Can we all agree that knowledge is a ‘big deal?’ If we’re going to make intelligent decisions, we certainly want to have our facts right, and especially if we’re making decisions that have eternal consequences. So, we certainly want to be sure that we have correct understandings about what the Bible says. But in order to do that we need to have correct understandings about the Bible itself. Today we want to deal frankly with a couple of mistaken notions about the book that we correctly refer to as ‘Holy Scripture.’
The first mistake is when people think that the Bible is ‘the words of God.’ That is not, and never has been, the teaching of orthodox Christianity. Rather, Christian belief is that the Bible is a book, written by humans, which conveys God’s inspired Word for us. That distinction between ‘Word’ and ‘words’ may seem like double-talk, but it’s very critical – it’s the difference between a truthful testimony and a literal transcription. The difference is illustrated by noting that for Muslims the Qur’an is thought to be the literal words of God as dictated to Muhammed by the angel Gabriel. It’s for this reason that Muslims around the world memorize the Qur’an in its original (and archaic) Arabic even though hardly any can comprehend what those words mean – the words themselves are thought to be sacred.
The Bible isn’t like that. Though there are places like Mark 1:11 & 9:7 where God’s utterances are recorded, it’s neither clear nor important in what language those words were spoken (was it the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the disciples, the Greek in which the Gospel of Mark was written, or the kind of miraculous communication recorded in Acts 2:5-12?). Far and away, what we have in the Bible is the testimony of ordinary humans telling in their own words the messages that God has ‘breathed into’ them (the literal meaning of ‘inspired’), and it is that inspired message – that Word – not the specific words in which it is rendered, that we consider ‘Holy Scripture.’ Thus, our attention is always properly focused, not on the specific words recorded on paper, but on the Living Word of Truth that the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts through those words. And that’s why the Bible is ‘God’s Word’ regardless of what language we read it in.
The second mistake, and perhaps the graver one, is when people acquire a little knowledge about the complicated way that the Bible came to us and infer that it is a corrupted representation of God’s original messages. That’s exemplified by the kind of remark heard all too often: “After it’s passed through all those different copies and translations, who knows what God really intended to say?” That illustrates a case where a little knowledge has become a very dangerous thing. The speaker has extrapolated limited knowledge of the facts to a misleading conclusion.
Firstly, that perception of the Bible being badly corrupted through its transmission is a popular myth that is factually indefensible. Though we don’t have space here to do the topic justice, we’ll state a few facts: the Jews took accurate transmission of their scriptures very seriously – scholars who study the Dead Sea scrolls (which include parts of every book of the Old Testament but Esther) report that there have been virtually no variations of the text in the last 2000+ years. And though it was once true that Christians read translations of translations, etc. the ones we rely on today take great pains to be the most authentic representation of the most reliable ancient documents in the original languages. In other words, huge effort is expended to make sure that the translations we read are as close as humanly possible to what was originally written. It’s definitely NOT like the child’s game of ‘telephone’ where errors are propagated and amplified! If you do the research, you’ll find that there is far stronger basis for the authenticity of our Biblical texts than there is for any other ancient documents that have come down to us.
But most importantly, our faith is not in the book itself, but in the Almighty and Loving God who speaks to us through it, and we trust that He will ensure the integrity of the Word that He has graciously provided to guide us.
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? … how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)