and use the length of time that has passed to worry us. These days they use technology, superstition, video techniques, the medium of TV (if it’s on the screen it must be true), and often dubious science to support failed arguments of the past. The issues of things like the supposed gospels of Thomas and of Mary and all the other books that didn’t make it into the Bible have been dealt with many times in the past 2000 or so years and at every stage Godly Christians have agreed that the NT as it stands today is the original and that it stands up to the closest investigations.

Can I say—for Christians—there is another argument. The Scriptures we use claim to be God breathed and useful for teaching rebuking training and correcting the man of righteousness so that he can be prepared to do the works that God has prepared for him to do, by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Jesus. It is my belief that God has ensured that the Scriptures that exist in his name as his word have been gathered, protected, translated and defended under his Sovereignty—that what we have is the truth and we should be grateful and defend the Bible vigorously. I would say that one of the most significant achievements of the Christian Church in the past 2000 years has been to maintain the integrity of the Bible. What we have today is provably original written by the OT writers, the Apostles and those who wrote what the Apostles themselves saw and did over the first 70 years of the Church.