In the third installment of our Mythbusters series we tackled the myth: the Bible has nothing to say to me? The talk generated a lot of questions we tried our best to address, although we didn’t get through many in the limited time available.

Here’s my attempt to remedy that with some short musings and links to where you can get further info.

1. What are the most troubling archaeological discoveries to the historical reliability of the Old Testament and how would you respond to them?

Interesting question. Be helpful if you could have given some examples of what you’re concerned about, since the majority of archaeologists I’m aware of say things like this: “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible.” (Nelson Glueck)

So for example, there are:

  • the dead sea scrolls, containing an almost complete copy of Isaiah dating to 150-100 BC virtually identical to the Masoretic text version of 916 AD
  • the flood tablets, such as Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, confirming the Biblical flood narrative
  • the Tel Dan Stele stone inscription authenticating the existence of King David
  • the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, authenticates the existence of Biblical characters, Shalmaneser, Jehu and Omri, the political leaders of the day, and shows an image, probably of Jehu
  • the Annals of Tiglath-Pilesar II, Taylor Prism, Baylonian Chronicle for 605-594 BC, Cyrus Cylinder, and so on.

In the nineteenth century many critics questioned the existence of the Hittites referred to in Genesis 23 and 2 Samuel 11. They were viewed as ‘just a figment of Biblical imagination’, since then there was no evidence for them outside of the Old Testament. But in 1906 archaeologists discovered a vast collection of Hittite historical records whilst digging east of Ankara in Turkey in the ancient Hittite capital. They revealed a flourishing empire in the mid-second millennium BC.

There may be some archaeological discoveries (or the absence of them) we cannot understand or explain yet but that might be simply because the necessary discoveries haven’t been made. It’s unwise to jump to the conclusion that the Bible is unreliable when the evidence could well be out there somewhere, awaiting discovery; the danger is that you’ll have a lot of humble pie to eat, like those who scoffed at the Bible for mentioning the Hittites.

You may find the Biblical Archaeology website helpful.

2. How do you know that Mark’s account is accurate? (Would ruin reliability of Luke)

I think it’s wise not to hold a presumption of inaccuracy unless proven otherwise, if that’s what you’re hinting at in the question, because that would bias the outcome of your inquiry from the start. Dr Peter Williams has a good answer to this question. There’s also been a recent discovery of a potentially very early Mark gospel manuscript. The earlier the manuscript, the closer to the events in question, the more accurate it’s likely to be, and harder to fabricate without correction from those familiar with what you’re attempting to exaggerate or make up. I should also add that Luke didn’t base his account only on Mark; he interviewed the eye-witnesses for himself and seems to have interrogated the evidence he presented. Hence he writes at the beginning of his gospel, “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning…”

3. Isn’t the Bible full of contradictions?

It would be helpful to have some specifics here to know what your particular hang up is. As we said on the night, a contradiction in an account doesn’t necessarily undermine the main content of an account. The Titanic’s sinking in 1912 is a good example. We have two groups of survivors saying different things, one says the ship sank as one complete unit, the other group says it broke into two as it sank. Does this contradiction mean the Titanic didn’t sink? No. And so the same logic can be applied to the Scriptures.

That said, most if not all alleged contradictions can be reconciled. You can read about a lot of them in Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe’s book, When Critics Ask (or check out the links on harmonizing the Resurrection accounts below). Those we can’t easily reconcile we have to trust that they can, given that so many can be harmonized, but due factors like the not insignificant cultural gap between where we are and when the text was written, it’s hard for us to make sense of  writing styles/motives/genres that are difficult for us moderns to get our heads around.

4. Contradictions are ok for things like the Titanic accounts, but we believe this is the infallible word of God, so shouldn’t discrepancies be very worrying? What should a Christian do with the contradictory accounts of the Resurrection for example?

A discrepancy is only worrying if it cannot be satisfactorily explained. The Resurrection accounts are a good example of this. Personally, to my former criminal barrister brain, I think the fact that they recount an event in different yet corroboratory, similar ways suggests they’re real and genuine. They’re unequivocally consistent about the main event: Jesus was raised from the dead.

We all see and remember things differently, and report back, including or excluding different things for different reasons. My wife, Holly, remembers what people wear, the colours of their clothes, these are details I usually can’t remember at all. When my wife asks me, “How was your day?” she gets a fuller account then when a church member asks the same question. I’m telling the truth of course to both of them, I’m just excluding some things it’s not necessary for the church member to hear. You see, the audience you’re speaking to makes a difference, as does the purpose of the communication. It’s quite likely that the gospel writers aimed their gospels at slightly different audiences and in a complementary way to the other gospels to highlight or reveal different aspects of the amazing Jesus they had come to worship as God (one biography was never going to capture the fullness of God; I mean, there are more than ten significant biographies of Churchill and he was just a man). Matthew writing to a more Jewish audience is respectful and does not use the name for God, hence we read, “kingdom of heaven” whereas Luke, writing to a reasonable constituency of Gentiles, doesn’t need to be so careful and so we read “kingdom of God” yet they’re writing about the same thing.

That’s not to say that because the gospels writers had a particular agenda they can’t be trusted. Not at all. This is precisely what ancient biographies were like. They were not typically written in chronological order but for the purpose of learning a lesson or illustrating a point. If someone writes a book countering a revisionist historian denying the holocaust with the ideological purpose of making sure an awful atrocity like the holocaust doesn’t happen again, it wouldn’t automatically mean that it cannot be trusted and the holocaust didn’t happen. The same logic holds true for the gospels.

In any event, there are some fairly good attempts out there harmonizing the accounts of the Resurrection, check out this one and this one for starters.

5. How should I follow the authority of the Bible when there are so many disagreements between Christians on so many issues? Who should I listen to?

It’s understandable why someone might think that Christians disagree, given the plethora of different Christian denominations and movements of churches there are these days, not to mention the high profile debates in the media on women bishops and same-sex attraction for example. These are typically, however, secondary issues. I would hope that the majority of Christians would still hold to one of the earliest church creeds on the resurrection, just years after the event itself, found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, and also would unite around creeds that came later like the Apostles’ Creed. But maybe I’m naive.

The Evangelical Alliance brings together churches from Skye to Southampton, from Coleraine to Cardiff, from 79 denominations, a rough total of 3,500 churches, 700 organisations and thousands of individual members, all signed up to its basis of faith. It shows that the primary things that unite Christians are stronger than the secondary issues, like modes of baptism that can divide us.

A helpful key to working out who is best to listen to when it comes to forming an opinion on secondary issues, is who is consistently seeking to honour the authority of Scripture. Finding out what people believe about Scripture, whether its inspired, infallible and inerrant will give you some insight as to whether they’re truly seeking to follow the authority of Scripture or another authority (e.g. what’s popular or acceptable in our culture today).

6. There are so many translations. Which one is best/closest to the original?

Every translation is technically an interpretation to some degree. This shouldn’t alarm us, it just means that translators have to make judgement calls about whether to try to translate something so that it says verbatim what appears in the original text, which may not make much sense to us, like the phrase ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ is beginning to make little sense to anyone in our generation these days. Or, they try to translate it in a way that gives sense to the meaning of the text, saying for saying, rather then preferring its literal word for word accuracy. That’s a bit of a generalisation but it means that it’s helpful to read Bibles that have been translated with both of these philosophies when studying a particular text in detail. This of course means it’s hard to say which one is best or closest to the original, unless of course you’re able to read Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic and want to look at the original manuscript source material yourself. Some of my personal favourites are the NIV (1984 edition), ESV and NLT translations.

7. If the long ending of Mark is inspired then should we go round doing all the things it says?

I like what pastor Phil Moore has to say on the possible endings of Mark: “It doesn’t really matter that we know the other two possible endings of Mark’s gospel were not really written by him. They have been preserved in many Greek manuscripts because God wants to speak to us through them as through the words that were actually written by Mark’s hand.” Does this mean Christians should go out into the world and preach the good news? Yes (Matthew 28:16-20). Does it mean they should drive out demons when necessary? Yes (Mark 3:14-15; Luke 10:17). Does it mean they should speak in tongues? Yes (1 Corinthians 14:1-18). Does it mean they should heal the sick? Yes (Luke 10:1). Does it mean they should play with snakes for fun and drink deadly poison? No. It means they should be confident of the Lord’s protection. A Christian is immortal until their life’s work is done. That’s precisely the encouragement a believer needs to be brave enough to stick their head above the parapet and do this stuff.

8. What do you make of other ancient writings that have similar stories (other virgin births, resurrections etc…)?

The existence of similar Messianic accounts pre-dating the gospels (if there are any) doesn’t disprove what the gospels tell us about Jesus; a causative link is needed to show that one borrowed from the other to fabricate an account. For example, six months before 9/11 on the spin-off show from the X-Files, The Lone Gunmen, a fully loaded jet airliner was shown crashing into the World Trade Centre. But this doesn’t prove that 9/11 didn’t happen. It doesn’t even prove that’s where Al-Qaeda got their idea from, since they would have been planning a lot longer than 6 months one would presume, and in any event, I doubt they’re fans of such a cult show. A causal connection is needed.

The accounts in other ancient writings are easily distinguishable. Some claim Apollonius of Tyana is a comparable contemporary of Jesus, since his biographer Philostratus portrayed him as being divinely conceived, having an itinerant teaching ministry, healing the sick and driving out demons. However, the only real evidence we have for Apollonius comes from one source, Philostratus, writing around 220-230 AD at the request of empress Julia Domna. That’s a 150 year plus time gap and a financial motive to impress. Some say it contains few if any detailed statements, i.e. eye-witness reporting. And it seems likely to have borrowed from the Christian faith.

There is one account of a rising from the dead I’m aware of that could legitimately be said to predate Christianity, the ancient Egyptian cult of Osiris but it too is distinguishable. Only 13/14 of Osiris’ original body parts are reassembled together by Isis, and he appears in a somewhat mumified even zombified existence as a god of the underworld, not a hero others worshipped for having defeated death.

9. Given that Matthew quotes Salome, is there any evidence that he was physically present at the time or would it have been told to him by a firsthand witness?

Great question. Personally I think it’s unlikely that Matthew would have been present, since he would have been with Jesus. However, others would have been present, who may well have become Christians, and reported what they had seen, which Matthew found credible based on the sources he would have met with and interviewed, such that he was divinely led to include this eye-witness detail. There’s simply no need to mention John the Baptist’s full name from a narration point of view, just John would have sufficed having already used his full name, unless the actual words of what Salome said are being recorded.

Phew. Nine down another 8 to go. Will hopefully get to them next week.