The Bible, although bound together as one book, is a collection of 66 books. Though these books have different authors, styles, audiences, and purposes, they all have one thing in common. They were all written by men. Yet this bound collection of books is said to hold eternal and absolute truth. How can that be if it is written by men — people who are flawed, fallible, and sinful? Should we trust what it says about God when it is written by mere humans?
Before we dive deeper into exploring this question, I want you to take a moment to make a list of all of the books you have read that were not written by a mere human.
I’m betting your list looks exactly like mine.
Everything we read has been written by human authors – people who are flawed, fallible, and sinful. Given our current social media platforms and general lack of journalistic integrity though, it’s a wonder we trust anything we read. Yet amazingly we still trust what we see and read.
Somewhere we acknowledge that even though things are written by flawed individuals, those things can still contain truth. Granted, the trustworthiness of the author increases the likelihood the writings are true, but even a dishonest person can on occasion utter the truth. It doesn’t make the truth any less true just because a dishonest person said it.
So just because something was written by man does not mean it isn’t true. Besides, if we really can’t trust anything written by man, then we can’t trust the statement that we can’t trust anything written by man! Furthermore, it wouldn’t just be the Bible that couldn’t be trusted. We couldn’t trust any other religious writing either.
Those religious texts were all written by mere humans as well. Muslims are guided by the Quran as dictated by Mohammed and written down by his followers. The ideas of Hinduism are written by humans in the Vedas, the Upanishads, and various other written texts. The Eight Fold Path of Buddhism is detailed in the Pali Canon along with other sutras, or sayings, passed down by Buddha. Mormons follow the Book of Mormon as written down by Joseph Smith; followers of Christian Science rely on the book Science and Health written by Mary Baker Eddy.
The authorship of a text by a man – whether that is “man” in the general “human” sense or in the specific “male” sense – does not disqualify it from containing truth. Therefore, we have to find some other way of determining if a text is true or not. Here are three things to consider when determining the validity of a religious text.
1. Is this text one person’s private revelation and ideas? Or are there multiple corroborating witnesses?
When you look at the other religious works referenced earlier, they are all the revelations or claims of one individual written down to inform others of their ideas. Mohammed had his revelations alone in a cave and then recited them to his followers. Joseph Smith was the only one who saw or could interpret the golden tablets for the Book of Mormon. Buddha arose one day as the “Enlightened One” and began teaching his own ideas to his monks.
All of these are private ideas held by one individual that were later passed on to their followers. The Bible comes together much differently. Much of the Old Testament writings are historical, documenting events that the entire nation of Israel and surrounding nations witnessed. But if we look specifically at the Gospels and the book of Acts, Jesus had a public ministry. He taught publicly to crowds of people everywhere he went. More importantly, Jesus worked miracles in public.
When Jesus miraculously turned water into wine it was at a wedding feast in front of other people. Consider the crowd of witnesses when Jesus miraculously fed the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish (hint: it was at least 5,000!). There were witnesses when He raised Lazarus from the dead, when He cast out demons, and when He healed the sick. This is crucial because it was these public works of miracles that affirmed His claim as God. He demonstrated publicly His power over sickness, nature, demons, and even death. No other religious leader has this kind of attestation to their claims.
Most importantly though, His death and resurrection were in public. It was the massive crowd of people chanting, “Crucify Him!” It was a crowd of soldiers casting lots for His clothes. He was beaten and executed publicly. And, praise the Lord, He resurrected and appeared to multiple groups of people publicly. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, the resurrected Jesus appeared to a crowd of more than 500 people at one time. All of this was done in such a public way that Paul even says to Festus, “For the king, before whom I also speak freely, knows these things; for I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner.” (Acts 26:26)
The more witnesses to the claims and evidence of the religious leader, the more reliable that religious leader is.
2. Was it written by people with the same background and in the same place? Or was it written by a variety of sources all confirming the same thing?
There’s a phenomenon called “group think” where the desire for harmony or conformity within a group of people discourages creativity or individual responsibility which often results in bad decisions. When people from similar backgrounds and interests contribute to a writing, it might result in this kind of phenomenon, where they are conforming the ideas that appeal to the group. If you consider the writings prevalent in Hinduism, they are all from the same culture and background. They are going to conform to the same idea. It reduces the reliability of those writings as truth since there is pressure within the group and culture to conform to the same ideas.
However, if there are people from different backgrounds and different interests that converge to the same idea, it becomes much more convincing as the truth, simply because there is not that group dynamic and pressure to conform.
Not only are the books of the Bible authored by over 44 different people, these people all come from different backgrounds. Though it is all within the context of the nation of Israel, there is such variety of professions, styles, and writing locations. There are kings, shepherds, prophets, tax collectors, Pharisees, doctors, fig farmers, and fishermen. That variety reduces the group pressure to conform to this religious idea, especially when most of those writings are warning the nation of Israel of judgment for wandering away from God. Most of the writings in the Bible are confronting the culture’s kings and religious leaders. There is very little evidence of a “groupthink” influence on the authors of the Bible.
There is the same kind of variety among the twelve men chosen by Jesus as His apostles. There are four fishermen who were probably not a big fan of the tax collector. He would have been allied with the Roman government to tax heavily and freely the fishing business. And this tax collector certainly would not have been friends with a Jewish zealot who opposed the Roman government. The coming together of these men with not just differing interests and professions, but outright conflicting interests and professions, is yet another testament to the truth of who Jesus is.
3. Can the events captured in these writings be verified historically?
Imagine I wrote a book extolling the virtues of a caped crusader who rescued a particular city from all kinds of crime and mayhem. I insist that due to his heroic efforts, we should follow his teachings. You would rightfully ask to see some evidence of a city named Gotham, some record of a man named Bruce Wayne, and maybe interview some eye witnesses to these crimes and rescues.
Likewise, a truthful religious text will be confirmed through historical evidence and archaeology. Much of the biblical accounts, both Old Testament and New Testament, have been confirmed through archaeological studies of that region. The manuscript evidence of the Gospel writings are placed at the same time as the events they are recording. Furthermore, he historical writings of Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Papias, and Lucian of Samosata confirm the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – including the growth of the church. (For more insight into these writings, check out Chapter 5 of Teaching Others to Defend Christianity.)
Since every writing we have is written by “man,” some truthful and some not, we must find a different way of validating a text. Otherwise, we’d have to throw out every writing that exists. Disregarding a religious simply because man was involved in its writing is very shortsighted. Instead, we should look at the validity of the text based on other criteria. Three such criteria would be the witnesses to the religious claims of the text, the circumstances around the authors of the text, and the evidence that confirms the events of the text.