Explore God – Is the Bible Reliable? by John Burke

Explore God is a citywide conversation in Austin. No matter where you come from, what your beliefs are, Explore God is an experience that will help you on your journey  through life as you search for meaning.
John Burke spoke at Gateway on the topic: “Is the Bible Reliable?”

Today may feel a little different than other talks you’ve heard.  I’m going to ask you to really think with me:  Usually I just ask you to stay awake, but today might get a little technical, but this is really important to understand how unique the Bible is because there’s so much skeptical hearsay leveled against it.

We all have voices in our heads! Which voices do you believe and follow? What voices you listen to most, what things you believe—they are powerful—because they shape who you are and who you will be. Some voices came from our parents or childhood experiences—they’re still in us saying “If you want to be loved, you must be perfect.”  “You can do anything you set your mind to,” “You’ll never amount to anything,” “If you’re not rich and powerful, you’re a loser.”  “By the time you’re 30, you should be married with 2.3 perfect children—otherwise something’s horribly wrong with you.”  Some voices speak truth, others lies—how do you know?  Voices scream at us every day. So how do you decide what is the Vital Message that leads to Life? Who do you listen to?

If I told you there is one book that claims to be God’s Words—God’s voice given to lead you into Life and Freedom, Love and Joy and Peace. And if I told you it’s been substantiated in history, and it is by far the most Unique book of all—wouldn’t that book at least need to make your top 5 list of Voices to consider?

Many people who don’t know any better, think the Bible’s just one book among many—just another book on the shelf, equal to all others.  But it’s far and away the Most Unique Book in History.

First, the Bible is Unique in Composition. 

The Bible is not actually one book, it’s a compilation of -66 different books, -written over 1600 years (1500 BC- 100 AD) (divided into 39 books of the Jewish Old Testament, and the 27 books of the New Testament (written by eyewitnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus). The Bible was written -by 40 authors (from every walk of life—Moses was a highly educated political leader, Peter was a fisherman, David was a King, Matthew worked for the IRS, Ruth was a peasant, Esther a queen), -on three continents—Africa, Asia, and Europe, -written in 3 languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek).  –addresses all nations on earth. Unlike other sacred scriptures, the Bible is not about some local deity of one people group, God claims to be addressing all nations. But what’s most amazing is the unity and harmony across the 66 books.

Let’s say I gave you an assignment—Go down to the library, pick just one controversial subject, find 10 books on the subject by 10 different authors, all from the same time in history, same country, language.  How likely would all 10 would agree on that one subject? Highly unlikely—right?  Now pick from books written across 1500 years, different languages, cultural situations, and socioeconomic backgrounds—now how likely would they agree?  You start to get the picture of how unique the composition of the Bible is—40+ human authors over 1500 years agreeing on controversial subjects like the person and characteristics of God, the origin of evil, the purpose of life, morality and ethics, the coming Messiah, the way to be made right with God, and the central problem of humanity.

When you read other books from ancient history you get heroes. Not so with the Bible. In fact, you start reading the Old Testament and it disturbs us. It disturbs us because it’s chock full of passion, violence, rage, despair, betrayal, dismemberment and treachery. Kind of like dating was for some of us. It disturbs us because it is a frighteningly close picture of the real world. Yet the scriptures tell this story of God’s unfailing love and mercy, pursuing wayward humans, helping us overcome evil tendencies by trusting in God to help us become the loving people He intended.  Name one book so unique in composition, yet so consistent in what it says across cultures and centuries. If you are truly open to seeking God how could you not read it, or even if you just want to call yourself educated—can you afford to not read the most unique book in history?

But skeptics will say, “How can you trust the Bible when it’s been copied and changed over 1000s of years and it’s full of errors?” It’s like the Telephone game.  Haven’t you ever played the telephone game?  [I’ve got a sentence I’m gonna whisper into this person’s ear—you whisper to the next person. By the time it reaches the end of the line—it’s morphed into something ridiculously different.

This is why people say, “You know that the Bible is full of errors and been changed over and over.” My standard question is, “Have you read the whole Bible thoroughly?” 99 out of 100 times someone will say, “Well, not thoroughly.” “Have you read the whole New Testament?” “Well, not really.” “Have you read any of it?” “Yeah, when I was seven….” “Do you know anything about textual criticism?” “Yeah, I’m good at Criticism,” No-textual criticism, the science of determining how accurately a work of history passed down. People make sweeping statements about the Bible’s credibility, never read it thoroughly, and know nothing about it’s historicity. How responsible is that, really? It’s almost like there are voices trying to keep you from reading it—but why?

The Bible is Unique in Transmission.

You’ll hear claims like “there are 150,000 errors.” Is it true? Well, yes and no. There have been copy errors through the centuries, but what does that mean? First—we do not possess the original, signed autograph copies of any ancient writings—the originals didn’t survive from Plato, Mohammed, the Apostle Paul, Shakespeare—none!  But this isn’t really a problem if we have enough copies of the original to compare together to reconstruct the original—this is the science of Textual Criticism—reconstructing the original writing from manuscript copies.

So when critics say 150,000+ variants or errors—what does that really mean?  It means that’s how many variations there between all the copies—the more copies, the more variants. But this includes every time a word is misspelled or left out and if it’s copied 100 times incorrectly, that’s 100 “errors.” I’ll give you an example. You find 5 ancient manuscript copies of the New Testament from various dates:

  • Manuscript #1: Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole worl. 
  • Manuscript #2: Christ Jesus is the Savior of the whole world. 
  • Manuscript #3: Jesus Christ s the Savior of the whole world. 
  • Manuscript #4: Jesus Christ is th Savior of the whle world. 
  • Manuscript #5: Jesus Christ is the Savor of the whole wrld. 

They would say there are 7 variants or errors, and if we found 100 copies of each, that’s 700 variants or errors—but is there really a problem here?  Don’t you think you could figure out with a high degree of certainty what the original said? I think even Congress could figure that one out. And If you had 200 disputed sentences like this—adds up to 140,000 errors. And this is precisely what most of the 150,000 variants are. The reason there are so many variants is because we have so many copies. The more copies we possess, the closer to the original, the more confidence we can have. No ancient document—none—has the kind of documentary support that the Bible has,

WORK                        Date Written            Earliest Copy            Time Span            # of copies

Plato                                    350 BC                       AD 900                   1200 yrs                        7

Aristotle                             322 BC                       AD 1100                  1400 yrs                       49

Homer (Iliad)                 900 BC                        400 BC                   500 yrs                          643

Old Testament             2000-500 BC               125 BC                      50 yrs                           4000

New Testament            A.D. 40-100                A.D. 125                     25 yrs                        24,000+

Here’s the “so what” of this.  To say we have no idea what the original writers of the Bible wrote due to copying is absurd. No other books of history have been so well preserved and copied.  Bruce Metzger, scholar in textual criticism from Princeton says of the 20,000 lines of the N.T., only 40 are in doubt and no doctrine rests on these 40 lines. 40 out of 20,000 sentences… Bruce Metzger says:

“After you take the 20,000 lines of the New Testament,

it is safe for any scholar to say there’s at least a 99.6% accuracy.”

You can trust that we know what the originals said! Your English translations are based on that 99.6% accurate Greek text.

What about the Old Testament? In 1948, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, we found parts of 38 of the 39 books of the Old Testament dating from 300 B.C. to 70 A.D.  So the big question, how much copy error had crept in over 1000’s of years?

  • Notre Dame professor Eugene Ulrich, who did an Oxford series on the Dead Sea Scrolls said, “The scrolls have shown that our traditional Bible has been amazingly accurately preserved for over 2,000 years.” Ulrich, Notre Dame  The only complete book found was the book of Isaiah—95% of which exactly matched our copy 2000 years later.
  • Jeff Sheler of U.S News and World Report says, “Beyond some incidental copying errors, scholars have found only thirteen relatively small variations—a phrase or a verse or two missing or added—when compared to the modern text…they do nothing to alter the meaning of the text.” Sheler, U.S. News & World Report
  • As Sir Fredrick Kenyon, Archaeologist and principle librarian of the British Museum says, “The last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. –Kenyon, British Museum

What we have to realize is that the nation of Israel didn’t play the phone game. All the laws and classes of scribes and lawyers were created for the very purpose of preserving what they believed to be God’s word, revealed through the prophets.  They had a system of counting and checking the number of words per page, the middle word, and if there was a mistake, burn it and start over.  So in summary, when someone naively tells you—it’s been copied and changed and so full of errors—tell them “Do your homework.” And we should read it!

People start reading the Bible, and they read stories of miraculous, hard to believe things: Jesus raised from the dead, Jonah surviving 3 days of severe Whale Indigestion, Noah’s ark and the flood. These stories raise insurmountable questions for some like “If Noah took every species into the ark two by two—why didn’t he just swat those two mosquitoes and be done with it?”  Some people read these supposed miracles and throw up their arms and say “Hard to believe it’s not myth.”

The Bible is also Unique in it’s Claims.

From first to last, the authors claim to be speaking as prophets from God—they claim to be recording God’s interaction and communication with people over 1000s of years—if it’s true, wouldn’t we expect something out of the ordinary? Peter says, [PP] “Prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:21  It’s not saying dictation—like God said, “Jeremiah—take a note.” Instead, God as Creator, created unique humans—used their unique style, life-situation, culture, and genre of writing (from history to Parable and Story, to song lyrics) to express his heart and mind.  Which is why there’s really no such thing as a literal interpretation—if literal means you neglect context and metaphor and style of the writing. When David said, “God will cover you with his feathers, under his wings you’ll find refuge.” He’s poetically using metaphor—not literally describing God as a giant Chicken. Jesus used parable and metaphor.

Jesus also claimed that God had inspired the writings of the whole Old Testament:

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them. I assure you, until heaven and earth disappear, even the smallest detail of God’s law will remain until its purpose is achieved. Matthew 5:17-18 

The Bible uniquely claims to be God’s Words.

In his book, Truth in Religion, philosopher Mortimer Adler, editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica and not a believer when he wrote this notes this unique claim:

“Among the major religions of the world…only three religions claim to have a supernatural foundation to be found in a sacred scripture that purports to be a divine revelation. The three religions distinguished by this claim are Judaism, Christianity, and the religion of Islam. Among the other religions…only some claim to have logical and factual truth, but the truth they claim to have is of human, not divine, origin.”  – Mortimer Adler  

This was a shocker for me – as it probably is for you.  The assumption kicked around out there is that all the world’s religions claim God revealed it – but this is not the case if you read the sacred writings of each religion. The Bible is Unique in its claims.  [The Koran came 600 years after Jesus, claiming the OT and NT are from God, Jesus was the Messiah but not crucified].

So if the Bible claims it’s recording God’s interaction over 1000’s of years with humanity, wouldn’t we expect some proof of supernatural intervention? You may say, well it doesn’t seem like God intervenes like that today, but if you understand the timeline of the Bible you realize these miraculous interventions happened over 1000’s of years not all the time—sometimes not at all for 100’s of years between each.

So it’s unique in Composition, Unique in Transmission, Uniquely claims to be inspired by God. But you may say “But just because it claims to be God’s Word doesn’t mean it’s true.” The Scriptures claim that God actually left his fingerprints in prophetic signs he gave in history.

The Bible is Unique in Its Historical Claims.

Last week I showed you 5 amazing historical facts foretold as evidence that this is from God—go listen if you missed.

See, humans aren’t too good about knowing what the future holds:

  • In 1875, the Director of the U.S. Patent Office resigned, complaining in his letter to the government that “there’s nothing left to invent.” (Except the car, airplane, TV, cell phone, computer, and all important microwave dinner!)
  • Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM in 1943 said, “I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers.”
  • In 1981, Bill Gates declared, “640K of memory should be enough for anybody.”
  • A study of the top 10 psychics predictions over a 3-year period found that 98% of their predictions were totally incorrect! Humans just aren’t real good at predicting history.

But God is!

God said to Moses: You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true…. Deuteronomy 18:21-22

God says, “I’m the only one who knows the future—the 66 books of the Bible contains over 1,800 individual predictions concerning over 700 separate subjects.  God claims he gave foreknowledge of things we can verify in history to know it’s from God.

Here are just a few:

  1. Daniel (535 BC) foretells the events of 6 kings from 529-164 B.C. (Daniel 11-12). He foretells 4 Persian kings, the last who will attack Greece, then a 5th Greek king greater than all overcome Persians, but his heir will not rule, but his Kingdom will be divided into 4 regions. From 529–464 B.C. this happened–3 Kings, then 4th King Xerxes who attacked Greece and burned Athens. Then came Alexander the Great (332 B.C.).  The Roman/Jewish historian Josephus tells us: “And when the book of Daniel was shown to him [Alexander in 332 B.C.], in which he had declared that one of the Greeks would destroy the empire of the Persians, he [Alexander] believed himself to be the one indicated; and in his joy he dismissed the multitude for the time being.” Antiquities of the Jews book 11:8.3  Did you catch this? This 1st Century Roman/Jewish Historian says in 332BC Alexander read Daniel’s prophecy about himself and got all happy because it says he will defeat Persia—He didn’t read the rest. History tells us Alexander conquered the known world in 7 years, died of alcoholism at age 33, his 4 Generals kill his 1 year old son, divided His Kingdom into 4 empires. Just like Daniel said. Josephus tells us Daniel was written at least before the 4th C. BC. Yet he predicts what Kings and nations will do. Then…
  2. Daniel foretells the date the Messiah will come–32 A.D. (Daniel 9).  See Explore God – Is Jesus God?
  3. Messiah will be killed before the Temple is destroyed. (Daniel 9)
  4. Jerusalem and the Temple will then be destroyed (Daniel 9). Actual history–Jesus was crucified around 32-33AD, then Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed by Romans in 70 A.D. Temple still has not been rebuilt.            Isaiah (680 B.C.) foretellsthe
  5. Messiah will come from Galilee (Isaiah 9) – history confirms Jesus claimed he was this Messiah and lived and taught in Galilee.
  6. Messiah will be rejected, suffer disfiguration, pierced through His hands and feet (Isaiah 52-53) – Mel Gibson’s the Passion is graphically foretold in Isaiah 52-53, 680 years before Jesus was flogged, tortured, mocked and crucified by nailing his hands and feet to a Roman cross outside Jerusalem.
  7. Messiah will die to pay for our sins (Isaiah 53) – Isaiah foretold why he’d do it.
  8. Messiah will be buried in a rich man’s grave (Isaiah 53) History tells us Joseph of Arimethia, one of the Religious Leaders who had Jesus crucified, became a secret believer and put Jesus in His expensive tomb.
  9. After Messiah dies for our sins, He will see the light of life (Isaiah 53) – historians note Jesus’s followers proclaimed he had risen from the dead, and 10 out of 11 died for that belief—Isaiah foretold it.
  10. All the Nations will rally to this Messiah (Isaiah 11:10) – Faith in Jesus is growing fastest in China, Africa, and South America, but He is worshipped all around the globe—just as Isaiah foretold.
  11. God will scatter the Jewish people across the globe for rejecting their Messiah (Isaiah 11:12) – Jesus said this would happen because they rejected him—and from 70A.D. to 1948 there was no Israeli nation, no homeland, yet for 2000 yrs Jewish people miraculously retained their identity spread out around the globe.
  12. In the last days, God will gather the Jewish people back to Jerusalem from all the nations (Jeremiah 31) How did these prophets know what would happen to whole nations?
  13. Look what Isaiah said of Babylon, the Greatest city of the ancient world:  “[Babylon] will never be inhabited or lived in from generation to generation.” (Isaiah 13:20, 680 B.C.) “‘But you will be desolate forever,’ declares the Lord.”  Jeremiah 51:43 (600 B.C.) Babylon was wiped out in 650AD. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes how Babylon had been forgotten from history, critics of the Bible said it was a mythological city until archaeologists uncovered the O.T. city of Babylon.
  14. Yet Jerusalem was also wiped out and Israel scattered—had no nation, king, land for 1900 years—how did Isaiah and Jeremiah know Jerusalem would be resettled and grow like this?  “Hear the word of the Lord, you nations;
proclaim it in distant coastlands:
‘He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’… The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when [Jerusalem] will be rebuilt for Me from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. 39 The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah…out to the Kidron Valley on the east as far as the corner of the Horse Gate…The city will never again be uprooted or demolished.”  Jeremiah 31:10, 38-40 (586 BC)  This exactly outlines the expansion of the suburbs of modern Jerusalem since its resettlement in 1948, tripling its size from Jeremiah’s day.  How did these prophets know that Babylon would be desolate, yet Jerusalem would not only be reborn, but expand in this exact way?           

            There’s only one explanation that makes sense of all the many lines of evidence—the Bible really is God’s Word. Only God could orchestrate such a thing. And that leaves us with a more important question—the real question we ought to be asking about the Bible: “Will I listen to it as God’s Word?”

Jesus said:

“Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.” – Matthew 7:24-27

Who will you listen to? It really does matter. If you’ve never even read the life and teachings of Jesus—I want to challenge you to decide right now. I’m going to do it.

  • Download YouVersion free Bible App.
  • Read John, in the New Living Version.
  • Ask yourself, “Am I willing to listen and follow?”

What do you have to lose—you everything to gain. And if you say you follow Jesus—do you really? Do you read His Words daily or weekly and seek to listen and follow what He says? Get in the habit if not—on the YouVersion App there are great reading plans—try some. Decide right now who are you going to Listen To.

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